After months upon months of pre-draft speculation, free agency wish lists, OTAs and minicamps, training camp and the preseason, the dawn of the regular season is upon us. In just a few days, the Vikings will open their 2015 season and they'll do in style – on Monday Night Football against the San Francisco 49ers.
Here are five of the biggest storylines we'll be chasing in the build-up to the season-opener…
1. Adrian Peterson returns to actionUnavailable for the final 15 games last season and wisely held out of action in the Vikings five preseason games this season, Adrian Peterson will make his return to the lineup on Monday night. In the time Peterson has been absent from the lineup, the Vikings have seen their young QB – Teddy Bridgewater – rapidly develop and the defense has improved dramatically under Mike Zimmer. The still-developing picture will have never looked more complete than when No. 28 lines up behind Bridgewater and Co. on Monday night.
The 49ers will celebrate the return of one of their best players, too. LB NaVorro Bowman, who missed all of last season while recovering from a knee injury sustained in the 2013 playoffs, will be in the lineup. Bowman appears to be in as good of form as ever, as he collected 2.0 tackles for loss in his 2015 debut in San Francisco's second preseason game and followed that up by leading the team in tackles plus adding 2.0 sacks the following week in Denver.
2. New-look 49ers with an old-school mentalityThe 49ers are a familiar foe for the Vikings, with the teams having matched up 45 times in the last 54 seasons. But there's a new sheriff in town for the 49ers. Jim Tomsula was hired as the 19th head coach in franchise history this offseason, and the Vikings will be his first regular season opponent. He may be new as a head coach, but Tomsula is one of the most respected and tenured coaches around. The 2015 season is his 31st roaming a sideline, and he has been on the 49ers defensive staff since 2007. Since Tomsula joined the club, the 49ers rank third in the NFL in points per game allowed (19.4) and fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (98.4), rushing yards per carry (3.72) and yards per game allowed (320.9). It's a new head coach, but the same hard-nosed, tough defense, physical mentality the 49ers have displayed for much of their existence in the NFL and certainly over the last several seasons.
3. D-Line dominance, O-line reshufflingWhen it comes to the front line on each side of the ball, the Vikings and 49ers have some commonalities. A new starter at RT? Yes and yes, with the Vikings breaking in rookie TJ Clemmings and the 49ers using free agent acquisition Erik Pears. A LG who played RG last year? Yes and yes, with the Vikings swinging Brandon Fusco to the left and 49ers doing the same with Alex Boone. The possibility of a backup C in the lineup on Monday? Yes and yes, with John Sullivan missing practices lately for the Vikings and the 49ers set to start Marcus Martin while regular starter Daniel Kilgore is on the mend.
Defensively, both squads have plenty of talent up front. The Vikings return all four starters, including Everson Griffen and his career best 12.0-sacks from 2014. DT Sharrif Floyd has been on fire in the preseason and fellow DT Linval Joseph has been lauded by head coach Mike Zimmer. Brian Robison is solid as usual in his left DE spot. The 49ers boast a stout front, as well, with LDT Glenn Dorsey (6-1, 297), NT Ian Williams (6-1, 305) and RDT Quinton Dial (6-5, 318 pounds) likely anxious to take on the Vikings interior and chase Bridgewater and Peterson around the yard.
4. Young QBs poised to duel in prime timeSpeaking of Bridgewater, he and his counterpart – 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick – represent quite the QB tandem for the second half of Monday Night Football's Week 1 double header. Bridgewater was the 2014 Pepsi Rookie of the Year, and from Week 13 to Week 17 last season he tied for first in completion percentage (72.1), was second in passer rating (103.0), second in yards per attempt (8.79) and third in touchdown percentage (5.7) among all NFL passers. He also set a Vikings franchise record this year for preseason completion percentage, connecting on 82.9% of his passes.
Kaepernick is a young stud, too. He has prototypical size at 6-4, 230 pounds, has a big arm and is as lethal a threat on the ground as there is at the position. In four seasons with the 49ers (three as the primary starter), Kaepernick has completed 60% of his passes and has thrown 50 touchdowns against just 21 interceptions. He's also averaging 6.0 yards per carry with 10 rushing scores.
5. Familiar nemeses, new teamA lot of attention has been placed on the names the 49ers have lost since last season. But don't forget about the additions, too. A couple of note, because of the Vikings familiarity with them, are RB Reggie Bush and WR Torrey Smith. In seven career games against the Vikings, Bush has 637 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns. Smith, who began his career with the Baltimore Ravens, played against Zimmer defenses in Cincinnati eight times and collected 24 receptions for 378 yards and two touchdowns. Stopping Carlos Hyde and the 49ers rushing attack and then containing Kaepernick are important goals for the Vikings on Monday night, but Bush and Smith won't be ignored in the process.