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Experts Offer Takes on Vikings 2016, Share Outlook for 2017

MOBILE, Ala. — The sample size is relatively small, but three NFL experts concur that they've never seen a team encounter the type or amount of adversity the Vikings faced in 2016.

With the NFL on the scene this week for Saturday's Reese's Senior Bowl, caught up with NFL Media's Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo, as well as Albert Breer of The Monday Morning Quarterback.

Rapoport described it as "a season unlike any I've ever seen because they were the darling of everyone for the early part, and then, as you'd sort of expect, when depth takes such a big hit, and obviously, offensive line injuries are tough to overcome because that can short-circuit everything."

The Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater for the season in a non-contact drill on Aug. 30 and executed a trade for Sam Bradford on Sept. 3, just eight days before the season began.

Adrian Peterson and left tackle Matt Kalil were placed on injured reserve after Week 2. Peterson returned for one more game under the designate to return exception, but Minnesota suffered its worst game of the season against Indianapolis. The Vikings also lost right tackle Andre Smith, whom they had signed as a free agent a year ago, in Week 4 and went on to play eight different combinations of starters on the offensive line.

"I mean horrible luck, first of all," Breer said. "I think that, I remember talking to [Vikings GM] Rick Spielman about this in September when they made the trade for Sam, I asked him, 'Is this a message to the team that, there's urgency here, we're in a position to win now,' and all of that, and he said, 'Absolutely.'

"It's easy to forget that now, but that's really where the Vikings were," Breer added. "It's not every year that you're going to have your quarterback go down in a practice the way that Teddy Bridgewater went down. Then, you're able to pull off the trade for Sam Bradford and you lose your two tackles and your running back, just a string of horrific luck."

Garafolo said it seems to him that teams that are hosting the Super Bowl "get the Super Bowl curse, and for whatever reason, the Vikings got it a year early with some of the stuff that befell them."

He covered Minnesota's game at Green Bay in Week 16 when the team plane slid off the runway on its way to the gate, creating a unique and deliberate deplaning process, two-by-two in a fire truck's bucket lift.

"To come out that day and still be fighting and still play hard — I never got the sense they were going to win that day, but even after Green Bay jumped out to a lead, to be fighting that long in the game shows you the respect they have for Mike Zimmer," Garafolo said. "So there's some stuff to build on, and you just hope that all of this bad stuff that went your way — I talk to guys all of the time, I talk to GMs and coaches who say, 'Sometimes it all happens in one year, and then the next year, you get none of it, so that's what the Vikings have to hope for, and there are some things to build on."

Which brings us to another consensus that the experts share, that there are plenty of positives to take into 2017 as the organization has flipped the calendar and focused on finding ways to improve.

Garafolo, who was on-hand when Adam Thielen caught 12 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers, said the former undrafted free agent's season "was fantastic." Thielen totaled career highs of 69 catches for 967 yards and five touchdowns.

Garafolo also mentioned the play of Xavier Rhodes, who recorded a team-best five interceptions and earned his first selection to the Pro Bowl.

"[Rhodes] played outstanding football this year," Garafolo said. "That's a guy I talked to him midseason and he said he's just where he started to look at himself and not worry so much about everything going on around him and focus on technique. He made another stride this year. It could be that he takes another step forward and is a big part of that defense."

Garafolo also noted that the defense took a hit when fellow Pro Bowler Harrison Smith missed time because of an ankle injury.

"You saw what a difference maker he was and what they were unable to do without him on the field," Garafolo said. "You get him back for a full offseason; that will be a big thing."

Breer said he likes the young nucleus of defensive players who will be back. He said he wouldn't be surprised to see the Vikings place emphasis on the offensive line this offseason.

"If you look at the Vikings roster, there are a lot of guys in that 25, 26, 27-year-old range that should be continuing to ascend," Breer said. "That's where they saw themselves coming into last year and where they'll be going into next year. It's really a matter now of finding a way to fix the offensive line once and for all, and they've got a big decision to make on a guy who has been the face of the franchise over the last decade in Adrian Peterson."

Rapoport said he expects the defense to continue to be a strength and he believes the Vikings will be better off because of the experiences they've overcome.

"The defensive effort, with very few exceptions, was really good and the quality of play was good, but when the offense doesn't stay on the field, it makes the defense susceptible," Rapoport said. "It was a tough year and will probably be a learning experience for a lot of people, but just to be dealt that many injuries is hard for anybody."

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