Covering the Senior Bowl and Pro Bowl this week allowed Vikings.com to ask experts about what the Vikings showed in 2015 in winning the NFC North and the early outlook for 2016.
Ian Rapoport, NFL Media Insider
Q: What's your assessment of the Vikings?
Rapoport: "They're definitely a team on the rise. I think that's pretty clear. They weren't perfect this year, but it's obvious which direction this team is going. That's kind of the way it is in the NFL: you're either going one way or the other way, and it's pretty clear the Vikings are going this way (gestures upward). … The defense was really nasty, [Adrian] Peterson was productive, and Teddy [Bridgewater] made enough plays where you say, I see what this team is going to be like for the next 10 years. The reality is they were a kick away from potentially still being alive."
Q: What did Peterson show in winning his third rushing title?
Rapoport: "That he's still Adrian Peterson. Every time you say he's old, or he's had a year off or he's injured, it's almost like he laughs with his play. You sort of learn to say, 'Well, he's Adrian Peterson, so he's capable of this, this and this.' He sort of set up these unreasonable expectations for himself and continually hits him. To me, this was just like all the other years where you're wondering what he's going to be and then he's again one of the best in the NFL like he is all the time."
Q: How did Teddy look in his second year in the NFL?
Rapoport: "I think year two is really hard for quarterbacks because, by this time, everyone has kind of figured you out. It's why you see a lot of sophomore slumps. I think Teddy battled through it sometimes a lot. It's obvious he's being coached really well by Scott and Norv Turner and clearly going in the right direction. This is a big offseason for him where he can increase his understanding and sort of take the next step, of this is going to be a guy who is going to be one of the really good quarterbacks in the league."
Q: You see defenses across the league. What do you expect a defense to look like under Mike Zimmer?
Rapoport: They play to his personality: pretty nasty, pretty aggressive up front and make you a little uncomfortable. They make a lot of plays, and that's kind of the fun thing about the Vikings. It's always kind of exciting. I think what they've done is sort of create a really good young group to build around, and you can see where this defense is going to be together for a while. I like the product they put on the field.
Albert Breer, NFL Media Reporter
Q: What are your thoughts on the Vikings season?
Breer: I think they took a pretty giant step forward with Teddy and inserting Adrian back into the lineup, and the defense coming along. I think it validated, first of all, picking Zim' to be the coach a couple of years ago. It certainly looks like a team that should be progressively getting better based on the youth and the amount of team speed they have on the defensive side and on the outside of the offense. It looks very much like a team on the rise. I know you don't like the way the season ends, but to have a chance to knock off the NFC Champions off in the Wild Card round and should be better next year.
Q: What do you expect to see when you watch the Vikings defense?
Breer: A lot of volume. They throw a lot at you and I think one of the things Zim does best, if you talk to people who have worked with him, have played with him, he makes the players jobs within a complex scheme simple and he explains to them the why, so when guys are going out and doing X, Y or Z, they know exactly why they're doing it. He's obviously done a great job over the course of his career of getting guys on board with what he wants to do. In order to play that way and play that type of scheme and play that way, you need to have guys that can do a lot of different things. That's why Anthony Barr was such a good fit for them. I think you look at that and some of the younger guys they have on that side of the ball, Kendricks looks like he's going to be a stud going forward. That defensive group looks young, fast and is going to continue to get better and fit what Mike Zimmer wants.
Q: The Vikings wound up with a Pro Bowler at each level of the defense. What do you think about Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr and Everson Griffen.
Breer: Those guys are playmakers. Harrison Smith is obviously a first-round pick they hit on. Barr looks like another first-round pick they hit on. Everson Griffen, they give him the big deal, and that looks justified now, so it certainly looks like there are the pieces there to play the type of scheme that Zimmer is going to want long-term, and we saw that this year.
Alex Flanagan, NFL Media Reporter
Q: Mike Zimmer just completed his second season. How do you think the team has developed under him?
Flanagan: It's interesting, I think you see teams take on the personality of their head coach, but I think it takes a couple of years. I'm a firm believer that it takes four years, at least, for a coach to really have his impact on a team, but you kind of saw some of the personality come through in the Vikings defense. I think you saw some young players and the pieces were there. I think Mike has been able to maybe bring out some of that grittiness. I'm so happy he has an opportunity to be a head coach because I think he's a person that's been an amazing assistant for many years and I think he's very, kind of transparent. You know what you're going to get with Mike Zimmer, and I'm happy to see that the team is starting to take on some of that personality, some of that gritty, Mike Zimmer personality, and I think it's only going to get better.
Q: Harrison Smith was a participant here in 2012 and just made his first Pro Bowl. What do you think about the way he's grown into the league?
Flanagan:I'm really excited for him. I've known him since he was in college. I covered him at Notre Dame and I think he's kind of, in talking about Mike Zimmer and his toughness, I think Harrison, toughness just kind of oozes out of him, and I think he's a player that kind of puts his head down and does his thing, plays hard, works hard, and it's really nice to see him be rewarded with the Pro Bowl. I saw some pictures of Tyler Eifert and some of them getting back together, some Notre Dame reunions, if you will. I'm sure they're having a great time in Hawaii."
Phil Savage, Reese's Senior Bowl Executive Director and ESPN NFL Insider
Q: What did you think about the Vikings this season?
Savage: They were one of the teams from my NFL Insiders duties, I thought they were the team outside the playoffs a year ago that would have a chance to get in this year because I thought they had a significant player in virtually every position group on their team. I thought if the quarterback could produce at a functional level, and maybe even more, that they would have a chance to get there, and they did get to the playoffs, and I think they have a bright future with Teddy Bridgewater at the quarterback position. The team is going to morph and change in the next few years because he's going to become more of the focal point, I would suspect because with Adrian Peterson now being 30 years old and longer in tooth for an NFL running back. He's defied the odds to this point. Nevertheless, I think they've got a good roster in place.
Steve Wyche, NFL Media Reporter
Wyche, who is in Hawaii, provided Vikings.com with an assessment of the Vikings under Zimmer, a coach that Wyche covered closely when Zimmer was Atlanta's defensive coordinator (in 2007).
"Players will run through a wall for Zimmer because he keeps it honest with them, and they understand what he's doing. … Players immediately appreciated his honesty even if it hurt their feelings on a certain day, but he tells them how to get better all the time. He doesn't [harp] on weaknesses to be negative.
"Mike Zimmer is the father a lot of folks need, and he's the person players need because he's not a 'yes man.' … Look at what he's done with Everson Griffen, who has got great talent, but coaching took him to the next level."