NFC North: Mike Zimmer

Vikings' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
Over the next three seasons, as the Minnesota Vikings begin the tenure of head coach Mike Zimmer, play in two home stadiums and likely wind down the days of Adrian Peterson's prime, the key to their success will be finding some stability at a position where they haven't enjoyed much of it in the last decade.

Other than two seasons with Brett Favre, the Vikings' quarterback position has essentially been in a state of flux since Daunte Culpepper was traded to Miami following the 2005 season. Since then, the Vikings haven't had a quarterback start 16 games in back-to-back seasons. Even when Favre was at the helm, the Vikings knew they needed a long-term solution at quarterback. Now that they have Teddy Bridgewater on the roster, much of their future success will hinge on the rookie's development.

Bridgewater figures to start training camp behind Matt Cassel, though he'll get a shot to win the job before the season. Even if he sits on the bench for much of 2014, though, Bridgewater will likely be the starter by the time the Vikings open their new stadium in 2016. Assuming he claims the job sometime in the near future, the first-round pick will have to develop quickly if the Vikings want to make the most of Peterson's remaining years as one of the league's best running backs.

Peterson turned 29 in March and will likely see a larger role in the passing game as the Vikings seek to find more balance on offense than they had under coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. That means the quarterback, not Peterson, will likely be the focal point of the Vikings' offense, and eventually it will put the burden on Bridgewater's shoulders to carry the Vikings.

The rookie was impressive during OTAs and the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, though it's hard to accurately assess his progress in such a controlled setting. When he is ready to play, though, Bridgewater will have a clear charge: He'll be asked to create a foundation for the Vikings at the most important position in the game.
In the last few weeks before the Minnesota Vikings begin training camp, we're going to take a look at a number of players on their roster with something to prove this season, excluding rookies. We will focus primarily on veterans or players being asked to assume a larger role this season. We'll kick things off today with defensive end Everson Griffen.

Why he has something to prove: Griffen signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract in March, effectively becoming the successor to Jared Allen at the left end spot, despite starting just one game in his first four years with the Vikings. He found enough snaps in a rotational role, lining up as an inside rusher in the Vikings' nickel package and spelling both Allen and Brian Robison, that the Vikings were willing to spend big money to keep Griffen off the free-agent market. He has the quickness and athletic ability to cause serious matchup problems at defensive end, and he had eight sacks in a part-time role in 2012. But Griffen disappeared too many times early last season, and the Vikings need to see him take the next step toward becoming a consistent force on the defensive line.

What he must do: Griffen's performance this year shouldn't be solely measured by his sack numbers, since he won't have the benefit of lining up in a wide alignment and charging upfield toward the passer as often as Allen did. In Mike Zimmer's system, defensive ends are often asked to line up directly over a defensive tackle and engage blockers before heading into the backfield, so Griffen should be evaluated on how he sets the edge against the run almost as much as how he pursues the quarterback. Griffen also has to prove he can be effective as his workload likely increases; he's never played more than 717 snaps in a season, and he could be asked to log 200 or 250 more than that in 2014, based on how much Zimmer used right end Michael Johnson in Cincinnati. Griffen looked noticeably bigger this spring after staying in the Twin Cities to work out in the offseason, and he'll have to hold up under what will likely be a more taxing workload this season.

Projection: Griffen's sack totals won't be extravagant -- pencil him in for six or seven this season -- but he'll be solid enough against the run to help the Vikings improve there this season under Zimmer. He seemed energized by his new contract and the Vikings' coaching change, and he'll get his chance to take off in 2014.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17, Mike Zimmer has preached open competition as one of his core beliefs, and he should. It's a way for the new coach to keep his players honing their games to a fine edge, at least in theory.

If the Vikings hadn't gone into their coaching search with an open mind, Zimmer might not have landed his first head-coaching job at age 57, to the delight of people around the league who believed the longtime defensive coordinator had to wait too long for his shot. So when Zimmer -- who turned 58 earlier this month -- talks about an open battle at the quarterback position, adding that the Vikings won't be afraid to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater if he's good enough to win the job, there's every reason to believe the coach. There's also every reason for Zimmer to make sure Bridgewater has to clear a high threshold if he wants to line up as the Vikings' starter in St. Louis on Sept. 7.

Zimmer needs only to look at the situation that played a large part in his job becoming available last winter. In April 2011, four months after the Vikings removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Ponder had no offseason to learn the Vikings' playbook and no time to work with his new coaches because of a lockout that stretched until August. But after six mediocre performances from a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb (in what turned out to be the final six games of his career), the Vikings handed the job to Ponder and never looked back, putting two young quarterbacks behind him in 2012 and using several solid games during a playoff push at the end of that season -- a year in which Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards -- as justification to declare Ponder the uncontested starter before 2013, despite the presence of Matt Cassel on the roster.

Would things have turned out differently if Ponder had been given more time to develop? Possibly not. But by putting him in the lineup as soon as they did, the Vikings were, in effect, making a statement that Ponder was ready to take the job for good and locking themselves into a long stretch with him. They didn't have to make that pronouncement as soon as they did, but if they'd waffled on it shortly thereafter, they would have invited scrutiny for their lack of direction at quarterback (as they did with their Ponder/Cassel/Josh Freeman carousel in 2013). Quarterback instability ultimately doomed Frazier, and in effect, it doomed his predecessor, Brad Childress. After feuding with Daunte Culpepper shortly after taking the job, Childress pushed for the Vikings to select Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and vacillated on Jackson until the team signed Brett Favre, whose stormy relationship with Childress ended with the coach's ouster 10 months after the Vikings nearly reached the Super Bowl.

The bet here is that Zimmer won't make a rash decision with Bridgewater, not when the Vikings are set up so well to avoid one. In Cassel, who's signed for the next two seasons, they've got the perfect custodian for Bridgewater: a veteran who's solid enough to handle the job in the short term, but not entrenched enough to step aside without a fuss. And even Ponder, who will be a free agent after the season, has some usefulness in 2014, as an emergency option in case Cassel gets hurt (or struggles early) and Bridgewater isn't ready. The Vikings have done everything they can to construct a healthy atmosphere for Bridgewater's growth. The key to the whole thing, though, is a coach who's patient enough to let it work. Zimmer might get only one shot as a head coach, and he's got something of a cushion this season, with the Vikings moving into a temporary home while trying to remodel their defense. One poor season won't cost the coach his job, but mismanagement of the quarterback situation ultimately could. Especially with offensive coordinator Norv Turner at his side, Zimmer should have the good sense to avoid the potholes his predecessors hit.

So how does this all play out? The 2012 Seattle Seahawks might provide a good blueprint. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth just $9 million guaranteed, giving themselves a quarterback they could play if Russell Wilson wasn't ready to start. When Wilson ultimately won the competition, the Seahawks were free to trade Flynn a year later. Only time will tell if Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Wilson has been -- the Vikings QB has looked sharp to this point, albeit only against defenses prohibited from hitting him -- but if he can take advantage of the situation, Minnesota has the mechanisms in place to make it work, just as the Seahawks did.

For Bridgewater to get on the field in September, he should have to prove he's unequivocally the best man for the job. Otherwise, with the Vikings facing a nasty early schedule, a tie should go to the veteran. It's a good, sensible construct for the rookie coach and quarterback, and with so many recent cautionary tales about the costs of quarterback foul-ups, the Vikings would be wise to take advantage of it.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Before the Minnesota Vikings had their first team meeting with new coach Mike Zimmer and his staff in April, Greg Jennings found Cordarrelle Patterson to deliver an updated version of the message he'd sent to receiver throughout his rookie season.

Jennings, who had already been in town and had sat down with Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, quickly got a sense of how prominently Patterson would be featured in the Vikings' offense. He wanted to make sure the electric receiver knew what that required of him.

"I wanted him to know that, coming in, the expectation of you is no longer 'rookie.' It's, 'You gotta go. We saw what you can do. We're gonna showcase this,'" Jennings recalled last week. "For me, it was making sure that he understands that he has to be a professional. He has to be a pro's pro when he steps foot in this building, because we're expecting (him) to give us what we've seen you put out there."

Jennings was asked to mentor Patterson last season, as the Vikings signed him to a five-year deal in March 2013 and spent a first-round pick on Patterson a month later. That relationship will continue in 2014, but a year after Patterson put a spark into the Vikings' offense despite a role that even Jennings believed needed to be bigger, there seems to be little doubt about how much the Vikings will use Patterson this season.

That might make Patterson, not Jennings, the featured receiver in the Vikings' passing game. But there's plenty for both to gain if Patterson can take the next step in his second season.

"Greg told me a lot coming in as a rookie that I have more confidence than anyone he knows," Patterson said earlier this offseason. "I just like to set the tone for myself and my teammates."

Patterson said his work ethic wasn't good enough last year, and Jennings could see lapses as Patterson worked through the grind of a NFL season.

"We all had to learn it," Jennings said. "I had to learn it as a rookie. The best way to learn it is, not so much by someone telling you, but it's by watching someone who does it. It didn't have to be me; it could have been (Jerome) Simpson, it could have been Jarius (Wright). It could have been Rudy (tight end Kyle Rudolph). The little, 'I don't really feel like getting it done today,' it's not going to fly. There's going to be days you feel like that. But when you come out here, nobody cares about that. Once you set that bar, you have to reach that or exceed it every single day.

"As a rookie, not being given a whole lot of opportunities and then coming on strong at the end of the year, the expectation of Eight-Four went to another level. I'm going to be honest: Once I saw him make a couple plays, I'm like, 'We've got to get him the ball. He does too much well for us not to get him the ball.'"

Jennings said he recently invited Patterson and the rest of the Vikings' younger receivers over to his house for the first time -- "They're giving me a hard time, saying, 'Oh, now we just get to come over for the first time? I said, 'Man, I've got kids. I've got to feel you guys out,'" Jennings said -- and many of the receivers in the group stand to benefit from working well together in an offense that should have many more opportunities than wideouts saw in former coordinator Bill Musgrave's scheme.

Turner said last week that deep threats such as Simpson have typically averaged 18-20 yards per catch in his offense, and the spacing of Turner's attack should create room for Jennings, who did some of his best work over the middle during his time with the Green Bay Packers. There's plenty to go around, and as Jennings knows, Patterson has the ability to unlock plenty of favorable matchups for the rest of the Vikings' receivers because of how much attention he figures to command.

"If I'm having success, it's going to open up the door for success for other guys," Jennings said. "If Cordarrelle's having success, it's going to open up the door for a lot of other guys, as well."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he has a date in mind for when he wants to name a starting quarterback, but perhaps unsurprisingly, he wasn't in the mood to share that date with the assembled media covering the final day of the mandatory minicamp on Thursday.

We know this much, though: If rookie Teddy Bridgewater proves to be the best man for the job, Zimmer won't keep him on the bench.

"We, as the Vikings, are not afraid to do anything," Zimmer said, "We’re going to make sure that we’re diligent in getting this team prepared the best we can. We’re hoping we can continue to compete for jobs and get the best guys out there ready to go.

"The one thing we never want to do is hold back progress here. We want to keep progressing, whether it’s playing younger guys or getting better out on the field.

Bridgewater received more snaps than any other quarterback during the Vikings' three-day minicamp, though Matt Cassel got most of the first-team work. The rookie finished 50-for-57 in 11-on-11 work during the minicamp; all three quarterbacks were relatively accurate during the minicamp, and it's dangerous to put too much emphasis on performances in non-padded practices, but Bridgewater at least looked up to the task at this point, throwing a better deep ball than many expected and showing he had a solid command of the offense so far.

"It's amazing that I've been able to learn so much in the six weeks that I've been here," Bridgewater said on Wednesday. "I've just been gaining that confidence every day. Just feeling really comfortable right now and knowing that I still have room for improvement and a long way to go to be where I want to be. I'm feeling confident and comfortable right now, but I still have more to learn."

The plan for Bridgewater will become more clear once the team reconvenes for training camp on July 24, but Zimmer -- who came from a Bengals team that started Andy Dalton as a rookie -- doesn't seem daunted by the idea of starting his head coaching career with a rookie at quarterback.

"I don’t know if it’s a risk," Zimmer said about playing a young QB. "I think with that position you have to weigh a lot of different factors: how the defense is, where you’re at in the progression of things, maybe more so at that position than when you’re talking about a safety that handles different things."
MAPLE GROVE, Minn. -- The interception Xavier Rhodes made during the Minnesota Vikings' organized team activity on Wednesday afternoon was, in a way, low-hanging fruit for a NFL defensive back; Matt Cassel had thrown a hitch route near the sideline, giving Rhodes ample time to diagnose the play and step in front of the ball, snatching the ball away with a clear path to the end zone.

It's a play Rhodes had made plenty in college, but there was something more to it at the NFL level -- some reason why it excited defensive backs coach Jerry Gray to the point where he yelled, "It's about time!" as Rhodes stepped in front of the pass.

Speaking about it a day later at the Vikings Children's Fund golf tournament on Thursday, Rhodes knew exactly what the difference was: He'd gotten to a point where he could trust himself enough to jump a throw from a NFL quarterback, confident he'd read the play correctly and would be able to beat the receiver to the ball. As effectively as Rhodes played press coverage late last season, he didn't come away with an interception as a rookie. He thinks he's got the instincts to change that now.

"You get to a point where you're at the top level, and you just don't trust yourself," Rhodes said. "You're going against someone as good as you. It's just a matter of time until you really trust and believe in yourself."

Rhodes is a better fit in the Vikings' new system, which will ask him to play more press man coverage, than he was in their old Cover 2 scheme. After getting eased into the Vikings' nickel package last year, he'll likely line up at right cornerback this season, and could turn out to be the team's top cover corner.

If he's learned when to break on passes and turn several of the nine pass breakups he had last year into interceptions, all the better.

"He has got great acceleration, he's learning the techniques much better, he's staying on point much better," coach Mike Zimmer said. "The thing I'm impressed with, the things that we talk about (that) he needs to improve, the next day he's working on it. We'll go in the meeting room here in a minute and we'll talk about the next process to where he is going, but I'm excited about him. He's doing well."

BarrJonathan Moore/Getty ImagesRookie linebacker Anthony Barr won't be able to work with the Vikings on a full-time basis until he graduates from UCLA later this month.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Anthony Barr packs up the iPad the Minnesota Vikings gave him during their rookie camp, stakes out a spot in a UCLA campus library or in one of the football coaches' offices. He downloads the film from that day's practice, watching a team he doesn't yet feel part of and projecting where he'll fit. Several times a week, he'll plug his headphones and a microphone into his iPhone, so he can keep his hands free to run the iPad while Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer talks through the film over the phone, telling Barr to imagine he is occupying the Vikings' strongside linebacker spot, rather than the player on the screen who will ostensibly be competing with Barr for playing time in training camp.

The ninth overall pick in the NFL draft can have only limited contact with his coaches and can devote only so much time to football while trying to manage the 20-credit load he's taking to finish a degree in sociology this spring. Barr had to miss several midterms in those classes in April while he was working out for teams before the draft, and he's hoping he'll be able to pass the courses without doing too much damage to his 3.0 GPA. Much of his attention, though, is on his employer 1,900 miles away.

"It kind of sucks," Barr said. "I want to be out there, but I'm not allowed to. I wish it was my decision."

This is how Barr is spending his final weeks of college, straddling the line between a degree he's trying to finish and a job he's technically not able to start, at least not completely. UCLA is on the quarters system, like three other schools in the Pac-12, and Barr won't be done with his classes until June 13. Thanks to a 1990 rule the NFL established with the help of the American Football Coaches Association, draft picks from schools on the quarters system are allowed to attend only one minicamp before their classes are done. Beyond that, they are prohibited from being on the field with their coaches, and three of the Vikings' top five picks -- Barr, Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton and Stanford guard David Yankey -- are trying to catch up from two time zones west of Minnesota.

The Vikings are doing their best to keep the players on track -- Zimmer will make his second visit to Los Angeles on Friday, and offensive line coach Jeff Davidson will return to Stanford to work on installing the Vikings' scheme with Yankey -- but the system forces teams and rookies to be resourceful under some unique constraints. Barr's friend and former teammate, linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, is going through a similar process after the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the sixth round.

"We're pretty thorough with it," Barr said. "It's been nice to have [Zimmer], so I don't feel like I'm kind of in the unknown and trying to step in when I get back. It's like I'm just one of the guys."

Barr took the winter quarter off from school while he prepared for the NFL scouting combine, but figured he would stay in school and finish his degree, rather than returning to get it later. That choice put him under the NFL's rule, which attempts to keep players focused on their studies while they're still technically in college. The rule was adopted long before the lengthy offseason programs teams now use, and Barr said it has left him wishing he had more control over how he's able to manage his time, rather than the league mandating he can only spend so much time on the phone and in meetings with Zimmer. He feels as though he's mostly up to speed on what the Vikings are doing, and probably will find a little leeway in the fact that the team's veterans are learning a new defense, too, but head coach Mike Zimmer has talked about how the Vikings have big plans for how they'll use Barr, and those plans will have to wait until minicamp and training camp to be installed on the field.

Barr plans to walk in a commencement ceremony at Pauley Pavilion on June 13, and he'll be on a plane for the Twin Cities the next day, getting to town a couple of days before the Vikings begin minicamp June 17. He hasn't had a chance to look for a house yet, and doesn't know where he'll be staying during the Vikings' three-day minicamp. "Hopefully they'll put me up somewhere the week I'm there," he said.

Those concerns, though, will be secondary to the Vikings' top pick finally getting to step on the field and start a career he's been preparing for through unusual circumstances.

"I'm looking forward to showing them who I am, how much I love the game and just making a good impression on them," he said.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Zimmer's admission at the NFL's career-development symposium that he thought briefly about not going on a second interview with the Minnesota Vikings was a refreshing -- if surprising -- bit of candor from a coach who has seemed confident in his approach to the job ever since he became the team's coach on Jan. 15. Zimmer, according to Fox Sports, had been beaten down by enough rejections, including one that presumably came from the Tennessee Titans just before he interviewed with the Vikings, that he wondered if his time had passed him by.

Zimmer said on Wednesday he only had passing thoughts about not going on the Vikings interview. But after nearly five months on the job in Minnesota, Zimmer said, he has seen the previous rejections in a new light.

"It's probably been a blessing in disguise that I didn't get this job or that job," he said at the Vikings' annual playground build event on Wednesday. "This was the one that was right for me. Sometimes, that's just how it is: Things don't work out for whatever reason, but you get in the right situation, and it just happens to fall into place."

There is a kernel of truth in those remarks that can relate to any job seeker in any industry, as rare as it might be to hear them from an NFL coach. Both Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have talked on multiple occasions about how the fit felt right between the coach and the team, and they seemed to quickly connect on a personal and professional level. We're a long way from knowing how the relationship will pan out in the end -- it's easy for everyone to say they're happy in June, three months before there is anything significant at stake -- but Zimmer's point is a good one: Not every job is right for every candidate, and sometimes, it's just about finding a match.

"When I got up here and spent more time with people in the organization, got a chance to be around some of the players, I felt like it was a perfect fit," Zimmer said. "Since the day I walked in, I don't think there could have been a better situation for me. I think what it demonstrates, though, is you've got to keep persevering all the time, no matter how despondent you get at certain times."
MINNEAPOLIS -- We talked a bit last week about the different dynamic UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr would bring to the Minnesota Vikings' defense, providing a bigger pass-rush presence than they have had at linebacker in some time. But then the Vikings traded up to take Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback stole the headlines and we haven't discussed Barr much since.

I wanted to return to that this morning, with a more detailed discussion about how the Vikings might employ the rookie linebacker. Coach Mike Zimmer was coy about the subject after the Vikings drafted Barr last Thursday night -- "I don’t want to tell Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit. I want to let them try and figure that out at some point," he said -- but there are some precedents from Zimmer's past defenses about where Barr might fit.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsExpect to see Vikings rookie Anthony Barr rushing the passer a lot, no matter where he lines up.
The most recent comparison is James Harrison, the former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker whom the Cincinnati Bengals signed to play in Zimmer's 4-3 defense a year ago. Harrison wound up doing many of the same things he did as a pass-rushing linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, and didn't see many differences in his role in the two defenses. "I'm playing 'Sam' (strongside linebacker), so I'm basically doing the same thing I do in a 3-4 defense," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer last April. "It's just that I'll switch where I'm lining up," he said. "I'll be ... stacked behind a tackle or guard or whatever it may be. And I'll do my job from there."

Harrison had a disappointing season at age 35, but he was more active as a pass-rusher in the Bengals' defense than any other linebacker -- or, for that matter, anyone the Vikings have had in years. According to Pro Football Focus, he rushed the passer on 36.4 percent of his snaps, playing run defense on 41.5 percent of them and dropping into coverage 22 percent of the time. No Vikings linebacker rushed the passer on more than 11 percent of his snaps last season in the team's old Cover-2 defense.

Zimmer also said Denver's Von Miller is a good comparison for what the Vikings would like to do with Barr; Miller rushed 46 percent of the time in the Broncos' defense last season, playing the run 40 percent of the time and dropping into coverage 13 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus.

"Typically, our 'Sam' linebacker blitzes a lot more than our 'Will' linebacker," Zimmer said last Thursday. "We’re thinking of ways to continually try and pressure the quarterback as many times as we can, and the position he plays is a pressure position, that’s why we felt good about him."

Barr will have to adapt to the nuances of the linebacker position in Zimmer's defense after primarily rushing the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker at UCLA, but Zimmer didn't seem concerned with him getting a feel for a broader role. "The biggest part for me, would be that he has been in the outside linebacker rushing a large majority of the time, or he would be a cover down linebacker some, you know he goes out in space," Zimmer said. "Sometimes he lines up over the guards, but he is right on top of the guards. He will be backed up a little bit in some of our base defensive packages, so that won’t be that hard for him to learn the reads from that position opposed to outside."

The Vikings could move Barr around somewhat in sub packages, and they will undoubtedly fit their scheme to what Barr can do, but Harrison's and Miller's roles last season seem like a decent baseline for what Barr could do in Minnesota. It's also easy to see why Zimmer pushed so hard for Barr; there was no one on the Vikings' roster who was an obvious fit for the strongside spot in Zimmer's defense, whereas Barr seems like a natural fit for the role.

"The guy has played two years on defense. He’s like a fawn," Zimmer said. "He’s just learning some of these things. It’s not that he is so raw that he is not a good football player, because he is a really good football player. I don’t want anybody to think that because he is inexperienced that he is not a good football player. He will be good. I’m excited about the chance to take him and mold him into what I really envision him to be, which I think will be good."
Teddy BridgewaterAP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyAfter enduring a ton of criticism following his pro day workout, Teddy Bridgewater arrives in Minnesota with plenty to prove.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman led the study -- an exhaustive analytical comparison of the top quarterbacks in the 2014 draft class -- and the Vikings' father and son team of Turners (offensive coordinator Norv and quarterbacks coach Scott) put passers through the paces of the Vikings' offense. But new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was also on the Vikings' quarterback caravan this spring, crisscrossing the country with a specific role in the process and a manifesto about what he wanted to see.

Among other things, Zimmer zeroed in on the persona of the quarterbacks the Vikings might draft, trying to understand on a gut level what made them work and whether he'd be able to trust them as one half of a coach-quarterback partnership that could define both of their careers.

"Will this guy lead our football team? I want to make sure that the guy we bring in has the athletic ability but I also want him to have my persona," Zimmer said at the owners' meetings in March. "Because him and I are going to be tied together, whoever we draft. I don't want him to be a completely different personality from me if I can help it. I want this guy to be a leader and a guy who wants to take a bunch a guys and make a great franchise. I want him to be the first one in the building. These are a lot of things that I talk to them about and try to figure out how smart he is. All of these quarterbacks have played great in college and all of them could be the guy. The ones that don't make it are the ones when the lights come on and things are moving and he has to react and put the ball in the right place. How do you judge that? That's the biggest thing. How do we figure that out?"

Is it any wonder, then, that the Vikings ultimately ended up with Teddy Bridgewater? That Zimmer -- who had to wait until age 57 to become a head coach and vowed at his introductory press conference to make 31 other teams realize what they missed -- would be drawn to a player who promised to play with a chip on his shoulder after spending months in the crosshairs of NFL draft critics? That a coach looking for leadership would be quick to spot Bridgewater's ability to get Miami-area recruits to play at Louisville, and that Bridgewater would tell Zimmer just before the draft that Minnesota was where he wanted to be?

"You know, he sat down in my office," Zimmer said on Thursday, after the Vikings traded up to take Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick. "He came in there and I asked him a bunch of questions and we talked about football and we talked about a lot of different things and I asked him, “What do you think is the best situation for you?” and he said, “Coach, you are going to think I'm blowing you smoke but I think the Minnesota Vikings is for me. This is really where I want to go.” I usually can read guys pretty good and I think he was very sincere about it."

To be fair, the Vikings had Bridgewater second on their draft board, slightly behind Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. A team source confirmed to ESPN's Bob Holtzman on Friday that the Vikings did try to trade up and get Manziel with the 22nd overall pick -- though it's questionable whether the Vikings would have been able to offer the Philadelphia Eagles enough to beat out the Cleveland Browns, whose offer included a first-round choice. And the Vikings had enough questions about both quarterbacks that they were willing to take UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr with the ninth overall pick, opening themselves up to the possibility they wouldn't get either of the top passers on their board. It's not as though the Vikings were so certain about Bridgewater that they weren't willing to risk losing him, and the 22-year-old will need some work before he's ready to assume control of the Vikings' offense. Zimmer said the Vikings wanted Bridgewater to play when "we feel like he's the best guy," but Spielman has talked about giving a young quarterback a "redshirt year," and with Matt Cassel signed for two years, the Vikings are under no pressure to rush Bridgewater.

But hearing Zimmer talk about Bridgewater -- and hearing wide receiver Greg Jennings say that he never thought Manziel would be a fit for "what we're trying to do here," it's hard not to think the Vikings ultimately got their guy. Zimmer ultimately got the Vikings job in part because of Christian Ponder's effect on predecessor Leslie Frazier's fortunes, and the Vikings' new coach came to Minnesota under no illusions about how a quarterback can steer a team one way or the other.

The Vikings took great pains to make sure they felt comfortable with the player they'd draft, and at this point, at least, it appears they found a match for their new coach. Many of the things that have been said about Zimmer -- about his hunger for work and his intestinal fortitude -- have also been said about Bridgewater, and both men come to Minnesota with smudges after having their noses rubbed in dirt. That's not a guarantee of any success, but it's not a bad place to start.

"We wouldn't have moved up just to get anybody," Zimmer said. "This was obviously a guy that we wanted, that's why we moved up to get him because this is a guy that we feel really, really strong about."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings made four picks on the first two days of the NFL draft. Their first one was a running back who posted 13.5 sacks in just his second year as a defensive end, and their last one was a cornerback-turned-triple-option-quarterback who will try his hand at running back in the NFL. Their third pick of the draft added a versatile, energetic pass rusher to a defensive line that already has several of those, and their second pick staked the future of their franchise on a 22-year-old quarterback who slid from the top of the first round to the bottom of it.

If the Vikings had entered the 2014 draft merely with the idea of patching holes on their roster after a 5-10-1 season, this wouldn't necessarily have been the way to go about it. But what has been clear in the first two days of the draft is that the Vikings are after something else: a group full of young, athletically-gifted players who only need a coaching staff to unlock the potential. This draft has been a bet on the ability of Mike Zimmer's coaching staff to develop talent, as much as defensive end Everson Griffen's contract represented a $20 million wager on the same idea, and the Vikings seem plenty confident in what their new coaches will be able to get out of the group.

"That kind of really excites me anyway," Zimmer said. "I love taking guys with talent and coaching that, because those kind of guys you can take them a lot further. The guys who don’t have as much talent and are good you can make them better players. But these kind of guys [like first-round pick Anthony Barr], you know, he played two years at running back and then moved over to linebacker and had a really good year the year before and then a good year again this year. He is still learning a lot of different things and we will be able to teach him a lot."

The shift has been particularly evident on defense, where Zimmer has had the biggest impact and where the Vikings plan to shift to a more aggressive style of play. But it hasn't been confined to that side of the ball. Third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, the Georgia Southern quarterback, wowed teams at the NFL scouting combine with a 4.41 40-yard dash, a 40 1/2-inch vertical and 32 bench press repetitions at 225 pounds (or more than twice as many as Barr did). Then he performed what Spielman called one of the longest and most interesting workouts he'd ever seen, working as a running back, a punt returner and a cornerback at Georgia Southern. Spielman said offensive coordinator Norv Turner compared the 5-foot-9 McKinnon to dynamos like Brian Mitchell and Darren Sproles, and while the Vikings certainly aren't looking for someone to supplant Adrian Peterson, McKinnon could give them something they haven't had in a long time.

The Vikings' draft strategy so far has been full of gambles -- and as impressive as Teddy Bridgewater's college resume is, taking a quarterback in the first round always carries considerable risk. But on the first two days of the draft, the Vikings haven't been confined by position or convention, and the payoff could be a roster full of unique players.

"I get really intrigued if they are great kids and hard workers, but if they have athletic ability and if they're great athletes, that just intrigues me," Spielman said. "And I know it intrigues the coaches, because they love to work with guys like that."
videoEDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The pick: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

My take: The Vikings went back to addressing their defense with their first pick on the second day of the draft, selecting Crichton with the 72nd overall pick. The Vikings still need depth at cornerback, but new coach Mike Zimmer loves a strong rotation on the defensive line, and Crichton will give the team another disruptive rusher on the edge of their line. He had 22.5 sacks in his past three seasons at Oregon State, and posted another 51 tackles for loss. He was rated as the seventh-best defensive end by Scouts, Inc., earning praise for his speed and constant hustle. He's got a quick first step, like free-agent acquisition Corey Wootton, and he'll help keep the Vikings' energy level up on the defensive line throughout games.

Playing for his family: Playing in the NFL, Crichton said in February, is an opportunity to take care of them. "My mom works two jobs, and my dad is disabled and still works a job, too. I want them to retire and just stop working. I just did this for my family. I was going to come back to college [for my senior season] but just to see my family struggle -- we didn't have much growing up, and to see my family struggle, I wasn't OK with that."

What's next: The Vikings have the final pick of the third round -- the 96th overall selection, which they received from Seattle to complete last year's Percy Harvin trade.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- One of the biggest melodramas of the NFL draft season -- Teddy Bridgewater's decision not to throw with a glove during his pro day after using one during most of his college career -- is apparently over.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAfter a shaky tryout without them, Teddy Bridgewater is bringing his gloves with him to Minnesota.
Bridgewater put his gloves back on for his private workout with the Minnesota Vikings in April and fared much better than he did during his pro day. He learned something, coach Mike Zimmer said, about staying true to what worked for him. And now that he's preparing to play his first two seasons outside at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, Bridgewater said the gloves are staying on.

"You can best believe I'll continue to wear my gloves," he said during his introductory press conference at the Vikings' team facility Friday.

The quarterback said the gloves help him grip the ball better, and he'll use them as he adjusts to the Vikings' temporary move outdoors, as well as yearly road games in Green Bay and Chicago. Bridgewater has never started a game in freezing temperatures, and one point of concern in the pre-draft process was his small hand size; his hand span is only 9 1/4 inches, and no quarterback with hands that small has made the Pro Bowl since 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I think it won't be a big adjustment at all," Bridgewater said of the cold weather. "I think we'll be able to use that to our advantage here in Minnesota. It's a mental thing and I'll just block it out and continue to play."

Bridgewater started wearing gloves as a freshman at Louisville, he said, and his former coach Charlie Strong recalled Bridgewater keeping them on through a driving rainstorm in a win over Southern Miss during his sophomore season.

"I said, 'Can you grip the ball?,' and he said, 'Yeah, coach,'" Strong said Friday. "It's a thunderstorm, there's water on the field and he made a couple of big-time throws in the rain with the glove on. It was something he had grown accustomed to, and he just wore it all the time."

He'll continue to do so in the NFL, after the decision not to use them during his pro day led to an untold amount of scrutiny over a seemingly small detail.

"I was listening to him [Thursday] doing an interview and he said one thing it taught him was to stay true to yourself," Zimmer said. "He plays all of these times wearing a glove and he comes out on his pro day, supposedly the biggest day, which really isn’t. The 44 games he played in college are the biggest days, this is just one day to show off in front of the NFL Network and everything. He said,'You just learn to stay true to yourself' And then he came out with us with the glove and threw it all over the place."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- If there was one thing that wore the sheen off the Minnesota Vikings' pick of Christian Ponder quicker than any other, it was how the quarterback reacted when he was under pressure. It was there -- when Ponder would fixate on a pass rush, either pulling the ball down to run after his first read or forcing a throw -- where his appeal as an intelligent, engaging young quarterback dissipated, and it was there that the Vikings most needed to make sure their next young passer could be better.

So they commissioned a deep analytical study of the quarterbacks in the 2014 draft class -- true to Rick Spielman's style as a general manager -- and as they measured how this crop of passers handled pressure, they kept coming back to one name: Teddy Bridgewater.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTeddy Bridgewater completed over 53 passes of his passes last season when he was under duress.
The Louisville quarterback wasn't just competent against a pass rush, he was better than anybody else in the class. He completed 53.5 percent of his passes under duress, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, throwing for 508 yards and connecting on seven touchdown passes against one interception. Only Florida State's Jameis Winston and Missouri's James Franklin were better. Bridgewater hit 70.1 percent of his throws against pass rushes of five or more; UCLA's Brett Hundley was the only FBS QB with a higher completion percentage.

"He was the best against the blitz. He's very cool and calm under pressure," Spielman said.

Bridgewater saw plenty of other pressure during the pre-draft process, following a heavily scrutinized pro day that dinged his draft stock and removed him from the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick. His decision not to wear a glove, after throwing with one during his college career, backfired, and the narrative changed to whether Bridgewater would go in the first round of the draft at all. But once offensive coordinator Norv Turner started coaching Bridgewater during a workout in Florida last month, Spielman said, "some of the flaws you may have seen during the original pro day, those things were getting corrected, and getting corrected quickly."

The quarterback said in a conference call on Thursday night that he met "four or five times" with the Vikings, and had told coach Mike Zimmer he thought Minnesota was the place for him. Zimmer talked during the pre-draft process about how important it was for a quarterback to mirror his personality, and with Bridgewater, he clicked.

"You know the thing I like the most about him? He wins," Zimmer said. "Everywhere he's ever been, he wins. Starts as a freshman in high school: wins. Starts as a freshman in college, and wins. This guy, he's got something about him. One of the reasons we had him come in [to Minnesota] was, he had another physical. He had a little thing about his heart. I said, 'How's your heart?' He said, 'Well, it was too big.'"

He impressed the Vikings with how he handled adversity off the field, but Bridgewater initially stood out because of how he managed it on the field. That was one thing the Vikings needed their next quarterback to do well, and it's what set Bridgewater apart from the rest of the group.

MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Minnesota Vikings finally get on the clock with the No. 8 overall pick, sometime around 9:30 ET/8:30 CT on Thursday night, they'll be in possession of a pick that has seemingly vexed the draft experts for a while now. At No. 8, the Vikings could be too late to take the standout defensive players in the draft (South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and Buffalo's Khalil Mack), in little need of the offensive tackles at the top of the board (Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Auburn's Greg Robinson and Michigan's Taylor Lewan) and unsure about the reliability of the quarterbacks they might find there (Central Florida's Blake Bortles, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater).

It's part of the reason there's a wide range of opinions in today's final round of mock drafts -- ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider have the Vikings taking Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, respectively, and the rest of the mocks have a wide range of names, from Bortles to Bridgewater to Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and linebacker C.J. Mosley to Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. The Vikings have enough needs, and the draft is deep enough, that they're not likely to have any shortage of options at No. 8, but in an important draft for Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and the first one for new coach Mike Zimmer, the pick is an important one to get right.

So which direction will the Vikings take? Here's our best guess, in order from most to least likely, about the way they'll approach the eighth pick on Thursday night:

1. Draft a defensive player

The most compelling decision the Vikings could face on Thursday night might happen if the top quarterbacks, such as Bortles and Manziel, are still on the board and the team has to decide whether to pass on one of them to take a defensive player. If presented with that decision, the Vikings will indeed opt for defense, I believe. I had them selecting Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard in our ESPN NFL Nation mock (albeit after trading down one spot), but I could have taken Bortles with the eighth pick and didn't. The Vikings will have enough quarterback options later in this draft, and they were in bad enough need of a talent upgrade on defense, that I think they'll ultimately address that side of the ball if they stay at No. 8. It could be by taking one of the cornerbacks, such as Dennard or Gilbert. It could be by taking Donald (and sorting out where he'll fit with Sharrif Floyd later), or it could be by drafting a linebacker such as Mosley or UCLA's Anthony Barr. Ultimately, though, I believe the Vikings will help their defense first and come back for a QB later.

2. Trade down

My approach in our NFL Nation mock draft was ultimately a hybrid of No. 1 and 2, but I would have moved back further if there had been a market to do so. The Vikings might be able to find that market -- Spielman said on Tuesday he'd already heard from suitors for several of his picks, and moving out of the No. 8 spot would help him reach the sum of 10 picks the general manager likes to have. The Vikings might still be able to get a defensive player that makes sense after moving back several picks, and they'd also have the flexibility to deal back into the first round, like they've done each of the past two years. I had them doing that in our mock draft, moving up to No. 31 to select Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr. Even if the Vikings move back into the first round, they could benefit from extra picks on the first two days of a deep draft.

3. Select a quarterback

If I had to place a percentage on the likelihood of this happening, I'd put it somewhere around 30 or so; as we've discussed, the Vikings could find enough other options later that they'd have to be completely enamored with one of the top QBs to take him at No. 8. Of the top quarterbacks, Bortles seems like the best fit for Norv Turner's offense, though there's been some steam around Bridgewater in the last few days. One Vikings coach told ESPN's Bob Holtzman, though, that it's "highly unlikely we take a quarterback."

4. Find another weapon for the offense

After Spielman mentioned on Tuesday that the mock drafts were missing some names the Vikings could consider at No. 8, we discussed Evans as a possible option. The threshold would have to be high for the Vikings to take a player like Evans (or, if he slides far enough, Clemson's Sammy Watkins) when they still need help on defense, but as we discussed, there's a school of thought that the Vikings could keep adding weapons to their offense, in order to keep up with the three high-powered passing games in their division and make things easier for their quarterback, whether that's Matt Cassel or a young player they eventually draft.

5. Trade up

I just don't see this one happening, unless Mack slides far enough that the Vikings can get him without giving away the better part of their draft; Spielman said on Tuesday that mid-round picks are more valuable this year, because of the quality of the draft, and it seems more likely the Vikings will take advantage of that, rather than dealing away several picks to move up. According to the trade value chart many teams use as a rule of thumb on trades, it would probably cost the Vikings their second-round pick, and both of their third-rounders, to jump from No. 8 to No. 3, where they might need to land to get Mack. A move from No. 8 to No. 5, according to the trade chart, would only require the Vikings to give up their second- and fourth-round picks, but I can't see the Vikings moving any higher than that, and any first-round trade up seems like a remote possibility.



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