2017 NFL Preview: It will be weird seeing Vikings without Adrian Peterson

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The last time the Minnesota Vikings didn’t have running back Adrian Peterson on the roster, Brad Johnson was their leading passer, Chester Taylor led them in rushing and Travis Taylor was the top receiver. That was 2006: two coaches, a uniform overhaul and even a stadium ago.

It will be weird to watch the Vikings without Peterson (even weirder to watch Week 1, when Peterson is on the other sideline with the New Orleans Saints). Peterson defined the last decade of Vikings football. You can make a good argument he’s the greatest player in Vikings history. However, for all his individual glory, the team won just one playoff game with him.

It was time to move on, with Peterson’s body failing last season and his salary-cap number rising. The Vikings move on to a brand new era after a really weird 2016 with some lingering issues for 2017. Coach Mike Zimmer has recurring and frightening problems with his eye. The perennially underachieving quarterback is theirs on a shotgun marriage, for at least one more year. Their defense has star power but hasn’t reached that elite level yet. They’re coming off a season that started 5-0 and finished 3-8.

Sam Bradford is the focal point. He came over in a desperation trade after Teddy Bridgewater got hurt. Many cheered the “go for it” mentality of sending a first-round pick for a quarterback who had a spiffy 81 career rating before last season, but the Vikings went 8-8 and Bradford didn’t really dig them out of any holes. There were some positive signs: He played an exceptional game against the Packers in Week 2, and credit him for standing behind a horrendous offensive line and staying healthy all season. He also was very cautious and settled too often for short passes (please don’t refer to his NFL record 71.6 completion percentage in any real conversation) and generally looked like a less risk-averse version of his old self. Perhaps the offensive line, receivers or a sudden change at offensive coordinator in midseason were the problem, and to Bradford’s credit, 2016 was by far the best season of his career. Maybe he can take the good from that and, with a better situation around him, build on it.

The Vikings aren’t going to win much relying on Bradford, but the defense could still have a big season coming. The results haven’t quite matched up with the talent yet. Last year the Vikings’ defense ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric and fifth in yards per play allowed. That’s really good, but the defense still couldn’t lift the Vikings above .500 last season. A top-three finish is still possible for this group. The talent and depth is fantastic (though perhaps losing defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, whose career might be in jeopardy due to nerve damage in his quadriceps, is not good).

Everything would be helped by a better running game. And the Vikings were simply awful running the ball last season, as Peterson spent most of it on the sideline rehabbing a knee injury. Minnesota was making a run at having one of the worst per-carry averages of the post-merger era before rallying a bit. The Vikings still finished with just 3.2 yards per rush, worst in the NFL. Some offensive line additions will help. So should the additions of backs Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook.

The Vikings will move on from the Peterson era this season. They hope to leave all the drama from the past calendar year behind too.

Kyle Rudolph (L) and Sam Bradford (R) will try to lead the Vikings back to the playoffs. (AP)

The Vikings knew their offensive line was in shambles and did what they could to fix it. Offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers got a combined $88.75 million in free-agent deals. That’s questionable, considering Reiff and Remmers have both had struggles, but there wasn’t a lot available at offensive line this offseason and those two are upgrades. Latavius Murray got a three-year deal the Vikings could easily get out of after one year, which is fine given the second-round pick of Dalvin Cook. Don’t forget the Vikings gave the Eagles their 2017 first-round pick for Sam Bradford. The headline departure of the offseason was Adrian Peterson, but letting Cordarrelle Patterson go is an underrated blow. He never developed as a receiver but is the NFL’s best kickoff returner. Grade: B-

The defense is what gives the Vikings hope, but with that defense last season they missed the playoffs despite starting 5-0. The real reason for optimism is a possible improvement in the running game, which could go from an absolute nightmare into something functional. Latavius Murray isn’t transcendent, but he has averaged 4.2 yards per carry in his career with a 1,000-yard season and 18 touchdowns the last two seasons. It is worth noting Murray is working back from offseason ankle surgery. The real prize might be Dalvin Cook, once thought of as a first-round prospect who slipped after poor offseason workouts and questions about him off the field. The line simply has to be better, and the running backs offer some new blood. Relying on defense and a running game rather than Sam Bradford’s dump-offs turning into magic is a much better formula to make the playoffs.

I’d rather be writing more smart-alecky comments about Sam Bradford or critiquing receiver Laquon Treadwell or anything else in this spot. But you can’t ignore coach Mike Zimmer and his retina issues that have caused eight surgeries. He missed a game against Dallas last season. Hopefully Zimmer’s last surgery has finally corrected the problem and we never have to talk about it again. But the reality is it’s still a lingering concern for now, and needless to say, it wouldn’t be ideal for the Vikings if Zimmer needed to miss time again or couldn’t do his job like he’s used to. Again, hopefully this isn’t an issue Zimmer has to deal with any more.

Sam Bradford will begin the season as the starter. Teddy Bridgewater is still slowly working back from a devastating knee injury. What happens when Bridgewater is healthy though?

“He’s still got a long way to go,” coach Mike Zimmer told The MMQB in early June. “So we’ll worry about that later. Sam’s the quarterback, and I think he had a good spring. … When Teddy gets back, we’ll worry about all that.”

Beyond this season, the Vikings’ quarterback future is really unclear. The team didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on Bridgewater, which is understandable given his injury situation, and he’ll be a free agent after this year. Until Bridgewater is back to practicing and playing without limitations, we won’t know if he can ever fully recapture his pre-injury form. Bradford is in the final year of his bloated two-year, $36 million deal, and while he has never played like an $18 million-a-year quarterback, the Vikings might be compelled to re-sign him. It’ll be an interesting season at quarterback for Minnesota.

Xavier Rhodes established himself as a legit No. 1 cornerback last season. He had a great game early in the season against New York Giants star Odell Beckham, and he never slowed down. According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes led the NFL by a wide margin in yards allowed per attempt in man coverage. Rhodes allowed 3.1 yards per attempt and Chris Harris of the Denver Broncos was second at 3.5. Nobody else who saw a minimum of 25 targets allowed fewer than 4 yards per target. If Trae Waynes’ late-season improvement is a sign of things to come, then the Vikings are stacked at corner, especially with 2016 second-round pick Mackensie Alexander ready for a bigger role.

From Yahoo Sports’ Andy Behrens: “Kyle Rudolph might just be one of the most disrespected assets in fantasy. He’s been a perfect fit with his hyper-conservative QB. Rudolph ranked as the No. 3 tight end in fantasy last season, and he led all players at his position in total targets (132), red-zone targets (23) and targets inside the 10-yard line (12).

“Running back Dalvin Cook is a buzzy rookie with a terrific opportunity ahead, but his team’s rebuilt O-line is sketchy at best. Cook won’t see the mile-wide running lanes that routinely opened for him at FSU. It’s also worth noting that his combine performance was legendarily bad, particularly in the agility drills. He’ll be over-drafted in most leagues.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for more on the Vikings’ fantasy outlook.]

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Adam Thielen was a relatively anonymous 26-year-old receiver before last season. He had 20 career catches. He more than tripled that number last season, and was one of the NFL’s best deep threats. When Sam Bradford did decide to go deep, Thielen was there to catch it. He caught 19 deep balls on 27 targets, and that 70.4 catch rate on deep passes led all NFL receivers according to Pro Football Focus. The Vikings spent a first-round pick last season on Laquon Treadwell, who had one reception as a rookie. Part of the reason Treadwell didn’t play much is the Vikings were riding a true breakout season fron Thielen.

IS HARRISON SMITH THE NFL’S BEST SAFETY? 

There are a few great safeties in the NFL, but Smith might be the best. It’s hard to match the consistency of his two-way play against the run and pass. The Vikings defense is centered around Smith’s impressive skill set. He even has 7.5 career sacks. Smith made the Pro Bowl the past two seasons and should be an All-Pro if the Vikings defense makes a leap into the NFL’s top three. I’d still take Earl Thomas as the NFL’s best safety, but Smith is not far behind.

If the coaching staff is stable, if Sam Bradford’s efficiency carries over and he creates some more big plays, if the offensive line is significantly better, if Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray improve the run game and if the defense has that Denver Broncos-level run in it … well, the Vikings will be back in the playoffs. That’s a lot of ifs, but none are outlandish. It’s a team that won the 2015 NFC North and then was 5-0 last season before it all unraveled. The one big wild card might be Cook. If he has a rookie of the year-type season – and if you saw him play at Florida State you know he has the talent for it – then the Packers might not have an easy ride in the division.

There was way too much drama for the Vikings last season. I mean, at one point after a good defense gave up 72 points in back-to-back games with the season on the line, there were reports of a possible mutiny among the defensive backs who mapped out a plan to do their own thing against the Packers rather than follow the game plan. Even if that just lasted one series, does that sound like a sign of a cohesive team? Also, the offense is no sure thing. I know in many circles the offseason is prime “Let’s talk about how good Sam Bradford really is” time, but I don’t see him taking a big jump in his age-30 season. If this season goes really bad the Vikings could be looking at replacing their coach and finding a new quarterback, and that’s usually called a rebuild, my friends.

I worry I might be too low on the Vikings in these initial rankings. I might have put too much weight on the offensive issues and the 3-8 finish. I can see the Vikings making a run at the NFC North if certain things come together. They’re only one season removed from winning the division, after all, and there’s legitimate blue-chip talent. There were real reasons to scare me into keeping Minnesota at No. 20, but we’ll probably see early in the season if they deserve a big move up. That Week 1 game against the Saints will be fascinating, and not just for the Peterson subplot.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!