In order for a bubble team to make the postseason, players need to perform beyond expectations. The Vikings have a lot of young talented players. That is promising for the future but it makes the 2017 season somewhat difficult to predict.
There are three categories of “breaking out”” in the NFL:
- An established difference-maker who moves up a level from impact player to star.
- Someone with high expectations who disappointed in the first couple years of their career then transitioned into an effective player.
- A rookie who becomes a problem for opposing teams right away.
The Vikings have many candidates for these roles. These are my picks for who those players will be.
Tier 1: Established talent taking the next step
Diggs almost does not apply for this as he turned in a borderline star-making performance in 2016. The only thing preventing him from a 100-catch, 1000-yard season was missing three games because of injury. Diggs has already show himself to be a legitimate number one threat on a playoff-caliber team.
He fits here though because I am predicting he will make his first career Pro Bowl in 2017. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the third-year wideout turns in a 1300-yard season with double-digit touchdowns. He is one of the league’s elite downfield threats already and his great hands make man-to-man matchups simply unfair.
He is already the number one focal point of the offense, but he has the talent to become a household name.
Probably Minnesota’s best pass-rusher, Hunter finished with 12.5 sacks in 2016. With the secondary presumably improved, the endless rotation of impact tackles and the fact that Hunter is a year more experienced means that 2017 could be a Pro Bowl year for the 3rd-year end. I am predicting Hunter breaks out of the gate with a pair of sacks in game one and finishes the season with 15 or more.
Tier 2: Disappointing young players making a splash
Calling Alexander a disappointment in year one may be a bit unfair as there was a lot of talent in front of him. That being said, he was a projected first-rounder in the 2016 draft who fell well into the second round and during the season, his production was minimal. Alexander played mostly special teams with the occasional appearance at nickel and did little to stand out.
Entering the season, Alexander looks to have the starting nickel spot locked up. And given the nature of the league, that means a lot of snaps for him in year two. Mike Zimmer has been adamant about his expectations for Alexander and given his track record as a talent-evaluator, that should say a lot about Alexander’s potential.
One thing to note, Alexander has not intercepted a pass in-game since high school. I would expect him to snap that streak if he gets at least 30 snaps a game.
Treadwell has an unfortunate trait for an NFL receiver: he just is not very fast. That is a big reason why he ended the 2016 season with only one catch despite being the Vikings’ first round pick. And it is not as if he was severely limited by playing time; he played in nine games.
What Treadwell lacks in athleticism, however, he should be able to make up for in hands and size. While not overwhelmingly tall, he is a big guy for his position. He was a beast on 50-50 balls in college playing in the SEC, which was and still is home to some monster defenses. Treadwell had over 1000 yards and 11 touchdowns his senior year at Ole Miss so the Vikings’ first round faith in him was not misguided.
My guess would be that once Treadwell learns how to use his body effectively and find ways to get open, he will be a 45-catch, 600-yard possession receiver. Not the numbers of a superstar, but certainly an effective target.
Tier 3: Rookies making an immediate impact
While not my pick, Cook seems to be the leader in the clubhouse for offensive rookie of the year predictions. He is a natural fit in today’s NFL: an elusive back with good hands who likes to avoid contact. That makes him great in the open field and in the passing game and with Sam Bradford as the quarterback, he should get lots of touches.
That is not to say he is afraid to lower his shoulder. Cook is not small; he is listed at 5 feet 11 inches and 206 pounds. What it does say is durability should not be an issue for him, assuming the patchwork offensive line creates adequate space.
Cook is a legitimate two-way back in the vein of David Johnson who could very well pull off a 1000-yard rushing, 500-yard receiving rookie season.
A safer pick here would be Ben Gedeon as the rookie out of Michigan is listed as a starter on the depth chart. But given what I have seen from Johnson in the preseason, I believe he is more likely to be a game-changer in his first year.
Johnson’s reputation is more that of a pass-rusher than a run-stopper but the preseason somewhat squelched those thoughts. The rookie out of Iowa made several plays blowing up runs in the backfield in each game. He has the size to be a dominant force out of the three technique and he should get lots of run as the third defensive tackle in the rotation.