Training camp preview: Peterson, Vikings have sights set on Super Bowl
MINNEAPOLIS -- Like a lot of NFL veterans on teams that travel out of town to start summer practices, Adrian Peterson's enthusiasm for the approaching season has often been temporarily dampened by the drive to training camp.
Arrival at the familiar site of dorm room life, two-a-day workouts and overall drudgery, however brief, can prompt unpleasant feelings.
This time, vibes around the Minnesota Vikings might be good enough to make even a player with 10 years of experience embrace the trip.
"I'm excited as far as what we have and the vision that we have for this season," Peterson said. "So that makes things better. It'll make it a lot better going into camp this year."
The Vikings will report to Minnesota State University on July 28, bringing expectations of postseason success as high as they've been since 2010. That became an ugly year for the Vikings. The picture for 2016 has a pretty frame, and now it's time to fill in the illustration.
Peterson sounded as resolute as ever when he declared recently the Vikings should be seriously considered as a Super Bowl contender. They're coming off an NFC North title, their first since 2009.
"We have the pieces and what it takes to accomplish that. So there's nothing wrong with saying it," Peterson said last month. "If any other guy on this team doesn't feel that way, then we need to be trading him and bringing somebody in that feels that way as well."
The timing is right for Peterson, who rushed for a league-high 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and turned 31 in March. His contract will carry an $18 million salary cap hit in 2017, so his future with the Vikings beyond this upcoming season is unclear.
"I don't see an end in my future anywhere soon, but of course I know I'm coming around the last lap. And I'm itching to get a couple before I'm done playing this game," said Peterson, referring to a championship that the franchise has unsuccessfully chased since its inception in 1961.
Here are some key angles to follow around the Vikings this season:
BRIDGING THE GAP: Teddy Bridgewater finished in the bottom third of the NFL in most quarterback categories in 2015, and his accuracy on deep throws was perhaps the most problematic. He connected on just 11 of 42 passes that traveled 21-plus yards in the air, according to STATS research.
For Bridgewater to take a meaningful step forward in Year 3, and for the Vikings offense to improve upon its 29th-place ranking in total yards last season, he'll have to hit more long targets. Drafting Laquon Treadwell in the first round ought to be a boon for Bridgewater.
"He wins games, and to me that's the most important thing," coach Mike Zimmer said. "There's a lot more to playing quarterback than just throwing the ball through the wall."
ON THE LINE: The biggest weakness over Bridgewater's first two years -- the offensive line -- has been significantly upgraded. It's now the most expensive in the league. Alex Boone left San Francisco for a lucrative deal to be the left guard. Andre Smith, who left Cincinnati, is the front-runner at right tackle. He'll compete with Phil Loadholt, who like center John Sullivan has returned from an injury that sidelined him for the 2015 season.
WILL WALSH BOUNCE BACK? For all of the highlights from last season, the most memorable moment was the improbable miss by Blair Walsh of a 27-yard field goal that would've given the Vikings a victory over Seattle in a frigid first-round game in the playoffs. Walsh followed an off year in 2014 with a solid regular season in 2015. But a strong start to 2016 would go a long way toward ensuring he's not negatively affected by that heartbreaking shank.
THE TIME IS NOW: The team's backbone lies in recent first-round draft picks such as Bridgewater, linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith. The soul rests in the veterans such as Peterson, linebacker Chad Greenway, defensive end Brian Robison and cornerback Terence Newman whose Super Bowl pursuit is still hot. Greenway and Newman signed one-year contracts, deferring retirement to remain with a team that's in prime position to make a run.
BANK ON IT: The ship-shaped, glass-fronted $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium will soon be unveiled, with the Vikings set for their first performance on Aug. 28 for an exhibition game against San Diego and the regular-season home opener on Sept. 18 against rival Green Bay.
OPEN CAMP: July 29, Mankato, Minnesota.
LAST YEAR: 11-6. Surpassed rival Packers to win NFC North for first time in six years, before a crushing one-point loss to Seahawks at home in record cold capped by Blair Walsh's improbable miss of 27-yard field goal. Defense ranged from decent to dominant under sage supervision of coach Mike Zimmer. Teddy Bridgewater was better than his rookie season, but ranked in bottom third of league in major QB statistical categories except completion percentage (ninth, 65.3). Adrian Peterson won NFL rushing title. Offensive line struggled. WR Stefon Diggs was only one with 500-plus yards receiving.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Rookie WR Laquon Treadwell, LG Alex Boone, RT Andre Smith, SS Michael Griffin, rookie CB Mackensie Alexander, LB Emmanuel Lamur
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR Mike Wallace, SS Robert Blanton, CB Josh Robinson
CAMP NEEDS: Allow Bridgewater to relax behind beefed-up OL and develop better deep ball. Foster chemistry between him and first-round draft pick Treadwell. Keep Peterson fresh at age 31. Choose starter at RT, with Smith leading candidate among incumbent T.J. Clemmings and injury-comeback hopeful Phil Loadholt. Keep 27-and-under stars of defense healthy: LB Anthony Barr, FS Harrison Smith, LB Eric Kendricks, CB Xavier Rhodes and DT Sharrif Floyd. Pick starter at SS next to Smith. Make sure Walsh's confidence is unshaken after heartbreaking January shank.
EXPECTATIONS: With division title in Zimmer's second year, only place to go now is deep in playoffs. Further progress depends on Bridgewater, of course, along with better blocking in front of him. Deep, determined team, fueled by Zimmer's aggressive, deceptive defensive scheme, has sights set on Super Bowl.