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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Vikings players who have left shouldn’t quickly be forgotten

By Matthew Coller

The way it ended made the journey easier to put in the past.

It seems when the Minnesota Vikings walked off the field in Philadelphia in late January, the 2017 season was quickly slid into a large bin labeled “Disappointment.”

Throw it on the pile right next to Blair Walsh, 41-donut and Gary Anderson. Dig deeper into the bucket and you’ll run into Drew Pearson pushing off and the Steel Curtain holding the Vikings to six points in the Super Bowl.

For a fan base without a championship, it’s easy to get into there’s-always-next-year mode as soon as the previous season ends. And the Vikings made it easier by signing Kirk Cousins to the most expensive contract in NFL history and then adding a scary-talented defensive tackle.

But Friday’s news of guard Joe Berger’s retirement and defensive tackle Tom Johnson finding a home in Seattle combined with the exits of several other key members of the 2017 version this offseason like Jerick McKinnon, Jarius Wright and the three quarterbacks who shaped the Mike Zimmer era, should not be cast aside without a nod to the roles they played in the second most successful season in franchise history.

Berger, for starters, spent nine NFL seasons knocking at the door before finally becoming a full-time starter. He was a sixth-round pick of the Panthers in 2005 and started a total of just 29 games between 2005 and 2013 before taking over as the starting center in 2014 and then starting 46 of a possible 48 games over the final three seasons.

And he didn’t just play, he played exceptionally well. In both ’15 and ’16, Pro Football Focus ranked him as one of the best centers in the NFL. Upon shifting to right guard to make room for rookie Pat Elflein, PFF still graded Berger 23rd (of 77) at his position and awarded him the highest grade of any Vikings offensive lineman in 2017.

Earlier this year, Berger talked about his unique career path from backup to key tarter.

“One of the questions I was asked when I sat down in a room with Jeff Davidson after being cut in Miami was: ‘Do you still think you can improve?’” Berger said. “Yes. And that’s what I’ve tried to do every year…I don’t know if there’s any big answer for why it’s worked out this way that I’ve played more at the end of my career than the beginning, but I think getting to Minnesota, playing a style of football that fit my style of play. I don’t know. There could be 1,000 reasons or it could be just the way it worked out.”

Berger’s smarts and toughness fit in perfectly on an offensive line that became hugely important to the team’s vast improvement in the running game and success in the short pass and screen game. That won’t be easily replaced.


“I was on some great teams before the Vikings, but it wasn’t until I got to Minnesota that I really felt at home.”

– Joe Berger to’s Tom Pelissero.


Defensive tackle Tom Johnson entered 2017 with questions about whether he could handle the three-technique spot left by a career-ending injury to Sharrif Floyd. The hard-nosed D-lineman had always been pegged as a situational pass rusher – a label that he wasn’t particularly fond of.

The Vikings brought in Datone Jones to compete with him in camp and drafted Jaleel Johnson in the fourth round. When the dust settled, Johnson played around 70 percent of snaps on the No. 1 defense in the NFL

“It’s just that you guys are looking,” Johnson said at the end of the year. “That’s what it is. I said at the beginning of the year when the question came, I said if you watch film, you’ll see that I’ve always been a solid run player, I haven’t had opportunities and the volume of plays to be evaluated by [media]. That’s stuff people in the league already know. I guess it’s just time for you guys to pay a little more attention to that and actually see it.”

PFF ranked him as a mid-pack run stopper, something that wouldn’t have been expected before the year.

Like Berger, he was emblematic of what the ’17 Vikings were built upon: A number of players who had been passed over. Case Keenum went undrafted and was let go by two teams and then went 12-3 and won a playoff game. Adam Thielen was undrafted, Stefon Diggs was a fifth-round pick, Everson Griffen a fourth-rounder and so on.

Johnson might be the most out-of-nowhere quality starter the Vikings had last season. He played in NFL Europe, the CFL and Arena League before getting a shot with the Saints, where he was a part-time player. The odds of him becoming a starter on the best defense in the NFL were about the same as getting a hole-in-one 10 times in a row.

While the Vikings have found a gifted player in Sheldon Richardson, who will be motivated to land a huge contract next offseason, they also lost a dogged competitor when Johnson signed with the Seattle Seahawks.


“Success is very contagious. So once you start having a little success, it starts building, the hype starts building, and it either excels you or it crushes you. There’s a moment that I took it and ran with it.”

– Tom Johnson


Jarius Wright was released by the Vikings as more or less a cap casualty last week and promptly signed with former Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner in Carolina.

While Wright’s production was limited to 18 receptions last season, he became a go-to guy for Keenum in big situations, grabbing 13 of his catches on third downs.

In the Divisional Round playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, he caught a 27-yard pass to set up a Kai Forbath field goal early in the fourth quarter.

Receivers usually have a reputation for channeling Keyshawn Johnson, but Wright never expressed frustration publicly despite a drop from 42 catches in 2014 and 34 in 2015 to 29 over his final two seasons in Minnesota.

“Whenever he gets the opportunity to go in, he knows all the receiver positions if he needs to be,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s just a guy that loves to go out there and get a chance to play and when he does, he usually makes a play.”

Wright’s exit leaves the Vikings on the hunt for another receiver. Laquon Treadwell caught just 20 passes on 35 targets last season, leaving questions about what type of role he will have going forward. And seventh-round pick Stacy Coley was not often active, though he will likely get a shot in camp to earn a spot.

He might not have put up gaudy numbers, but the Vikings had a reliable player who came through when he was needed.


“Well, first thing about Jarius is, he’s a very good person that works his rear end off each and every week. He’s got good speed, he’s got good quickness, catches the ball good. He’s a tough competitor.”

– Mike Zimmer on Jarius Wright


After the first four games of the season, it appeared the Vikings wouldn’t really need Jerick McKinnon. Rookie Dalvin Cook dominated the backfield, taking more than 80 percent of the snaps and ranking among league leaders in rushing yards and yards per attempt. But when Cook went down with an ACL tear, McKinnon – along with Latavius Murray – stepped up to the task.

Over the final 12 games, he gained 544 yards rushing and caught 43 passes out of the backfield. In a key game against Chicago, McKinnon scampered for a 58-yard touchdown. He also went for 114 yards receiving in one game against the Cincinnati Bengals and scored a touchdown against the Saints in the playoffs.

Without his versatility, Keenum might not have performed at the same level. When throwing to McKinnon, he completed 46-of-62 passes for 373 yards and two touchdowns. And not to be overlooked, he finished as Pro Football Focus’s eighth best pass blocker.

McKinnon’s performance earned the former third-round pick a big contract in San Francisco.


“I don’t think I’m surprised. Jerick is a good athlete and I think Kennedy [Polamalu] has done a really good job with him, as far as talking to him about things he needed to improve on. I think that’s helped quite a bit and I think he’s taken it to heart. He’s been running physically, he’s been hitting the hole quick, catching the ball well out the backfield – which he always has, been good in protection.”

– Mike Zimmer


The quarterbacks are an entirely different entity on their own. Keenum and Bridgewater both led the Vikings to the postseason while Bradford gave them a chance in 2016 following Bridgewater’s season-ending injury. All three end up walking away frustrated, whether it’s because the organization didn’t fully believe in them or because injuries kept them from maximizing their potential.

Maybe losing the quarterbacks won’t matter because of Kirk Cousins. Maybe losing Johnson won’t matter because of Sheldon Richardson. Maybe Cook will bounce back and take 80 percent of the snaps again. Maybe the Vikings will find a better No. 3 wide receiver to spell Thielen and Diggs. Maybe they will draft a superstar right guard to take Berger’s place.

But that doesn’t mean their roles in a 13-3 Vikings team should be left to die with all the other teams that have come up short.

The post Vikings players who have left shouldn’t quickly be forgotten appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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