INDIANAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings will soon embark on their offseason program knowing there are heightened expectations both internally and externally.
That's what happens when you win the NFC North at 11-5 and come within a shanked field goal of upsetting the two-time defending NFC champions in the playoffs. With the reigning NFL rushing leader, a quarterback entering his third season -- when many franchise signal-callers begin to reach their full potential -- and one of the league's better young rosters top to bottom, the Vikings won't sneak up on anyone in 2016.
"I think it's going to be a very competitive division next year," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said at the NFL Combine on Wednesday. "We still haven't reached all of our goals. We have to take the approach that, 'Ok, it's starting over. What we did last year doesn't matter.'"
Spielman is in Indianapolis evaluating the 332 NFL Draft prospects in town this week. He's also evaluating his own roster. The Vikings don't have as many marquee free agents to deal with as most playoff teams, but Spielman does have several key veterans he needs to make decisions on.
The list includes linebacker Chad Greenway and cornerback Terence Newman, whose contracts have expired, and wide receiver Mike Wallace, who is due $11.45 million in 2016 after catching only 39 passes for 473 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his first season in Minnesota. All three are on the back side of their productive careers, and Greenway and/or Newman may ultimately retire, but Spielman weighs the importance of veteran leadership heavily.
"That leadership, you can't put enough emphasis on that," Spielman said.
The Vikings had the NFL's seventh-youngest roster in average age per player on the 53-man roster to open last season. The number could drop further if players such as Greenway and Newman move on along with an incoming group of rookies.
Spielman has built a reputation as a general manager who likes to move around in the draft, whether it's trading up to target players he covets such as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in 2014 and free safety Harrison Smith two years before, or dealing back to acquire additional picks to bolster the depth chart.
"One is having enough draft picks that gave us the flexibility," Spielman said. "Two, when I took over as general manager, I wanted to rebuild this roster through the draft. If we're doing our job successfully, hopefully those are your building blocks of the future. And now we can just continue to layer onto what we've been able to build. If you're going to pay players, the ones you're going to know the best are your own."
For all of the Vikings' success in recent drafts, one of the big disappointments continues to be wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. The 29th overall pick in the draft, he has remained a home-run threat as a kick returner but has regressed as a wide receiver, catching only two passes for 10 yards during the 2015 regular season.
Patterson is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and is scheduled to earn just over $1 million in base salary. Spielman pulled no punches in assessing Patterson's future and his potential role in the offense.
"Cordarrelle has to come in ... and he has to come in, I think his mindset has to be to become a better receiver on the nuances on the game," Spielman said. "There is no question about the type of athlete he is. It's just a matter of whether he is going to take that next step."
The Vikings expect many of their young players to take the next step in their developments in 2016, which in turn should continue to make them a threat in the competitive NFC -- as long as they can stay healthy. That begins under center with Bridgewater, who was thrown into the fire as a rookie when Matt Cassel was injured and showed significant growth during his second season in 2015.
"He is a young quarterback that I think is mature enough to handle that, to get thrown into the fire, because of his work ethic, because of his mental approach to the game," Spielman said. "I think it's going to pay dividends for us as he continues to move on down the road in his career."