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Vikings' D, Sam Bradford's progress have Mike Zimmer optimistic

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- This has been a pleasantly quiet summer for the Minnesota Vikings, though it's worth remembering there was no drama at this time a year ago, either.

Before Teddy Bridgewater blew out his knee days before the preseason finale, and then Adrian Peterson got hurt, and injuries decimated the offensive line, and head coach Mike Zimmer underwent the first of many eye surgeries, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner quit, and a 5-0 start crumbled into an 8-8 finish, the Vikings felt much as they do now: optimistic about one of the NFL's most stacked defenses and an offense that can do enough to make them a tough out come January.

"Defensively, I kind of know who we are and what we are. It's similar to what we've been," Zimmer told me after a recent practice. "Offensively, I think we're still a little bit trying to find exactly the right balance of what we're doing -- but I like a lot of things we're doing offensively.

"I don't think the identity of the team is going to change too much. I don't think we're going to go to The Greatest Show on Turf, and I don't think we're going to be the '85 Bears, either. But this team has some talent, and we've got a chance."

The Vikes have really felt that way since they had the mighty Seattle Seahawks beat in a divisional playoff game 19 months ago -- until Blair Walsh yanked a 27-yard game-winning field-goal attempt. Seemingly every bit of their luck since followed that thing wide left.

To be sure, the Vikings have their work cut out to get out of the NFC North, which they've wrested away from Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers just once in the past six seasons. Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions are coming off their own playoff campaign, taking the spotlight in the division away from Minnesota -- and that may not be a bad thing here.

Just as the 5-0 start last season covered up some of the flaws that eventually got exposed, the way things fell apart might be obscuring some of the reasons the Vikings are excited about their chances for bouncing back. That list includes:

» Sam Bradford has settled in: The former No. 1 pick put together his most efficient season in 2016 (71.6 percent passing, 20 TDs, five interceptions, 99.3 rating) despite not joining the Vikings until a cutdown-day trade from Philadelphia and having to learn Turner's offense on the fly, with little run threat to help him. Now Bradford, 29, has had an offseason to work with his teammates and a coordinator, Pat Shurmur, who has a lot of history to draw on in sculpting the offense around Bradford's skill set.

"I think [Bradford] feels so much more comfortable, obviously," Zimmer said. "He's throwing the ball well. He's got a good feeling for Pat, checking and all the different things that he does."

» Dalvin Cook might be special: Ask anyone at Vikings HQ about the upside of this team, and they'll bring up Cook, who slid into the second round of April's draft for reasons that had little to do with his unquestioned explosiveness as a runner. He can make an offensive line look better. The one-time NFL MVP Peterson is gone, but with Cook, ex-Oakland Raider Latavius Murray and third-down back Jerick McKinnon, the NFL's least productive running team a year ago (1,205 yards, 3.2 per carry) has some juice.

» The O-line shouldn't be horrible: That's a low bar, but the Vikings set it there last season. Is Riley Reiff an ideal left tackle? Probably not. (There are reasons the Lions moved him to right.) But he should be an upgrade over the T.J. Clemmings-Jake Long combo the Vikings played with most of last season. Ditto Mike Remmers at right tackle. Left guard Alex Boone feels better after being beat up last season. Third-round pick Pat Elflein is a likely Week 1 starter at center. Depth seems better, too -- even with Reiff and Boone sitting out last week's exhibition against Seattle, the line played much better than in its opener. Accountability and attitude will be key. As Boone told me: "We've got to smash people and have fun doing it, embrace it."

» Defense remains loaded: Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith ... that's an excellent core on defense, and all those guys are under age 30. They know Zimmer's scheme inside and out. One guy to keep an eye on is Barr, whose effort and productivity last season weren't acceptable. People who have watched him recently say Barr is a different guy right now.

"I think Barr has had an unbelievable spring, unbelievable training camp," Zimmer said.

» Rookies might make an impact: Unlike last year, when they ranked dead last in offensive and defensive snaps from rookies, the Vikings could have as many as four first-year starters from their draft class -- Cook, Elflein, linebacker Ben Gedeon and guard Danny Isidora. They also spent more on undrafted rookies than in years past and have a few who could contribute, led by defensive end Tashawn Bower.

» Zim is Zim again: He went through a lot last year, yet at age 61, none of it seems to have softened him.

"There's nothing different," said veteran cornerback Terence Newman, who has spent much of his 15-year career with Zimmer. "Obviously, he wants this team to win and be better than we were last year. So, he's going to be tough and stringent. But that's always him."

Said Boone: "I think he's probably tougher now."

That approach doesn't fit everyone, especially when things start going south. But Zimmer has shown under the right circumstances he can make it work.

There's plenty the Vikings still have to figure out: nickel cornerback, both kicking jobs, how to best utilize a receiver group with a bunch of solid No. 2/3 type guys (Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Michael Floyd) but no true No. 1 mismatch threat, the right combination on an O-line that still figures as the team's biggest weakness until it shows otherwise. Entering his eighth season, Bradford has to shake the stigma of never reaching the playoffs. An uncertain future at quarterback -- Bradford's in a contract year, while Bridgewater continues to rehab in hopes of returning sometime in 2017 -- contributes to the feeling the Vikings are at something of a fork in the road. Repeat last season, and changes are inevitable.

The Vikings aren't thinking that way now, though.

"Last year was last year and some [expletive]-up things happened. But nine years in this league, I've seen a lot of messed-up things like that," Boone said. "Going forward, this is our team. This is the group of guys we're going to go out and fight with and I'm excited about that."

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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