32 Teams in 32 Days: Minnesota Vikings
Unprecedented. That’s putting mildly what Adrian Peterson was able to achieve coming back from the type of knee injury which has ended many NFL careers. He came back better than ever, put a team with low expectations on his back and carried them to a 10-6 season with a playoff berth.
What more could fans ask for? Well, this season they’ll be asking for a deeper playoff run, improved passing game, and big impacts from newcomers. By many accounts, the Vikings have made significant upgrades this offseason. Let’s take a look at some of the potential strengths and weaknesses of this year’s team.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Adrian Peterson
There’s no sense beating around the bush. The Vikings plan to pound the ball with Adrian Peterson and control the clock. Last season, he amassed a ridiculous 1,438 rushing yards… after contact! Only four other players in the league rushed for more yards overall. While defenses sometimes chose to put eight players in the box to stop the better running backs in the league, that strategy simply did not work against Peterson in 2012. Problems arose when he busted into the secondary anyway, leaving the defense with one less safety to beat before reaching the end zone. During the regular season, AP broke off 40 runs of 15 yards or more. Coming into this year with a clean bill of health, expect another heaping helping of Adrian Peterson in the Vikings’ game plans.
2. Talented Trio of Pass Catchers
After Percy Harvin went down last season, the Vikings’ so-called weapons in the passing game proved mostly harmless. One bright spot in this area however was Kyle Rudolph. In his second season, Rudolph served as a reliable target around the goal-line and against underneath coverage. Now with a bit more talent around him, Rudolph should continue to develop into one of the better tight ends in the league.
Addressing their lack of wide receiver talent this offseason, the Vikings signed long-time Packer Greg Jennings to finally add a proven playmaker on the outside. Much of the team’s passing game success will hinge upon Jennings’ ability to stay healthy and produce like a true No. 1 receiver. Further addressing their need at receiver, Minnesota traded up in the draft to select Cordarrelle Patterson with the 29th overall pick. Patterson is an explosive raw talent, and has already flashed big-play ability with a 50-yard kickoff return in the preseason opener. Although the extent of Patterson’s role in 2013 remains to be seen, Coach Leslie Frazier hopes to get the ball into the rookie’s hands often.
3. Dominant Run Blocking
Running backs don’t just rack up 2,000+ yards in a season without quality blockers paving the way, and the Vikings had plenty of them. Minnesota returns a unit that graded out third overall in run blocking in 2012. During the regular season, John Sullivan led all centers with a +27.3 overall grade, including +20.9 in run blocking. While Sullivan made the PFF All-Pro first team, he unfortunately did not get elected to the Pro Bowl or Players Top 100. Perhaps this year he will garner more appreciation for his high level of play. Mammoth right tackle Phil Loadholt also opened up huge holes in the running game and ranked fourth among tackles in run blocking during 2012. Fullbacks Jerome Felton and Rhett Ellison both did an excellent job lead blocking for Peterson, spearheading many of his breakaway runs. The Vikings hope that this year their devastating rushing attack will help set up an improved passing game.
4. Strong Pass Rush
Although not particularly youthful, the Vikings front four is still capable of giving opposing quarterbacks fits. Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, and Everson Griffen combined for 30 sacks, 45 hits, and 132 hurries last season. The four combined for a +30.1 pass rush grade and all will return for this season. On the interior, Fred Evans and Christian Ballard, who turned in solid performances in part-time duty, will continue to rotate and provide good depth. If that wasn’t enough, the Vikings also drafted DT Sharrif Floyd out of Florida with the 23rd overall pick. Dubbed by many as Kevin Williams’ understudy, Floyd has a great opportunity to learn from one of the best interior linemen of the past decade. In his first preseason game, he burst through the starting gates with a +3.6 grade on just 15 snaps.
5. Harrison Smith Emerging
One bright spot in Minnesota’s cloudy defensive backfield was 2012 first-rounder Harrison Smith. As a rookie, Smith already patrolled the deep secondary with excellent discipline and showed off his ability to make big plays. He took two of his three interceptions back for touchdowns, and graded +12.5 in coverage (including the playoffs), good for fifth in the league among safeties. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 16 of 37 passes for 167 yards, along with a 50.2 QB rating when throwing into Smith’s coverage. If he can improve his tackling and continue to excel in coverage, Smith could be one of the best safeties in the league this season.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Christian Ponder is the Quarterback
The point has been hammered to death, but it remains: teams just don’t win Super Bowls these days without franchise quarterbacks. It hasn’t happened since 2003, when Brad Johnson (a former Viking, no less) led the Bucs to a championship. Since then, the NFL has trended more and more towards a pass-heavy style, with the most successful teams being able to attack all areas of the field. That ability is something that Christian Ponder has yet to show. Ponder dinked and dunked his way to just 6.0 yards per attempt in 2012. His 1,298 Yards In the Air (YIA, passing yards minus yards after catch) ranked dead last out of 27 qualifying quarterbacks. To put that in perspective, three different QBs threw for over 3,000 YIA. When throwing deep, he completed just eight of 36 passes for 269 yards. Nine different quarterbacks threw for over 1,000 yards on deep balls alone. Also unfortunate is that backup Matt Cassel had the closest numbers of anyone in the league to Ponder in Deep Passing. The Vikings will need the talent upgrades at receiver to translate into at least some threat of a vertical passing game.
2. Replacing Antoine Winfield
Playing the left and slot cornerback positions, Antoine Winfield has long provided the Vikings with top-notch run defense, good coverage, and excellent veteran leadership. Replacing him will be a tall task. Xavier Rhodes, who was yet another 2013 first-rounder, will likely start on the outside here. While Rhodes comes with some concerns against the run, he does possess a big frame and a physical style in press coverage. That should prove valuable against imposing NFC North receivers like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Jordy Nelson. Lining up in the slot will likely be second-year speedster Josh Robinson. Last year, Robinson surrendered six TDs and a 71.6% completion rate into his coverage. Often exposed on the outside in 2012, the Vikings need Robinson to fare better in the slot in order to overcome the loss of Winfield.
3. QB/WR Chemistry
Along with the additions of Jennings and Patterson there is a learning curve, and a need to develop chemistry with Christian Ponder. Returning for a second season in Minnesota is Jerome Simpson, who showed little chemistry with Ponder last year. He graded out at -5.9 in the passing game, and has not really done anything to impress since his front-flip touchdown as a Bengal (which, to be fair, is hard to top). Jarius Wright, who should see a decent amount of playing time this season, did show some kind of connection with the Vikings’ quarterback, compiling 22 catches for 310 yards and a pair of TDs on just 36 targets. However, he also had four drops, and the two only have seven games of experience in the lineup together.
4. Predictable on Offense
You never want to put all your eggs in one basket, even if it’s one really great basket. Last year, everybody knew that the Vikings wanted primarily to run the ball. When they weren’t running, they were throwing short. This didn’t exactly force the defense to have to cover the whole field. Minnesota did use quite a bit of play action (32.4% of Ponder’s drop-backs), but still only managed a 6.3 yard average on such attempts, despite the threat of Adrian Peterson. This should be a major focus, as the Vikings feature a running game that should be able to set up plenty of big-play opportunities with play action. Additionally, they’ll need to get the ball downfield more in general in order to keep defenses honest.
5. Poor Guard Play
Although the Vikings ran the ball effectively, both starting guards graded firmly in the red last season. Brandon Fusco struggled against interior pass rushers, while Charlie Johnson had a difficult time opening holes and committed six penalties. Minnesota drafted Jeff Baca in the sixth round and Travis Bond in the seventh, and there’s been some talk that the incumbents will have competition for the starting jobs. Newly acquired Seth Olsen may also be in the mix for playing time. It’s likely that the starters from last season will remain, but if they falter, there could be a quick hook.
What to Expect
The Vikings have improved a lot on paper through the draft, as well as signing former Packer standouts Jennings and Desmond Bishop, but they still lack a franchise quarterback. They’ll face stiff competition in the NFC North, as well as tough road games in Seattle, Baltimore, and Cincinnati toward the tail end of the season. If they can get the passing game on track, a return to the playoffs is very possible, but narrowly missing at 9-7 seems more likely.
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