The Minnesota Vikings, just two seasons removed from appearing in the NFC Championship, finished dead last in the NFC North last season. The Donovan McNabb experiment proved to be nothing short of a disaster from the opening snap of 2011. In his first game of the season against the San Diego Chargers, McNabb completed seven of 15 attempts for a paltry 39 yards. He never threw for more than 230 yards in any start last season. Rookie Christian Ponder fared little better, as Minnesota finished 28th in the league through the air. To make things worse, Adrian Peterson, undoubtedly the team’s best offensive player, tore his ACL in December and may miss the start of the 2012 season.
2011 Record: 3-13
Key Additions: TE John Carlson, WR Jerome Simpson, G Geoff Schwartz, DE Jeff Charleston, RB Lex Hilliard, FB Jerome Felton, LB Marvin Mitchell, OT Matt Kalil (No. 4 pick), S Harrison Smith (No. 29 pick)
Key Losses: G Steve Hutchinson, G Anthony Herrera, K Ryan Longwell, CB Cedric Griffin, CB Asher Allen, DT Remi Ayodele, TE Visanthe Shiancoe
Offense: Minnesota faces numerous question marks on the offensive side of the ball. First and foremost, how good is Christian Ponder? There were encouraging signs at times in his rookie season. He can get outside the pocket and has a good head on his shoulders, but Ponder’s arm leaves a lot to be desired. He struggled to make all the throws at the collegiate level, and did not answer those doubts last season either. Fortunately, there is no question about his hold on the starting position and he will have an opportunity to make believers out of the Viking fan base and brass.
The most important question, however, is Peterson’s health. Safe to say, the Vikings need him on the field to stand any chance going forward. He ran for 12 touchdowns last season despite a pair of serious injuries, good for third in the NFL. His goal is to play on opening day against the Jaguars, but the Vikings need to be cautious with their franchise player, who is now 27 years old. It will take some time for AP to truly be AP again, and some doubt he may ever be the dominant force he’s been the last six seasons.
The Vikings added Jerome Simpson in the offseason to upgrade the passing game and allow Percy Harvin to move to his natural slot position. But, Simpson will start the year suspended due to an arrest on felony drug charges. Harvin has missed time due to chronic migraine headaches in both of his NFL seasons.
Along the offensive line, stalwart guard Steve Hutchinson has moved on to Tennessee. The Vikings added USC’s Matt Kalil via the draft, universally viewed as the best offensive tackle prospect in years. He will man Ponder’s blind side from day one. Geoff Schwartz, formerly of Carolina, will slide into Hutchinson’s old spot at right guard. Joe Berger, John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt are all projected to return as starters.
Defense: The one bright spot in Minnesota’s 3-13 campaign was Jared Allen. Allen recorded 22 sacks last season, half a sack shy of Michael Strahan’s all-time single-season record. Brian Robison emerged as a viable option opposite of Allen, filling the void left behind by Ray Edwards. Robison added eight sacks, good for second on the team. Kevin Williams should be fully healthy and will be responsible to dominate the middle of the line. Fred Evans, Christian Ballard and Letroy Guion will battle it out for the second tackle spot.
All three starting linebackers, a solid unit, will return. Chad Greenway has quietly developed into one of the game’s best outside linebackers. He’s averaged nearly 150 total tackles the last two seasons. He will team up with the Henderson brothers, Erin and E.J.
Yet again, the Vikings secondary was torched in 2011.
Depth at the position will come into question early and often. Cedric Griffin signed with Washington upon being released, and Asher Allen was forced to retire after post-concussion symptoms. Antoine Winfield, a solid tackler and zone corner, will be back but the Vikings have to find a No. 2 somewhere on the roster. Chris Cook will be the favorite, should he be able to avoid off-field trouble. The 25-year old was acquitted of assaulting his girlfriend in March. The Vikings added veteran Chris Carr to push Cook and line up in nickel packages. Harrison Smith, the team’s second first-rounder in 2012, will challenge the incumbent safety pair of Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond for playing time.
Coaching: Despite the Vikings’ low expectations, the pressure should be on coach Leslie Frazier to turn the defense around and challenge the other teams within the North division. Minnesota surrendered 28.1 points per game last season and was outscored by a total of 109 points. To make things worse, they failed to win a single division game last season, going 0-6 against the Packers, Lions and Bears. Frazier needs to demonstrate that Minnesota’s rebuilding project is going in the right direction, or don’t be surprised if owner Zygi Wilf goes in a different direction.
Breakout Player: Kyle Rudolph should be much more of a factor in the Vikings’ passing game in his sophomore season. Starter Visanthe Shiancoe has moved on to New England, clearing the way for the former Notre Dame product. He will be tested in camp by John Carlson, but Carlson has struggled to stay healthy. Rudolph’s combination of speed and strength will be hard to ignore. He caught three touchdowns in the team’s final seven games, including a highlight-reel, 19-yard score against the Broncos.
2012 Prediction: It’s truly difficult to envision the Vikings competing this year, taking the question marks and stiff competition into consideration. Ponder, a highly criticized, first-round pick in 2010, will have to take big steps forward to prove he’s the new face of the franchise. I don’t anticipate a fully healthy Peterson until midseason at the earliest, even with him being a freak athlete with an impressive ability to recover quickly. A pair of players who tore their ACLs way back in August 2011, Giants CB Terrell Thomas and Redskins LB Jonathan Goff, have already reinjured their knees in non-contact drills. I believe the Vikings will be closer to challenging for the No. 1 pick next season than the Super Bowl. I predict Minnesota will finish around 4-12.
Overview: It’s evident that the Vikings are in rebuilding mode, but they have a few players who can be considered the best at their respective positions. The cupboard is not bare. There is hope of becoming competitive again very soon. It’s all up to Ponder’s progression. The new NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Teams who don’t have pure passers are at a huge disadvantage. There’s no question about Ponder’s ability to lead, looking back to his assembling of offensive players for workouts during the lockout. There is a question as to whether he can throw an out route. I suspect the answer to that question to correlate with whether or not he can win games at this level.