Offseason Breakdown: Minnesota Vikings
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Just three seasons ago, with Brett Favre under center, the Vikings finished 12-4 and were one play away from upsetting the New Orleans Saints in the NFC title game. But when Favre’s tenure inevitably fell apart, the Vikings did not have a Plan B in place. They stumbled to a 6-10 record in 2010, with Joe Webb replacing Favre in the lineup down the stretch.
Minnesota tried again to catch aging-veteran-QB lightning in a bottle last season by bringing in Donovan McNabb, but all he did was delay the team’s rebuilding process.
It is all systems go there now, with Christian Ponder at quarterback and several rookies penciled into the starting lineup. Head coach Leslie Frazier has to hope that the Vikings’ turnaround is as dramatic as their recent fall.
2011 Record: 3-13 (fourth in NFC North)
Key Additions: S Robert Blanton, TE John Carlson, CB Chris Carr, T Matt Kalil, G Geoff Schwartz, WR Jerome Simpson, S Harrison Smith
Key Subtractions: S Husain Abdullah, CB Cedric Griffin, LB E.J. Henderson, T Steve Hutchinson, S Tyrell Johnson, QB Donovan McNabb, TE Visanthe Shiancoe
Team Strengths: RB, DE
Team Weaknesses: QB, G, CB, S
Three Things to Watch:
1. Did the draft save the secondary?: Even Pop Warner, the legendary coach and one of the creators of the single-wing formation, would have taken one look at the Vikings’ defense on tape last season and said, “Yea, let’s air it out.”
Minnesota was terrible against the pass in 2011, coughing up more than 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns (the latter was worst in the league). Over the first three weeks of the season, the Vikings held halftime leads of 17-7, 17-0 and 20-0 — and lost all three games, as their secondary imploded.
Minnesota’s remake of its secondary started at safety, where the team used a first-round draft pick on Harrison Smith and a fifth-rounder on his former Notre Dame teammate, Robert Blanton. When Week 1 rolls around, it’s very possible the two rookies will be in the starting lineup, with Smith at free safety and Blanton at the strong safety spot.
That decision to start a pair of rookies would be a roll of the dice, especially in a division that features pass-happy Green Bay and Detroit, but the Vikings don’t have much of a choice.
Minnesota also added Chris Carr (Baltimore) and Zackary Bowman (Chicago) at cornerback to provide some depth behind starters Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook. If the pieces don’t come together before the regular season starts, the Vikings will have a tough time improving on the defensive side of the ball.
2. Will Adrian Peterson be his old self again?: All indications are that Adrian Peterson is ahead of schedule rehabbing from the significant knee injury he suffered toward the end of last season. That’s good news for the Vikings, who rely so much on their standout running back.
Peterson finished 30 yards shy of 1,000 last season, despite playing just 12 games — and that was his lowest rushing total by more than 300 yards, falling far shy of his previous low, 1,298. There are few players in the league with the game-breaking potential that Peterson possesses and, at least until last season, he has been a player Minnesota could count on for 300-plus touches.
The flip side of Peterson flying back from injury is that he might not be 100 percent for Week 1, and there is always a small possibility that he’ll reaggravate his condition. If Peterson’s limited or can’t go early in the season, Toby Gerhart would assume RB1 duties again, just as he did toward the end of 2011. Gerhart averaged 4.9 yards per carry during his second season, but he’s no A.P.
3. Is Christian Ponder really the answer at QB?: Six weeks into last season’s 3-13 campaign, the Vikings took the offense away from Donovan McNabb and put it in Ponder’s hands. The rookie QB struggled, finishing with a 2-8 record.
Is all of that his fault? Of course not. With Peterson sidelined, a bumbling offensive line in front of him and a less-than-imposing wide receiver group at his side (especially with Percy Harvin battling injuries all season), the odds were stacked against Ponder. However, his failures looked far worse when compared to what other rookie QBs, like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, were doing.
In Year 2, Ponder has a new left tackle in highly-touted rookie Matt Kalil and, likely, a new right guard in Geoff Schwartz. He also will have Jerome Simpson to throw to come Week 4 and, if all goes well, Peterson back from injury and Harvin on the field despite concerns over his contract.
But with each bit of improvement around Ponder, the pressure shifts more and more onto the second-year quarterback’s shoulders. The presence of Joe Webb, who played well in spot duty last season, will only ratchet up the need for Ponder to start producing soon.
Outlook: The Vikings should be a better football team in 2012, simply because Ponder has more experience and, thanks to the draft and free agency, has a few more weapons to play with. What will that mean in the ultra-competitive NFC North? Probably not enough to make Minnesota fans happy.
Getting Harvin and Peterson on the field together again would give Minnesota a chance to hang around in most games — few teams in the league possess as potent a 1-2 punch. And a friendly early schedule that features four of the first six games at home and a Jacksonville-Indianapolis stretch to open could help the Vikings come out of the gate strong.
Eventually, though, Minnesota’s lack of reliable depth and talent will be too much for Peterson, Harvin, Jared Allen and the rest to overcome. It will be at least 2013 before this is a legit playoff contender.