The 2012 surprise Vikings' playoff visit ended with a thud. We watched as Joe Webb showed us that Christian Ponder might not be so bad. Webb completed only 11 of 30 passes, and his lone TD pass came when the game was already 24-3 Packers. Just a week earlier Ponder had thrown for three touchdowns as Minnesota scored 37 points in a victory over their hated rival. The loss was not shocking, but it was definitely a case of "what could have been". Without Ponder, MVP Adrian Peterson was given extreme attention by the Green Bay defense. Minnesota became one-dimensional on offense. On defense, Aaron Rodgers picked apart a rag-tag secondary to the tune of 274 yards.
Minnesota, which had snuck in the playoffs with a season-ending four game win streak, was finished.
The off-season started poorly. CB Antoine Winfield, rightly unhappy about a lack of an offer, left Minnesota for Seattle. Then, WR Percy Harvin, coming off of a solid season, decided he did not like playing for the Purple. He was whisked away to Seattle for a group of draft picks, including a first-rounder in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Minnesota entered the draft with serious holes to fill at CB, QB, WR, and MLB (with the departure of E.J. Henderson). On top of that, there was growing concern that DT Kevin Williams was beginning the end of his great career, and there was no "blue-chip" replacement for his key position in the 4-3 defense. Further, many felt the Vikings should use one of the two first-round draft choices to solidify the quarterback position, as Webb had demonstrated the talent pool was only one player deep.
Enter Rick Spielman.
In the course of a few months, highlighted by the NFL Draft, Spielman seemingly fixed everything. You lose aging but solid Winfield? No problem, we draft Xavier Rhodes. Missing Percy Harvin? How about the SEC all-purpose yardage leader Cordarelle Patterson. Kevin Williams' age is concerning? No worries, let's add Sharrif Floyd. Spielman added a third first-round pick in the draft and took care of three major needs.
But there were still critics.
Some complained that we did not fix the quarterback issue. What if Ponder crumbles? We had a chance to upgrade the most important position and we passed... Also, who was going to play middle linebacker? Minnesota decided not to draft a few solid inside linebackers in the early stages of the draft and now were praying that Brian Urlacher wanted to jump ship and be healthy at the same time. Why not use key picks for these two vital positions?
Further, even before Harvin left for Seattle there was concern about wide receiver. None of the other receivers did much of anything, and the collection of rookies and journeymen produced little. And now without Harvin, Minnesota might be resigned to running the ball and looking for TE Kyle Rudolph too much.
Do not fear, Spielman is here.
Spielman maneuvered through free agency the signing of two former Packers. Greg Jennings was signed to fill the gaping hole at receiver. Desmond Bishop was later added to shore up the linebacker position. Both have question marks surrounding them about age and/or injury, but the talents are hard to ignore. Jennings finished the 2012 season with near 300 yards and four touchdowns in his final four games to silence concerns that his impressive career was waning. Bishop, who missed the 2012 season with serious injury, had admirably replaced Nick Barnett at MLB, and was instrumental in the Green Bay Super Bowl victory over the Steelers in 2011.
And now they were both Vikings. There is a certain feeling of satisfaction when Green Bay players come to Minnesota. Ryan Longwell, Brett Favre, Darren Sharper... the list was already healthy before the 2013 off-season. Now, it feels like some type of action plan. Hone your skills in Wisconsin, and enjoy them in Minnesota.
And for icing on the cake, Spielman snagged veteran quarterback Matt Cassel from Kansas City. Cassel has had some success in the NFL, He had ten win seasons in both New England and Kansas City. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010. This appeased the Ponder critics somewhat. For we Ponder faithful, it gave us assurance that Joe Webb would not be backing up Ponder in 2013.
And so the 2013 Training Camp open in Mankato. This will be the 48th year Minnesota has trained at Minnesota State. There is much to follow this summer. Who will win the starting middle linebacker job? Is Patterson capable of making us forget Harvin's exciting kick returns? Will Ponder improve? Which defensive backs will step up to fight Green Bay (and others) three and four receiver sets? How good is this Floyd kid?
And many more...
But one thing I am not questioning. Do we have the right guy behind the desk?
As I read the articles on Percy Harvin's placement on the PUP list and Packer coach McCarthy's retorts to Greg Jennings' observations regarding his former team, I can answer a whole-hearted YES.
Every Vikings' fan feels the same. We all loved Percy Harvin's athleticism.
We will miss him.
Minnesota reportedly tried to land Anquan Boldin from the Ravens, but their 7th round offer was usurped by the 49ers' 6th round pick. I do not even want to believe that we had a chance to give Baltimore a 6th round pick to get Boldin. Because that is as no-brainer as wanting to make room for MLB Brian Urlacher.
Minnesota did use available salary cap room to land Greg Jennings earlier this month. Jennings became another in a growing line of ex-Packers who want to play for the Purple. And while Packer fans will tell you it was a smart financial decision, one can see through their bravado. They liked him.
More than any of us liked Harvin.
So now the NFL Draft approaches and Minnesota sits on two first-round picks, three of the top fifty-two, and five picks in the top one hundred. Meanwhile, the receiver group, sans Harvin, looks like it could use an infusion of talent.
Besides Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings, the pool of talent is unproven. Jarius Wright showed signs late in the 2012 season. Greg Childs, a 4th round pick last year, had promise before a freak injury in the preseason. Stephen Burton, a 7th-round pick in 2011, is also present. That is pretty much it, unless you think Joe Webb may become a wide-receiver in 2013.
Lord knows he will not return as a quarterback.
So Minnesota will construct a shopping list for the Draft in late April. Hopefully, in the back of their minds is the value of what receivers have meant to this club's success over the years. In each of the four Super Bowl visits, Minnesota had a legitimate deep threat. In 1969 it was Gene Washington. I remember as a little kid the only thing I would yell all game was "throw the bomb to Washington". It kind of rhymed. And it worked. Even if Joe Kapp was the thrower. Washington averaged 17.9 yards a catch in that first Super Bowl season.
The 1973 and 1974 seasons featured John Gilliam. Chuck Foreman, a running back drafted in 1973, was the feature ball catcher in those days. Stu Voigt, a slow but steady tight end, was among Fran Tarkenton's favorite targets. Gilliam caught just 42 passes in 1973, but for over 900 yards at 21.6 yards per catch. In 1974, he only caught 26 passes, but at 22.2 yards per catch. Jerry Burns' offense was run and throw to running backs, with an occasional bomb to keep the defense honest.
In 1976, Minnesota added two new wide receivers to their roster. Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. Rashad, a free agent, would become the best possession receiver to date, while the rookie White brought a new level of speed that would open up the opposing secondary. With Foreman doing everything and multiple receiver options, the 36 year-old Tarkenton got us back in another Super Bowl. Three in four years.
Minnesota would not get to another Super Bowl, but they had teams that came close. Very close. And in each of those seasons, a strong receiving corps was present. In 1987, the year of the replacements, Anthony Carter was on fire, and TE Steve Jordan a competent second option. In 1998, the 15-1 season featured a trio of great receivers for Randall Cunningham: rookie Randy Moss, Cris Carter, and Jake Reed. And of course, the 2009 team had rookie Harvin, with Sidney Rice, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, and Bernard Berrian.
If 2013 is to be a Super Bowl return year, adding a few receivers seems important. But there are other holes. Most notably, there is no starting middle linebacker. The defensive line is aging. And the defensive backfield is missing Antoine Winfield, and was in need of help PRIOR to that fact. The landing of OL Seth Olsen from the Colts may put offensive line on the back burner.
It would not be surprising if the Vikings went to other needs with their first two picks. Or three.
Still, we should create a list just in case....
1. Cordarelle Patterson, Tennessee. 6'2, 216 lbs. Ran a 4.42 at the combine. Grades out as a top two receiver in the draft, expected to in the middle of the first round. Miami (12th), St. Louis (16th), and Pittsburgh (17th) all seem to need WRs and pick ahead of Minnesota. Houston (27th) is definitely hunting and may have to jump in front of us and them. Patterson had only one good season at Tennessee, but the talent and specs are there. A legitimate deep threat.
2. Tavon Austin, West Virginia. 5'8, 174. Ran 4.34. Many grade as top receiver in draft. He is very small, incredibly athletic and tough. Now who does he remind me of...? He had 114 catches last season, ran the ball well, and returned kicks. Austin could go anywhere in the first round, but he will not make it to the second. A slot receiver.
3. Kennan Allen, California. 6'2, 206. Did not run at combine. Also an excellent return man. Allen is more a possession receiver, as he averaged about six catches a game in his 34-game college career. Expected to go in the later first round.
4. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson. 6'1, 214. Ran a 4.57. Bigger than most, but also a bit slow of foot comparatively. Hopkins had a big final season, hauling in 82 catches for over 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns. Hopkins had six 100 plus yard games last season. Very dependable. Returned punts.Expected to be selected in first two rounds somewhere. A possession-type receiver?
5. Justin Hunter, Tennessee. 6'4, 196. Ran 4.44. Had trouble with drops which hurt his stock. But no one denies the speed. Had better stats than Patterson for the Volunteers, including 73 catches last season for over 1,000 yards. Averaged a touchdown every six catches in college. Could go anywhere from late first to third round. Bona fide deep threat.
6. Robert Woods, Southern California. 6'0, 201. Ran 4.51. Maybe biggest pedigree of the group, but under-performed at times for USC. Anywhere from round one to three. A possession receiver.
There are more...
Possession-receivers: Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech; Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech; Aaron Dobson, Marshall.
Slot-types: Stedman Bailey, West Virginia; Ryan Swope, Texas A&M; Marquise Goodwin, Texas.
Deep Threats: Terrance Williams, Baylor; Markus Wheaton, Oregon State; Kenny Stills, Oklahoma.
The draft appears deep with mid-round receivers. Minnesota could address defensive line (Short, Williams) and linebacker (Ogletree, Reddick) with first few picks, or even a defensive back (Trufant). Some receivers will still be there with the 83rd and 99th pick.
Is there a John Gilliam, Jr.or Gene Washington clone out there?
Because it feels like we are one deep threat away....
With the trading of Percy Harvin for multiple draft picks in the next two years, the Vikings had added fan attention/concern to the upcoming NFL Draft. It was painfully obvious Minnesota lacked wide receiver talent in 2012, Letting go the only receiver to perform well last year seemed insane. But when players express a desire to be traded, the reality is they are probably not worth much to you. Getting a first round pick (among others) was better than could have been hoped.
And now with the signing of Greg Jennings, another in a slew of former-Packers players who seem to want to play for their rival, it seems Minnesota has already addressed the loss of Harvin in part. And with the 23rd and 25th pick in the upcoming draft, are poised to further amend the neediest of positions on the present roster. For after Jennings, the next most-highly regarded receiver is probably Jarius Wright. Or perhaps Jerome Simpson. You see the problem?
We need receivers now.
That is not the only need unfortunately. With Jasper Brinkley leaving for Arizona, there is an immediate hole at the vital position of middle linebacker. There has been talk of stealing Brian Urlacher away from another rival, the Chicago Bears. WLB Erin Henderson, entering his 6th year, is also a concern to some fans. Only Chad Greenway is above reproach at SLB, and he in his 8th season and thirty years old.
We might need a linebacker or two.
Antoine Winfield, easily the most consistent performing cornerback, was let go to free salary cap room. At thirty-five years old, Winfield is in the twilight of his career. Yet he would have been a starter for certain, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson give fans hope for a good future. A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels remind us of how badly we need the aforementioned corners to stay healthy. Brandon Burton should be in the equation in 2013, and Sherels is a decent return guy, but even a blind man can see the need for help here.
Cornerback is in Spielman's front brain.
Adrian Peterson is entering his 7th season, and coming off of one of the greatest seasons in football history (and that is not hyperbole). He is in the prime of his career. The front line did an admirable job helping him find holes. They did less of a job protecting a skittish Christian Ponder. The loss of OG Geoffrey Schwarz creates a further need to improve at the guard position.
It is important to note that the Super Bowl champion Ravens had two former Vikings (Birk,McKinnie) on their front line. While Matt Kalil is proving an upgrade, and John Sullivan more than solid at center, there is a need to improve the depth and talent of guard. The right guard position presently belongs to Brandon Fusco. Charlie Johnson was recently signed to man the other guard. He is entering his 8th season, and was not resembling former All-Pro (happy retirement!) Steve Hutchinson in 2012.
Guard is a need in 2013.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings have serious talent. DT Kevin Williams has given us ten good years at defensive tackle. DE Jared Allen enters his 10th year as a pro, and all have been exceptional since coming from the Chiefs. Add improving DE Brian Robison and you have one of the better front fours in football. But also maybe one of the oldest. All three will be thirty years old (or older) at the start of the season. Only NT LeTroy Guion at 26 is considered young in this group.
Luckily, Minnesota possesses others at defensive line who are ready to contribute. Everson Griffen showed signs of life in 2012, and in only his 4th season, is probably ready to replace someone at end. DT Christian Ballard is entering his 3rd season, and appears capable. So to is NT Fred Evans, though he is entering his 8th season. D'Aundre Reed should be back at defensive end, but has yet to get a chance to prove himself.
Defensive line is needing youth.
And so over the next forty days I will be offering reviews of prospects for this year's NFL Draft. Minnesota has eleven selections in the draft. They have five in the top one hundred. Now is the time for the return to atop the North division. The Packers, still the team to beat, are an Aaron Rodgers injury away from mediocrity. Their defense is suspect. And now they are without Jennings on offense. The Bears and Lions are good, but so are we. We might even be better?
Thirty-Nine days and counting...
Let's begin with the first step. We (as fans) are powerless over the team. No matter how hard I cheer, how much I swear, or whatever I throw, the game is out of my control. In order for their to be a change, we have to accept this fact.
The 3-13 season an abomination. Well, after the 6-10 season of 2010 it is more a downward spiral. All this after coming a couple of plays (or thugs) from being in the 2009-10 Super Bowl. Left staring at the mess that was once among the most feared in the NFL. No more Brett Favre. Half the Williams wall gone. Offensive linemen, wide receivers, linebackers gone. Some remain. But not the same team that should have beat the Saints that fateful game two seasons ago.
I suppose inventory should be taken. it is an important step. What do we have?
The first thing that comes to mind is RB Adrian Peterson. Drafted in 2007, he has been almost saint-like, were it not for a fumbling spell a few years ago, and the recent injury, he might already be canonized. He ran for 296 yards in a single game his rookie year. He has amassed nearly 7,000 yards in five seasons. And 80 rushing touchdowns. All that despite starting only 66 of the 80 games. Playing in 73. If he continues at this pace he will pass Chuck Foreman in the minds of the fans as the greatest VIkings RB ever. For some, he already has.
Percy Harvin is the other offensive skill player that most trust. Taken 22nd in the 2009 draft, Harvin has been electrifying on game days. He won Rookie of the Year honors. He has played in 45 of the 48 potential season games, catching 218 passes for over 2,600 yards. And he has been magnificent in kick returns. And he can run the ball. Only migraine headaches stand in the way of future All-Pro seasons.
Question marks loom over much of the remaining offense. WIll Christian Ponder's game reach a higher level? Will Jerome Simpson contribute at wide receiver? Can Kyle Rudolph replace and exceed the efforts of the departed Shiancoe? And maybe the biggest question, will the offensive line get better? Was the drafting of LT Matt Kalil a sign that the OL can return to its' dominance via the run, and provide enough protection to let Ponder loose?
Yes, lots of questions on offense. Defenisvely, there are maybe even bigger questions.
It appears the defensive line is in order, and with veterans Jared Allen and Kevin Williams returning, one of the better in the league. Names like Brian Robison, Letroy Guion, Christian Ballard, and Fred Evans demonstrate solid depth. Not quite the 1970s Purple People Eaters, but on a 3-13 team maybe a bright spot.
It is the other seven that concern fans. And rightly so. Looking at linebackers, Chad Greenway has been more than good at SLB. Erin Henderson made improvements at WLB last year. This year's MLB is Jasper Brinkley, who has shown flashes, but is not quite the star power as the departed E.J. Henderson. It is as no-name a set of linebackers as I can recall in all my years of fanship.
Worse yet, it the present secondary. The names kepe changing at cornerback, and safety, yet the results have been the same for years now. Antoine Winfield, the run-tackling extrodanairre, is back at one CB spot. Chris Cook occupies the other. The safety spots appear unsettled, with my money on Harrison Smith, the rookie from Notre Dame, eventually inheriting the free safety spot. Mistral Raymond may win the strong safety job. Others defensive backs in the mix include: Chris Carr, Marcus Sherels, JarMarca Sanford, Eric Frampton, Josh Robinson, Brandon Burton, Robert Blanton, Zack Bowman and more.. In early training camp, anyone who has ever played DB is getting looked at somewhere.
So how does a team recover from a three win season when the parts haven't necessarily been replaced?
This season marks the 5th time Minnesota has had to start the season following one with three losses or less. Three of those seasons occurred in early Vikes history. Our opening season (1961) we were 3-11. The next we were 2-11-1. The team improved to 5-8-1 in year three, became a winning team in year four. But when Bud Grant joined in year seven we were coming off a 4-9-1 season. His first year, 1967, we went 3-8-3. We then completely turned our program around. We went to the playoffs the following for years.
How did that change happen? A new coach (Grant) used to winning changed mentality. We traded our star (Tarkenton) and received numerous early picks which we parlayed with our own choices into a playoff team. In 1967 we drafted RB Clinton Jones, WR Gene Washington, DT Alan Page, DB Bobby Bryant, and WR Bob Grim. The next year we added LT Ron Yary, DB Charlie West, and RB Oscar Reed. We would add OG Ed White in 1969. The dynasty had begun.
Later, in 1984, the team fell to 3-13 under Les Steckel.. The next year Minnesota rebounded to 7-9 with Grant returning. Then in 1986 we finsihed 9-7 under new coach Jerry Burns where the Vikings traded for Anthony Carter and Gary Zimmerman. What followed was a three year playoff run. The draft of 1985 had produced this year's Hall of Fame Viking representative: Chris Doleman.
The class of 2012 includes three or four players who could have the same type of impact. And a fancy new kicker to boot. Our past suggest that the GM and front office people will play an important part in our recovery, whether it is the typical 2-3 year wait to return to the playoffs, or if that can be sped up, or worse, slowed down.
So our recovery begins with hope. Minnesota has 25 playoff visits in its' 51 years. We have 17 division championships. Four conference championships. Since thise early years we have been a steady successsful program. Will administration do their part in helping us to return to our roots?
Because it is time for them to step up.
Thanksgiving is the football holiday. This Thanksgiving there will be thirty-some at my house. And it will be good. I have been committed to watching the NFL on Thanksgiving since I was quite young. One of the reasons we took over the holiday within our extended family was so that we could enjoy the games without guilt.
And we have. Pass the pie.
This year is another where my Viking hopes have been dashed like a tournament team in the first round. I am of the 70s era, where Minnesota controlled the NFC, let alone the division. I witnessed five years of NEVER losing to the Packers. NFC championships were a common place; division championships expected.
But the 2010s decade has not been good. Year Two with Brett Favre a disaster. This year's transition from Donovan McNabb to Christian Ponder costly. At 2-8 there is little hope... unless you live and breathe Vikings. If that is the case, even year's like this one are dramatic. And there is much to be thankful for this year...
Like the decision to get rid of Bryant McKinnie. It was a bold statement to the team and the league. Leslie Frazier was here to set things right, and coming to camp out of shape worthy of expulsion. Sadly, I see McKinnie nearly every week playing decent tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. Right next to Matt Birk.
Or the jettisoning of Tarvaris Jackson and Sidney Rice to stupid Seattle. How could any team possibly think these two would be worth multi-million long term deals? Big money was saved. Yes, the 4-6 Seahawks look downright ridiculous compared to our 2-8 squad.
Thankful we took the time this off-season to bring in Donovan McNabb. The two year deal looks to be a stipend for mentoring a rookie. Master McNabb demonstrated early that on any given Sunday a team can beat another... for a half.
Or the battle between Owner Wilf, the politicians, and others as to whether the Vikings will play in Minneapolis, Arden Hills, or another state. But with the tailgating locations provided by the Metrodome, they could play in Los Angeles and there might still be $40 car spots taken as if nothing ever changed. In the 70s we partied right outside Met Stadium before the game. In the Metrodome we pour in through traffic similar to Occupy Minnesota.
Oh, I am thankful.
But there really are things to be thankful for at 2-8. Like the fact that only one team (the 0-10 Indianapolis Colts) has a worse record. That puts us in a three way tie for the second draft selection with the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams. And with only four teams at 3-7 it is a safe bet that we will have a high draft selection like the Adrian Peterson year. The 2012 NFL Draft should be a chance to remedy a two year ailment that won't go away anytime soon.
You see, once the playoffs are dead, hoping for a good draft pick becomes a way to compensate for a lost season. I still am overjoyed with a win, but I also concede that there is a benefit to playing a rookie or inexperienced quarterback beyond experience. Ask the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-7), the Miami Dolphins (3-7), the Washington Redskins (3-7), Rams, or the Panthers. Or the winless Colts. Raw QBs make mistakes. Eh, Christian?
And as a Minnesota fan I can quickly reference the Minnesota Timberwolves of the NBA. No team in Minnesota history has done more to familiarize me with the draft process. No other sport have I spent so much time researching top draft picks. And years and years of failures chasing that number one pick have been more entertaining than the few years with Kevin What's-his-Name.
Well... I am thankful that the Vikings have been in better hands than the Wolves.
We still are, right?