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...
I first watched High Noon in a high school Humanities class. The teacher wanted us to understand the emphasis on time. The train was coming with the guys that wanted to kill Gary Cooper. Grace Kelly, his Mormon wife just married, abhorred violence, and wanted to leave town. Cooper refused. Only the rest of the town's cowardice, or personal issues, kept them from offering a helping hand. He was alone.
And the time was ticking.
The Minnesota Vikings have a long history of success against the Packers. Maybe not in recent memory, but certainly most of us of age remember complete dominance in different times. Even as late as the Randy Moss era we experienced the joy of winning in Lambeau. Sweeping Green Bay is akin to Christmas in Minnesota.
But times are changed.
This Vikings team is 6-5 and staring at two games vs. Green Bay, Houston, and Chicago in the remaining five. That's tough. That's meaner than a handful of bad guys off a train. And with Percy Harvin hurt, a 2nd year quarterback, and a waning fan base, the idea that Minnesota can pass Seattle and Tampa Bay in the final stretch of the season is nearly unfathomable.
Maybe we should just get on that train.
But it is the rivalry. I have no doubt the Viking players will show up to play. Sadly, the Packers are coming off of a humiliation much like the Bears were a week before. Good teams tend to play inspired a week after they are beaten. Aaron Rodgers was average at best last week and the odds he plays poorly twice in a row slim. The only hope Minnesota fans have is that the Purple pass rush has like success against the Green Bay front line. Last week we saw that Rodgers can look almost like Ponder when battered and pressured. And that is with receivers like Jordy Nelson.
So the clock ticks.
Most of us have already conceded this season, at least in our hearts. We watch the final five games weighing draft choice position with pride. We take solace in the fact that this team was 3-13 last season, and just as bad the season before. 6-5 looks pretty good in comparison. We know there are two division home games that we have a better chance in, and a road game at St. Louis that is winnable. If somehow we could win this one or in Houston, the long odds of a playoff visit stay alive and the town will rejuvenate.
We may learn that fate at 12:00 today.
Coming off of the loss in Seattle, Minnesota finds itself at 5-4 and facing a difficult schedule. In fact, besides the road game at St. Louis ahead, this home game vs. the Lions might be the only game in which the Vikings will be near favored. (Oddsmakers are actually favoring Detroit by a little). And they will play without Percy Harvin, out with an ankle injury.
I have listened to my fellow Vikings' fans lament the play of Christian Ponder. And truthfully, he has been awful. Ponder helped the Vikings get off to a fast start by reducing mistakes, finding Harvin and Kyle Rudolph, and escaping the rush well enough to avoid sacks. But lately he has faltered. Ponder did not throw an interception in the first four games, where Minnesota went 3-1. In the last five games Ponder has thrown eight interceptions and Minnesota is 2-3 in those games. Ponder was sacked nine times in the 4-1 start, 14 times in the 1-3 stretch we have just endured.
But as any coach or knowledgeable fan knows, there is much that is hidden. From the television angle, I can see pass rushes are now getting through our line. Recently I have watched replays where John Sullivan,Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco, and Phil Loadholt have been beaten. Blitzes are not being picked up by running backs and/or tight ends. Even phenom Matt Kalil has allowed hits to Ponder. Opposing defenses are pressuring Ponder. Other than Harvin, no one else appears to getting open regularly. If quarterbacks face pressure without open receivers it gets ugly quickly. Just ask Michael Vick.
And the defense is suffering from the lack of passing offense. The Vikings have surrendered 30 or more points in their last three losses to Washington, Tampa Bay, and Seattle.Those teams are 23rd, 13th, and 32nd in passing offense. And that has not mattered because it has been through running games that Minnesota has collapsed. Against Washington Robert Griffin III slipped through countless tackles on his way to 138 yards in only 13 carries. Doug Martin did the same in his 135 yards on 29 carries (which turns out not so bad compared to other Martin games). And there is no shame in allowing Marshawn Lynch 124 yards on 26 carries, other than that means you do not have the ball. Inability to stop the run is the death of many teams.
And excuses are available. The defensive secondary misses the play of Chris Cook and Mistral Raymond until recent. Cook was having a great year and that freed up guys like Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford to make tackles. Josh Robinson, along with others, is raw and will be beaten at times.
Losing to ground games is often at the fault of the 'front seven'. In the case of RGIII, the front four needs to contain him within the rush and often a linebacker is assigned to quicker QBs. Neither did their job. It seemed in the loss to the Bucs and Seahawks that linebackers were simply missing assignments and/or tackles. Chad Greenway tackles so many people that we tend not to see fault in him, but the microscope is on Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. And one cannot help but wonder if the "have to get that sack" mentality of Jared Allen and Brian Robison is negatively impacting the run defense, as most yardage allowed appears to be leaning to the outside gaps.
Fast forward to today. At 5-4, and this being the easiest of the three remaining home games,today's game vs. the Lions becomes a must win to entertain a winning season or slim remaining playoff hope. Having beaten them earlier in the season Minnesota should have a winning recipe. Contain the run and put pressure on Stafford with the front four. Offensively, do enough with the passing game to allow Adrian Peterson just a little wiggle room. And avoid mistakes in your own territory.
With Percy Harvin out that job just became harder. Harvin has been electric in all aspects of his game. Harvin is on pace to shatter personal receiving records in this his fourth year. While his receiving efforts are probably most missed today, the idea of not having Harvin return kickoffs is also disheartening, He was averaging almost 36 yards per return, with four returns over forty plus yards in sixteen attempts.
Can Minnesota right the ship with a season sweep of the Lions? Without Harvin, it appears that the job of kick off returning us to winning football just became available. Marcus Sherels, the punt returner, appears to be most likely to have that chance. And this also means someone like Jerome Simpson. Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, or Kyle Rudolph will have to pick up the slack receiving.
Because Lord knows Adrian Peterson cannot do it all.
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