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One of the keys to the Vikings becoming a playoff contender in 20 months is the development of quarterback Christian Ponder.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune file

2012 NFL DRAFT WHAT'S NEXT?

Wiederer: Vikings can reach playoffs in 20 months if ...

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER
  • Star Tribune
  • April 29, 2012 - 11:46 PM

When the 2012 NFL schedule was released two weeks ago, I offered my very early Vikings projection. An educated guess, if you will.

Yet many folks, if some of the hostile Twitter reaction was any indication, labeled the prognostication as premature, uninformed and antagonistic. Oh well. Can't win 'em all.

Still, even now, after the Vikings completed what seems like a solid draft this weekend, I'm keeping the bar where I originally set it: a floor of four victories for the 2012 Vikings, a ceiling of seven and a split-the-difference projected record of 6-10.

But here's the good news. While this inevitably will be a rebuilding year, a legitimate wild-card run could be in the equation for 2013.

Here are five things that absolutely must happen for the Vikings to be back in the playoff mix 20 months from now:

1 THE 2012 DRAFT CLASS HAS TO EMERGE

Realistically, first-round picks Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith will start from Day One. The other draftees? Receivers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs need to show growth in limited roles as rookies. Robert Blanton needs to emerge as a potential starting safety. Cornerback Josh Robinson, probably still a year away from budding into a defensive regular, needs to polish his skills as a backup. And the Vikings must get lucky with the trio of players they took in Rounds 6 and 7 (kicker Blair Walsh, linebacker Audie Cole and defensive lineman Trevor Guyton). Frankly, Kalil might be the only rookie to have significant impact next season. The rest of this class has to position itself for a 2013 breakthrough.

2 LESLIE FRAZIER HAS TO KEEP HIS JOB

Yes, there have been success stories in which first-year head coaches lead dramatic turnarounds. (We're looking at you, Jim Harbaugh.) But the reality is immediate success by a new head coach is not common. Take Harbaugh out of the mix and the seven other new coaches last season posted an average record of 7-9, with only Denver's John Fox reaching the playoffs -- at 8-8. The 11 head coaches who took over new jobs in 2009 and 2010? They combined to post a .411 winning percentage over their first two seasons. And only four (Rex Ryan, Todd Haley, Jim Caldwell and Pete Carroll) made the playoffs in Year 1 or Year 2.

To make a long story short, Frazier has to win enough in 2012 to maintain job security while also showing signs that his group of passionate, hard-working players is growing. That's the only way to assure continuity won't be disrupted.

3 ADRIAN PETERSON HAS TO RETURN TO FULL STRENGTH

Don't expect Peterson to be running at an All-Pro level in 2012, no matter how driven he is in his return from knee surgery. The goal, instead, should be for the star running back to resume a normal workload by, say, mid-October. As much as Peterson wants to be back at full strength as soon as possible, the Vikings need to keep his rehabilitation on a realistic timetable, one in sync with their rebuilding schedule.

4 CHRISTIAN PONDER HAS TO BE EVERYTHING THE VIKINGS BELIEVE HIM TO BE

Frazier is already promising big leaps for Ponder in 2012. The belief is that the young quarterback will benefit greatly from a regular offseason program that allows him ample time to develop under quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson and coordinator Bill Musgrave. Ponder now has a more impressive offensive line, an upgraded receiving corps and a few dynamic tight ends to throw to. His intelligence and charisma, the coaches believe, will both steady and energize the offense. But soon all these promises have to turn into results. Remember, in 10 rookie starts Ponder was really responsible for producing only one victory.

5 THE VIKINGS MUST STAY IN MINNESOTA

Is that downtown stadium deal done yet? As important as coaching and roster continuity will be, imagine how disruptive all the political chaos around the team could become if it drags out. Without promises of a new home stadium, the Vikings might be at risk of needing a new home altogether.

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