With free agency set to get underway on Tuesday at 3 p.m. the speculation and rumors have started percolating. More than anything, Vikings fans would love to see the team address their most glaring need: a wide receiver that could, you know, get open and catch the ball and stuff. Whether Percy Harvin is on the team next year or gets sent packing via trade, the Vikes need a wide receiver or two. Or three. It is highly likely they'll draft at least one wideout, but free agency would offer more immediate help.
And we're back! After a brief sabbatical, it's time to once again spew forth opinions, observations and speculation from our little VikesCentric corner of the interweb. A lot has transpired since I last checked in so here are a few quick thoughts on the happenings of the last few weeks before we look ahead:
Like it or not, the Vikings are committed to Christian Ponder for 2013. They will hopefully bring in a tested veteran to push Ponder, mentor the young quarterback, and provide insurance, but I highly doubt Joe Flacco, Michael Vick, or Alex Smith will be calling Winter Park home.
Instead, Rick Spielman will likely place their No. 1 priority on shoring up and improving the offensive talent around Ponder, and that starts with assessing and upgrading the wide receiver situation. The "assessing" part of the equation is key, as the first step in the Vikings' offseason plan will be to figure out what to do with the enigmatic Percy Harvin. Let him play out the final year of his deal and hope he plays nice? Trade him? Offer a long-term deal?
Harvin's situation requires its own blog post, but his status will obviously impact how the Vikings build the rest of the wide receiver group. Let's assume, as Leslie Frazier asserted earlier this week, that Harvin will be back in 2013. I'd then like to see the Vikings pay Phil Loadholt, pay Jerome Felton, and open up the purse strings for a talented wideout who is ready to step into the starting lineup opposite. Who will be available and a good fit?
(Note: I'm only including known free agents at this point. I'm not going to predict any potential cap casualties such as, for instance, Anquan Boldin.)
There will be five top-tier talents available, but I'm going to cross three off the list right away:
Wes Welker, Patriots: The prolific pass-catcher turns 32 this May, duplicates too much of what the Vikings already possess in Harvin and Jarius Wright, and needs to be in a high-volume passing attack. Pass.
Mike Wallace, Steelers: He has grumbled about not getting the ball this season and about the Steelers not throwing deep often enough. I love the explosiveness, but I can't imagine he would entertain joining an offense that lacks a vertical passing attack and requires him to share with Harvin and Adrian Peterson.
Victor Cruz, Giants (RFA): Keep dreaming.
That brings us to…
Greg Jennings, Packers: Vikings fans know his talents all too well, and we seem to get a kick out of signing former rivals. Jennings turns 30 this coming September, and he has broken down in recent seasons, missing eight games in 2012 and three contests in 2011. I have little doubt that he'd look good in Purple, but the price tag could be troublesome. Vincent Jackson, who is turns 30 this month, signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Buccaneers last March. Jennings boasts a better statistical resume but also brings his injury history, so five years and $55 million could be in the ballpark for what he ultimately receives. Would you pay it? It feels steep and risky to me right now, but ask me again in two months.
Dwyane Bowe, Chiefs: The Andy Reid hiring may mean the Chiefs will be more serious about bringing Bowe back, but if he hits the market and if the Vikings are willing to spend big, he would be my top target. Bowe, who is a year younger than Jennings, carries some baggage, but he is also the big-bodied, No. 1-type receiver who makes sense opposite Harvin. And it doesn't hurt that he is accustomed to catching passes from
terrible less-than-perfect quarterbacks. We need play-making wideouts who can consistently win 50-50 battles (and instill confidence in Ponder to throw those type of passes) and Bowe will be the best option on the open market.
Brian Hartline, Dolphins: The market for Hartline will be very interesting to watch. If the Dolphins don't re-sign him early, Hartline could linger on the market and either (1) get a ridiculous desperation offer from a team that misses out on Wallace, Jennings or Bowe or (2) end up with a low-end bargain deal. He underwhelmed for three years before exploding for 1,083 yards this season. Nearly one quarter of that total came in one game (253 yards, Week 4), and he managed only one touchdown all season. I don't want the Vikings to be the ones who gamble on his breakout year being for real.
Danny Amendola, Rams: A slot receiver who was only healthy enough to play 12 games over the past two seasons? Where do I sign up?!? Amendola isn't a good fit for the Vikings right now, but I'm already anticipating someone like the Patriots, Broncos or Saints turning a cheap two-year contract into 200 catches over the next two seasons.
Danario Alexander, Chargers (RFA): The Chargers aren't letting him leave.
Donnie Avery, Colts: I'd take him at the same deal the Colts paid him this season (one-year, $615,000), but he is likely to receive a couple million to be some team's No. 3 wideout. I'd be okay with Avery if the price is decent, but I don't think he's an upgrade over...
Jerome Simpson, Vikings: Yep, we're already to that point in the free agent rankings.
Kevin Ogletree, Cowboys: He starred in the Cowboys' season opener (114 yards, two scores) before fading into the background and losing reps to Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley. He's worth a look on a cheap one-year deal to replace Devin Aromashodu.
Domenik Hixon, Giants: He's not sexy, but Hixon is one of the mid/lower-level receivers I'd like the Vikings to take a look at. He can be a veteran leader, runs good routes, has shown sticky hands, chips in on special teams, and should be fairly cheap.
Brandon Gibson, Rams: The 25-year-old wideout started 34 games for the Rams over the last three years, but I'll forgive you if you didn't notice. He set career-highs with 51 catches, 691 yards, and five touchdowns this season and received positive marks from both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. He is another mid/lower-tier guy that I like as long as the price tag is reasonable.
And with that, we've quickly dwindled down to names like Randy Moss, Ramses Barden, Braylon Edwards, Jabar Gaffney, Devery Henderson, and Mohamed Massaquoi - receivers who rabid fans don't dream about in January when trying to dig for difference-making talents. At this point, we're better off turning our attention to the early rounds of the NFL draft, which will be a hot topic for the coming months.
The Vikings are taking a break from training camp workouts on Sunday before reconvening with pads on Monday. As I took my leave from Mankato Saturday afternoon, I did so with an appreciation for the chicken fingers and fries at Boomtown. I also left town with some initial thoughts and impressions from the first two days of Vikings camp.
In Part 1 of this series, we identified five Vikings who will need to improve and/or deliver upon their potential for the team to have any shot at the playoffs in 2012. We continue now with the final five players on the list.
OL Phil Loadholt – Loadholt has had an up-and-down career thus far. He’s shown flashes of brilliance as a road-grading run blocker, but has been maddeningly inconsistent in pass protection. The same massive size that allowed him to rank as Pro Football Focus’s No. 1 run blocker in the NFL last year also causes problems against quick defensive ends and linebackers. PFF counts nine sacks allowed by Loadholt (only five tackles on either the left or right side allowed more) and a whopping 32 quarterback hurries (among the 15 worst tackles in the league). With Matt Kalil theoretically locking down the left side for the next decade, John Sullivan making big money in the middle, and a number of solid veterans vying for action at the two guard spots, the spotlight will be squarely on Loadholt in his contract year. If he can harness his obvious physical talent and improve his pass blocking, he could be in line for a big-money deal next offseason. It’s unclear if the Vikes would be interested in locking him up to a lucrative long-term deal, but they’d love for him to play well enough in 2012 to make it a tough decision.
RB Toby Gerhart – Loadholt’s ability to block for the Vikings running backs might be magnified in 2012 if Adrian Peterson is either forced to miss time or isn’t back to 100 percent this season. No matter what AP’s status is, Gerhart is going to play a big role in the Vikings backfield. Gerhart played very well in two different stints as the main Vikings ballcarrier last year; he scored once and went over 90 yards twice in a three-game span that Peterson missed because of injury in Weeks 12-14, then went over 100 yards on just 11 carries in the calamitous victory over the Redskins in Week 16. We can be sure Gerhart isn’t going to single-handedly win games like AP is (or was) capable of doing, but his ability to keep the chains moving will be pivotal to the development of Christian Ponder and the passing game. If Gerhart proves incapable of carrying the load in Peterson’s stead, the Vikings have virtually no depth behind him to turn to.
DL/LB Everson Griffen – The former fourth-round pick was viewed as a second-round talent coming out of USC in 2010, and the Vikings thus far have seen both the good (four sacks and frequent quarterback pressure as a part-timer last year) and the bad (a public intoxication arrest in 2011) from Griffen early in his career. The hope is that the off-the-field issues are behind Griffen as he attempts to transition from defensive line to linebacker in 2012. As an undersized edge rusher, Griffen is a bit of a square peg in the round hole of the Vikings’ 4-3 defensive alignment, but the ability to rush the passer will play in any scheme. Griffen has obvious physical talents (he was ranked as the No. 3 "prospect" in the NFL in a recent article by Football Outsiders), and if he continues where he left off in 2011 he could become a deadly counterpart to Jared Allen. Harrassing the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Jay Cutler is obviously of paramount importance in the NFC North, so getting a productive Griffen on the field will be a key challenge for the Vikings defensive coaching staff. Griffen has the makings of a star, but there are still a lot of questions to answer.
TE John Carlson – For distinctly different reason from Chris Cook, Carlson has a lot to prove in 2012 as well. The oft-injured tight end’s pressure to perform comes solely as a result of the jaw-dropping five-year, $25 million free agent contract he landed from the Purple at the start of free agency. The addition of Carlson was surprising not only because of the size of the contract, but because of the presence of second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph, who was expected to be one of Christian Ponder’s top targets after it became clear the Vikings wouldn’t re-sign free agent Visanthe Shiancoe. Carlson, who missed all of 2011 with a shoulder injury, must prove that he still possesses the pass-catching acumen he did while racking up 12 touchdowns in 2008 and 2009 in Seattle. His arrival means the team will roll out plenty of two-tight end sets, and they likely have grand visions of a New England-type offense that features two elite pass-catching tight ends, a dominant slot receiver, and just enough outside receivers to keep a team honest. It’s ludicrous to suggest that Ponder, Carlson, Rudolph, and Percy Harvin can even approximate the well-oiled machine run by Tom Brady in New England, but it certainly appears that’s the model. If Carlson gets hurt or if offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave proves incapable of using his assets efficiently and effectively, the natives are going to get extremely restless.
QB Christian Ponder – Ponder may be the most obvious name on this list, but he’s worth discussing. Even if it turns out the front office nailed every draft pick and every offseason acquisition (and, frankly, even if the other nine names on this list all go boom in 2012), none of it will matter if Ponder can’t take significant strides forward in 2012. While he brought some excitement and displayed moments of brilliance in 2011, there were plenty of rookie mistakes and, of course, plenty of nagging injuries. Assuming Ponder stays healthy, Vikings fans need to hope he learned from his mistakes last year, that his grasp of the offense will improve after a full offseason program, and that the efforts to upgrade the offensive talent around him will bear fruit. The Vikings will undoubtedly be happy if Ponder simply shows modest improvement over 2011 and at least limits his mistakes, but will that be enough for an impatient fan base that’s been rejuvenated by the new stadium? Will it be Ponder under center when the new stadium opens in 2016? If he treads water or regresses in 2012, will the team have to move on to Plan B already next year? Will Leslie Frazier be around to find out? Will Rick Spielman? Failure to develop a first-round investment in a quarterback can set a franchise back for years. No pressure, though, Christian!
How will we look back on the Vikings' 2012 draft? The Purple could reap a harvest of multiple Pro Bowlers, consistent starters and quality reserves, as they did in 2007 and 2003. They could bring aboard a heap of busts that would make the 2005 draft look decent by comparison. Or they could land somewhere in the middle.
Let's take a look at their last 10 drafts to see how each group of rookies stack up. For the purposes of our discussion, we've sorted the picks into the following categories:
Pro Bowlers: Actually selected to the Pro Bowl roster, not named as a replacement for an injured player or a Super Bowl participant
Starters: Have started at least eight games in a season, either for the Vikings or another team
Reserves: Made the Vikings' roster but did not start at least half of a season
Never made the roster: They might have played for somebody else, but they never made the Vikings' 53-man team.
And away we go …
Pro Bowlers: None
Starters: Christian Ponder (1), Kyle Rudolph (2)
Reserves: Christian Ballard (4), Brandon Burton (5), DeMarcus Love (6), Mistral Raymond (6), Brandon Fusco (6), D'Aundre Reed (7), Stephen Burton (7)
Never made the roster: Ross Homan (6)
Pro Bowlers: None
Reserves: Chris Cook (2), Toby Gerhart (2), Everson Griffen (4), Chris DeGeare (5), Joe Webb (6), Mickey Shuler (7), Ryan D'Imperio (7)
Never made the roster: Nate Triplett (5)
Pro Bowlers: Percy Harvin (1)
Starters: Phil Loadholt (2), Asher Allen (3), Jamarca Sanford (7)
Reserves: Jasper Brinkley (5)
Never made the roster: None
Pro Bowlers: None
Starters: Tyrell Johnson (2), John Sullivan (6)
Reserves: J.D. Booty (5), Letroy Guion (5), Jaymar Johnson (6)
Never made the roster: None
Pro Bowlers: Adrian Peterson (1), Sidney Rice (2)
Starters: Marcus McCauley (3), Brian Robison (4)
Reserves: Aundrae Allison (5), Rufus Alexander (6)
Never made the roster: Tyler Thigpen (7), Chandler Williams (7)
Pro Bowlers: None
Starters: Chad Greenway (1), Cedric Griffin (2), Ryan Cook (2), Tarvaris Jackson (2), Ray Edwards (4)
Reserves: Greg Blue (5)
Never made the roster: Tyrone Culver (6)
Pro Bowlers: None
Starters: Troy Williamson (1), Erasmus James (1), Marcus Johnson (2)
Reserves: Ciatrick Fason (4), C.J. Mosley (6)
Never made the roster: Dustin Fox (3), Adrian Ward (7)
Pro Bowlers: None
Starters: Kenechi Udeze (1), Darrion Scott (3), Mewelde Moore (4)
Reserves: Dontarrious Thomas (2), Nat Dorsey (4), Rod Davis (5), Jeff Dugan (7)
Never made the roster: Deandre' Eiland (6)
Pro Bowlers: Kevin Williams (1), E.J. Henderson (2)
Starters: Nate Burleson (3), Eddie Johnson (6)
Reserves: Onterrio Smith (4), Mike Nattiel (6), Keenan Howry (7)
Never made the roster: None
Pro Bowlers: Bryant McKinnie (1)
Starters: Brian Williams (4), Nick Rogers (6)
Reserves: Raonall Smith (2), Willie Offord (3)
Never made the roster: Edward Ta'amu (4), Chad Beasley (7)
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