VikesCentric is written by Twin Cities football writers Bo Mitchell of SportsData, Arif Hasan of Vikings Territory, Aj Mansour, who hosts Minnesota Vikings Overtime on KFAN, and Joe Oberle a long-time Minnesota based writer. The VikesCentric crew crunches numbers, watches video and isn't shy about saying what's on their minds.

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VikesCentric: Ponder deserves some, but not all of the blame

Posted by: Updated: October 3, 2014 - 6:03 AM

That the Vikings fell down 32 points is not just a referendum on Christian Ponder as a quarterback, as he would have you believe, but an issue with the entire team.



Offense

Naturally, the play of Christian Ponder is the first thing to point to. Though early on he had one or two moments where he's looked like a starting-caliber quarterback, his accuracy has been terrible throughout the game. Perhaps not to blame for the first interception (Luther Robinson, newly signed by the Packers, came through the line and hit his arm), the second interception was a terrible misread.

If there was much question about the issue of Bill Musgrave causing Ponder's struggles, perhaps this game can put that to rest. Ponder’s accuracy is well represented by his 50 percent completion rate, and though drops are not entirely his fault, the bad ball placement always increases the likelihood of those plays.

That said, against the Packers’ second-string defense, Ponder looked much sharper, especially on his last two drives. That doesn’t mean much, but it would be incomplete to ignore it. Ponder had more time on these throws, but he also had some plays where he escaped pressure smartly and made the play.

Of course, Ponder was still terrible. Let’s not get away from that. Averaging 5.0 yards per attempt when excluding sacks, touchdowns and interceptions (and 1.96 adjusted net yards per attempt when taking those into account).

It's difficult to really evaluate the wide receivers, as Greg JenningsJarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson have streaked open without targets. Patterson has had more issues than Wright or Jennings in getting open, but there's definitely a legitimate concern about the Vikings working away from "manufacturing" his touches—even if he can't do as good a job getting open on traditional pass plays, the Vikings need a spark and aren't getting one with the traditional offense.

Jarius Wright did drop one of the few excellent passes from Ponder, but for the most part has had done well with what he's been asked to do—he can't control his targets.

Jennings had six targets and only two receptions, something he and Ponder can both share blame for. Jennings didn’t look particularly interested in the game, but Ponder wasn’t doing him many favors with ball placement. There’s a good question over how many of those balls were truly catchable.

Interestingly, after the game was well and done, Adam Thielen had a good game and made the most of his targets. He wasn't asked to do anything extraordinary, but had consistently good play on his targets. Whether or not he was open because of the plays and defensive calls is to be determined later, but for now it's an encouraging outing.

Charles Johnson even got a few plays, though should have done more with a great deep ball late in the game. His other play was not executed with a high degree of skill, though Johnson is graded on a curve because of his late arrival to the team. That curve in mind, he still should have done better, but at least he ended with a reception.

Chase Ford has looked good at tight end, and so has Rhett Ellison, with Ellison providing some additional support in the running game. Though Ellison hasn’t been as good of a run-blocker this year as he has been in the past two years, nothing stood out in this game as particularly bad or good. For a blocker, that’s fine. Ford ended up grabbing some late conversions and can move the ball; he’s certainly looking like more than a standard undrafted free agent, and if MarQueis Gray develops as the season goes on (and he had a nice catch late in the game), the Vikings may be in an interesting spot in regards to their tight end depth chart next season.

As runners, Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon have been somewhat disappointing, but Asiata's fumble was his only real issue; his success rate as a runner tonight has been fairly astonishing in all honesty. He grabbed good yards when the blocking was sustained for him and people may be surprised to learn he finished with 4.8 yards a carry. His blocking was on-point for most of the game, but he had some big mistakes there, including a penalty, in a short succession of plays before being pulled out.

McKinnon, though not entirely at fault for his poor targets, needs to make the most of his ability in the open field. He hasn't pushed with the explosion he's flashed in other games and the offseason and is limiting his opportunities. Further, his runback on the Peppers interception was a little baffling. McKinnon’s vision is fine, as is his patience—he simply didn’t flash the burst he’s known to have.

It may be easy to forget the contributions of players like Jerome Felton and though I admit I wasn’t watching for him on many plays, the ones I did see were excellent. He’s a solid blocker that has left his average 2012 behind him. Where earlier, there was questions about Felton’s role on the squad because of Ellison’s proficiency there, Felton is proving his worth on the team and is showing up as a better lead blocker.

The offensive line has been a mess, and though Ponder can't be blamed for the majority of the pressure he's received, though with more open rushers, he may be somewhat responsible for the free blitzers or extra pressures by calling poor protections.

On the other hand, Phil Loadholt should not be excused for his poor play on the day. Not only did he give up a number of pressures and play on his heels for much of the game (against a number of different rushers, including Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal), his added penalties didn’t help. Loadholt had been playing well in the previous two years, but he hasn’t looked like it in the past two games. He’ll need to find that form again.

On the other side of the line, Matt Kalil had a very up-and-down game, starting off with an excellent stretch of play to be followed by several more breakdowns in the middle of the game that gave rise to some of the questions he was attempting to stave off with his solid effort in the last game.

Kalil finished the game off fine, but that middle stretch of play is still enough to drive serious concerns, because there were some pretty big mistakes. That the end of the game was against backups may be relevant.

The interior of the line is difficult to evaluate in particular because of questions regarding the protection call—which head coach Mike Zimmer reinforced in the presser after the game by pointing out how involved the quarterback is in protection—where free rushers seemed more common than usual. Regardless, it looked like Charlie Johnson didn’t play with awareness—one of his strong points despite his maligned career.

It was difficult to tell if John Sullivan was at fault for the protection breakdowns, but he is likely not blameless, particularly with so much interior pressure. Christian Ponder was hit 16 times in the game, much of it up the middle. The only particular pressure I identified that was a result of a slipped block from Sullivan was an early Letroy Guion pressure (embarrassing), but it’s difficult to believe that it didn’t happen more often, given how many times Mike Daniels, Mike Neal and AJ Hawk were seen in the back field. On the other hand, it doesn’t look like Sullivan lost any ground as a road grader.

There was some dispositively poor play from Vlad Ducasse, but it wasn’t as clear as it was for Loadholt, who was likely the worst offensive lineman. Ducasse definitely didn’t sustain as many clear blocks. For as many issues Charlie Johnson had, Johnson at least looked like a better run blocker (with his own gaffes), while Ducasse seemed mixed at best in the same skill.



Defense

The defense was certainly up-and-down compared to the consistently anemic offense. Though Aaron Rodgers averaged 9.2 yards an attempt (10.6 adjusted net yards per attempt), there were good moments from the passing defense, including some highlight plays from Xavier Rhodes and consistently good play from Josh Robinson.

Though Rhodes has been out of position at times, he’s the kind of player that can make up for it if given the opportunity and did so against Nelson, though the ball was uncharacteristically underthrown from Rodgers. Despite some issues at the beginning of the game, Rhodes was able to finish well. Josh Robinson had a generally very good day, and though he drew a critical pass interference penalty, it was probably a good play and unfairly called. In the future, I imagine the Vikings coaches will ask him to play the same play similarly.

Captain Munnerlyn looked out of sorts in coverage, though wasn’t a bad run defender. Unfortunately, that’s not where his priorities should lie, and the touchdown Randall Cobb grabbed against him reminded Vikings fans of the Julian Edelman touchdown just weeks ago. Munnerlyn’s consistent issues in coverage need to be a talking point in the coaches’ meeting rooms, because it certainly is one outside of them. He hasn’t had a good game yet, and quite a few bad ones.

Jabari Price entered in for a few snaps with Xavier Rhodes out and played well for what it’s worth.

Behind them were Anthony Barr and Gerald Hodges, and though both had some good plays of note (more Barr than Hodges), they largely had some issues. Barr’s can be excused and don’t be surprised if he ends up positively graded by the Vikings and Pro Football Focus, with some great work in the run game, against a screen and looping for quick pressure. He also had some issues finishing tackles and staying disciplined.

Though the bigger issue with gap discipline was from Hodges, who was out of his gap for at least one play and potentially another on the two biggest Eddie Lacy runs. Beyond that, he too missed several tackles and took a poor angles on at least one run. He couldn’t get off of his blocks quickly enough. On the defensive side of the ball, there’s a good argument to be had that Hodges had the worst game of anybody, including Munnerlyn and Blanton.

If the question is about Eddie Lacy runs, the finger may more easily point to Robert Blanton, whose angles and tackling have been an issue for some time, and his coverage has not made up for this fact. In this game, the standout Eddie Lacy tackle has excited national media about Lacy’s ability to power in runs, but just reminds Vikings fans of the poor strength and technique Blanton plays with.

He’s been blown out of plays, dragged by runners and pushed off the ballcarrier. He doesn’t play with awareness of other defenders and diminishes the strength of swarm tackling by playing without discipline. There’s also a question about his role in the Nelson touchdown that turned Harrison Smith around, though it seems likely the call was on both Munnerlyn and Smith to stop.

And though Smith should have had more help than he did, he’s not blameless in the touchdown dime to Nelson from Rodgers. Smith bit on the play action, then played flat-footed against one of the better receivers in the NFL. Luckily, Harrison made up for it after that (though before that he did have a bad missed tackle), even before the Packers decided to play the backups. Once again, Smith was called up on in a variety of roles, including as a pass-rusher, man coverage defender (though not as often), strong safety and free safety, and in particular showed up in the run as the force player and had a well-timed interception, even if it was of Matt Flynn.

Up front, backups like Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen outperformed starters Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd. Johnson didn’t just have the best presence in the run game with some key tackles, he brought pressure through the A and B gaps, as well as complicated blocking schemes. He caused issues for center Corey Linsley, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and even guards T.J. Lang Josh Sitton at times. Though Stephen didn’t do anything of particular note, he also didn’t give up the bigger gains that Joseph did, though Joseph had two legitimately good opportunities early on that he couldn’t close for reasons that weren’t his fault, but were borderline penalties (though a good ref wouldn’t call either of them).

Floyd saw his gap gashed in the run game at times and couldn’t produce positive plays to balance his play, and his ability to put pressure on the quarterback is questionable at best at this moment in his career. Though Floyd finished with a sack, it was the result of pressure from Harrison Smith, Gerald Hodges and Brian Robison.

With them were the defensive ends who couldn’t get much done. Everson Griffen sandwiched his best play of the night with two offsides calls, and those will overshadow any pressure he got (minimal, honestly) otherwise. Brian Robison was better about pressure but had several plays with very poor run defense, either pushed out of a play or left leaping for a missed tackle.

Despite individual issues from the majority of the defense, there's a good argument that the defense as a whole played better than advertised. Naturally, the Packers scored many points, but when accounting for field position, things don't look entirely awful.

A field-adjusted metric like Drive Success Rate—which measures how often a defense gives up first downs per opportunity—marks the play as a general success, by keeping the Packers to conversion on 70% of opportunities when Rodgers, not Flynn, had the ball (for context, if a team did that the whole year, they would generally rank as the 20th-best in the NFL).

On the other hand, the Packers scored 35 offensive points, when their field position would dictate an expected points outcome of 21 total points with Rodgers on the field (an average offense against an average defense), meaning that the Vikings defense were two scores worse than an average team in the same situation.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. The Vikings, for the most part, played with a decent rate of success (there were more plays that were defensive successes than you may recall—the Packers punted on five of their ten non-Flynn drives and were two of seven on third down with Rodgers playing).

But the high success rate was counter-balanced by the sheer magnitude of the failures. If the failures were as impactful as the successes, the Vikings would have kept the game close, but the failures were so big that the Packers were able to put points on the board.

All around, it was a poor showing by the Vikings on offense and defense, and the abysmal special teams play of Jeff Locke shouldn’t be ignored either. Marcus Sherels was also confusing, as he fielded punts he should have let go, and let go of punts he should have fielded. The problem started with Christian Ponder, but it definitely did not end with him.

There should be no question that a lot of the sloppiness of the game can be attributed to the fact that it was a Thursday Night Football game on wet grass, but the Packers dealt with the same conditions and did better. Whether or not the team played sluggishly because they “didn’t have confidence in Christian Ponder,” or because they were left with low preparation time, the individual duties they were asked to perform were executed poorly, even from some of their best players.

Head on over to VikingsJournal.com for a look at some where to go from here and a retrospective of the Vikings' evidently improved third down defense.

Arif Hasan is the editor-in-chief at VikingsTerritorya senior writer at VikingsJournal.com,and co-host of the Norse Code Podcast.

You can follow Arif on Twitter at @ArifHasanNFL

VikesCentric: Minnesota Vikings fall short in all three phases against Patriots

Posted by: Updated: September 15, 2014 - 4:48 PM

The Vikings finished out one of the most depressing weekends in recent franchise history with an embarrassing showing against a New England Patriots team that looked as good this week as the Vikings did last week.

It’s difficult to properly characterize the game, but there were failure in all three phases of the game. While it might be intuitive to argue that the defense was not as bad as their field positioning made them, it’s important not to overcorrect and recognize how, after the first quarter, New England was extremely efficient at moving the ball.



Offense

On offense, Minnesota had a promising first drive that was washed away almost entirely by the subsequent drives, plagued by turnovers and bad decisionmaking.

Like most offenses, it starts and stops with the quarterback. While not having Adrian Peterson may be a blow, Cassel’s inclination to hold on to the ball for too long, lock on to receivers or make bad decisions isn’t because of Peterson. While it may be the case that Peterson affects coverage—an effect that is likely overstated—31 other teams don’t have Peterson and their quarterbacks do not tend to throw four interceptions.

It may be pedantic to point out that not every interception was his fault—indeed, he shared blame with Asiata and Jennings for two of his interceptions—it would be missing the point to emphasize the nuances. Cassel had little feel for the pocket, missed open receivers and was effectively blistered by New England’s different defensive looks.

As for the running backs, the Vikings couldn’t get much done on the ground. The Vikings’ longest run was 13 yards, picked up not on a designed run, but a Cassel scramble. The second-longest was a seven-yard direct snap to Matt Asiata, more the function of a trick play than genuine running ability.

This isn’t as much because of the offensive line or blocking as it is the talent of Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon. Because McKinnon didn’t get much play, most of the offensive running woes can be lain at the feet of Asiata, who averaged only 2.8 yards a carry. His vision and decisionmaking at the line was good, but there were more than a few times that his limited burst really hurt him, especially on runs to the outside.

On the other hand, Asiata is excellent in the passing game, both as a pass-catcher and as a pass blocker. While Asiata doesn’t have an extraordinary skills resume when it comes to route running and so on, he has very good hands and can move around in zones to find open spaces.

As for the offensive line itself, there was not much interior pressure given up by Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan or Brandon Fusco, though all three could have done more to create better alleys in the running game, largely putting together an average run blocking night. Penalties on Sullivan and Fusco could make Johnson the better look lineman of the three, although they ran behind Johnson less than they did the other two.

On the outside, Matt Kalil was abysmal. Giving up several sacks and pressure, Kalil had perhaps the worst game of his career. Typically not a sustained worry if a tackle happens to have a bad game, this continues the trend of subpar play since his rookie year, which is increasingly long ago. He perhaps put in the worst performance of the day.

On the other side of the line, Phil Loadholt had some good stretches of play, punctuated with occasional lapses, both as a pass protector and run blocker. Though this is how you would characterize most average offensive linemen, it’s significant to point out that his highs were higher than most offensive tackles.

The receivers were not a lot of help. Greg Jennings is a very, very good receiver, but he’s not good enough to consistently beat Darrelle Revis, who’s cobbling together his resume to resurge as the league’s best cornerback. With Revis on Jennings almost all night, there wasn’t much Jennings could do to get open. The interception Revis grabbed was in part due to Jennings pulling up mid-route, too.

Cordarrelle Patterson had his share of wins and losses in the passing game, losing out against Logan Ryan twice after a good gain for a first down against the very same. He had a spectacular run after catch, as he’s due to have at least one a game, but his impact was largely marginal and that in part has to do with the fact that he still has a lot of trouble with receiver fundamentals.

Jarius Wright, aside from a baffling run near the beginning of the game, was alright, but still had a lot of mistakes. He was certainly open far more than he was targeted, but his targets did not produce particularly rich outcomes.

Kyle Rudolph started out with a fantastic game, but three drops (though I imagine that total will be different for different people, given how involved defenders were on some of them) and though I have consistently argued that Rudolph’s hands are more inconsistent than he’s given credit for (his drop rate is league average; he makes up for his spectacular catches with routine drops at times), this was extremely uncharacteristic for him, and he even seemed rattled.

Both Rudolph and Ellison had good games as blockers as far as I could tell. Marqueis Gray received a few snaps, but not enough to really evaluate.



Defense

The defense will be penalized in the box score more than is fair, but that doesn’t mean they did well. ESPN 1500's Andrew Krammer did do a good job, however, of contextualizing the importance that field positions and turnovers played by pointing out the Vikings only gave up six points on drives started by punts or the kickoff, and gave up 24 points on drives from turnovers.

Still, field position is interdependent, and the defense giving up bad field position to the offense will lead to a bad field position on the following drive for the defense. In this case, the defense, outside of the first quarter, was particularly scary. Tom Brady ended with a passer rating of 102.3, and an adjusted net yards per attempt of 7.0. Compared to his former backup, Matt Cassel, the difference is stark (39.1, 0.1). For context, the league average last year was 5.9.

Despite abysmal play by the interior offensive line last week from the Patriots, the Vikings couldn’t find ways to create pressure with their front four. Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph were both quiet in the game, and it wasn’t until Tom Johnson arrived that interior pressure manifested itself, not just with a sack but with pressure. Linval Joseph couldn’t get off his blocks as quickly as he did last week and Floyd was quiet.

On the edge, both Robison and Griffen let high-profile edge runs get by them, though Robison in general was the better of the two—he produced more pressure and needed to be manipulated more by his opposing tackle than Griffen, who had not just a bad game against the run, but a silent game against the pass, with very few pressures if any at all.

Chad Greenway had a good game. Aside from a high-profile pass deflection, he racked up smart play and generally solid tackles (though again it would behoove analysts not to simply count up his tackles as a few were downfield). With a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss, Greenway’s all-around game was better than his peers around him.

Jasper Brinkley didn’t take too many snaps after the first drives, but still played very well against the run without having to worry too much about being targeted in the passing game. Anthony Barr on the other hand, had a much worse game, especially early on. The Patriots were finding ways to target him by either scheming receivers into his zone or willing to gamble that Gronkowski was the better player than him with the ball in the air. The Patriots were often right.

When Gerald Hodges entered, he couldn’t do as much as his specialty would demand in terms of making sure that players like Gronkowski were obviated from the game.

In the secondary, things were a bit more iffy. On the positive side of things, Josh Robinson and Harrison Smith clearly had very good games, with Robinson virtually absent of targets while Harrison Smith only looked questionable when in man coverage against Edelman in the slot. Harrison did a very good job against the run, with two highlight stops and eight overall tackles. He was difficult to run against.

Robert Blanton was better than worse, and performed a myriad of roles well, bracketing Gronkowski at times, while at other times carrying individual receivers. He was a pass-rusher, deep safety and in-the-box defender, depending on the play, and performed well enough if not spectacularly.

On the other hand, corners Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn were liabilities. Munnerlyn gave up a few receptions, spotlighted by a touchdown, and had some issues working off the edge to make a presence in the run game. Rhodes had more problems in pass coverage, and though at least one of his three penalties was perhaps poorly called, there’s no question that the aggregate of the play was dismal.

Aside from being massively out of position or playing with surprisingly poor recovery speed, he missed tackles and allowed some fairly large gains on the ground for receivers.

All in all, the good defensive players could not make up for the anemic performance from the rest of the corps, and despite the fact that the Patriots scored almost entirely off of turnovers, it would be wrong to call that acceptable play from the defense.


Special Teams

While it normally is a rather perfunctory note, special teams played a big role in the Vikings loss, with a few of Jeff Locke's punts, a 57-yard boomer aside, causing issues in the field position battle. With that, Ellison (my bad, it was Matt Kalil, which is appropriate)—despite his good blocking in plays from scrimmage—was the one who gave up Jones' unreal block, scoop and score on the field goal try. In one punt return attempt, the Vikings only had nine men on the field.

It was a disaster.

Check out VikingsJournal.com for a discussion on the broader impact of Adrian Peterson's case, read On Nausea and Outrage, and for how the Vikings should respond, Where Do We Go From Here?

Arif Hasan is the editor-in-chief of Vikings Territory, and host of the Norse Code Podcast at the Daily Norseman.

VikesCentric: Receiver Wallace would be great fit

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: March 6, 2013 - 11:12 PM

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.

 
On top of that "most wanted" list at wide receiver is Mike Wallace, the soon-to-be-former Pittsburgh Steelers speedster who will begin fielding phone calls from several teams starting at approximately 3:01 p.m. on Tuesday.
 
Fans of the purple have been eyeballing Wallace for months -- ever since it became apparent the Steelers would let him walk in free agency. Those dreams got a little shot in the arm on Wednesday when Jeff Darlington of NFL.com and the NFL Network mentioned in an online article that the Vikings are an expected suitor of Wallace. Of course, Wallace has been ranked by many as the top available free agent at any position so the Vikings will hardly be alone in their pursuit should they actually choose to make a run at him. Indeed, Darlington's article in which he mentioned the Vikings' interest (in passing toward the end) was primarily about how the receiver-starved Miami Dolphins have Wallace in their crosshairs.
 
It doesn't take much for a morsel of speculation like "the Dolphins anticipate competing with the Minnesota Vikings in bidding for Wallace's services," (as Darlington wrote) to spread like wildfire online. NBC's ProFootballTalk.com picked up the rumor and ran an article on it. The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero piled on, labeling the Vikings as a "significant threat" to land Wallace. Vikings fans were bantering about it on Twitter and Facebook all day.
 
Before placing your order for a Vikings jersey with Wallace's name on the back, however, take a deep breath.
 
The Dolphins are estimated to have about $36.5 million in salary cap space available. The Vikings reportedly have around $15-18 million. Advantage: Dolphins.
 
Moreover, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman isn't keen on spending big in free agency. He didn't last year and has stated ever since that his preferred model is to build through the draft rather than free agency. Could he be blowing smoke as GMs are wont to do this time of year? Sure. Do I think he's blowing smoke? Not really. I'm guessing the Vikings' initial priority will be re-signing right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton.
 
Listen, I completely agree that Wallace would make sense for the Vikings. Only one team threw for fewer yards than the Vikings did last year and only one team averaged fewer yards per pass attempt (6.1). Wallace has averaged 20 yards per reception over the last two seasons. He's a field-stretcher, a burner, a guy who can blow the top off a defense – a perfect complement to a productive running game.
 
Some would point out – and already have – that Wallace wouldn't be a great fit because Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder can't throw the deep ball. I'm not sure we know that yet. He hasn't exactly had too many opportunities to showcase his deep ball acumen since he's been in Minnesota. I'm confident he's no Aaron Rodgers when it comes to throwing bombs, but let's give Ponder at least one downfield weapon that can gain separation before we declare a verdict on his deep-ball abilities.
 
Will said weapon be Wallace? I doubt it. There will be several other teams throwing offers his way. Other than the Dolphins, the Colts, Seahawks, Texans, Titans, Patriots, Bengals and Browns are just a few of the teams rumored to be lining up to shove money at him.
 
And we're talking a lot of money here.
 
The Chiefs just signed Dwayne Bowe, who turns 29 in September, for $56 million over five years. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed 30-year-old Vincent Jackson to a five-year, $55.6 million deal last offseason. Wallace, who will be just 27 in August, will get paid more than both of them.
 
 
Bo Mitchell is the VP of Content at SportsData
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

VikesCentric: NFL's March madness set to begin

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: February 28, 2013 - 3:39 PM

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:

 
Cris Carter made the Hall of Fame. Finally. Only seven players have ever scored more touchdowns and no player ever displayed better hands. On stats and ability alone he should have received his call to the Hall on the first or second ballot. Mick Tinglehoff deserves to be the next Vikings great to gain enshrinement… more on him in a future VikesCentric post.
 
Adrian Peterson was appropriately honored as NFL MVP and then underwent surgery for a sports hernia, adding yet another exclamation point to the absurdity of his accomplishments. It's not too soon to be talking about him as one of the all-time greatest running backs. He's 4,000 yards (two years?) away from cracking the top-eight all-time rushing leaders. Also, let's put a quick end to the Chris Johnson vs. Adrian Peterson talk before it goes any further. NFL Network and other media types have tried in the last 24 hours to stir the pot on that nonsense again, but it needs to stop. My money is on Peterson rushing for 2,500 yards before Johnson ever approaches 2,000 again.
 
Speaking of Peterson, he went on KFAN last month and said he wants Percy Harvin to remain a Viking. Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman have echoed that sentiment. However, it seems Harvin's bipolar relationship with the team might leave them no choice but to deal him away. They should entertain any offers for Percy that come their way. It's a frightening concept for a team so desperately in need of wide receiver help even with Harvin on the roster. However, the Vikings might be better off with the juicy draft picks a Harvin deal could fetch rather than face the likelihood of a holdout as Percy enters the final year of his rookie deal. Harvin is a remarkable talent. But it's pretty clear he's also a malcontent who has no aspirations of playing for Minnesota any longer than he needs to. Call me crazy, but I doubt a franchise tag following the 2013 season would sit well with him.
 
That brings us to March Madness – not the college basketball, office-bracket mania that is about to grip the country. I'm referring to the NFL version of March Madness. The new NFL business year begins March 12. Before then teams have to be under the league's new salary cap. Hence the recent restructured deals for the likes of Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and DeMarcus Ware. There's a chance Jared Allen could do the same and save the Vikes some cap room in 2013.
 
March 12 also marks the beginning of free agency and opens the door for trades to be made. And that's when the fun (a.k.a. "madness") really starts.
 
Vikings fans who thought the team should pursue a trade with the 49ers for quarterback Alex Smith had their dreams crushed Wednesday when it was reported a deal to send Smith to the Chiefs had been agreed upon. Let's face it, this was a purple pipedream. Now that Smith is on his way to Kansas City in a deal that will become official on March 12, it's likely the Chiefs will opt to release Matt Cassel. There's a better chance of the Vikings going after Cassel than there ever was of them being in on the Alex Smith bidding, but I'm not holding my breath. I'm guessing Cassel lands in Arizona. Besides, the Vikings have made it abundantly clear that Christian Ponder is locked in as the starter and any quarterback competition that takes place in Mankato this summer will be for the backup job. That means Joe Webb is probably on the way out. I'm keeping my ear to the ground for any more Matt Flynn rumors. Seattle is going to trade him and they'll probably only get a fourth or fifth-round draft pick in return.
 
Will the Vikings make a run at a free agent wide receiver like Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe or Greg Jennings? Probably not. Spielman is a proponent of building through the draft, not free agency. Thus, I don't expect the Vikings to make a free agency splash. They'll have to pay a lot to hold onto UFA right tackle Phil Loadholt and Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton. Beyond that, Vikings fans shouldn't get their hopes up. Does Steve Breaston do anything for you? How about Devery Henderson?
 
Might the Vikings March Madness have more to do with non-player news? The team picked Mortenson Construction a few weeks ago to build their new stadium and a schematic design is expected in March. The team also tweaked their logo a few weeks ago in what could be a precursor to new uniforms.
 
Could new uniforms be unveiled in concert with the stadium design later this month? Are the new uniforms going to have more of a throwback look than the current design? Will they ever bring back the purple pants for road games on more of a permanent basis? These are important matters and inquiring minds want to know.
 
So I asked the Vikings a few weeks ago about the prospect of new uniforms being announced soon and was told politely told the following by a Vikings spokesperson:
 
"We are continuing to work through some additional exciting changes for the fans, but nothing has been finalized at this point. We’ll have more on that later in the offseason."
 
I don't know about you, but that tells me there's probably something in the hopper on the uniform front. Then again, that might be just wishful thinking.
 
Will the Vikings' version of March Madness be highlighted by stadium and uniform designs? Is Spielman under-playing the team's free agency plans? Vikings fans might want to step away from the copy machine and put down the college hoops brackets long enough to find out.
 
 
 
Bo Mitchell is the VP of Content at SportsData
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

VikesCentric: Assessing the free-agent wide receivers

Posted by: Updated: January 9, 2013 - 9:21 AM

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.)

A-Level Talent
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.

Second Tier
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.

Other Guys
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.

VikesCentric: Postcard from Training Camp

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: July 28, 2012 - 7:28 PM

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.

 
Here are a half-dozen of them in no particular order:
 
Percy Harvin is happy now.

Percy Harvin is happy now.

1. Percy Harvin's first encounter with the media since telling the world in June that he was unhappy and wanted to be traded seemed a little too well-rehearsed. It was as if he had the "I'm happy" speech all queued up. That's fine, but Vikings fans better hope he actually means it and wasn't delivering lip-service. It's hard to shake the memory of how famously Harvin and Randy Moss got along before the Superfreak was run out of town two years ago. Indeed, Moss was said to have had quite an influence on young Mr. Harvin.
 
Let's hope Percy didn't learn the part about moping and "playing when he wants to play." The "Happy Harvin" show needs to continue.
 
2. John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph are going to be the Vikings' version of the Patriots' Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Not that anybody expects them to post similarly ridiculous numbers. Let's be clear on that – that nobody, not me, not Carlson or Rudolph, nor are any coaches, predicting similar success. Not yet anyway. That said, the comparison works in as much as the Vikings will be frequently running a two-tight end offense in which both tight ends are capable pass-catchers and can create mismatches for the defense and such a scheme was popularized by the Patriots last year. Head coach Leslie Frazier characterized it as an "evolution" of the tight end position and how they are used. The Vikings are just keeping up with evolution.
 
Hey, with Harvin playing the role of Wes Welker out of the slot the comparison kind of works. The Vikings just need Christian Ponder to be as proficient as Tom Brady. That's all.
 
3. Speaking of Ponder, he really seems to have a good rapport with Jerome Simpson. Then again, it looks as though Simpson is creating a good rapport with a lot of people. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave can't stop talking about the wideout's downfield "juice." Simpson's game is stretching defenses, but he's really bending over backwards for the fans in Mankato. He gestures toward the stands from the practice field, dances around when waiting on the sideline for the next drill, runs across the street to sign autographs and does push-ups as self-punishment if he drops the occasional pass.
 
He's fun to watch, and I predict he will become a fan favorite provided he stays out of trouble following his three-game suspension to start the season.
 
4. The Vikings made adding secondary depth a point of emphasis this offseason, so much so that on Friday Coach Frazier called their current secondary depth the best it's been since he's been here. That may be considered faint praise given the dearth of safeties and corners they've had in recent years, but it's certainly worth noting. The NFL is a pass-first league and nickel packages are being used a ton.
 
I know I'll be keeping a close eye on rookies Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson, as both will be playing a lot and are expected to emerge as starters sooner rather than later.
 
5. Everson Griffen is a linebacker – not a defensive lineman who sometimes sees snaps at linebacker like he did last year. He's a linebacker…with a defensive lineman's number (97). Coach Frazier wants Griffen to focus on playing linebacker this summer, noting he was their third defensive end but has a chance to be a starter at linebacker and he wants his best 11 defenders on the field. In an effort to get into linebacker mode, Griffen dropped about 18 pounds (down to 258) the last few months to help with his speed and agility – a commitment to the plan that had Frazier raving about him Friday.
 
Griffen's strength and pass-rushing ability are clear, but it will continue to be interesting to see how well he does in coverage. The weight loss should help in that regard.
 
First-round draft pick Matt Kalil.

First-round draft pick Matt Kalil.

6. The Vikings offensive line projects to be much better this year. Moving Charlie Johnson inside to left guard is a better use of his talents. At the other guard spot, Brandon Fusco – you know, the second-year lineman out of Slippery Rock – has the inside track. The prevailing wisdom is that it's his job to lose. Fusco's main competition will come from free agent acquisition Geoff Schwartz, who can play guard or tackle and will provide valuable depth at several positions should Fusco nail down the right guard spot. Musgrave said Saturday that both Fusco and Schwartz would be given first-team reps until a starter is discerned. Center John Sullivan has become a steadying force in the middle and was their best lineman last year. Musgrave raved about right tackle Phil Loadholt on Saturday, calling him a physical presence and team leader. And of course the left tackle spot belongs to big Matt Kalil, the Vikings' first-round draft pick this year. On Friday Kalil looked sleepy, frequently yawning while on the practice field. Then I realized that's just kind of the way he looks. And then I remembered training camp practices are often boring so it's hard to blame anyone for yawning. Don't be fooled by the sleepy façade, Kalil's ferocious power was hard to miss during individual drills.
 
It's easy to forget that it was just a year ago that Bryant McKinnie went from starting left tackle to the waiver wire in one day. Fast forward one year and McKinnie has yet to show up at Ravens camp and is rumored to be out of shape again. Advantage: Vikings.
 
 
Bo Mitchell is the Vice President of Content at SportsData
 
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

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