The Minnesota Vikings filled two of the most glaring holes in their starting lineup within a span of three hours Thursday night, selecting USC left tackle Matt Kalil and Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith with a pair of first-round selections.
As company spokesmen, general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier have done a nice job of drumming up interest among possible suitors for the third overall pick in this year's NFL Draft. By publicly declaring the Vikings' interest in left tackle Matt Kalil, cornerback Morris Claiborne, and wide receiver Justin Blackmon – three top talents at positions of Vikings need – they have turned up the heat on trade talks.
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There is absolutely no guarantee that Chris Cook or Antoine Winfield would have made a lick of difference against the shockingly efficient Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, but the absence of the Vikings’ top two defensive backs exposed just how painfully weak the Vikings’ secondary really is.
Cornerback Cedric Griffin is a mere shell of the player he was prior to blowing out his knee (the first time) in the 2009 NFC Championship game. He’s lost at least one step per ACL surgery (two in total), appears to be completely devoid of confidence, and should no longer be considered a starting-caliber player. Problem is, the Vikings don’t have anybody better.
I can’t think of (or find evidence of) anything that Asher Allen does that’s better than your average street free agent. Safety Husain Abdullah has been the culprit on two separate back-breaking touchdown bombs in the last two weeks alone. The other Week 7 starting safety, Tyrell Johnson, was, until Sunday, playing behind a former seventh-round draft pick who isn’t very good either (Jamarca Sanford).
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the porous secondary is that the Vikings have attempted to address the situation via the NFL Draft repeatedly. They just haven’t done a very good job.
Dating back to 2006 (Griffin in Round 2), the Vikings have burned five picks within the first three rounds on defensive backs.
Tough to blame anything but bad luck on Griffin, who was developing into both a sound tackler and an excellent cover corner just before the fateful overtime kickoff in the 2009 title game on which he blew out his knee for the first time.
But after that, it gets ugly. Third-rounder Marcus McCauley (2007) started nine games in his rookie season before being benched and then released after the 2008 season, then playing in one game for the Lions in 2009 before his brief career came to a merciful end.
In 2008, Tyrell Johnson was chosen in Round 2. Johnson started seven games in his rookie season and 15 games in 2009 before being benched in favor of mega-bust Madieu Williams and the undrafted Abdullah in 2010 and losing a training camp battle to Sanford this year. For the record, Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades Abdullah as the 74th-“best” safety in the NFL (out of 90 that have earned a grade by PFF’s game charters) this year in terms of pass coverage. Sanford (82nd) and Johnson (85th) are even worse.
Allen, a third-rounder in 2009, was burned repeatedly when forced into action in the place of an incarcerated Cook on Sunday. According to PFF, Rodgers threw Allen’s way 10 times, completing nine of them for 108 yards. Of the 98 cornerbacks that have been ranked by PFF this season, only five have graded out worse than Allen in pass coverage.
Which brings us to Cook, the 2010 second-rounder (after trading out of Round 1) who has garnered attention far more for his off-the-field antics than anything he’s done on it. In fairness to Cook, he’s actually been playing very well this season. He’s been used to shadow elite receivers from Vincent Jackson to Calvin Johnson and held up remarkably well. According to Pro Football Focus, Cook has allowed 60% of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed, but he’s done a very good job limiting the damage to just 187 total yards and one touchdown in just over four games.
Then again, judging character is just as important as judging skill, and the early returns indicate that the team may not be able to depend on Cook, no matter how well he plays when he's in uniform, in the short or long-term.
The absence of Winfield really can’t be overstated here. He’s been PFF’s No. 1-ranked cornerback twice in the last four years (and hasn’t dropped out of the top 12 in the same span), and despite getting older and becoming increasingly injury-prone, the secondary is completely different when he’s not on the field.
With a healthy Winfield and an unjailed Cook, things wouldn’t look quite so dire, but the safety situation is nothing short of disastrous, and both the unbearable lack of talent at safety and the lack of depth at cornerback is directly traceable to the inability of the front office to land NFL-caliber starters in the draft, despite using high picks in an attempt to do so.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and is a contributor to Vikings.com, the 2011 Maple Street Press Vikings Annual, and the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday Mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.
I’m sure the Vikings can see what everyone else can see. They aren’t going to make the playoffs this year. There are too many holes on the roster – from defensive back to the offensive line to the obvious problem at quarterback – and at 0-4 with two 4-0 teams in the same division, the season is effectively over.
You can’t possibly expect the coach or organization to admit that, though, which is exactly what they’d be doing by inserting Christian Ponder over Donovan McNabb right now. No rational organization would send such a signal after just four games, no matter how deflating the four losses have been. The only way a team can pull that off is by admitting that they’re rebuilding right from the start. Had the Vikings opted not to acquire McNabb and instead said right from the get-go that they were going to sacrifice the season in favor of developing Ponder for the future, that’s something you can at least attempt to sell to the public.
Once the Vikes brought in McNabb and trotted him out as the starter in Week 1, they were declaring their intentions. They weren’t the Bengals or the Panthers – teams that could afford to start their own rookie quarterbacks coming off of a long history of futility (not to mention, it’s a different story if you’re Carolina and your rookie quarterback is the No. 1 overall pick in the draft). They weren’t even the Jaguars, who announced their intentions loud and clear when they canned veteran signal-caller David Garrard on the eve of the season with the obvious intention of playing rookie Blaine Gabbert sooner rather than later.
The fans in Cincy and Jacksonville are used to losing. They’re ready to be sold on the future, even if it means there’s no hope for this year. The Bengals can be excited (well, not that excited, but we’ll get to that in a bit) about watching Andy Dalton and A.J. Green with no expectations other than seeing some sign that there’s hope for the future.
But the Vikings are only one full season removed from the NFC Championship game. It’s a lot tougher to sell a rebuilding effort when you were on the cusp of the Super Bowl less than two calendar years ago. Or when you’re paying millions of dollars to a couple of high-priced defensive stars (Jared Allen and Kevin Williams) in the prime of their careers. Or when you’re trying to sign two of your young building blocks (Chad Greenway and Adrian Peterson) to mega-contracts before they walk away to less purple pastures. And if you can’t sell a rebuilding effort to your own locker room, it’s an even tougher sell to the fans. This wasn’t a rebuilding year to the tens of thousands of season ticket holders who renewed their seats after last year’s wasted season. It wasn’t a rebuilding year the day single-game tickets went on sale. It wasn’t even a rebuilding year the day they picked Ponder in the first round of the NFL Draft.
And it’s not a rebuilding year now, either. Not publicly. Just four games in, the Vikes just aren’t at a point where they can admit their mistake and look to 2012. Not yet. Not when there are tickets to sell for the next home game. Just ask Leslie Frazier. Or, ask the Bengals. Bengals fans in the immediate Cincinnati area are so excited about the “hope” being sold by Dalton and Green that they haven’t seen their squad play on TV since the middle of last year. Turns out, hope is a tough sell, as they’ve now failed to sell out their last six consecutive home games.
As of last Tuesday, the Vikings were 6,500 seats shy of a sellout for this week’s game. I get the sense the insertion of Ponder would actually be a short-term boost from a PR perspective, even if it’s a long-term hit when the team inevitably continues to lose. A cynic might say the Vikings must be close to selling out this week’s game already and that they don’t need the Ponder PR boost this week. Perhaps the team is keeping that bullet in the chamber with the expectation that they'll need it in mid-November, the next time they’ll be in danger of a home non-sellout (the only home game between Arizona and November 20 against the Raiders is the always-sold-out Packers on October 23).
And who knows, perhaps by November 20 the McNabb-led squad will have engineered an unlikely about-face with four consecutive wins over the Cardinals at home, the Bears on the road, Green Bay at home, and Carolina on the road. Actually, nevermind. But even so, November 20 is still the next-most likely date for Ponder’s unveiling. Even at 0-5, you wouldn’t throw him to the wolves at Chicago next week or at home against the Packers the week after that (remember, cynics, you don't need to sell tickets to that game). October 30 at Carolina is a possibility, but the Week 9 bye sure would be handy from a preparatory standpoint to start giving Ponder first-team reps in practice. And asking a rookie to debut on Monday night on the road against the Super Bowl champs in Week 11 is just asking for disaster.
That brings us to November 20, at home against the Raiders. Realistically, at that point the Vikings are 2-7, maybe 3-6 if they catch a few breaks, and with very little chance of selling out against an annually non-contending AFC team. And then, with hope undeniably lost for 2011, it will be time to start selling hope in the future.
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