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!
First, allow myself to explain… myself. This list is not intended to be a list of the 10 best players on the Minnesota Vikings. Everyone knows that Jared Allen is really good, and that he’s going to sack the opposing quarterback roughly once per game. We all understand how good Adrian Peterson is, and that the Vikings offense is infinitely more effective and dynamic when he’s on the field. We know that Antoine Winfield is still one of the best all-around cornerbacks in the NFL when he’s healthy. Obviously, the season will head South in a hurry if Allen stinks, AP isn’t 100%, Winfield gets injured, Matt Kalil goes bust, and Percy Harvin misses time with migraines. So, you won’t see those names on this list. Instead, what you’ll see are the names of the ten players I believe will make or break the Vikings in 2012.
By “make,” let’s assume that the best-case scenario is a playoff berth this year. Barring the unlikely event that every player on this list instantly turns into a Hall of Fame caliber player, the Vikings are a long shot to even make the playoffs, let alone do something crazy like advance to the Super Bowl. So, the playoffs are the upside. “Break” would essentially be the worst-case scenario (i.e. last season). If the Vikings are to make the playoffs, they’ll need their stars to be healthy and productive, and they’ll need huge contributions from the majority of these players. We’ll start with five today in Part I, with the rest to come in Part II.
CB Chris Cook – Cook has more to prove in 2011 than any other Viking, and it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that his ability to stay on the field and out of trouble might be the single most important determinant of the team’s success in 2012. It’s obviously too soon to anoint him as anything other than a talented player with potential, but he was undeniably the team’s best cover corner early last year (this highly recommended article by ESPN’s Kevin Seifert shows how dramatically the team’s pass defense collapsed after Cook left the lineup after Week 6). There were other factors (and other injured players) that contributed to the catastrophic 2011 pass defense, but Cook had already stacked up favorably in man-to-man coverage with Calvin Johnson against the Lions in Week 3 and was starting to develop into the shutdown force the Vikings envisioned when they grabbed him with the second pick of the second round of the 2010 draft. If Cook proves capable of covering the Johnsons, Nelsons, and Marshalls of the NFC North, it will allow the Vikings to more easily compensate for other weaknesses in the secondary.
S Harrison Smith – You don’t need me to tell you how awful the Vikings secondary was last year. The focus fell mainly on a rag-tag bunch of cornerbacks that failed miserably to plug the gaping holes left by an injured Antoine Winfield and a suspended Chris Cook, but the team’s safeties were atrocious. Hussain Abdullah was at least somewhere near average, which is extremely high praise in comparison to Mistral Raymond, Tyrell Johnson, and Jamarca Sanford (the latter of which graded out as literally the worst safety in all of football, according to Pro Football Focus). Smith was brought in to start on Day 1, and his ability to provide some sort of presence in the middle of the field – both as a ball-hawk in the secondary and as a run-stuffer in the box – will help dictate how the Vikings stack up against the high-powered passing attacks of the NFC North.
LB Erin Henderson – If Henderson plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder this year, it won’t be hard to determine why. Coming off a breakout season in 2011 that saw him become an NFL starter for the first time and one of the best outside linebackers in the league (according to Pro Football Focus, Henderson graded out as the fourth-best OLB, third-best against the run), Henderson found himself in the awkward position of not being wanted. He made headlines with a public rant about his belief that the Vikings weren’t offering him what he felt he deserved prior to free agency, but when the Vikes called his bluff and then no other teams stepped up to the plate, he signed a team-friendly one-year deal worth “only” $2 million. It’s a prove-it contract for a young player the league obviously doesn’t quite believe in just yet, and you can bet Henderson is out to prove his 2011 wasn’t a fluke. With his brother E.J. no longer part of the equation, Henderson will be asked to continue his improvement in 2012. With the unproven Jasper Brinkley expected to take over at middle linebacker, it’ll be on Henderson and Chad Greenway to lead this linebacking corps. The team undoubtedly wants Henderson to prove he’s deserving of a more lucrative long-term contract; if he does, the middle of the field will be in good hands.
K Blair Walsh – Let’s be honest; you want Blair Walsh to fail. Yes, you. You hated that the Vikes “wasted” a 6th-round draft pick on a kicker, and you couldn’t believe it when they kicked fan and locker room favorite Ryan Longwell to the curb in favor of a stupid kicker who couldn’t even kick field goals very well during his senior year of college. You’re just waiting for him to miss his first game-losing three-ball as time expires, at which point you’ll take to the message boards to vilify General Manager Rick Spielman for his inability to build an NFL franchise and sing to the heavens that the Vikings would have won that game if Longwell was still their kicker. But what if Walsh doesn’t fail? What if he makes the kicks he’s supposed to? What if he nails a few from 50-plus yards? What if he actually can kick the ball into the end zone and pin the opponents back at their own 20-yard line? What if a defense that can use all the help it can get benefits greatly from an opponent having to drive 80 yards every time instead of 70? What if Spielman was right about Walsh? What if lopping Longwell’s millions off the books allows the Vikings to pursue a higher profile free agent next offseason? What if Spielman’s youth movement starts to pay immediate dividends? Simply because the situation is so intriguing – both on the field and in the front office – Walsh is a key player for the 2012 Vikings.
WR Jerome Simpson – The offseason reports on Simpson have been equal parts meaningless and glowing. Vikings coaches would have us believe they found the steal of the century in Simpson, another young player who seemingly fits perfectly into the offense as a deep threat the team so sorely lacked last season. And, frankly, he does. His career arc would suggest that the 2008 second-round draft pick is ready to turn into a serious threat for 70 catches, 1,000 yards, and six-to-eight touchdowns. But that’s what Bernard Berrian’s pre-Vikings career arc might have suggested too, and Berrian didn’t come shackled with a three-game suspension for having violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy. If Simpson can stay on the field and effectively stretch the defense, everyone from Christian Ponder to Percy Harvin to Kyle Rudolph to Adrian Peterson will have more room to operate. If not, the team will need a huge contribution from a batch of mediocre veterans (Devin Aromashodu) and mid-round draft picks (Greg Childs, Jarius Wright) to step up in a big way.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and the Managing Editor of LeagueSafe Post, a new fantasy football content site. He has written for Vikings.com and is a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on 100.3 FM KFAN. Follow him on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
The Minnesota Vikings sent out their training camp media release yesterday – yet another clear indication that the real start of the football season is imminent.
Truthfully, the NFL really never takes time off. Whether it's the Scouting Combine, NFL Draft, OTAs, free agency, minicamps, or players getting arrested for "too much idle time," America's sport never strays far from the headlines. And of course fantasy football drafts have already begun.
Apparently the NFL powers-that-be know their limits, though, or else last week's Supplemental Draft (in which one player was selected) would have been televised.
Be that as it may, the real fun begins next week, as every NFL team reports to their training camp, with the first (the Arizona Cardinals) reporting on July 23. The Vikings will file into Mankato on Thursday and will hold their first practices on Friday amidst throngs of purple-clad fans and a mob of media members hanging on Percy Harvin's every word, waiting for the next "controversy."
I'll be part of the aforementioned "mob" as Vikings camp gets underway, in order to get a first-hand, up close look at the 2012 edition. Yeah, I'll be as interested as anyone to see if Harvin stirs the pot again or if we find out anything more about Adrian Peterson's knee and/or arrest (the three primary storylines as camp kicks off) but I don't expect we'll get anything new on any of those fronts.
The Harvin thing is being swept under the rug (i.e. being handled internally) by the Vikings braintust and you can bet Harvin has been encouraged to do the same and only address football questions from the media in Mankato.
As for Peterson, the most I'd expect to see him doing in Mankato is individual drills on the side. The Vikings will very likely begin with him on the training camp physically unable to perform list and then play his recovery by ear. His court date has been moved to August 6 and we presumably won't know anything more about that situation until then.
Assuming the chains don't move on the Harvin and Peterson sagas for now, I'll have my eyes on numerous other situations as the Vikings prep for their preseason opener on August 10 against Randy Moss and the 49ers in San Francisco, including: Who wins the job at right guard? What's the secondary – with two rookies seeing a lot of playing time -- look like? Does Jasper Brinkley appear ready to hold down middle linebacker and is he really finally healthy? Will Jared Allen school Matt Kalil or will the All-Pro take it easy on the promising first-round pick? Do Jarius Wright and Greg Childs have the goods to contribute immediately in the passing game? Are the Vikings really set with the Blair Walsh project at kicker or will they bring in some competition? Did brainy QB Christian Ponder pick up a PHD or MD in his spare time this offseason or just grow a beard and do a lot of fishing and golfing when he wasn't watching film?
Since this is a blog and has a comments section and stuff, let's put it to good use and compile additional questions that keep Vikings fans up at night as the team prepares for 2012. What will you watch for in camp? Are you going to Mankato to get your own scouting report? Let me know what you're watching.
There seems to be conflicting news lately regarding Adrian Peterson’s ability to suit up for the first game of the 2012 regular season. Peterson himself believes he’ll be in the lineup, and head coach Leslie Frazier hasn’t ruled it out. Other published reports, however, suggest that opening the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list is a realistic possibility. There are some technical details related to the different types of PUP lists that I won’t get into here (basically, if Peterson is placed on the preseason, or active, PUP list, all it means is that he can't practice with the team, and it leaves open the possibility that he could ultimately wind up on the regular season PUP list, which would mean he'd have to miss a minimum of six games).
LeagueSafe’s Paul Charchian, while appearing on the Paul Allen show on KFAN 100.3 FM a few weeks back, raised the idea that putting Peterson on the PUP list could possibly be the best option the Vikings have. By doing so, the team would effectively be protecting Peterson from himself. By all accounts, AP is a freak of nature, and he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered late last year. He’s such a fierce competitor, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see him suit up in Week 1. But what if he’s not fully healed? What if he can’t cut like he’s used to, and as a result he re-injures himself? And, if he’s truly not 100 percent healthy (by team doctor standards, not his own), why would the Vikings risk putting him on the field?
It’s a sticky situation, for the sole reason that doing what’s best for the organization in the long haul (i.e. giving Peterson a mandatory 6-game vacation at the beginning of the season) would be an admission that the team doesn’t have realistic intentions of fielding a competitive team in 2012. You and I both know it’s a rebuilding year, but the Vikings would never admit that – not before the season has even begun. And you can bet Leslie Frazier, with his job on the line, isn’t going to admit that (which is another concern, really… if Peterson says he’s healthy, Frazier has every motivation to believe him and put him on the field immediately).
For the sake of argument, let’s look at the first six games of the 2012 schedule and analyze what kind of impact not having their best offensive player on the field might have on the team’s win-loss record.
Week 1 (vs. Jaguars): The Jaguars stunk last year. They were 1-7 on the road. They’ll enter 2012 with a second-year quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) who was even less impressive than the Vikings’ own second-year guy. If you’re looking for a strength, though, it’s probably their defense. Jacksonville finished 11th in total defense, and ninth against the run. Only three teams allowed less than the 3.8 yards per carry (YPC) surrendered by the Jaguars in 2011. A healthy Peterson would give the Vikings offense a huge boost against a solid Jags front seven, but this is still a home game the Vikings should win even if the capable Toby Gerhart is forced to carry the load.
Week 2 (at Colts): The NFL schedule-makers did the Vikings another favor with a Week 2 matchup against the rebuilding Colts. Indianapolis was easily the worst team in the NFL last year, and this will be the second career start for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Jared Allen might kill the kid, and the Colts spent the offseason surrounding Luck with offensive weapons while completely ignoring a defense that allowed nearly 27 points per game. Only two teams allowed more than the 144 rushing yards allowed per game by the Colts in 2011. For the second week in a row, it’s a defense Toby Gerhart is perfectly capable of exploiting, and it seems fair to say that if the Vikings lose, it won’t be because they couldn’t get their ground game going.
Week 3 (vs. 49ers): This is a loss either way. The 49ers are good. Their defense is even better. Opposing running backs scored just two touchdowns on the Niners last year, and only one back ran for more than 76 yards against them. It’s the kind of game a rare talent like Peterson can have a huge impact on, but if you think the 2012 Vikings can realistically beat a team that was a couple of botched kick returns away from the Super Bowl last year, I’ve got some land in Arden Hills I can sell you.
Week 4 (at Lions): Peterson destroys the Lions. In his career, he’s averaged 99 rushing yards per game and scored eight times in nine matchups. Ideally, against a high-powered Lions offense the Vikings game plan would focus on grinding out yards on the ground and keeping Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson off the field. A full-strength Peterson would obviously be ideal in this scenario, but the Vikes employed the same strategy successfully with Gerhart late last year. During a wild 34-28 loss that ended on the infamous and controversial Joe Webb non-facemask penalty in the waning seconds, Gerhart gained 90 yards on a healthy 4.7 YPC. That’s not to say Peterson wouldn’t have gone for 150 yards on the same 19 carries, but the Vikings were obviously able to move the ball on the ground despite not having AP at their disposal. Plus, like the 49ers game in Week 3, a road game against a 2011 playoff team isn’t a game you’re expecting to win anyways.
Week 5 (vs. Titans): This is where it starts to get tricky. The Titans weren’t a playoff team last year, but they went 9-7 and had a top-10 defense in terms of points scored against (a shade under 20 per game). But their run defense was mediocre, at best – they gave up nearly 130 rushing yards per game at a clip of 4.5 YPC. For a non-playoff team like the Vikings, a home game against a slightly above average team is the type of game you absolutely must win to begin to turn things around. Dynamically talented players like Peterson are the types of players that tip the scales in a game like this. Without him, I feel much less confident of a Purple victory.
Week 6 (at Redskins): Well, isn’t this fitting? The final game Peterson would miss if placed on the regular season PUP list would be a rematch with the team that injured him in the first place, in the same building. If Peterson were in uniform, you can bet the revenge factor would be high, and he’d be very motivated to exorcise the injury demons in a big way. The Redskins are also in re-building mode, however, and they weren’t very good last year. You probably remember that the Vikings somehow beat the Redskins on Christmas Eve last year, without Peterson and without Ponder, both of whom left the game early with injuries. Gerhart gained over 100 yards on just 11 carries, and Joe Webb tossed two touchdown passes to lead the improbable win. Like the Week 5 win over Tennessee, a road tilt against a non-playoff team breaking in a rookie quarterback seems winnable on paper, and again it’s the type of game where a healthy Peterson might very well mean the difference between a win and a loss.
By my count, the first four games of the season should result in two wins and two losses, no matter if Peterson plays or not. The difficulty is that Weeks 5 and 6 both seem like winnable games, but perhaps not if the team is missing its most explosive player.
That assumes Peterson is 100% healthy, though, and even if he is ready for Week 1 it’s highly unlikely he’ll be his usual, explosive self. Most running backs aren’t back to their previous level of play until the second season after their injury, and some are never the same.
I don’t envy the Vikings front office on this one. If their star player, who they’re paying $8 million this year, declares himself healthy in training camp, it will be nearly impossible to keep him off the field. While going the PUP route would erase the temptation to put him in game action before he’s truly ready, it feels like an unrealistic scenario. The best course of action would probably be to carry him on the active roster, but don’t suit him up until Week 5. If he’s even 90 percent of his old self, having him on the field in Weeks 5 and 6 might be the difference between a 4-2 start and a 2-4 start.
Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe. He is a contributing writer for Vikings.com and a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM. Follow Christian on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
To "skol" is to salute -- to toast with a drink to good health. You know the word from the Vikings' fight song, yet I'm guessing you never use it in daily conversation. In light of what happened in St. Paul on Thursday, however, it might be time to expand your vocabulary with the ol' Norse term.
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.
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