Unfortunately, Minnesota sports fans suffering from a lack of enough actual victories have become all too accustomed to moral victories the last couple years. I loathe moral victories as much as the next guy. Legitimate contenders for anything played with a ball or puck should never be satisfied with moral victories and you will never get any Vikings player or coach to admit that some kind of moral victory is ever good enough.
It’s just one week, but everyone still wants to jump to conclusions about, well, just about everything we saw during the Vikings’ scintillating Week 1 win over the Jaguars. Let’s run down a handful of conclusions one might reach after Sunday, and discuss whether they’re more trend or mirage.
Blair Walsh has ice water in his veins.
Or “intestinal fortitude,” as head coach Leslie Frazier told the media after the game. For a 22-year-old rookie kicking in his first career game, Walsh could not have been more clutch. He calmly knocked down the 55-yarder to force overtime like it was just another routine extra point, then booted the 38-yarder in overtime for the (eventual) win.
Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe.com and Managing Editor of LeagueSafe Post. He has been a contributor to Vikings.com and is a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on FM 100.3 KFAN on Saturday mornings during the football season. Follow him on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
In NFL circles, the third preseason game is cleverly referred to as the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season. Teams use the third game to hone their timing for Week 1 by playing their starting units longer than in any of the other exhibition contests before resting the regulars in the fourth game in an effort to preserve their health. Suffice it to say Friday night's dress rehearsal didn't exactly go as planned for your Minnesota Vikings.
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!
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
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