VikesCentric is written by Twin Cities football writers Bo Mitchell of SportsData and Patrick Donnelly, who has written on a variety of Minnesota sports topics. Mitchell and Donnelly are Twin Cities-based Vikings and NFL experts who crunch numbers, watch video and tell you what's on their minds.

Posts about Percy Harvin

VikesCentric: Is the dreaded 'moral victory' the Vikings' only hope?

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: September 20, 2012 - 4:28 PM

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.

 
On paper, however, a victory of the moral variety looks like the Vikings' best chance at anything associated with the word "victory" when they clash with the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers this Sunday.
 
Jim Harbaugh's troops are going for three straight against the NFC North after beating up the Packers in Week 1 and toying with the Lions in Week 2. The 49ers have won 15 of 18 regular season games since Harbaugh took over and are the favorite of many to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in February.
 
The Vikings have matchup problems all over the place.
 
Let's start with the most obvious one: the Vikings' offense is predicated to a large extent on the exploits of Adrian Peterson, but there is no better team in the NFL against the run than the 49ers. Amazingly, Peterson is feeling good after his first two games post-knee surgery and he always feels good at home, where he has rushed for 13 touchdowns in his last nine games. However, the Niners have ceded just one 100-yard effort to a running back in their last 39 games and have allowed just two rushing touchdowns to running backs in their last 19 games. That's defensive dominance teetering on the absurd.
 
Assuming Peterson has nowhere to run this Sunday, Christian Ponder's early-season accuracy (he currently leads the NFL with a 75.8 completion percentage) will be put to the test in many third-and-long situations. Of course, Ponder's lowest completion percentage and quarterback rating, by down, is on (you guessed it) third down.
 
Ponder has yet to throw an interception this season, which is great. But beating the Niners in the turnover department has proven tough to do during the Harbaugh Era. The 49ers' plus-28 turnover differential in 2011 was the second-best in NFL history, behind only the 1983 Washington Redskins (plus-43). Their quarterback Alex Smith has thrown 216 straight passes without getting intercepted. Of course, the Vikings have an NFL-low eight interceptions since the start of 2011. Thus, don't look for turnovers to turn the tide in favor of the Purple on Sunday.
 
The Vikings' issues against the pass are well-chronicled, and while the announcers and fans in attendance preoccupy themselves with the return of Randy Moss to the Metrodome to play against the Vikings for the first time in a regular season game, the Vikings' biggest problem will be in containing Vernon Davis, the Niners' Pro Bowl tight end. The Vikings have allowed six tight end touchdowns in their last eight games Meanwhile, Davis has caught an NFL-leading three touchdown passes this season and, going back to last year's playoffs, has seven touchdowns in his last three games. Matchup nightmare.
 
Are the 49ers unbeatable? No, obviously not. If the Cardinals – who had lost 13 of their last 15 road games -- can go to New England and beat the Patriots – who had won 24 of their last 25 home games – as they did last Sunday, anything can happen.
 
The last time the 49ers lost a game that mattered was the NFC Championship game last winter, in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Giants. That game was lost on a fumbled punt return, so maybe Chris Kluwe, Percy Harvin, Jamarca Sanford or Marcus Sherels can pull something out of their sleeves on special teams and upset the Niners.
 
Or maybe the Vikings' only real chance of victory is the dreaded moral victory. Maybe Peterson can score a touchdown or somehow run for 100 yards. Perhaps they can end Smith's string of passes without an interception or figure out a way to keep Davis from scoring. Maybe they can stay within a touchdown of the Niners, unlike the Packers or Lions who both lost to them by eight. Maybe the media will be able to get the condescending Harbaugh to answer a question in the post-game press conference.
 
VikesCentric followers, let's hear from you. The Vikings have what appear to be some winnable games in the weeks ahead, but do they have a chance against the 49ers? What would constitute a moral victory for the Vikings against the 49ers? Better yet, what is the Vikings' blueprint for actually pulling off the upset this Sunday? 
 
 
Bo Mitchell is the VP of Content at SportsData and co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM.
 
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

VikesCentric: Jumping to conclusions

Posted by: Updated: September 10, 2012 - 3:30 PM

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.

Verdict: Trend. Walsh destroyed all doubts about whether the Vikings “wasted” a sixth-round pick on him, and vindicated General Manager Rick Spielman, who put his faith in Walsh by cutting expensive veteran Ryan Longwell in the offseason. We knew Walsh had a big leg, but after his clutch performance on Sunday it appears he’s got the guts to go along with it.
 
Adrian Peterson is not human.
 
Without playing a single preseason snap and a mere eight months removed from a knee injury that usually takes at least a year or more to completely heal from, Peterson didn’t miss a beat. After looking a bit tentative early in the game, Peterson settled down after scoring his first touchdown before looking like vintage AP on a couple of long runs (of ten and 20 yards) in overtime.
 
Verdict: Trend. He’s superman. Nobody will ever underestimate him again.
 
The secondary still stinks.
 
Sophomore Blaine Gabbert completed only 51 percent of his passes as a rookie and threw for almost as many interceptions (11) as he did touchdowns (12). On Sunday, what was supposed to be an improved Vikings secondary let him complete 23-of-39 (59 percent) for 260 yards and two touchdowns.
 
Verdict: Trend. Here we go again. Despite the return of cornerbacks Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield and the infusion of some young talent (safety Harrison Smith and nickel corner Josh Robinson), the Vikings had few answers for what was one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL a year ago. They managed to hold highly touted rookie wideout Justin Blackmon in check, but there were frequent breakdowns that led on numerous times to wide open receivers converting big plays for the Jaguars. Winfield has lost at least a step, Cook looked rusty, and the safety tandem of Smith and Mistral Raymond was far too inconsistent. In particular, on the fateful last-minute touchdown catch by the Jaguars’ Cecil Shorts, Raymond barely moved from where he had lined up. He was inexplicably frozen right after the snap, appearing, for some reason, to be shadowing Gabbert in the pocket while one receiver ran right past him and leaving Cook on an island against Shorts. How do you not ensure that there’s adequate coverage deep on that play?
 
Christian Ponder has arrived.
 
Ponder got off to a rocky start, but he engineered five scoring drives after halftime, including the game-tying one with 20 seconds on the clock and a methodical overtime drive. Most importantly, he didn’t commit a turnover.
 
Verdict: Mirage. Outside of Peterson looking healthy, Ponder was easily the most promising takeaway from this game. He completed nearly 75 percent of his passes and got in a groove once he got Percy Harvin involved. Harvin and tight end Kyle Rudolph are starting to emerge as legitimate go-to guys for Ponder, and if Peterson is this effective in the running game Ponder should continue to have opportunities to grow. But let’s not confuse a home opener against a bad Jaguars defense that was missing its’ top cornerback for the Bears or Packers on the road in late November. Sunday was a positive step in nearly every way for Ponder, but there will be more bumps in the road.
 
The play calling remains dubious.
 
The Vikings gained a total of two first downs on their first four drives of the game, all of which resulted in punts. Other than a reverse to Percy Harvin on the third play of the game, Harvin was completely invisible in the offense until the fifth drive. Later, they stalled out several times inside the red zone and had to settle for field goals when a touchdown would have put the game out of reach.
 
Verdict: Trend. The entire offense looked out of sync early on. Perhaps it was because nobody knew what to expect while breaking Peterson in, or perhaps the team was just sluggish coming off an equally sluggish preseason. Whatever the case, there shouldn’t be any excuse for excluding Harvin from the game plan for almost an entire half. Things finally got moving on the fifth drive, when Ponder threw it to Harvin three straight times to open a drive that began with just over two minutes left in the half. That ultimately resulted in the first of Peterson’s two touchdowns, and things were generally much improved for the remainder of the game. But why did it take nearly an entire half to get the ball into Harvin’s hands? Later, a nice Ponder-to-Rudolph connection gave the Vikings a first-and-goal from the three-yard line. Instead of just jamming Peterson down the Jaguars’ throats for a third time, the Vikings got cute; first running Harvin straight up the gut out of the backfield, then throwing a pass to third-string running back Matt Asiata before a broken play resulted in an incomplete pass to little-used tight end John Carlson on third down. Matt Asiata? Really? By not punching the ball into the end zone after three straight bizarre play calls, the Vikes left the door open for the late Jaguars’ comeback. The Vikings game plan should be pretty obvious and simple: Get the ball to Peterson and Harvin. End of story. Bill Musgrave seems to be doing a decent job with Christian Ponder’s development, but there continue to be a handful of head-scratching moments in just about every game.
 
Jared Allen was invisible.
 
Other than a sack on the second Jaguars offensive play that was reversed because of a questionable offside call on Allen himself, we saw little from last year’s NFL sacks leader. He was essentially stifled by Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe, and the Vikings inability to generate a pass rush was part of the reason Gabbert was able to dissect the secondary.
 
Verdict: Mirage. It was uncharacteristic and disappointing that he didn’t show up at home in the season opener – he failed to register a sack in just three games all of last year – but Allen will get his. Call it an off day and expect to see him terrorize Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck next week. If Allen and Brian Robison can generate a better pass rush next week and beyond, it will make the inexperienced secondary look a lot better.
 
Winning cures all ills.
 
It was ugly at times and you’d expect the Vikings to win a home game against one of last year’s worst AFC teams, but a win is a win is a win.
 
Verdict: TBD. The Vikings will take wins any way they can. Coming off the worst season in franchise history, they’re not in a position to be worried about who they beat or how pretty or ugly it is. Take last year, for example, when they easily could have been 3-0 after the first three games but turned that into 0-3 with a series of incredible second-half collapses. If the team wins a couple of those games early last season, there’s a school of thought that says the remainder of the year could have been totally different. One thing is very clear: if they’d lost on Sunday in the waning moments on a Blaine Gabbert-to-Cecil Shorts miracle, it could have sent them spiraling the wrong way before the season was even two weeks old. The impressive comeback should do wonders for this team’s confidence, and with an early-season schedule that’s littered with winnable games (Colts, Titans, Redskins, Cardinals, Bucs all within the next seven weeks), that confidence could lead to some more W’s.

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

VikesCentric: More rehearsal needed

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: August 24, 2012 - 10:49 PM

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.

 
Yes, the Chargers needed a walk-off field goal to win the game 12-10. But anyone who witnessed what took place at Mall of America Field knows this was not at all what Leslie Frazier had in mind.
 
Before delving head-first into the negativity, know that I looked really hard to find a silver lining in Friday's messy showing. Believe me, I did. And the best I could come up with was that a fan won a trip to Cancun during a first-half promotion down on the field. Seriously, that's the best I could do.
 
The Vikings defense held the Chargers to 202 total yards and no touchdowns. Normally that would be impressive, but the Bolts didn't get the memo on the whole "dress rehearsal" deal. San Diego de-activated 18 players, including three-fifths of their injured offensive line starters, injured starting running back Ryan Mathews, as well as completely healthy quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates.
 
Holding Charlie Whitehurst in check just isn't the same as flummoxing Rivers.
 
The Vikings' first-team offense was utterly listless, as Christian Ponder led the starters to three points even though they played deep into the third quarter.
 
The closest thing to a first-team offensive highlight came about midway through the second quarter when Christian Ponder finally hooked up with Percy Harvin downfield after a few earlier missed connections. The 40-yard, over-the-shoulder grab was a thing of beauty… but was quickly followed three plays later by a Chargers interception with 8:32 remaining in the first half. The pick was ruled a drop at first, but the fill-in referees overturned the call while Vikings fans amused themselves by doing the wave and paying no discernible attention to the game. If this had been a regular season game, the reversal would have been the fans' cue to boo lustily and berate the refs even though it was the right call.
 
Yeah, it was a bad dress rehearsal for the fans too.
 
It was kind of hard to blame them, given what they were watching. However, I have no excuses for the woman who quite literally failed the dress rehearsal by wearing a No. 85 Jim Kleinsasser jersey. I had to double-check the media guide to be sure, but Jimmy never wore any number other than 40 with the Vikes. Sigh.
 
Other sad trombone performances included first-round draft pick Matt Kalil looking like a rookie for the first time this preseason. Chargers pass-rushers seemed to give him consistent trouble and the big left tackle was beaten in the first quarter for a sack by Chargers linebacker Larry English – that's third-string linebacker Larry English if you are following along on your Chargers depth chart.
 
Backup running back Matt Asiata made the strongest bid at being my Vikings silver-lining player, rushing for 48 yards on nine carries and scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just under two minutes left, but the silver was tarnished somewhat by the third-quarter fumble he lost at the Chargers' four-yard line. Fellow running backs Lex Hillard and Derrick Coleman also coughed up fumbles.
 
In all the Vikings turned the ball over four times, punted five times, allowed five sacks and were flagged six times for 81 yards.
 
It was more mess rehearsal than dress rehearsal.
 
One week after selling a heaping helping of hope to their fans with a 36-14 shellacking of the Bills it seems the Vikes have a lot more rehearsing to do between now and the start of the real games. It's enough to make you wonder whether they might call an audible and give their starters a little extra run next Thursday in their preseason finale against Houston.
 
 
Bo Mitchell is the VP of Content at SportsData and co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM.
 
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

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

VikesCentric: 10 players who will make or break the 2012 Vikings (Part 2)

Posted by: Updated: July 26, 2012 - 8:51 AM

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!

VikesCentric: Ten Players Who Will Make or Break the 2012 Vikings (Part 1)

Posted by: Updated: July 25, 2012 - 8:52 AM

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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