Chip Scoggins is a Star Tribune sports columnist. He has temporarily returned to cover the Minnesota Vikings. He had the beat from 2008-2011 after covering college football for five years. Chip has been with the Star Tribune since January 2000. He can be followed on twitter at @chipscoggins.Find Chip on Facebook.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the receivers.
Get excited: Disclaimer: we had to search long and hard to find substantive reasons to get excited about what happened with the Vikings’ receiving unit in 2012.
But we can offer you the following:
a) When Percy Harvin was healthy and fully engaged in the season’s first half, he was widely touted as an MVP candidate. Through Week 8, Harvin had a league-best 60 catches for 667 yards and three touchdowns. He was also a major threat on kickoff returns, evidenced by his 35.9 yards per return average and his 105-yard score in Detroit.
b) After Harvin sprained an ankle in Week 9 in Seattle, an injury that ultimately ended his season, rookie Jarius Wright made the most of his newfound opportunity. After being inactive for the Vikings’ first nine games, Wright’s first career reception was a 54-yarder against the Lions in Week 10 followed two plays later with a 3-yard touchdown grab. In the Vikings’ playoff-clinching win in the regular season finale, Wright had an 8-yard TD grab, an odd 17-yard catch to aid another TD drive and delivered the longest reception of the Vikings’ season, a 65-yarder in the fourth quarter that set up a key go-ahead touchdown against Green Bay. Wright’s flashes were eye-catching. And his humble, team-first attitude was impressive.
c) With all the credit that deserved to be spread around with Adrian Peterson’s remarkable 2,097-yard rushing season, the solid blocking of the Vikings’ receivers made a significant difference, a buy-in that was probably under appreciated. Said receivers coach George Stewart: “These guys all know that Adrian Peterson is here. And Coach Frazier said it from Day One: ‘We will win with our run game.’ So what I’ve loved most about this group of receiver is that they’re all unselfish. If they catch a ball, great. If they have to block for Adrian, great. And for a coach to have a bunch of unselfish guys, especially at this position, is gratifying.”
So there’s that, right?
And yes, we’re acknowledging again that our “Get Excited” reasons took some thinking. So let’s move on.
Keep an eye on: With plenty of cap room, the Vikings will be able to freely explore the free agent market in March in search of aid to bolster their downfield passing attack. Greg Jennings will be a free agent after spending the first seven seasons of his career in Green Bay. The other marquee names that could eventually be available include Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace.
But to be clear, before dishing out big money for a free agent receiver, the Vikings will have to come to a resolution on how they will handle Harvin’s future. They’ll need to either offer Harvin a long-term contract extension, a lucrative deal that would likely hamper any hopes of spending additional big money on guys like Jennings, Bowe or Wallace. Or they can open their ears to possible trade offers for Harvin. Or, in the worst case scenario, they can do nothing and ask Harvin to play out the final year of his rookie deal for a $1.55 million salary, a move that would be quite risky if there’s hope of keeping the mercurial receiver happy long-term.
As free agency goes, it may be more likely for the Vikings to explore a few second-tier options – guys like Donnie Avery or Brandon Gibson if they become available. And then with the No. 23 pick in April’s draft, the Vikings should have plenty of options to land a young and promising talent. Keep tabs on Baylor’s Terrance Williams, Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins and Cal’s Keenan Allen in the coming months. They could all be intriguing possibilities.
Reason for worry: With Harvin placed on Injured Reserve in early December, the Vikings finished the season with an active receiving unit of Wright, Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, Jerome Simpson and Stephen Burton. Aromashodu and Simpson are both set to become free agents in March with few promises that they’d be back for another season. Even if either or both of those guys is re-signed, it’s unlikely that would come before free agency opens.
Jenkins will turn 31 in June and while he is a smart and dependable veteran, he has clearly lost a step. And for all the belief in Burton’s potential, he contributed five catches for 35 yards in his second NFL season.
In other words, with or without Harvin, the Vikings receiving unit is in need of a major overhaul that will likely take more than one offseason to complete.
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the defensive backfield.
Get excited: In his rookie season, safety Harrison Smith proved to be a legitimate difference maker. He was not only able to deliver the big hits on a regular basis but also frequently contributed the big play. Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns – a 31-yarder against Arizona in Week 7 and a 56-yarder versus Chicago seven weeks later. Both of those pick-sixes came in 21-14 Vikings victories, in games in which Christian Ponder threw for fewer than 100 yards with the defense, consequentially, needing to deliver a game-changing play. Smith also had a hand in hand breaking up two passes that would have been Calvin Johnson touchdown catches in Week 4. The Vikings beat the Lions 20-13 in that game.
And just like that you can see how an upstart and hungry team saw its win total balloon to 10 in 2012. Quite simply, players like Smith delivered clutch contributions.
No, we’re not classifying Smith as the next Ronnie Lott or Troy Polamalu. He had tackling lapses at times and still has plenty of room to continue developing. But what the Vikings loved most about Smith heading into last spring’s draft – his knack for understanding the defense and routinely being in the right spot at the right time – showed up throughout the season.
For his size, Smith also moves with notable quickness and fluidity and he quickly earned the unabashed respect of the rest of the veterans on the defense.
Keep an eye on: When Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield are at full strength and on the field together, the Vikings’ secondary has an added edge. Even at 35, Winfield showed he can still be an impact corner, extraordinary in run support and capable of steadying the secondary overall. And Cook seems to have all the physical tools to be a valuable outside starter for years to come.
But then there’s this: over the past three seasons, Cook and Winfield have both started and finished only 22 regular season games together.
Cook has missed 26 games in his first three NFL seasons with a broken arm sidelining him for six contests this past season. As much potential as he has, staying available has been a major problem to this point and something the Vikings will need to keep tabs on as Cook enters the final year of his rookie deal.
As for Winfield? Head coach Leslie Frazier has made it very clear he’d love to have Winfield back in the mix in 2013, wanting to utilize his intelligence and leadership in a young secondary for as long as possible.
Winfield is one of the most adored and respected veterans in the locker room. As safety Mistral Raymond said at season’s end, “He’s probably one of the most talented guys I’ve ever been around. He’s smart. His heart is in it. Personally I hope he’ll be here next year. I’m hoping he’ll be here as long as he wants.”
Following the playoff loss in Green Bay earlier this month, Winfield vowed to return for a 15th NFL season. Still, even with that objective, you get the sense he hasn’t fully locked in his commitment to give things one last go-‘round.
“There are some things, of course, he wants to think about this offseason,” Frazier said. “But all indications are he wants to give it another try.”
Reason for worry: It sure seemed like the Vikings’ pass defense was worlds better in 2012 than it was in 2011. And statistically, they were improved across the board. But they were still a bottom-10 defense against the pass, allowing 244.2 yards per game, only 7 yards fewer than the 2011 defense surrendered. Quarterbacks also completed 63.9 percent of their passes against the Vikings this season, throwing 28 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
And even for the progress safeties Jamarca Sanford and Raymond made, the Vikings will need greater production from both players in 2013. Otherwise, Robert Blanton may quickly climb the depth chart.
Furthermore, given Winfield’s age plus Cook’s durability/availability issues, more will also be needed from cornerbacks A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robinson. Don’t be surprised if General Manager Rick Spielman eyes a few secondary upgrades in the draft and free agency.
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. Over the next 10 days, we will deliver a snapshot evaluation of every position group.
Today, we lead things off with a big picture look at the direction of the franchise.
Get excited: Head coach Leslie Frazier believes strongly in building around high-character players who are not only talented but willing to invest in bettering themselves and the team as a whole. Frazier has talked at length over the past year about molding a “tough, smart, disciplined football team.” And from the results of 2012, it’s clear his vision has been embraced throughout the organization.
Even if it doesn’t generate much buzz, team building is a big, big deal in the NFL. And Frazier is proving to be a master at it, finding ways to keep his squad united and energized even through the inevitable discouraging slumps of a long season. It was one thing for players to buy into Frazier’s blueprint for success last spring when 2011’s disastrous 3-13 finish generated so much hunger for a bounce-back season. But it was quite another for Frazier to retain his team’s belief and buy-in when a skid of five losses in seven games pushed the Vikings to 6-6 in early December. That provided a fork in the road in the 2012 season. And the Vikings steered away from the “Here we go again” path and opted instead to channel their focus on winning four consecutive games to end the season. That they accomplished that goal, earning the NFC’s final wild card berth, provided validation for all Frazier had preached.
Now the Vikings have proof that Frazier’s coaching philosophy can generate significant success. And players have seen the results of retaining strong camaraderie and a contagious team work ethic. As defensive end Jared Allen said, receiving a reward for all the perseverance was essential at the end of a long season.
“It’s like training a dog or something,” Allen said. “You can’t just keep asking him to do something without a reward. So if what the coaches are asking you to do and the hard working isn’t paying off, it’s hard to come back and say, ‘OK, I’m going to keep hitting my head against this wall and hopefully I’ll accomplish something.’ To have the payoff of success [for us] is going to breed confidence and instill that trust that, OK, what they’re saying can lead to success. We’ve done it before.
“Next year, when we’re in tight situations, what if we’re 3-3? How are you going to handle that? Guess what, we’ve been 6-6 and had to make a run and we made it. I think having that kind of confidence, you hope everybody uses that the right way.”
Frazier also seems to have a knack for getting players to focus on the littlest details of preparation each week without losing sight of the big picture after each game’s result. That Frazier is beloved by his players, his coaching staff, the front office and team ownership will go a long way toward propelling 2012’s success forward. A contract extension for the head coach is on the way soon. That’s a “when” not “if” situation.
Keep an eye on: The opening of free agency and April's draft. In his first offseason as GM, Rick Spielman had a concrete plan for the 2012 draft and executed it nicely, putting together an impressive class that yielded standout left tackle Matt Kalil, starting safety Harrison Smith, Pro Bowl kicker Blair Walsh and promising receiver Jarius Wright. Spielman won't give that class a grade until after the 2014 season. That's his rule. But the early returns are encouraging, which breeds hope for repeat draft success this year.
Still, as strong as the Vikings’ 2012 draft was, Spielman’s stroll through the free agent market last spring produced a pair of high-profile signings in tight end John Carlson and receiver Jerome Simpson that didn’t pay many dividends. That duo was expected to enliven the Vikings’ passing attack. Instead, they combined for 34 catches, 317 yards and zero touchdowns. Yep, combined.
To his credit, Spielman did discover a diamond in the rough last spring in fullback Jerome Felton, who emerged as a Pro Bowler this season. Felton was selfless and tough and always prepared, aiding Adrian Peterson’s monstrous MVP-caliber season.
Remember this: Spielman’s long-term philosophy is to build through the draft and supplement with selective free agent signings. So it will be interesting to see just how active he is this March. There are a half-dozen notable in-house free agents to evaluate first: Felton, Phil Loadholt, Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley, Simpson and Jamarca Sanford. Then, with very few salary cap restrictions, Spielman should be able to browse through free agency for guys who register as "Vikings fits." Under the current thinking, fans should not be expecting a spending spree. There may not even be rewarded any big-name acquisitions. As much as anything, Spielman will have to make sure any higher profile signings he does make produce better results than a year ago.
Reason for worry: Even though the Vikings finished 10-6 and only a game back of NFC North champ Green Bay and even though they appear positioned to use that stellar campaign as a springboard, this is still the NFL. And there are no guarantees that the fantastic turnaround year in 2012 will be followed with another playoff run in 2013. For one thing, the Vikings may reside in the toughest division in football. Aaron Rodgers will have the Packers positioned to win the division for the third consecutive season. The Bears are a 10-6 team that now has new head coach Marc Trestman in position to try and push them over the hump. And for all the flaws in Detroit, the Lions are still stocked with talent. In other words, the Vikings’ margin for error will remain razor thin.
The Vikings will also face a much tougher schedule in 2013 than they enjoyed this past year. And we mean much tougher. In addition to the division games, there will be road trips to play the Seahawks, Bengals, Ravens, Giants and Cowboys plus a “home” game in London against the Steelers that will be followed by a very early Week 5 bye.
We won’t know the order of any of the other games until April. But at present, a home game with Cleveland seems to be the closest thing to a gimme the Vikings will have.
First, Adrian Peterson runs for 2,097 yards a year after having major knee surgery. Then he does something almost as amazing: Getting 50 reporters from theNFL media world to agree on something.
All 50 members of the Associated Press' All-Pro selection committee, including myself, picked Peterson for their All-Pro team. The only other unanimous All-Pro selection was Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, who had 122 catches for an NFL-record 1,964 yards, fell one vote short of a unanimous selection.
Meanwhile, Vikings rookie kicker Blair Walsh was named to the first team with 42 votes. Vikings fullback Jerome Felton and outside linebacker Chad Greenway were named to the second team.
Felton got 12 votes and finished behind Ravens fullback Vonta Leach, who received 26. Greenway received only two votes, which was enough to earn second team behind first-teamers Von Viller of Denver (48 votes) and Aldon Smith of San Francisco (47). The other second-team outside linebackers -- Green Bay's Clay Matthews, Dallas' DeMarcus Ware and San Francisco's Ahmad Brooks -- each received one vote.
At quarterback, Peyton Manning earned first team with 43 votes. Aaron Rodgers made second team with only four votes. Tom Brady received only three votes.
Vikings center John Sullivan was thought to have a shot at one of the top two teams, but fell short. Seattle's Max Unger made first team with 16 votes, while Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey was second team with 10 votes.
Sullivan received seven votes, which tied him for third. Here's the breakdown of votes by position.
|Vikings (3504)||People (1)|
|AFC (84)||Bears (435)|
|Ex-Vikings (42)||Football on TV (50)|
|Lions (326)||NFC (1319)|
|NFL draft (229)||NFL post-season (28)|
|Packers (488)||Super Bowl (225)|
|Vikings coaches (66)||Vikings defense (250)|
|Vikings fans (114)||Vikings injury report (282)|
|Vikings management (28)||Vikings off the field (273)|
|Vikings offense (359)||Vikings quarterbacks (252)|
|Vikings road games (75)||Vikings rookies (33)|
|Vikings roster moves (40)||Vikings special teams (35)|
|Vikings training camp (132)||Injury report (335)|
|Off the field (126)||On the road (78)|
|Quarterbacks (295)||Rookies (76)|
|Roster moves (16)||Vikings draft (263)|
|Vikings trade talk (2)||Vikings players (792)|
|Adrian Peterson (900)||Anthony Herrera (161)|
|Antoine Winfield (408)||Ben Leber (97)|
|Bernard Berrian (213)||Bobby Wade (16)|
|Brad Childress (634)||Brett Favre (805)|
|Brian Robison (160)||Bryant McKinnie (106)|
|Cedric Griffin (194)||Chad Greenway (188)|
|Chester Taylor (79)||Chris Kluwe (108)|
|Darrell Bevell (111)||E.J. Henderson (183)|
|Heath Farwell (48)||Jared Allen (386)|
|John Sullivan (200)||Kevin Williams (217)|
|Leslie Frazier (889)||Madieu Williams (78)|
|Pat Williams (150)||Percy Harvin (667)|
|Phil Loadholt (160)||Ray Edwards (173)|
|Ryan Longwell (143)||Sage Rosenfels (102)|
|Sidney Rice (272)||Steve Hutchinson (189)|
|Tarvaris Jackson (169)||Tyrell Johnson (151)|
|Visanthe Shiancoe (216)||Brad Childress (638)|
|Darrell Bevell (112)||Leslie Frazier (898)|