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