It’s a sad commentary that the Vikings will head into the offseason with so many glaring areas of need that it’s necessary to determine which of them is the greatest, but that’s the situation for this team. In no particular order, it’s not difficult to ascertain that the Vikes need serious help all over the secondary, on the offensive line, and at wide receiver. In my estimation, those are the three areas of greatest need. With what’s shaping up to be a top-5 (if not top-3) pick in next year’s draft, the Purple will be in a great spot to immediately address one of those three areas; let’s take an early peek at each and start to map out a plan for the offseason, which can’t come soon enough at this point.
With Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson, the Vikings already possess two of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the NFL, but with Harvin best-suited for a multi-dimensional role out of the slot and occasionally the backfield and Peterson obviously being a running back, the team lacks a dynamic talent that can stretch defenses on the perimeter. The now-injured Michael Jenkins is not fast enough or talented enough to serve in that role. Devin Aromashodu has proven he’s not the answer, and nobody else on the current roster has any chance of becoming the answer.
With a top-5 pick, the Vikings would probably be in position to grab the top-ranked college wideout – Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State. Graded by most draftnicks as a top-5, game-changing talent, Blackmon has been described as being better than Dez Bryant, his predecessor as the top dog wide receiver at Oklahoma State. But wide receivers are generally much easier to find late in the draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay gives first-round grades two three other wideouts, in fact, including former Cretin Derham Hall star Michael Floyd, who could conceivably still be available at the top of the second round. Furthermore, there are a number of intriguing wide receivers that could become free agents after this season. From a long list that includes Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace, DeSean Jackson, Mario Manningham, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Lloyd, Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston, the Vikings would be able to address this position via free agency if they so desire. Some of those names may re-sign before they ever hit free agency, but on first blush it appears plenty of wide receiver talent will be available on the open market.
First, the bad news. Charlie Johnson is most definitely not the answer at left tackle. Steve Hutchinson is getting older and less effective right before our eyes, and while he’s still slightly better than average at his position, the Vikings won’t be getting full value if they opt to continue to pay him his $6.7 million salary in 2012. Overall, the Vikings line has been just short of disastrous this season. Football Outsiders ranks the Vikes 15th in run blocking and dead last in pass blocking. Pro Football Focus is more optimistic – ranking Minnesota’s offensive line the #1 line in all of football in the running game, but 24th in pass protection.
John Sullivan has developed into a very good center this season, but he’s set to be a free agent and could command a huge pay raise to keep him on board. Given the state of the rest of their line, I’d expect the Vikings to sign him to a long-term deal. Right guard is not a position of strength, but it could be worse. While giving Anthony Herrera a long-term contract extension has proven to be the wrong move, veteran Joe Berger has proven surprisingly effective as his backup this season. It wouldn’t be a total disaster to bring both players back next year. At right tackle, Phil Loadholt has shown talent at times, but remains maddeningly inconsistent. If you assume the team re-signs Sullivan and that Loadholt, who’s still young and promising, is safe at right tackle, it’s possible the team could have three new starters along the line.
If the Vikes land a top-2 draft pick, they’d be foolish not to take USC tackle Matt Kalil. He’s head-and-shoulders above any other offensive lineman in the draft and could step in at left tackle immediately. And since it’s very difficult to address that position in free agency (the best left tackles are so valuable they are almost always locked up with lucrative deals by whatever team drafted them), grabbing an anchor for Christian Ponder’s blind side for the next 8-10 years makes all the sense in the world. But if they’re not in the top-2, it’s not so clear cut. The other top-rated offensive linemen are Jonathan Martin of Stanford and Riley Reiff of Iowa, neither of whom project as stars. If Kalil is off the board, it may not be worth reaching for Martin or Reiff.
In the end, you can get by for another year with Hutchinson, Sullivan (if he re-signs), Herrera/Berger, and Loadholt, assuming you do something to upgrade at left tackle. It’s not a perfect situation by any means, but it’s not a total trainwreck either.
In my mind, this is the greatest area of need. Wide receiver can be addressed in other ways – either later in the draft or in free agency. The offensive line is a weak spot, but it’s not as if Ponder is being pummeled on every single play, and if indeed the team does bring back four of the five players along that line, consistency and familiarity is a huge aspect of good line play. But the secondary is a total and complete disaster from top to bottom.
The Vikes can’t possibly be depending on Chris Cook, who showed glimpses of promise prior to his off-the-field incident that has de-railed his entire career. Even if he stays off the police blotter, there’s no guarantee that he’ll turn into a consistent NFL performer. Antoine Winfield simply can’t be counted on to stay healthy any longer. He’s due $7 million in 2012, which is an awfully steep price to pay for five or six games. It’s possible they could move him to safety, but it’s also possible the Vikes will decide $7 million is too much to pay for him. Cedric Griffin and Asher Allen are both awful, and shouldn’t be retained. Neither is capable of being a starter in the NFL. At safety, I’m told the team likes Husain Abdullah. While I personally don’t see it, he’s probably still locked in as a starter in 2012, assuming Minnesota signs him (he played 2011 on a one-year, $1.8 million deal). Assuming Abdullah returns, that leaves gaping holes at three of the four secondary positions, and absolutely no depth whatsoever.
Using the draft to eliminate one of the three open spots would be a wise move. While using a top-5 pick on a defensive back might seem high, most of the best corner backs in the NFL today were high draft picks. Among them are Darrelle Revis (14th overall in 2007), Nnamdi Asomugha (31st pick in 2003), Carlos Rogers (9th overall in 2005), Johnathan Joseph (24th pick in 2006), and Joe Haden (7th pick in 2010), while others like Champ Bailey (7th overall in 1999) and Charles Woodson (4th selection in 1998) have proven that elite, shutdown corners can also have long and productive careers.
As luck would have it, the top of this year’s draft appears to be well-stocked with elite-level corner backs. At the top of most lists is LSU corner Morris Claiborne, ranked as high as the third-best player in the entire draft (by ESPN’s Todd McShay – ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranks Claiborne fifth). Others include Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick and Nebraska’s Alfonzo Dennard.
Given that the team must replace as many as four starters in their secondary (three if you assume Abdullah returns, two if you have the misguided belief that either Chris Cook or Antoine Winfield can stay on the field for any length of time), it’s the greatest area of need going into 2012 unless something unforeseen happens over the final five games of this season.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and is a contributor to Vikings.com and the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday Mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.