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.