State of the Franchise
After winning just three games in 2011, the Vikings made an unexpected playoff appearance last season, as RB Adrian Peterson finished just eight yards short of the NFL single-season rushing record a mere nine months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
While Peterson returns without any major injury questions, the Vikings will try to repeat their playoff march despite losing key veterans in WR Percy Harvin and CB Antoine Winfield. The team had a spectacular draft in 2012, with two draft picks making the Pro Bowl and six picks making immediate major contributions. This year, the Vikings hope to offset their high-profile departures with a draft class that features three first-round picks (DT Sharrif Floyd, CB Xavier Rhodes and WR Cordarrelle Patterson) who could all begin the season as starters.
Minnesota's offense still keys off Peterson, who gained 2,097 yards on an eye-popping 6.0 yards per carry last season. While Peterson's almost super-human healing powers and physical ability pushed him to the brink of the NFL rushing record, an improvement in the offensive line, featuring the addition of left tackle Matt Kalil, also helped matters.
While the Vikings' running game flourished last season, the passing game struggled. The team was second-to-last in the NFL in yards per attempt, as QB Christian Ponder was inconsistent in his second season, turning in several terrible games. A lack of prolific targets didn't help Ponder, who also lost Harvin, his best receiver, after nine games due to an ankle injury. On the plus side, TE Kyle Rudolph emerged as Ponder's favorite target, especially in the red zone, recording nine touchdowns. With Harvin having been traded to Seattle, the Vikings attempted to fill the resulting void by signing wideout Greg Jennings away from division rival Green Bay and then trading up to draft Patterson.
On defense, the Vikings improved from 31st in points allowed in 2011 to 14th in 2012, largely fueled by an upgrade in the secondary. The unit benefited from an influx of talent in S Harrison Smith and CB Josh Robinson, along with the presence of cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook, who missed significant time in 2011. The Vikings hope youth can again improve the secondary, with the addition of Rhodes, plus expected improvement from second-year players projected to offset the departure of Winfield. Beyond Pro Bowler Chad Greenway, the team's linebacking corps remains a work in progress, but the defensive line remains strong, led by pass-rushing DE's Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. Meanwhile, DT Kevin Williams is still productive and Floyd was thought by many to be a top-five talent in this year's draft.
Greg Jennings - WR, Packers
Provides a much-needed boost in receiving talent, while coming over from a division rival.
Cordarrelle Patterson - WR, Tennessee
(Round 1, 29th overall)
The dynamic young playmaker teams with Jennings to help replace Harvin.
Sharrif Floyd - DT, Florida
(Round 1, 23rd overall)
Short-term boost to the defensive line, and a long-term replacement for Kevin Williams.
Xavier Rhodes - CB, Florida State
(Round 1, 25th overall)
Boosts a secondary that lost Antoine Winfield.
Matt Cassel - QB, Chiefs
Gives the team a viable backup signal-caller, as Joe Webb struggled in his lone start in the playoffs.
Percy Harvin - WR, Seahawks
An electric playmaker, who the team doubled-down to replace.
Antoine Winfield - CB, Seahawks
Cut after a productive season; his departure leaves an inexperienced secondary.
Jasper Brinkley - LB, Cardinals
Leaves a void at linebacker without an obvious replacement on hand.
CAN Christian Ponder IMPROVE?
Ponder led the Vikings to the playoffs in his first full season as a starter, but his 18:12 TD:INT ratio and 6.1 yards per attempt were mediocre. Consistency was an issue, as he had three games with less than 100 yards passing, but he did at least finish the season strong, recording 408 yards passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions in his final two games. Ponder's value was revealed in the playoffs when a triceps injury forced him to miss the Wild Card game and Joe Webb struggled in his place. In his third NFL season, Ponder needs to improve his accuracy, after compiling the fourth-worst completion percentage in the league on passes that were aimed at an intended target, according to Pro Football Focus. He also needs to improve his deep throws, as he attempted the fewest passes of 20 yards or more per drop back in the league (just 7.5 percent) and had a league-low 25 percent accuracy. More talent at wideout could help, as Ponder had few deep threats in 2012, but he also faced defenses that were focused on stopping the run. If he doesn't improve, Matt Cassel gives the team a veteran alternative it lacked last season.
WITHOUT Percy Harvin, WHO'S AT WIDEOUT?
To boost a receiving corps that sent Harvin and Michael Jenkins packing, the Vikings signed Greg Jennings to a five-year, $47.5 million contract and selected Cordarrelle Patterson 29th overall. Jennings should provide Ponder with a reliable target who maintains an ability to stretch the field, despite not possessing elite speed. Moreover, Patterson's talent as an open field runner brings a playmaking aspect to the table that should help compensate for the loss of Harvin. Meanwhile, Jarius Wright, who displayed promise last season, could emerge as a deep threat in his second year and Jerome Simpson was re-signed, in the hopes that he'll bounce back from a disappointing first year with Minnesota.
WHO STARTS AT LINEBACKER ALONG WITH Chad Greenway?
Though strong-sider Chad Greenway remains the stalwart of the unit, linebacker will be the main position in flux for the Vikings entering training camp. Last year's starting middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley, left via free agency. Erin Henderson, the starter at weak-side linebacker, is now the leading candidate to start at middle linebacker. However, as a result, there's no clear starter at weak-side linebacker, with no high-profile candidate to fill the position added this offseason. Gerald Hodges, a 2013 fourth-round draft pick, will compete with Marvin Mitchell and Larry Dean for the starting job. It's also possible that Henderson could stay at the weak-side, with another candidate emerging for the middle linebacker role. Of course, the Vikings could also sign a veteran late in the summer to compete for a starting job.
Rising: Kyle Rudolph emerged as Christian Ponder's favorite target with 53 receptions and his size (6-6) helps make him a red zone threat.
Declining: Jerome Simpson had an early leg injury and dealt with poor quarterback play, but he dropped four passes, fumbled twice and showed little of the explosiveness he displayed in Cincinnati.
Sleeper: CordarRellePatterson should make an immediate impact as a returner, plus his ability to make plays on short passes could see him used in the offense as Harvin was.
Supersleeper: Jarius Wright didn't play until Week 10, but showed upside as a big play threat. He could emerge as the No. 2 receiver if Simpson struggles and Patterson is slow to adapt to the NFL.
Jared Allen - DE
He didn't duplicate his near-record 22 sacks in 2011, but his 12 sacks marked a sixth consecutive season with 11 or more.
Chad Greenway - LB
Made the Pro Bowl after racking up 148 tackles and three sacks.
Harrison Smith - S
Recorded 98 tackles and three interceptions in his rookie season to help improve a struggling secondary.
RotoWire Rank: 26