The Vikings’ expectations for 2011 can be found somewhere between promise and denial. Several talented pieces remain from a 2009 team that was one botched play from a Super Bowl berth, but those pieces are either aging or still wondering what the heck happened during last season’s 6–10 meltdown.
Now the Vikings find themselves at a crossroads. It’s unclear whether this team is rebuilding or clinging to fading glory. This is a veteran roster that knows it has a small window to win, but can a few dusty Pro Bowl résumés offset regression at several positions and the need for a new outlook on offense? After all, new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and the starting quarterback — veteran Donovan McNabb — must make the rest of the offense believe in a new approach.
First-year coach Leslie Frazier must manage these moving parts skillfully to avoid a second consecutive last-place finish in a loaded NFC North.
McNabb, acquired from Washington in a post-lockout trade, must grasp a new playbook during a lockout-abbreviated training camp as he hopes to prove that his lone season in Washington was an aberration. McNabb threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14) for the first time in his career and ranked 24th in the league with a 77.1 passer rating. If McNabb struggles, the Vikings can turn to Joe Webb or 2011 first-round draft pick Christian Ponder. Webb is one of the team’s most intriguing players. The Vikings love his upside, elite speed and arm strength, but he’s considered raw as a passer with unproven accuracy, which is essential in the Vikings’ West Coast-inspired attack. Ponder, too, has rollout quickness and a sizable arm, but the Vikings don’t yet know what they have. At least the Vikings have mobile quarterbacks, a necessity behind an oft-injured line starting three players over 30.
The Vikings feature some nice firepower at the skill positions, but they suffered a blow in free agency when Sidney Rice bolted for Seattle and a big paycheck. Rice has been prone to injury, but when healthy he provided a much-needed deep threat.
Now, to the positives: Running back Adrian Peterson has limited his fumbles and is still arguably the league’s premier tailback; tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is an athletic option who wins one-on-one matchups; and wide receiver Percy Harvin can channel Wes Welker-type inside production and help move the chains. After that trio, things get murky. The team does have high hopes for rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph, who will be used often in Musgrave’s two-tight end sets.
The Vikings need more consistency up front from its veteran line to give the offense a chance to flourish.
For years, the Vikings entered every game knowing they were one of the league’s best at stopping the run. The Vikings want to restore that confidence after falling to ninth in rushing defense last season, but the personnel within the Tampa 2 scheme has a steep climb to produce the desired results.
At its core, Minnesota’s defense still has five veteran players performing at a high level. That’s no longer enough to mask deficiencies up front and in the secondary. Still, hope remains because of talent such as defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who remains the anchor of the Vikings’ interior attack. But Williams’ ability to penetrate the backfield might be in question after he recorded a career-low one sack in 2010. Williams won’t have much help save Letroy Guion, who is good for one- or two-down stints but probably isn’t a full-time starter, and newly acquired Remi Ayodele. Depth will be an issue inside. The right edge will provide a dozen or more sacks every year thanks to Jared Allen, who sometimes resorts to flailing against elite left tackles but always finds his stride through a 16-game season.
The Vikings could use an influx of secondary talent despite a system that emphasizes stopping the run and utilizing the nickel package. Cornerback Antoine Winfield, still an elite tackler and corner blitzer, is the only sure thing in the unit. Winfield wasn’t tested as often in 2010 because the other side was such a mess, but now that he’s 34, it’s uncertain how long he can contain bigger, stronger wideouts. Corners Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook missed a combined 24 games in 2010 due to knee injuries. The Vikings can’t be sure how Griffin will respond after two ACL tears, and Cook needs to be fully healthy to showcase his combination of size and athleticism.
The Vikings wanted to keep safety Madieu Williams around, but they cleared $3.5 million in cap space with his release. Tyrell Johnson will be given every opportunity to take Williams’ spot. Husain Abdullah recorded three interceptions in his first season as a starter but isn’t the game-changing safety teams covet.
One of the safest bets on the roster is linebacker, where Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson play more than 90 percent of the snaps. Greenway rarely misses a tackle and is disciplined in the running and passing games. The next step for him is getting to the quarterback after one sack the last two seasons combined. Henderson is a versatile playmaker fresh off his first Pro Bowl, but he struggles laterally against quick backs in the open field. Don’t be surprised if Erin Henderson wins the battle for the third spot. His athleticism and nose for the football are apparent; now he must win over coaches and limit occasional mental lapses.
It’s hard to argue with the efficiency of tandem Ryan Longwell, who made 17 of his last 18 field goal attempts, and punter Chris Kluwe, among the league’s best at downing punts inside the 20.
Despite three career touchdowns and a 23.3-yard return average in 2010, Harvin likely will relinquish kickoff return duties to running back Lorenzo Booker in an effort to preserve Harvin’s health. Booker showed a spark in limited kickoff action last season. The Vikings likely need an upgrade at punt returner. Wide receiver Greg Camarillo was thrust into the role out of necessity, and despite his sure hands, he’s not fast enough to be a dynamic returner.
The Vikings could flirt with a .500 record. At least a few wins will hinge on whether this team can stay healthy. Problems in the secondary and up front will haunt the defense when facing Aaron Rodgers twice a year. But an offense with McNabb and a solid collection of playmakers might actually surprise some people. Still, Minnesota will have to battle to stay out of last place.
Outside the Huddle
Football’s best backhand
After playing at 360 pounds in 2010, left tackle Bryant McKinnie decided tennis lessons from friend Venus Williams in Florida would help him slim down. McKinnie dropped five pounds in the first few weeks with Venus and set his goal at 340 for the season opener. “One thing I learned with Venus, you have to be ready for a long lesson,” McKinnie says.
An offseason arrest prompted defensive end Everson Griffen to move to Minnesota full time in an effort to curb distractions. Griffen was charged with resisting arrest in January in Los Angeles. He worked out with linebacker E.J. Henderson all offseason. “I’m just trying to make changes,” Griffen says. “I’ve got big years coming up.”
Invested in the game
When not on the field, offensive tackle Ryan Cook spends time studying real estate markets in Minnesota and his native New Mexico for startup company RCC Investments. Cook’s plan is to acquire 10 small apartment buildings, serve as property manager and flip them for a profit. “I graduated from (University of New Mexico) with a business degree, so this has been my plan all along,” Cook says.
Rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph endured pain through the entire draft evaluation process after hamstring surgery in October. Rudolph didn’t start to feel “completely normal again” until May, which reminded the former Notre Dame star of his potential as a pass-catcher. “I now feel athleticism and explosiveness from when before I got hurt,” Rudolph says.
Grabbing football by the horns
When news of his three-year, $14.1-million contract became official on March 3, defensive end Brian Robison was at a rodeo in the Houston area. The Texas native is admittedly a little country. “I got to celebrate the moment a little bit,” says Robison, the only Viking to sign a long-term deal before the old CBA expired.
Quarterback Christian Ponder wanted to become a vocal leader, but the rookie needed time over the years to overcome his shy personality. Teammates at Florida State thought he was conceited because he didn’t talk much as a freshman, but he was just reserved. A summer telemarketing job cold-calling boosters helped him break out. “I hated that job,” Ponder says. “But I’m glad I did it.”
Running back Toby Gerhart, who played at Stanford, had a miserable time dealing with the Minnesota winter. His car got stuck in the snow several times, and he once had to call quarterback Joe Webb to pick him up. “I just need a few years to get used to it,” Gerhart jokes.
Multiple formation location
The Vikings were scattered throughout the country in the offseason. More than a dozen players stayed locally in Minnesota, but others spent time everywhere from Florida (Percy Harvin) to Maryland (Visanthe Shiancoe) to Arizona (Jared Allen) to Oklahoma (Phil Loadholt) to Arkansas (Kevin Williams).
The football network
Twitter is part of the fabric of the sports-fan experience, and the Vikings are no exception. At least 28 players from last year’s roster regularly update a Twitter account. Tweeters include Adrian Peterson, Harvin and Bernard Berrian.
Minnesota Vikings Fantasy Football Team Breakdown