Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Minnesota Vikings check in at No. 30.
Immersed in one of the darkest times in franchise history, the Vikings are looking for even the slightest optimism to energize the fan base. This reclamation project could take awhile. Save a few moving parts, this is still the same team that has one divisional win since 2010. But the Vikings have done enough through free agency and the draft to improve from last season’s 3–13 collapse. After more than a dozen free agent signings and 10 draft picks, depth should bolster positions of need such as cornerback, wide receiver and offensive line.
It’s not every player’s fault the Vikings fell apart last season. Some of the game’s brightest wear purple on Sundays. But let’s be honest: The Vikings entered the offseason with far more questions than answers.
That’s just fine with the three monsters in the NFC North that have made a recent habit of devouring the Vikings.
Whether Adrian Peterson recovers from his torn anterior cruciate ligament in time for Week 1 or Week 8, the Vikings can’t wait for the game’s best rusher to play savior. The league’s 28th-ranked passing offense must catch up with the rest of the league — and it has a fighting chance to do just that.
Hopes hinge on quarterback Christian Ponder, who throws well on the move and converts key third downs but has struggled with decision-making late in games. It’s all about timing with Ponder — when to have confidence in his strong arm and when to be conservative.
Ponder should have more to work with this year. As should do-it-all receiver Percy Harvin, who is best suited for the slot but will be used all over the field once again.
Receiver Jerome Simpson’s elite athleticism makes him worth the risk of a one-year deal despite his three-game suspension to start the 2012 season. Simpson’s arrival allows veteran Michael Jenkins, a reliable possession receiver who sometimes struggles to beat man coverage, to slide into the third receiver spot.
The Vikings have invested in tight end help, hoping the John Carlson-Kyle Rudolph combination channels the Gronk-Hernandez show in New England. Carlson is good against zone coverage and is more quick than fast, but he won’t blow by anybody. Rudolph’s ridiculous hands and pass-catching radius offset his lack of speed. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the team’s best red zone option.
When it comes to instant improvement, look no further than the offensive line. First-round left tackle Matt Kalil has the agility and technique to be an elite pass-protector and allows Charlie Johnson, who’s tough but limited at tackle because of short arms, to slide to left guard. Couple the new left side with center John Sullivan (who improved his strength to handle nose tackles) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (a solid run-blocker who struggles with speed-rushers but is motivated entering a contract year), and the offensive line should keep Ponder upright more often than it was able to last season.
The Vikings are counting on Toby Gerhart, who thrives off carries in bulk and can wear teams down with a bowling-ball mentality. But if Peterson misses extended time, the Vikings will miss terribly his ability to take over games. Expect Peterson’s pass-catching role to increase upon his return.
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Not even four Jared Allens up front could have masked Minnesota’s historically bad secondary a year ago, when opposing quarterbacks enjoyed a 107.6 passer rating.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams should have more help, but the Vikings are choosing to count on third-year cornerback Chris Cook, who twice found legal trouble in 2011. Corners who are 6'2" with natural ability to cover on an island are hard not to play. Reliability is Cook’s issue. Veteran Antoine Winfield turned 35 in June but is still one of the team’s better tacklers and, when healthy, wreaks havoc in the slot.
The Vikings are counting on two rookies — safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Josh Robinson — to help revamp the secondary. The speedy Robinson has adequate coverage ability but must prove he’s polished. Smith is polished but must prove he has adequate coverage ability. Second-year safety Mistral Raymond wasn’t ready last season but should compete for a spot this year.
The strength of the defense remains up front, where Allen, tackle Kevin Williams and end Brian Robison return to a unit that tied for the league lead with 50 sacks. Despite getting overpowered at times, Robison is an emerging end with above-average quickness. Williams has played through injury the last two seasons and can still dominate games at times. He’ll need help from Letroy Guion, who’s expected to start at nose tackle despite four uneven seasons. Coaches believe his move from three-technique tackle to nose will best utilize his 6'4", 303-pound frame to gobble up rushing lanes.
Questions persist at linebacker, where Jasper Brinkley, the replacement for E.J. Henderson, has limited experience and is coming off hip surgery. Brinkley is an aggressive hitter and solid against the run, but can he consistently cover tight ends?
Chad Greenway is solid in coverage, but despite being a sure tackler and team leader, he was quiet in the big-play department a year ago. Maybe a better secondary can help clean up the backfield mess that left linebackers vulnerable.
Erin Henderson can play in nickel or base packages and has major upside. In the past, he’s been prone to leave his gap in search of a home run play.
Kicker Ryan Longwell was released, opening the door for sixth-round pick Blair Walsh, who has a tremendous leg but was inconsistent in his final season at Georgia.
Harvin is the Vikings’ best kick return option, but he’s too valuable on offense. Third-string running back Jordan Todman or fourth-round receiver Jarius Wright could help matters. Robinson returned punts in college and might compete with last year’s return man, Marcus Sherels.
Final Analysis: 4th in the NFC North
The Vikings are rebuilding at the worst possible time, with all three NFC North rivals capable of double-digit-win seasons. But things can’t get much worse than in 2011, when an 0–4 start despite dominating teams in first halves deflated the entire season, and injuries plagued several positions. After losing nine games by seven points or less, this team seems due for a few breaks. If the Vikings stay healthy and produce a top-15 offense, six wins are a starting point. The running game is still stout, the defensive line is still among the league’s top 10, and a veteran-laden locker room is tired of losing. But two of the biggest concerns from a year ago — sub-par play at receiver and in the secondary — are still relatively uncertain. It’s hard to win that way, unless a few young players surprise.
Related: 2012 Minnesota Vikings Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
First-round left tackle Matt Kalil has been groomed for success. His dad, Frank, played one season with the Buffalo Bills and four years in the now-defunct USFL. His mother, Cheryl, was Miss California in 1981. Brother Ryan is a Pro Bowl center for the Panthers. The spotlight should be no problem for the Vikings’ new tackle.
Call of Duty
Coach Leslie Frazier got a call from well-respected Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome around the time the Vikings were wrapping up a 3–13 season. Newsome’s message? Trust the process, keep working and things will turn. Frazier, entering his second full year, believes the Vikings have great potential.
The Vikings were one of eight NFL teams without a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver in 2011. Injuries limited Adrian Peterson to 970 yards, well short of his 1,446-yard yearly average through his first four seasons. Percy Harvin led all Vikings receivers with 967 yards.
Quarterback Christian Ponder has wasted little time getting to know his veteran teammates since joining the team in 2011. He’s been hunting with linebacker Chad Greenway and center John Sullivan in Greenway’s hometown of Mount Vernon, S.D. He’s cooked barbecue with tight end John Carlson. And he’s golfed with several teammates.
Top this Speaking of Allen, don’t expect last year’s sack leader with 22 — a half-sack shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record — to predict a sack total for 2012. Allen believes if he’s trying to get sacks, he won’t get sacks. Beating left tackles with technique and relentless play is Allen’s primary concern on the field. The rest takes care of itself.
After four straight years ranking in the top two in rushing defense (2006-09), the Vikings fell to ninth in 2010 and 11th last year. Minnesota’s going on its third nose tackle in as many years and will have difficulty cracking the top five again.
Teammates for Life
The Vikings’ pair of fourth-round receivers, Arkansas’ Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, have known each other since the third grade growing up in Warren, Ark. “They are reminding me, ‘Coach, we’ve always been winners. Everywhere we went,’” Frazier says. “I said, ‘Hallelujah!’ We’ll take that.”
While recovering from his torn ACL this offseason, running back Adrian Peterson spent lots of time in airplanes because of his choice to rehab in two places: at Minnesota’s practice facility and his offseason home in Houston. “I stick to the plan wherever I am,” said Peterson during the offseason. “In both places, I’m being pushed hard and I’m pushing myself hard. So, I think it’s working out well.”
Want to improve in 2011? Try improving this stat line: NFC North quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler combined to complete 72.3 percent of their passes for 1,457 yards, 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Vikings last season.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Tues., July 24
Order your 2012 Minnesota Vikings Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
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Related: 2012 Minnesota Vikings Schedule Analysis