2011 was a year to forget for Vikings fans. From blowing an unprecedented three halftime leads to open the season to seeing the face of the franchise suffer a possible career-altering injury, the whole year was one big shipwreck.
Despite a 3-13 record, the Vikings have a good amount of talent. Percy Harvin had a breakout season and showed what a game-changing performer he can be, Chad Greenway had another solid year, finishing third in the NFL in tackles, and Jared Allen showed that he is THE best pass-rusher in football.
Don't get me wrong. This is still a bad team.
They have a lot of needs, but the way I see it, the Vikings have three that are most pressing:
- A left tackle to anchor the line.
- A shutdown corner.
- A big, deep threat receiver.
Having secured the third pick in April's draft, the Vikes have a lot of options to choose from. For the purpose of this piece, we're going to take a look at the best options at each of these positions. And since it's nearly impossible to predict draft day trades, we're gonna assume Indianapolis, St. Louis and Minnesota stay in the slots they have.
Christian Ponder was very streaky in his rookie season. At times he looked poised and made great plays you expect out of your franchise QB. Other times, he looked like a rookie that the Vikings reached for with the No. 12 pick last year.
While it would be unfair to blame all his problems on lack of protection, you can't deny his atrocious offensive line certainly hindered his performance. The Vikings gave up 49 sacks in 2011. Only four teams gave up more. Often times opposing defenses would be able to flush Ponder out of the pocket or sack him with only four rushers.
While Bryant McKinnie never quite turned into the kind of player you'd expect out of someone drafted seventh overall, he was still solid and for nine years, the Vikings never had to worry about who they'd line up at left tackle. Chris Johnson, on the other hand, showed why he was cut from the Colts. There's no reason he should be a starting left tackle, and his poor performance showed how important it is to have someone at the position that's at least decent, like McKinnie.
As for the rest of the line, Steve Hutchinson has had a great career that may warrant a spot in Canton someday, but having ended the past two seasons on IR, you have to wonder how much he has left in the tank. Anthony Herrera has significantly underachieved, and Phil Loadholt has regressed in his third season. John Sullivan has played a solid center, but the fact that he's been the most reliable lineman shows how weak the unit is.
Enter Matt Kalil.
Standing 6'7'' and weighing 295 lbs, Kalil has everything coaches look for in a left tackle: the size, the strength and the footwork. This past season at USC, he didn't allow a single sack. He has the ability to start from day one and be an anchor for the Vikings line for many years. Drafting him won't instantly give Minnesota the protection Atlanta or New Orleans has, but it would definitely put them on the right track.
I don't care what the numbers said. As far as I'm concerned, the Vikings had the worst secondary of 2011. Opposing quarterbacks completed 68 percent of passes and had a rating of 107.6, good for 31st and 32nd in the league, respectively. If Tim Tebow can complete 75 percent of his attempts and throw for 200 yards against you, than your defense has issues. (If you're a Tebow supporter, please don't be too harsh on me for this statement). The biggest issue: no playmakers. The Vikings only came away with a league-worst eight interceptions, including that infamous 10-game stretch without a pick.
At the safety positions, Tyrell Johnson has not turned out to be the player the Vikings expected him to be after four years in the NFL. Husain Abdullah and Jarmaca have been decent at safety from time to time, but when six of your games are against Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford and Jay Cutler, decent is not going to get the job done.
Cornerback has been a bigger headache. Antoine Winfield is still a great tackler, but he's been hampered by injuries the past few seasons and can't be relied on to lock down defenders one-on-one anymore. Chris Cook's future with the team is unknown. Cedric Griffin is a shell of his former self after having surgery on both his knees, and Asher Allen should be working the check-out counter at Wall-Mart, not starting in the NFL.
Morris Claiborne, while he hasn't gotten as much national attention as the Honey Badger, is the best corner coming out this year and could make an immediate impact for the Vikings defense. If he is selected, and Chris Cook is allowed back of the team, the secondary looks much better already. Throw in a (hopefully) healthy Winfield in the nickel role or the long-rumored move to safety and the Vikings secondary could be better than anybody expects.
Percy Harvin is a great receiver. There are few players more dangerous with the ball in space than him. But it seems that no matter what, people always say he's only good in the slot. I don't know how many of his catches came out of the slot, but only five players in the league had more catches than him. Throw in the fact that he was a mere 33 yards short of 1000, he showed that he can be a primary receiver in the Vikings offense.
Still, a bigger, more conventional receiver wouldn't hurt.
Having lost Sidney Rice to the Seahawks, the Vikings have struggled to find a reliable deep threat. Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu each had their occasional moments, but they're both best suited as a third or fpurth option. With all the eight man fronts the Vikings receive with Adrian Peterson (whenever he returns from injury), they could have a dangerous vertical passing game with a tall receiver near the sideline.
Justin Blackmon is expected to be the first receiver off the board, and his performance in the Fiesta Bowl showed why, with 186 yards and three trips to the end zone. He's got a good frame at 6'1", 210 lbs and while he might not have elite speed, he does have strong hands and runs a good route. If he isn't taken by the Rams at No. 2, the Vikings could consider nabbing him.
Words I hope to hear this April: "With the third pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings select...Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, Southern California."
While this pick may not be as exciting to fans as a playmaker like Claiborne or Blackmon, Kalil is the smartest pick for the Vikes.
The Vikings have what they think may be a franchise quarterback, now they have to keep him upright. From what I've seen over the years, it's easier to build a secondary or receiving core through free agency than it is an offensive line. When teams get a guy like Orlando Pace or Walter Jones, they don't let him go until his best years are way behind him. Basically, the only way to find a left tackle is through the draft.
If he is still available at No. 3, it should be a no-brainer. But what if he isn't? Now it's decision time. Claiborne or Blackmon? Or maybe someone else entirely? Some of you might say Riley Reiff or Jonathan Martin instead of Claiborne of Blackmon. But when you have the No. 3 pick, I think you need to take the best player at his position.
Usually I'm against taking a wide receiver with a top-five pick, unless he's like Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson. And you can't deny that the Vikings need all the help they can get on defense. Even with the depth of corners in the class of '13, Claiborne would be a better pick. The secondary was one of the worst I've ever seen in Vikings history, and it's been a while since this team had a ball hawk on defense.
Of course, a lot may change between now and the draft. Players' stock may rise or fall as a result of the combine, and the Vikings may acquire a long-term starter they need. But if the draft was happening tomorrow and Kalil is off the board, I say go with Claiborne.
So there you have my opinion. But what do you think? Kalil? Claiborne? Pray that Indy and St. Louis pass on Andrew Luck? Would love to hear your input.