This Minnesota Vikings team is only going to get younger, as they are knee-deep in this rebuilding process.
This franchise—one that has fallen far from the top of the division after two seasons—obviously needs to be able to rely on its veterans but more importantly, the young guys need to step up as well. They simply can't afford to have anymore 3-13 seasons.
Though they aren't the youngest team in the NFL, the Vikings veterans are beginning to thin out and the blame will start to fall on the young guys sooner or later.
They have some very inexperienced players in some key positions and they will only grow younger as we move towards 2012.
Here are 10 young players that need to step up in 2012.
The Vikings picked up WR Manny Arceneaux just after the 2010 season from the CFL's BC Lions.
Arceneaux didn't get much playing time in preseason, but after receiving a three-year contract, he ended up on the Vikings' practice squad. With all of the injuries to the Vikings receivers over the course of the season, he found his way to the active roster and eventually got on the field late in the season.
Once he finally reached that point, he was very unproductive, only recording one catch for 10 yards.
He was given more than one opportunity to produce on the field and has nothing to show for it. If he wants to continue being under contract by the Vikings, he'll have to step up and play significantly better.
2012 may be his last shot with the Vikings—if he makes it past another preseason without fumbling the ball out the back of the end zone.
Brandon Burton is one of the six corners that the Vikings had on their active roster to begin the season. He was also one of two that didn't miss a significant amount of time to injury or off-the-field problems.
How did the Vikings secondary fare, you ask? Not very well.
This young corner, though not alone, was burned several times throughout the season. He certainly does not deserve to be cast off for lack of potential, though. Burton could end up being a solid nickel corner some day and could really contribute to this team if he's able to step up.
If Burton is able to step up in 2012, he could be a part of a much-improved secondary.
Heads will certainly roll in the offseason. If Burton is lucky, he won't be one of them.
Brandon Fusco was drafted as a center but ended up playing guard in a limited role while Anthony Herrera was injured. I don't think the expectations were necessarily high for Fusco, but the offensive line could clearly use some work and I think Jon Sullivan is the only guy whose job is safe at this point.
Fusco could end up being safe with the Vikings as a solid backup, but at that point he would have to prove that he is, indeed, a solid backup.
If Fusco can step up in 2012, he may not just remain a backup, but squeeze himself into a starting role on an offensive line that is in a stage of transition.
I already alluded to the fact that no Vikings DB's job is safe at this point, but that might be especially true of Marcus Sherels.
Sherels may have only made the roster because of a couple of good kick returns during the preseason. Since then, he hasn't done much to impress and Percy Harvin proved to be much more productive in his place.
That, paired with the fact that he isn't exactly the best cover corner, means that he'll really need to work hard leading up to 2012 if he wants a job with the Vikings in the future.
It's not like Sherels doesn't have potential, but the special teams units definitely took a step back in 2011. Sherels should be anxious to prove that isn't because of him in 2012.
Mistral Raymond got his shot with the Vikings with only a few weeks left on the schedule and showed some good things while starting. The problem is, however, that I distinctively remember seeing Raymond get burned on more than one touchdown pass.
Of course, those could be chalked up to inexperience, but when Josh McCown is getting in your head, you've got problems.
Raymond has great size and potential to play safety in the NFL—heck, he could be a starter someday. That day isn't today and it probably won't be this coming season either.
Raymond has to step up and show that he deserves to play on this team. He has to fight for a job even as a backup at this point.
There is plenty of controversy around Chris Cook right now. If he's allowed to continue in the NFL, the Vikings will be relieved to get him back. That doesn't mean, however, that he's going to just skate back to a starting role.
Cook has to step up in 2012, both as a player and as a humanitarian. Cook has to be the corner that we all saw he could be, but perhaps more importantly he needs to rehabilitate his image.
Right now, Cook is the closest thing the Vikings have to a shut-down corner, and he didn't play for most of the season. He really has the potential to be a good corner in the NFL, but he has to step up and prove that he's worth the trouble in 2012.
Erin Henderson is another big if. If he re-signs with the Vikings, he may be able to retain his starting role as the weak-side OLB. He improved a lot over the course of 2011, but there's certainly room for more improvement.
There are going to be a lot of roster moves this offseason, but I assume that Henderson will be given every chance to step up and defend his role—if he re-signs, that is.
I think I'm definitely part of the minority that thinks Toby Gerhart is a solid RB in Minnesota. He's not Adrian Peterson, but then again, is anyone as good as AP?
Gerhart will likely start the first few games of the 2012 season, just like he started the last few with an injured Peterson. Gerhart will have his work cut out for him carrying the load—especially with Lorenzo Booker a free agent. That makes Gerhart the only serviceable RB on the roster for the first few games of the season.
He needs to step up in 2012 and prove that he can be a solid No. 2 to AP and carry the load of the running game for his team.
He could be in for a nice payday if he can do that.
With Rick Spielman named the first GM for the Vikings since the '70s, TE Kyle Rudolph will likely see his role expanded immensely in 2012. The young TE has the hands and the size to be a great TE like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski with the right coaching.
The Vikings will be without retiring TE Jim Kleinsasser and will likely lose No.1 TE Visanthe Shiancoe to free agency this offseason. That being said, Rudolph will have his work cut out for him as the new top dog in Minnesota.
If he can continue to improve and build chemistry with Christian Ponder, Rudolph could be one of the premier weapons on this offense.
Christian Ponder's inconsistency late in the season was due in large part to poor offensive line play that resulted in injuries. The rookie QB was banged up pretty bad.
That likely effected his confidence a bit, but according to Rick Spielman, he will continue to be this team's franchise QB.
Ponder will now have a full offseason to truly learn this offense and become the field general the Vikings need him to be. He'll likely be given a few new weapons and hopefully some better protection in 2012, but that doesn't change the fact that Ponder has some improving to do as well.
No longer can his terrible mistakes be chalked up to inexperience. He'll now have to own his mistakes and in turn do a better job of avoiding them.
2012 will no doubt be a test for the Vikings' young players, but that is the most true of Christian Ponder. He'll receive the most praise if he's able to improve, but he'll continue to be attacked if the improvement isn't apparent enough.
Thanks for reading.
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