We are approaching my favorite time of the year: the NFL off-season. Free agency is already underway; the Draft is in a few short weeks, training camps and OTAs approach — filling all of us fans with a renewed sense of hope; but most of all, there is no one to lose to.
Alright, so maybe that last one was a little sarcastic.
Either way, after a horrendous season like 2011, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about 2012.
Things are already looking a lot better for the Minnesota Vikings, but then again, you'd hope so after a 3-13 season.
Here's a look at 12 reasons to be optimistic about 2012.
2011 could have been the worst Christmas in history for Minnesota Vikings' fans.
Adrian Peterson's horrific knee injury had fans sick to their stomachs, reconstructive knee surgery is probably the scariest combination of words in the football language. Although, if there was any player that could bounce back from such an injury, it would be Purple Jesus.
According to reports, AP is on track to return to the field for week one. Though the Vikings are in no hurry to push their star player back on the field, the progress of his rehab is very encouraging.
Even if Peterson is not able to return for week one, the progress he's making and the potential for his return to elite status at all is a victory for the Minnesota Vikings and for the NFL as a whole.
We all await the second coming of Adrian Peterson.
The most important coaching decision the Vikings made since the 2011 season ended was to bring in a new defensive coordinator, and they handled their coaching staff decision perfectly.
In bringing in a defensive coordinator like Alan Williams who specializes in the secondary, they could keep Fred Pagac as their linebackers' coach--a position he's highly respected for coaching.
The more exciting move to fans, in regard to the coaching staff, should be the return of defensive line coach Brendan Daly.
After establishing the Vikings as the NFL's elite rush defense, Daly parted ways with the Vikings to join the St. Louis Rams. Sure, Karl Dunbar did a fine job of coaching the defensive line, but it was Brendan Daly that really put the Vikings on the map.
With how many young players the Vikings have on the defensive line, they will thrive from Daly's return because of his fiery personality and emphasis on fundamentals.
This could be the best decision they made this off-season.
This was another great move by the Vikings player personnel staff. Remi Ayodele was nothing more than a waste of money.
He didn't just drain cap space either, he failed to penetrate the offensive line and perhaps even worse, he failed to draw double teams--his one job.
In sacking Ayodele, no pun intended, the Vikings freed up space to sign other players and can now give other young players a chance for the starting job.
With Brendan Daly coaching up the defensive line, the Vikings made a great move and can begin to move back in the right direction and clog up the middle.
A few longtime Vikings are no longer with the team. Cedric Griffin, E.J. Henderson and Steve Hutchinson all will not be starting for the purple in 2012 (of course I'm speculating about Henderson, who has yet to be signed by any team).
Whether you view this as good or bad in the short-term, getting younger is the best long-tern plan for the team. The offensive line and secondary are the two biggest areas of need for the Vikings this off-season, and parting ways with a few injury-prone veterans can't be completely a bad thing.
Cedric Griffin after tearing his ACL in 2010, Cedric Griffin was draining on the team by not showing the same level of effort that the team was accustomed to seeing from him. Griffin seemed to give up on the field at points in 2011 and cleaned out his locker completely, well before the team let him go.
With Chris Cook returning in 2012, the addition of another CB and the return of the young DBs the Vikings already have will make for a younger secondary with more potential.
Steve Hutchinson, on the other hand, will be missed by the Vikings in 2012. Hutchinson has long been a leader not just on the line, but in the locker room in general. The decision to let him go was met by skepticism from many Vikings fans who think this was a step in the wrong direction.
2011, however, was the second season in a row that Hutchinson has ended his year on an injury. His body is beginning to wear down and he doesn't look like a long-term solution anymore.
Releasing Hutchinson will not just save the Vikings cap space, but it will make for a young group of linemen hopefully ready to step up and be more durable in 2012.
The Vikings had plenty of players that needed to be re-signed this off-season. During the regular season, they re-signed Adrian Peterson and John Sullivan both to long-term deals. In the past two weeks, they've also come to terms with starting OLB Erin Henderson, WR Devin Aromashodu, DTs Fred Evans and Letroy Guion and are currently working with FS Husain Abdullah to agree on a contract.
Though guys like Aromashodu and Evans may not seem like necessary re-signings, they both offer excellent depth for the Vikings and could be key contributors going forward. On the other hand, Henderson, Guion and Abdullah could all be starters in 2012, ensuring that three new holes haven't created themselves.
Granted, those three positions will likely all still be targeted in the draft. However, a little competition on defense will be good for a group that certainly lacked some fire in 2011.
Allowing these guys to leave would have been a mistake for the Vikings.
I already touched on the positives of Cedric Griffin being released, but the return of Chris Cook can't be emphasized enough.
The Vikings' secondary looked horrible down the stretch in 2011, but it was only after Cook's suspension/leave that they actually started to look bad. Cook did not allow many touchdowns while he was on the field. The only notable touchdown he gave up was to Calvin Johnson on a jump ball in the end-zone--something you really couldn't blame many corners for.
Cook's return addresses one of the outside corner slots for the Vikings secondary. With Antoine Winfield in the slot, that only leaves one spot for the team to address early in the draft.
The addition of Zachary Bowman will also provide the Vikings with some depth and guys like Brandon Burton, Asher Allen and Mistral Raymond add both youth and versatility.
With two to three DB selections in the draft, including one in the first three rounds, the Vikings secondary could be back on track.
The consensus seems to be that the Vikings will add an offensive lineman early in the draft (Matt Kalil if I had anything to say about it).
Adding a new left tackle would allow them to move Charlie Johnson to left guard and kill two birds with one stone.
After signing Geoff Schwartz, the Vikings have plenty of options to find a right guard. They seem to have a lot of faith in Chris Degeare and Brandon Fusco. Among those three young players, they will not only find depth for the line, they probably will find a starter as well.
With Phil Loadholt in a contract year, he has no choice but to play well for the Vikings. He obviously still needs some improvements, but he is certainly talented and has the potential.
All of this adds together to make for much better protection for Christian Ponder, and hopefully, more time for him to hit his receivers.
Bill Musgrave ran a pretty basic form of his offense for rookie QB Christian Ponder in 2011.
Because of the lockout, he wasn't able to install the complex version of his playbook so that all of the players were ready after the shortened off-season.
This featured a lot of end-arounds with Percy Harvin, and other pretty predictable plays simply because, there just wasn't time to establish a high-intensive passing attack.
After a season of experience under his belt, and a full off-season to settle in with the offense, Christian Ponder should really be ready to roll. If he comes to grasp the offense, he should be given more free reign in the passing game, making for a much more exciting product to watch on the field.
Continuity with OC Bill Musgrave will be very beneficial to Ponder, who the team hopes to develop into their franchise quarterback. Musgrave has tailored the offense to Ponder's skills and to the skills of other key players like AP and Percy Harvin.
A solid off-season to mesh together should provide the Vikings with some more team chemistry and hopefully translate to some wins as well.
I've probably beat this one to death already, but Christian Ponder should look a lot better in 2012.
Along with the consistency of working with the same offense, Ponder should be more protected in 2012 by a better offensive line, and he should be more comfortable with the weapons around him.
Ponder did not look bad in 2011, but the rookie jitters were definitely there and he clearly had a few speed-bumps in his transition to the NFL.
The Vikings will likely add some more weapons for Ponder in the passing attack and give him more freedom within the offense. I know this is all stuff I probably touched on, but I thought synthesizing it was worth its own slide.
The franchise QB should look a hell of a lot better in 2012, that's something to get excited about.
It is the trendy thing to say that "the NFL is a copycat league," but honestly, that is what's going on with the Vikings decision to pick up TE John Carlson.
The Vikings lost Jim Kleinsasser to retirement and likely won't re-sign Visanthe Shiancoe, who is a free agent, so tight end was definitely an area of need. The thing is, they gave Carlson a five-year contract worth $25 million.
That would be fine if they were signing him to become a starter, but they seem very invested in second-year player Kyle Rudolph to fill their starting slot at TE. Rudolph is regarded for having very high potential and possibly being the "next big franchise tight end," but that remains to be seen.
The Vikings will play "copycat" to the New England Patriots who have both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, some of the league's top tight ends. Neither Rudolph nor Carlson is a top TE, but the Vikings are hoping that the pair could develop that way, or possibly emulate the NE-duo as big physical receivers.
Tight ends will be Christian Ponder's best friends in 2012. He's still young and needs that safety net of having a good TE, but most of all, the Vikings don't have many adequate receivers. The pair of Rudolph and Carlson could make for a dynamic, physical offense for the Vikings. It will be interesting to see how they feed off each other when they're both on the field.
I already touched on the fact that getting Chris Cook back will make a huge difference for the secondary.
That same concept can obviously be applied to other players and positions as well.
Along with Cook's absence from the secondary, the Vikings lost Antoine Winfield and Husain Abdullah to season ending injuries. Their receiver corps also took a hit after Michael Jenkins and Stephen Burton went down on leg injuries.
That's not to say that the Vikings receivers were a whole lot better to begin with, but losing their number one receiver certainly didn't help.
Jasper Brinkley was also out for the entire season in 2011 with a hip injury. He is considered the favorite to win the starting MLB spot, so obviously getting him back will be nice too.
Injuries are a part of the game, but getting back some of these key guys will make the Vikings look a lot better in 2012.
The Vikings have 10 picks in the upcoming draft, including the third overall pick, which I believe they will use to select franchise left tackle Matt Kalil.
To those of you that are actually taking the time to read my slides and not just read the titles, I apologize for sounding so repetitive, but drafting Kalil will make a world of difference for the Vikings.
Along with the number three pick, the No. 35 pick should also provide them with a first-round caliber player. Whether they choose to select a WR, a CB or just the best player available, the Vikings will get two players in the first two rounds that will make a huge impact in 2012.
After we get past the marquee picks in the draft, the Vikings still have a pick in every round, and three in the fourth round after receiving compensatory selections for losing WR Sidney Rice, DE Ray Edwards and QB Tarvaris Jackson to free agency prior to the 2011 season.
Though they are just fourth round picks, it's important to note that you can still find very talented players in the fourth round and they can offer great value to the team. To put it into perspective, fourth rounders in the past for the Vikings include DT Christian Ballard and DEs Brian Robison, Ray Edwards and Everson Griffen. Not all are consistent starters, but they offer great depth to their team.
With needs on the offensive line, in the secondary, at WR, MLB and at RB, the more picks the better.
The draft won't make the Vikings relevant per say, but it will make them better--they can't get much worse, right?
Thanks for reading.