Minnesota Vikings 2012 Preview: Predicting the Top 25 Performers
The Vikings' 2011 roster was more top-heavy than Christina Hendricks. Superstars Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin and Jared Allen comprised one of the best trios in the league, but due to insufficient support, the team sagged to a 3-13 record. To make matters worse, the Vikings will enter 2012 with one third of said trifecta in question.
It will be a long road back to respectability, but through the draft, and to a lesser extent, free agency, the Vikings have begun to fortify the back end of their roster. Coupled with a last-place schedule, it's not unreasonable to expect another two to four wins in 2012.
Where the meaningful contributions will come from is still about as clear as Jerome Simpson's eyes, but in the coming slides, I'll take my best shot at predicting the top 25 performers of 2012.
25. John Carlson, TE
The ink has dried on John Carlson's nonsensical contract—no, he didn't use a pencil, I already checked—so there's no point in rehashing the absurdity of the numbers.
The oft-concussed Minnesota (Litchfield) native turns 28 this month and missed all of last season with a torn labrum. The last time we saw him, he was a respectable receiving target who couldn't block.
Carlson will likely be used as option 1B to Kyle Rudolph's 1A in two-tight end sets, and while I won't insult your intelligence with Gronk/Hernandez comparisons, the Vikings didn't pay Carlson starting money to stand on the sidelines.
24. Michael Jenkins, WR
Michael Jenkins is like a microwave dinner—pop him in for a couple minutes, he'll do the job cheaply, but you'll be left craving something more.
I'd love to identify one of the two Razorback rookies into this spot, but I expect the Vikings to lean on the trustworthy-yet-unspectacular veteran for one more year. The former Falcon is comfortable in Bill Musgrave's system, and his decent combination of size, hands and route-runnning savvy will buy Greg Childs and Jarius Wright the time they'll need to establish roles and get up to speed.
Jerome Simpson's three-game suspension will result in extra September snaps for the 29-year-old Jenkins.
23. Josh Robison, CB/PR
Third-round lightning bug Josh Robinson should contribute immediately in a variety of roles. The 5'10", 199-lb. cornerback lit up Indianapolis with a combine-best 4.29 40-yard dash and a 38.5" vertical.
While his technique needs some refining, he's an elite-level athlete and a dynamic playmaker who has all the right traits of a zone cornerback.
Rick Spielman's trip to the used Carr lot was a flop (he signed Chris instead of Brandon), so Robinson has a relatively unabated path to playing time. It shouldn't take him long to ascend to the No. 3 spot and sub-package duties behind Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook.
The rookie's speed is likely to be utilized on special teams as well, and the punt return job is his to lose (he averaged 13.1 yards per return at UCF). The days of watching Marcus Sherels mindlessly field punts inside the 5-yard line have come to a merciful end, Vikings fans.
22. Charlie Johnson, LG
Charlie Johnson became a cult hero last August when he replaced maligned left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who was 320 lbs of wasted talent encased in an 80-lb. layer of whale blubber. Predictably, Johnson's popularity didn't last long.
A natural guard, Johnson was exposed early and often as rookie Christian Ponder's blind side protector, yet he started all 16 games and led the offense in snaps (98.9 percent). The addition of Matt Kalil will allow the 28-year-old to slide inside.
Departed left guard Steve Hutchinson was breaking down faster than Charlie Sheen's liver, but Johnson is a replacement-level talent who should still be considered a downgrade.
21. Letroy Guion, NT
Once upon a time, opposing running backs were forced to orbit Pat Williams just to get back to the line of scrimmage. Those days are long gone, and this offseason the Vikings re-upped Letroy Guion for three years in hopes that he can plug the gaping hole as a converted nose tackle.
At just a shade over 300 lbs, Guion is a more natural three-technique tackle than a run-stuffing anchor, and while he's a talented kid, I'm skeptical about his ability to clog lanes and occupy blockers.
There's untapped potential in the 24-year-old, but if he doesn't take the next step in 2012 as part of a supremely gifted line, I'm afraid he never will.
20. Jasper Brinkley, MLB
The E.J. Henderson era is over, leaving 26-year-old Jasper Brinkley as the Vikings' de facto middle linebacker. Brinkley plays like a rhino—he can wreak havoc when crashing forward but is very unnatural moving backward. For this reason, he projects as a two-down backer who will defer to Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson on passing downs.
The 2009 fifth-rounder missed all of last season with a hip injury, and while he was respectable in relief of E.J. Henderson late in 2009, Rick Spielman really rolled the dice by sloughing the position in free agency and the draft.
With green starters at nose tackle, middle linebacker and both safety spots, the Vikings' middle is more vulnerable than Lindsay Lohan at a cocaine buffet.
19. Everson Griffen, DE
Entering the 2010 draft, USC's Everson Griffen was a first-round athlete with a first-grade maturity level. The latter caused him to slip all the way to the fourth round, where the Vikings snatched him up with pick No. 100.
Although he's still a work in progress, we caught a glimpse of Griffen's enormous potential last season when he tallied four sacks and 14 quarterback pressures despite playing just a quarter of the team's defensive snaps. It was a dramatic improvement from a rookie season in which he collected more arrests (two) than sacks (zero).
Jared Allen and Brian Robison are one of the league's best defensive end tandems, so new defensive coordinator Alan Williams will need to find creative ways to utilize Griffen's playmaking ability.
In addition to keeping Allen and Robison fresh, the 24-year-old has taken reps at linebacker, and at 6'3" and 273 lbs, he's an unblockable gunner on special teams.
18. Jerome Simpson, WR
One of the Vikings' top priorities into the offseason was to add an outside compliment to Percy Harvin, but they wisely refused to throw stupid money at guys like Robert Meachem, Pierre Garcon and Laurent Robinson. Instead, the team took a low-risk flier on former Bengal Jerome Simpson, signing him to what essentially amounts to a 13-game contract.
Simpson will be suspended for the first three games of the season, after authorities intercepted a package containing 2.5 pounds of marijuana that was being shipped to his home. Upon entering Simpson's house, they found another six pounds of pot, a pallet of Funyuns and Tim Lincecum.
Simpson has a reputation of inconsistency and concentration lapses, but he's a talented guy with an intriguing blend of size, speed and athleticism (6'2', 195 lbs). The 2008 second-rounder is just 26 and coming off a career-best 50/725/4 campaign.
In the final two games of 2010, he flashed his potential by racking up 18/247/3. Beginning Week 4, he'll figure heavily into the passing attack.
17. Harrison Smith, S
It came as no surprise to anyone when the Vikings traded back into the first round to select Notre Dame's Harrison Smith. After all, their 2011 safety group was about as effective as Antonio Cromartie's birth control methods. There was Husain Abdullah, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Ty...Tyre...I forget.
At 6'2", 213 lbs, Smith has prototypical size and strength, and he'll bring intelligence, versatility and leadership to a largely undisciplined secondary. He can play either safety spot, but the former linebacker is more naturally suited to play in the box than in deep space.
It's difficult to know what to expect from Smith in year one, especially with the other safety spot still vacant. It's safe to assume that he'll fill up quickly and effectively against the run, and will experience typical rookie growing pains in coverage. Regardless, it will be refreshing to see a purple safety who's active and always around the ball.
16. Toby Gerhart, RB
A card-carrying member of the white running back fraternity, Toby Gerhart provides solid insurance for the Vikings.
Projecting Gerhart's his role is virtually impossible at this point—he's recovered from his own knee injury (sprained MCL), but his usage will depend entirely on Adrian Peterson's recovery from ACL/MCL/meniscus surgery. The safe bet is that Gerhart will see heavy action early, and his touches will taper as Peterson works his way back.
Gerhart is quicker than he is fast, and at 231 pounds, he's a load to bring down. He's a straight-line runner who doesn't make anybody miss, but he showed the ability to move the chains in a featured role late last season. His soft hands were an unexpected bonus in the passing game.
15. Phil Loadholt, RT
You can't teach size, and in that respect, Phil Loadholt is a prodigy. However, at 6'8" and 343 lbs, his mountainous stature is a double-edged sword—he's a brute force in the run game, but against opposing speed rushers, he's the world's biggest matador.
At 26, Loadholt enters a contract year in which he still has a lot to prove. He's logged plenty of snaps in his first three seasons, starting 47 games, so this feels like a make-or-break kind of year.
If Loadholt can focus on improving his technique, consistency and discipline, he'll be lining his pockets with Benjamins. More importantly, he'll be keeping Christian Ponder off his back and freeing up the team's pass-catching tight ends.
Loadholt's progression is vital to the 2012 season.
14. Geoff Schwartz, RG
Like fellow free-agent signee John Carlson, Geoff Schwartz missed all of 2011 due to injury (hip). Unlike Carlson, he's not doing the Scrooge McDuck backstroke—the 25-year-old signed a modest one-year, $1.5 million deal to compete for the starting right guard spot. It was easily my favorite free-agent move for the Vikings.
Despite the positive vibes surrounding Brandon Fusco, I expect Schwartz to run away with the job. In addition to his colossal size (6'6", 331 lbs), he's smart, versatile, hard-working and battle-tested (he was a 16-game starter in 2010).
A mauler in the run game, Schwartz also brings significant right tackle experience to the table, providing insurance in the event that Phil Loadholt's turnstile pass protection rears its ugly head again in 2012.
Note: Schwartz will wear No. 76 in Minnesota, which should eliminate the potential confusion of seeing heart and effort out of No. 74.
13. Antoine Winfield, CB
Antoine Winfield has long been the shining star in a secondary that possesses less collective talent than the Kardashian sisters. At 5'9", 180 lbs, the diminutive 34-year old leads by example, which is hard to do from the trainer's table—he's missed 23 games due to injury over the past five seasons, including 11 last year with a neck injury and a broken collarbone.
Despite his declining health, he's still among the best in the league at reading and reacting to the run, and he's as sure a tackler as you'll find. He's beatable in coverage at this point in his career, so expect to see him lined up over the slot as a nickel cornerback on a regular basis.
While most agree that Winfield is primed for a shift to safety, nobody inside of Winter Park (including Winfield) is yet on board with the notion.
12. Kyle Rudolph, TE
While Kyle Rudolph's rookie season yielded a relatively small sample size, he flashed all the traits of a premier pass-catching tight end. A 6'6", 259-lb. specimen with outstanding speed, exceptional agility and velcro hands, it appeared that the 22-year-old was poised to become the Vikings' version of Rob Gronkowski, sans douchebaggery.
I'm still very optimistic about his future, but when Rick Spielman made the puzzling decision to designate tight end John Carlson as the team's primary free-agent priority, he essentially threw a wet blanket over Rudolph's immediate expectations.
Although the sophomore will be the first look in two-tight end sets, his ceiling is now capped.
11. Christian Ponder, QB
In today's pass-happy NFL, if you don't get good quarterback play, the talent level of your remaining 52 players is almost entirely irrelevant. Imagine Breaking Bad without blue crystal... Dexter without blood...Mad Men without unabashed adultery...You get the idea.
Quarterbacking is the key ingredient for success, and unfortunately, this puts teams like the Vikings behind the eight ball.
Christian Ponder had some very promising moments in his first season, but he's still developing, and we were ultimately left with more questions than answers. For every encouraging play there was a rookie mistake, and down the stretch, injuries piled up and the confidence was beaten out of him.
It's fair to expect better play out of the Vikings' offensive line and pass-catchers this season, and Ponder's mobility and short-to-intermediate accuracy are a perfect match for the forthcoming two-tight end passing attack.
He has a short memory and a good head on his shoulders, so with an improved supporting cast, there's no reason Ponder shouldn't take a noticeable step forward in his sophomore season.
10. Chris Cook, CB
If the choke grip doesn't fit, you must acquit. Despite a landslide of evidence suggesting otherwise, Chris Cook's girlfriend changed her story in the 11th hour, allowing the cowardly scumbag to avoid justice.
I'm downright ashamed that a guy who belongs in inmate orange will continue to wear Viking purple, but that's irrelevant to this conversation, so let's move on.
At 6'2", 212 lbs, the 34th pick in the 2010 NFL draft was finally healthy and scratching the surface of his potential prior to his arrest. Our best glimpse was when he held his own on an island with Calvin Johnson in Week 3.
The talent is there, so if the 25-year old wants it, he can be a difference maker in 2012.
9. Adrian Peterson, RB
It was the nightmare before Christmas for Vikings fans, when in a meaningless game against Washington on December 24th, All-World running back Adrian Peterson went down with a career-altering knee injury.
Fittingly, the Vikings won, costing the franchise the No. 2 draft pick that the Rams would eventually turn into a king's ransom. It was like Santa took a dump in our purple stocking, lit it on fire and threw it on the front porch.
Peterson's surgery to repair his ACL/MCL/meniscus was a success, and he's reportedly ahead of schedule and hoping to play Week 1. The fact that he's blowing the doors off his teammates in wind sprints has generated cautious optimism among fans, but cutting in the hole is a different animal.
The 27-year-old is a freak of nature and could certainly be the exception to the rule, but I'm not expecting a full recovery before 2013. It's imperative that the organization is smart about their $100 million investment.
8. Chad Greenway, OLB
Chad Greenway is a rock-solid contributor to the Vikings' defense. Physically, mentally and instinctively, he's the total package. At 29, his career appears to have plateaued, albeit at a very high level.
The knock on Greenway has always been that he's not a game-changing playmaker. However, his consistent production is a fair tradeoff, and he figures to take over the linebacking leadership responsibilities left behind by E.J. Henderson. Not surprisingly, Greenway led the team in defensive snaps last season (99.8 percent).
On a roster featuring more moving parts than Kate Upton, Greenway's reliability is invaluable.
7. Erin Henderson, OLB
Erin Henderson was one of the few bright spots in a 3-13 season. The Vikings subsequently re-signed the 25-year-old to a one-year, $2 million deal in March, which felt like a feeble commitment to a promising young player.
Henderson was rightfully frustrated with the negotiations, and Rick Spielman's preoccupation with backup tight ends and Naufahu "Twelfth Man" Tahi clones could ultimately come back to bite the team 12 months from now.
Undrafted out of Maryland in 2008, E.J.'s little brother worked his way from special teams to the starting weak-side gig last season. He'll likely see another significant uptick in action in 2012, as E.J.'s departure will open the door for Erin to join Chad Greenway in third-down duties.
Erin is a nice complement to the steady Greenway. While he's still relatively raw and still learning the nuances of the position, his size (6'3", 244 lbs) and strength have already proven very effective against the run. Moreover, his athleticism and quickness are tailor-made for coverage responsibilities.
6. Matt Kalil, LT
Last season, Christian Ponder spent more time on his back than Jenna Jameson. This April, he finally got his happy ending.
With the fourth pick in the draft, the Vikings wisely selected blindside protector Matt Kalil. At 6'7" and an agile 305 lbs, the USC product was one of the most pro-ready prospects coming out of college. In many ways, he's the polar opposite of bookend Phil Loadholt. Where Loadholt often plays like a brainless bulldozer, Kalil is smart, instinctive, athletic and light-footed.
There are many in the scouting community who believe Kalil can be an instant top-10 left tackle, and while that may be a bit lofty, it's only a matter of time before he becomes a perennial Pro Bowler.
5. Kevin Williams, DT
Don't be fooled by the declining sack numbers—Kevin Williams is still a disruptive force inside.
Despite constant double-teams, the 31-year-old continues to stuff the run and generate regular pressure. He hasn't missed a game due to injury in the last six seasons, and with the team's defensive tackle depth suddenly waning, the Vikings will need him to remain stalwart.
A true professional, Williams will continue to do the dirty work in the trenches without the aid of an established nose tackle. For that, he deserves a gold StarCap.
4. Brian Robison, DE
Eleven months ago, I pegged Brian Robison as my top 2011 breakout candidate, and "The Other White Guy" did me proud. Opposite superstar Jared Allen, Robison amassed eight sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 54 pressures.
Robison plays bigger than his 6'3", 259-lb frame, and he's blessed with rare athleticism. At 29, the 2007 fourth-rounder from Texas has a lot more in the tank than his age might suggest, as last season marked his first significant playing time.
With just 23 career starts, Robison is not a finished product—he's still getting better. Don't be surprised when he cracks the double-digit sack mark this season.
3. John Sullivan, C
Believe it or not, John Sullivan is one of the Vikings' biggest keys to success in 2012. Finally healthy, he blossomed in 2011, showing off an impressive blend of blocking technique, intelligence and surprising strength.
The 6'4", 301-lb center was rewarded with a five-year, $25 million extension in December. Even Richard Gere thinks that's an expensive snapper, but Sullivan will earn his keep.
The quarterback of the line, Sullivan will be flanked by two new starting guards and will be instrumental in the tutoring of rookie left tackle Matt Kalil and second-year signal-caller Christian Ponder.
That's a lot of responsibility for a 26-year-old who's still working on developing his own craft, but Vikings fans have learned to never bet against Sully.
2. Percy Harvin, WR
Despite playing just 59.7 percent of the team's offensive snaps, Percy Harvin set career highs across the board last season. Getting the most out of his versatility and otherworldly athleticism will continue to be one of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's most important jobs, especially with Adrian Peterson at less than 100 percent.
Last year, Harvin went from a double-threat (receiver/returner) to a bonafide triple-threat, as the Vikings got serious about mixing him in at halfback (6.6 YPC on 52 carries). He's as lethal as any player in the league in space, so look for the team to continue to move him around the offense and try to find creative ways to get him the ball with room to operate.
There are only three things that can possibly slow Harvin down—migraines, marijuana and Musgrave.
1. Jared Allen, DE
Jared Allen recorded a jaw-dropping 22.0 sacks in 2011, and unlike NFL record holder Michael Strahan (22.5), he actually earned every last one.
If a Favre falls in the backfield when nobody is around to touch him, does it make a sack? Yes, yes it does. Allen also earned the Defensive Player of the Year honors that were wrongfully bestowed upon Terrell Suggs, but who's counting?
With 77 sacks in his last five seasons, the 30-year-old All Pro is the league's best pure pass-rusher, and he's in the midst of his prime. Allen's pressure is the team's best form of pass defense, and with Kevin Williams still eating up double-teams and Brian Robison emerging on the opposite end, there's no reason to expect anything less than 15.0 calf-ropings in 2012.