10 Things to Watch for as the Minnesota Vikings 2012 Season Unfolds
This year for Minnesota Vikings fans, the time between the NFL draft and the opening of regular season holds plenty of intrigue. With 10 new draft choices and several free-agent signings, there will be plenty of competitive battles in training camp as the Vikings finalize their 53-man roster.
Several players, coming off a season where injuries reduced their effectiveness, are set to return and hopefully help to improve on last season's 3-13 record. There is also the follow-up to some record-setting performances in 2011 from a couple of players.
Yes, this is the best time of the year to be a fan of the Vikings.
There are no maddening losses to stomach, no first-half leads lost to weaker opponents and no bonehead penalties taken. Every draft pick has a tremendous upside with the potential to be the next Ron Yary, Fran Tarkenton or Carl Eller—earning the honor of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a long illustrious career.
General manager Rick Spielman has addressed every weakness the Vikings had in 2011. Time will tell whether or not they're enough to stem the tide of losing seasons and turn the team around.
Here are the biggest storylines to keep an eye on with the Vikings in 2012.
How Good Will Jasper Brinkley Be as a Middle Linebacker?
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The last time the Vikings opened the season with another player besides E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker was 2003, his rookie season with the Vikings.
That year Greg Biekert started all 16 games for the Vikings as they finished 9-7.
The plan is to open the season with Jasper Brinkley, the Vikings' fifth-round draft pick in 2009. In his rookie season, Brinkley started the final four games for the Vikings after Henderson broke his femur in a game against the Cardinals in Week 13.
The Vikings are putting a lot on Brinkley, who missed all of the 2011 season with a hip injury and has not started a game since 2009.
The Vikings didn't address the linebacker position until the last round, when they selected Audie Cole out of NC State with the 210th pick in the draft. Projected to be a special teams player, Cole should not pose any type of threat to Brinkley.
It will be interesting to see what the Vikings do if Brinkley underperforms during training camp.
The Continued Development of Quarterback Christian Ponder
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Christian Ponder finished with a 2-8 record in his 10 starts in his rookie season last year. One of three quarterbacks to start a game for the Vikings, he finished with the lowest passer rating on the team at 70.1—granted, Joe Webb only started one game.
Ponder finished with 13 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, with a 54.3 completion percentage.
There are plenty of excuses for the Ponder apologists—there were no OTAs and an abbreviated minicamp; he played behind a porous offensive line, especially at left tackle, that allowed him to be sacked an average of three times per game; and he only had one effective receiver in Percy Harvin.
There's no lockout this season, and the Vikings have addressed the other concerns, so it will really be up to Ponder to prove he can be a franchise quarterback.
The key will be his ability to stay healthy.
How Clutch Will Blair Walsh Be for the Vikings?
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While the Vikings have had five rookie field-goal kickers, only one of them were selected in the draft. That was Mike Mercer, whom the Vikings selected in the 15th round of the NFL draft in 1961.
That season Mercer served as both the punter and kicker. He finished the season 9-of-21 in field goals and had 70 punts for the expansion Vikings.
The next season they used undrafted rookie Jim Christopherson, who lasted only the 1962 season.
In 1963, Fred Cox would make his NFL debut with the Vikings. He was drafted by both the Cleveland Browns in the NFL and the New York Titans of the AFL in 1961. He is the Vikings' career scoring leader with 1,365 points in his 15-year career. By today's standards, his 62 field-goal percentage would not have kept him employed for long.
Rick Danmeier, another rookie free agent, would take over for Cox in 1978. His career lasted five years, through the 1988 season, and he finished with only a slightly better 66 field-goal percentage.
Over the next 15 years the Vikings would use 10 different kickers, with Gary Anderson with the longest tenure after kicking five years for the Vikings. In 1998 Anderson would make every field goal during the regular season. His only miss was in the NFC Championship Game that cost the Vikings a trip to the Super Bowl.
The last rookie field-goal kicker would follow Anderson in 2003. Aaron Elling would last only a season-and-a-half, being replaced after eight games in 2004.
Blair Walsh is set to be the next rookie field-goal kicker for the Vikings. Selected in the sixth round of Georgia, he made 76 of 103 field goals for a 73.8 percentage over his four years for the Bulldogs.
He has the unenviable task of replacing Ryan Longwell—third in career scoring for the Vikings, with his 96 games are second only to the 210 games for Cox.
Here's hoping Walsh's career is better than any other rookie field-goal kickers for the Vikings.
The Vikings with Two Good Pass-Catching Tight Ends
The Vikings bid farewell to Visanthe Shiancoe, opting not to offer the nine-year veteran a contract. His best season was 2009, when he was catching passes from quarterback Brett Favre. He finished with a career-high 56 receptions and led the Vikings with 11 touchdown receptions.
Along with the departure Shiancoe, who played with the Vikings the last five years, gone is Jim Kleinsasser, who retired at the end of last season.
This thrusts second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph and free agent John Carlson to the forefront, giving the Vikings a couple of pass-catching capable tight ends. Coincidentally, both are from Notre Dame and both are second-round draft choices—Carlson by the Seahawks in 2008, and Rudolph by the Vikings last season.
Carlson was at Notre Dame from 2004 to 2007. A starter during his junior and senior years, he averaged 43.5 receptions and 3.5 touchdowns. Rudolph followed him in 2008 and averaged 30 receptions and three touchdowns per season as a four-year starter.
Carlson did not play last season with the Seahawks after injuring his shoulder during training camp. In his three years with Seattle he had 137 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns.
It will be interesting to see which tight end develops the better rapport with quarterback Christian Ponder. Rudolph, who joined the Vikings as part of the same draft as Ponder, may have the advantage going into training camp.
Which Wide Receiver Will Emerge as the Vikings' Outside Deep Threat?
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The Vikings roster currently contains a total of 11 wide receivers to battle for six spots on the final roster. Everyone is hoping that someone, anyone, will emerge as the top outside threat and be able to stretch the field for the offense.
When the Vikings failed to re-sign Sidney Rice, they looked to replace him with Michael Jenkins, signing the former Atlanta receiver to a three-year, $9 million deal.
The problem is that in his seven seasons in Atlanta, Jenkins was never the No. 1 receiver.
Even so, his 38 receptions last season for the Vikings were the second most on the team. This is indicative of how bad the Vikings were, considering Jenkins missed five games and only started seven. According to a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jenkins is healthy and ready to go.
Along with Jenkins, the Vikings re-signed Devin Aromashodu, who had 26 catches for 468 yards, and they signed free agent Jerome Simpson from the Bengals, who caught 84 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns. Simpson will open the season serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. The baggage that Simpson brings with him allowed the Vikings to sign him for a relatively low price of $2 million for the 2012 season.
Minnesota drafted teammates Greg Childs and Jarius Wright from Arkansas in the fourth round of the draft. The two played all four years together and took turns leading the Razorbacks in receptions—Childs as a sophomore in 2009 with 48, and Wright as a senior last season with 66. Wright will most likely provide some backup to Percy Harvin, while Childs will back up Jenkins and Simpson.
The Potential of Two Rookies Starting at Safety
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It's almost a foregone conclusion that Harrison Smith will be one of the Vikings' starting safeties, and there's a chance that his teammate from Notre Dame could be at his side when the season begins.
Of course, Mistral Raymond, the Vikings' sixth-round draft choice in 2011 who started five games, and Jamarca Sanford, the Vikings' seventh-round draft pick in 2009 who started 15 games last season, will have something to say about that.
Whoever emerges as the starters, here's hoping they can improve the Vikings secondary that set the dubious record for going nine games without an interception. After intercepting three passes against the Cardinals in Week 5 of the 2011 season, the Vikings failed to come up with another until Week 16 against the Redskins.
The Vikings finished the season last in the NFL, allowing 32 touchdown passes. On the positive side, they cannot get any worse, so it can only get better.
How Many Ways Will Percy Harvin Score?
Percy Harvin is the Vikings' most dynamic offensive weapon.
The Vikings' first-round draft pick in 2009 has led the Vikings in total yards (when you include his return yardage) in each of his three seasons.
In 2011 he led the Vikings with 1,832 receiving, rushing and return yards. He was the Vikings' best receiver, leading the team with 87 receptions, 967 receiving yards and six touchdown catches.
He lined up mostly as the slot receiver, but would also line up in the backfield as a running back or next to the quarterback in the shotgun.
He has scored a total of 24 touchdowns—17 through the air, four on kick returns and three on the ground. He only needs a touchdown pass and an interception return and he'll have covered just about every way to score a touchdown.
His numbers have continued to improve every season, and the migraines that plagued him in his first two seasons appear to be under control. Although he is not participating in the Vikings OTAs, it's only as a precaution—according to a Associated Press report, his shoulder is fine and he will be ready to go when training camp opens.
It will be interesting to see if the Vikings continue to use Harvin to return kicks or if that duty will be turned over to Jarius Wright, the fourth-round pick from Arkansas.
Either way, look for Harvin to continue to be the Vikings' most dynamic player.
How Many Rookies Will Make Their Mark This Year?
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It's a foregone conclusion that Matt Kalil will be the Vikings' starting left tackle when the season opens.
It's almost as much a given that Harrison Smith will be one of the starting safeties.
Neither of these are that much of a stretch since both were selected by the Vikings in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft—Kalil with the fourth overall pick and Smith at No. 29.
I suppose we could include the Vikings' sixth-round pick, placekicker Blair Walsh out of Georgia, as a starter. After all, there typically is no backup for a kicker.
After that it gets a little murky.
If the Vikings' third-round pick, cornerback Josh Robinson from Central Florida, is to see any significant playing time, he will need to beat out veterans Chris Carr and Zack Bowman.
The Vikings selected Smith's teammate in the fifth round. Robert Blanton will make the move from cornerback to safety and will get a chance to be a starter.
Fourth-rounder Rhett Ellison might have a shot as the starting fullback, but if the Vikings want to make the most out of their two pass-catching tight ends, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph, he might not be on the field that often.
The next draftee with the best shot to make it as a starter might be wide receiver Greg Childs from Arkansas. He could get the nod in the Vikings' three-receiver sets. That means beating out Devin Aromashodu, which shouldn't be too much of a problem. In February, Tom Pelissero from 1500ESPN Twin Cities reported that Aromashodu was last in the league with a 33 percent catch rate.
The over/under for rookies making a significant impact in 2012 should be four—Kalil, Smith, Walsh and Blanton.
When Will Adrian Peterson Become the Vikings' All-Time Leading Rusher?
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Adrian Peterson has rushed for 6,752 yards in his five years with the Vikings.
He trails Robert Smith, the Vikings' all-time leading rusher, by only 66 yards. If not for a high ankle sprain he suffered against the Raiders in Week 11, causing him to miss three games, and then the knee injury in Week 16 against the Redskins, Peterson would already be Minnesota's top ground-gainer.
It took Smith 98 games to amass his rushing total. Peterson should exceed it in his next game, the 74th of his career. Smith, a great running back who helped the Vikings to a 15-1 record in 1998, averaged 69.6 yards per game. Compare that to Peterson, who's averaging 92.5 yards.
Head coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman would be wise to protect their star running back and make sure he is completely ready before handing him the ball.
If he is ready, Peterson will face a Jacksonville defense that finished ninth against the run in the NFL last season.
Another big "if" will be his effectiveness upon his return. If Peterson is 100 percent, then he should exceed Smith's total in his first game back.
If not, then it will be in the Vikings' second game at Indianapolis.
Can Jared Allen Back Up His Record-Setting Season?
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Jared Allen was close.
He set the Vikings' single-season mark for sacks with 22, surpassing Chris Doleman's total of 21 set in 1989. But he fell one-half sack short of matching Michael Strahan's record of 22.5.
It was the second time that Allen has led the NFL in sacks, the previous was his fourth and final season in Kansas City. It was also a great way to answer his critics after finishing the 2010 season with only 11 sacks—the fewest since his third season in the NFL in 2006 when he only had 7.5 for the Chiefs.
Allen is the catalyst to the Vikings defense. His presence also helped fellow defensive end Brian Robison to tally eight sacks of his own—the most by any Vikings duo since 1989 when Doleman had 21 sacks and Keith Millard added 18.
It will be interesting to see how Allen does in 2012. No doubt teams will make sure they account for him in their protection schemes. Even so, don't be surprised if he has another season approaching the single-season record.