Minnesota Vikings: 5 Positions They Must See Improvement from in 2012
Rome wasn't built in a day and the Minnesota Vikings rebuild won't be completed in one offseason.
And though scholars like to argue about what eventually caused the fall of Rome, the reasons for the Vikings collapse over the last two seasons is pretty easy to pinpoint. Brett Favre had just one season to offer. Sydney Rice wasn't Sydney Rice without Brett Favre. Bernard Berrian was a failed experiment. Donovan McNabb was a failed experiment. The Brad Childress era ended with a resounding thud and Leslie Frazier took over a team that had a few stars and zero depth.
Alas, the rebuild began in full force after the awful 2011 season and there will be a lot of new faces wearing purple next season. Frazier and his staff have been given plenty of new pieces to play with by newly appointed GM Rick Spielman for the coming year, and although nobody will expect Minnesota to vie for a playoff spot, they will be vastly improved from last season's train wreck.
The team needs to show improvement pretty much across the board and though there will be growing pains with all the new faces, at least the Vikings and their fan base can have an optimistic view of the future. How optimistic should Vikings fans be for 2012? A tempered expectation is probably the wisest coarse, and in order for the team to take strides forward they will definitely need to see big improvements from the following five positions.
Christian Ponder, QB
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Well it would just be silly and disingenuous to start anywhere else.
Everything you read and hear about the NFL becoming more and more of a "quarterback" league is undeniably true. You can still win games with a great defense and a solid running game, but as each season passes it becomes more apparent that for the next decade or so the importance of a great quarterback is tantamount.
Why? The rule changes to protect quarterbacks and receivers are now part of the league's fabric. Coaching staffs, from the head men to the least important staff member, have learned to scheme around the new set of rules and it's changed the way the game is played.
It's a pitch and catch sport right now, and as defenses get more and more complicated in their coverages, it's become obvious that having a smart quarterback is the most crucial element to success. That's "smart", not "dominant". It's now a league where maximizing what you do on each possession has become the key to winning. Turnovers are anathema. Time of possession and field position carry the day.
Christian Ponder enters year two of his career with just as many questions about him as he had coming into the league. He appears athletic, with a decent arm and more than decent legs. The selling point the Vikings used when drafting Ponder higher than anyone anticipated was his head. He was supposed to be way ahead of the game when it came to decision making.
On that point, Ponder was disappointing in 2011. Granted, he was surrounded by ineptitude, but he still made too many mistakes. Fine, over and done with. Now let's see what he learned from last year's experience.
Expecting Ponder to completely turn it around and be a star in 2012 is absurd, but expecting large improvements is not. What will become really interesting over the course of next season is how Ponder, the team, and the fan base, react to difficulty.
The most optimistic Vikings fans can only hope for 8-9 wins next year, so there will be some tough losses for sure. It will be up to Ponder to convince the Vikings staff that he is the future of the franchise. Is two years (one and a half starting) enough time to prove yourself at the most complicated position in sports? No. What the Vikings can ask from Ponder is improvement, work ethic, leadership and potential.
If he shows those things, the Vikings starting quarterback spot is his for the foreseeable future.
Phil Loadholt, RT
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Though Ponder is far and away the most important player on the Vikings roster, his maturation as a quarterback is directly tied to his offensive line, and last year his line was completely offensive.
Heading into the 2012 season, the Vikings have only two known quantities on their O-line, and of those two, only one is headed in the right direction and that's center John Sullivan.
Phil Loadholt will be the starting right tackle for the fourth straight season, but if he doesn't have a big bounce back year, it could be his last as a starter for the purple. The 6'8", 355 pounder has started every one of his 47 games with the club, but instead of his third season being his best, it was easily his worst.
Loadholt is obviously a huge man and has more than enough athleticism to be dominant. What he doesn't seem to have is a non-stop motor that seems to be an integral part of all great offensive lineman. Nobody is asking Loadholt to change his personality; he's never going to be the slobber-knocking Nick Mangold type, but he simply has to amp up his intensity a bit.
Loadholt faces a crucial offseason, as he needs to get into the best shape of his athletic life. If he can do that the work in the weight room and the miles on the treadmill or track, the work ethic and dedication will follow him onto the football field. Neither of the Vikings starting guards next year, Charlie Johnson or whoever claims the right guard spot, will ever be great football players. They will be starting in the NFL because they work their asses off and do everything possible to get the most out of their talent.
Loadholt has a chance to be great. He has all the ingredients, he just needs to bring it all together.
Tight Ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson
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Percy Harvin is a star. Devin Aromashodu and Michael Jenkins are not. Jerome Simpson is suspended for three games, but will probably be a starter when he becomes eligible. Jarius Wright and Greg Childs are rookies, so not a lot will be expected of them.
Christian Ponder obviously needs a lot of help from his receiving corps, help he flat out did not get in 2011. The Vikings look to be copying the New England Patriots extraordinarily successful two-pronged attack at tight end, hoping for some Irish luck by pairing former Notre Dame stars Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson.
Rudolph showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie campaign, his numbers were ultimately pedestrian, but he wasn't given a ton of opportunities to show what he could do. At an athletic 6'6", 250 pounds, Rudolph has ideal size to be a dominant threat coming out of the slot. Rudolph showed off great hands when given the chance in 2011 and his role in 2012 will grow substantially.
As for Carlson, the Minnesota native has all the potential in the world, he just has to stay on the field to reach it. Just an inch shorter than Rudolph, Carlson is a better athlete, winning three state titles in basketball in high school and also was all-state in tennis. Carlson has put up decent pass catching numbers in his career with the Seahawks, but hasn't yet had a breakout year that he's capable of.
The Vikings would do very well to make their tight end tandem a huge part of the offense. Ponder won't have a ton of time to let his wideouts get downfield, so the intermediate routes to Harvin and Rudolph/Carlson will be his bread and butter.
Nobody is expecting Rudolph and Carlson to replicate the crazy numbers put up by Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but if they can even come close, the Vikings passing offense will take huge strides forward.
Everson Griffen, DE/LB
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Vikings coaches and fans have been teased and tantalized for two seasons now. Everson Griffen is an athletic freak.
Undoubtedly the NFL is full of athletic freaks, but how many other 6'3", 270 pounders have been used as gunners on punt coverage? It was no joke either, Griffen tore down the field like a madman half his size and was certainly a difference maker.
Entering his third year in the league, it's time for Griffen to use his talents on more than just special teams. This is a kid who rushed for 1,250 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior in high school in Arizona (while recording 16 sacks and 77 tackles on defense). Griffen started at defensive end from day one at Southern Cal (the first frosh to start there in two decades at USC) and was a stellar performer for three seasons.
How does a guy like that fall to the fourth round? Griffen has much to learn about technique and positioning while playing football at the highest level. Yes, he has all the talent in the world, but if he can't harness that into a productive starter on defense, it's just wasted ability.
The Vikings know what they have in Griffen and are desperate for him to play his way into the lineup in some fashion. Griffen is athletic enough to give them snaps at both defensive end and linebacker, the problem might be in mastering either position.
It's year three coming up for Griffen. He needs to play his way onto the field.
Erin Henderson, LB
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Erin Henderson has overachieved his entire football life.
Following the huge footsteps of his older brother E.J. at the University of Maryland and then with the Minnesota Vikings, Henderson has always played under the shadow of his older brother, but no more in 2012.
Not as highly touted as E.J. as he entered Maryland, Erin went on to a stalwart career there after a redshirt season and another year lost to injury. Undrafted, he signed with the team that employed his big brother, the Minnesota Vikings.
After three seasons of spot duty, Erin moved into the starting lineup in 2011 and was one of the few bright spots during a forgettable Vikings year. After the season Henderson was hoping for a nice, fat long-term deal from the team. Wasn't happening.
Signed to a one-year deal, the Vikings have basically said, "prove it" to Erin heading into 2012. The Vikings will have newbies all around Henderson and Chad Greenway in the defensive back seven and they'll need Henderson to step up and be a leader and more of a dominant force against both the run and the pass.
If Henderson can improve his game to the level the Vikings need him to, he'll get his fat contract for 2013.