Minnesota Vikings: 5 Encouraging Signs Heading into the 2012 Season
Our own Matt Miller is predicting just a one-win improvement over last year's dismal 3-13 season. The big boards in Las Vegas have set the Vikings' over/under win total at just six. Only three teams have a lower win total to bet on: the Browns, Colts and Jaguars.
One of the very few positives that comes out of train wreck of a season like Minnesota had last year is low expectations. How the Vikings careened from a play or two away from a Super Bowl appearance to 3-13 in just two seasons has been well documented.
It played out that the 2011 season was one that was weighed down with a lot of false hope. The team was much worse off depth-wise than most experts thought. The signing of Donovan McNabb to lead a team that was a piece or two away from a long playoff push was foolhardy on multiple levels.
For Vikings fans, it's time to move forward and figure out how the team can once again become playoff contenders. How long the Vikings' rebuild will take is anybody's guess at this point, but it can't be argued that they're not heading in the right direction.
Here are the five most encouraging signs for the Vikings and their fans as they head toward the 2012 season.
The 2012 Draft Class Looks Like a Bumper Crop
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Vikings GM Rick Spielman played his draft hand about as well as he could have, trading spots with the Cleveland Browns and still getting the man he wanted, left tackle Matt Kalil, and also getting fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round picks from the Browns.
Spielman moved again before the first night of drafting was over, using his plethora of picks to strike a deal that moved the Vikings up from their second-round slot to the 29th overall pick, where they tabbed safety Harrison Smith out of Notre Dame.
Just like that, the Vikings had two new immediate starters and two players they hope will be team leaders over the next decade.
OK, admittedly, that was the easy part. When you finish 3-13, you're going to get two really high draft picks.
The rest of the draft class has no certainty, but it has tons of potential and could provide two or three more starters down the road, and it's expected that all 10 draftees will make the roster.
Corner Josh Robinson has more speed than any defensive back the Vikings have ever employed. Arkansas receivers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs both have a huge upside, with Wright being the poor man's Percy Harvin and Childs having the potential to be a huge draft steal that is crucial when turning over a roster.
Rhett Ellison is a 6'5", 250-pound tight end/fullback hybrid who has every intangible coaches look for. Robert Blanton, Audie Cole and Trevor Guyton provide defensive depth, and all three could one day be starters if they reach their potential. Kicker Blair Walsh takes over for Ryan Longwell, and the Vikings hope they won't have to worry about that position for another decade.
All in all, the Vikings did a fantastic job in the draft, getting 10 players who could stick and provide an instant upgrade to a roster that had been depleted of any sort of depth.
News to Nobody: Adrian Peterson Is a Beast
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ESPN radio's Tom Pelissero tweeted on Tuesday that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Peterson is on track to play in the opener.
While good arguments can be made that running backs have been marginalized in today's pass-happy NFL, there is no doubt that Peterson is the heart and soul of the Vikings. Peterson is not only the Vikings' best player, but along with Jared Allen, he provides the best possible leadership quality you want out of your best players: They work harder than everybody else.
It remains to be seen if Peterson can be the same dominating player post injury, but anyone who has watched or knows Peterson would be surprised if he weren't.
The Front Office Didn't Spend Foolishly in Free Agency
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The temptation for Vikings GM Rick Spielman to throw a lot of money at people like Vincent Jackson or Carl Nicks had to be pretty strong.
Who wouldn't like to add a Pro Bowl-type of player or two to the starting lineup? Certainly the Buccaneers, who signed both of the above. But at what cost? The Bucs signed those two plus corner Eric Wright for a combined $141.05 million, with $67 million guaranteed.
For a team looking at a rebuilding project as large as the one facing the Vikings, signings like that would have been crazy and shortsighted. Would Jackson or Nicks have helped? Absolutely, but they aren't players that can turn around an organization overnight. Tying up that much money in players that have two or three peak years left would have done more to cripple the Vikings' rebuilding efforts than to help them.
Instead the Vikings added two cost-efficient receiving options for Christian Ponder that could pay huge dividends. Tight end John Carlson and wide receiver Jerome Simpson have both proven that they can start in the league and both have untapped potential, or at least what seems like untapped potential. The Vikings didn't spend a ton of money and they added two players who will certainly upgrade the receiving corps.
Christian Ponder Won't Be a Rookie
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After a 10-game stint as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Christian Ponder has done nothing to prove he wasn't the "reach" many tabbed him after the Vikings surprised the football world by drafting him with the 12th overall selection in the 2011 draft.
The Vikings brass sold the Ponder pick by saying how far ahead of the game Ponder was mentally, and that his learning curve wouldn't be as steep as that of a normal rookie. They hedged their bet a little by signing Donovan McNabb in hopes that Ponder could learn at the side of veteran starter while assimilating himself to the demands of pro football.
That idea crashed and burned with McNabb's inept play, and Ponder was put feet first into the fire in Week 7. His play over the course of parts of 11 games was uneven at best, and pretty brutal at it's worst. Considering the state of the team he took over and the fact that he was given no practice time in the summer leading up to his first year, this was to be expected.
The truth is, we don't know a whole lot more about Ponder than we did before last season. There is talent there; he showed good arm strength and a higher than average ability to escape the rush and make plays with his feet.
We also saw a quarterback who made way too many bad decisions and bad throws. Rookie mistakes.
Year 2 will unveil a whole lot more about Ponder. He'll know the offense. He'll have an entire spring and summer of working with his teammates. He'll have an entire training camp knowing that he is the staring quarterback. Head coach Leslie Frazier and his staff will also have all of those things and a little more insight to how to make Ponder his most effective.
Most importantly for Ponder, he'll have a better offensive line, particularly at left tackle, and he'll have better receivers to throw to.
It's a heck of a lot easier to look like the smart quarterback the Vikings thought they were drafting with better players around you. Year 2 should be much better for Ponder.
Frazier and Staff Know What Not to Do
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Poor Leslie Frazier.
He finally got his chance to be a head coach in the NFL, not knowing he was taking over a team that was just about at the top of the first hill of a roller coaster. The trip downhill was so fast and unexpected that Frazier looked like he never knew what hit him.
Sifting through the mess of the 2011 season really reveals no more about Frazier than it did about Ponder. Vince Lombardi couldn't have done much with the roster Frazier was coaching, and while conceding that the team was not playoff caliber, Frazier did nothing to prove that he wasn't a "reach" either.
Frazier has been coaching football for over two decades, 12 at the NFL level, and he could not be regarded any more highly by his peers. He's been a successful coordinator, and the time is at hand for him to prove that he can be a successful head coach.
Coaching can be brutally unfair, but the bottom line is always about winning games. Frazier was given a long leash last season, his game management and decision making were not taken to task like they could have been. Resignation set in for just about everyone—players, fans, talking heads—that it was going to be a long, bad season.
The Vikings' record heading into the 2012 season is 0-0. Frazier will have a complete offseason to put his stamp on the team. His roster will be much better, but it still isn't very deep. It's a team that could win as many as eight games or as few as four.
Frazier's future might lie somewhere in between those two numbers.