If the Minnesota Vikings are going to survive in the NFC North, they're going to have to improve their passing game.
Most of that improvement hinges on the continued development of second-year QB Christian Ponder, but the core group of receivers around him has changed for the better.
The only receiver who will return to relevance in 2012 for the Vikings will be Percy Harvin. The additions of John Carlson and Jerome Simpson and the promotion of Kyle Rudolph up the depth chart gives Ponder a solid group of receivers to build with. Add in a few young receivers like Stephen Burton and rookies Jarius Wright and Greg Childs and the Vikings might scrap back to relevance in the next couple of years.
No matter how much better Ponder gets by 2012, his performance is dictated by the receivers around him, which was completely obvious after how many times Devin Aromashodu dropped passes in 2011.
Here are some predictions on who will lead the Vikings in each receiving category.
*Be warned: I'm not predicting statistics, just who will lead the category.
Percy Harvin has been the best receiver on the Vikings roster since he was drafted, and he knows it.
According to the Associated Press (via ProFootball Talk), Harvin supposedly asked to be traded because, among multiple other things, he was unhappy with his role in Bill Musgrave's offense.
GM Rick Spielman said the Vikings have no interest in parting ways with Harvin, which tells me they'll try to get Harvin the ball quite a bit to not only keep him happy, but let him prove that he's worth the contract extension that he will be expecting by the end of the season.
Kyle Rudolph will certainly be in the mix as well. Ponder has shown that the second-year TE is his favorite target, but Harvin is the superstar on the offense.
Harvin is already heavily involved in the Vikings offense. I can't imagine a bigger role would result in anyone other than Harvin receiving the most passes on the team. And with his talent, that's the way it should be.
Throughout the offseason workouts, Ponder really seemed to like throwing to Jerome Simpson, and generally, they were mid-to-deep routes.
Once his three-game suspension is up, Simpson's role will be to stretch the field for the Vikings. He will be running a lot of routes over the middle, and the team will try to get him to take the top off opposing defenses.
Along with basically being handed the No. 2 receiver position, Simpson should see plenty of targets and has shown that he can run for yards after the catch and after contact. His front-flip into the end zone in 2011 was one of the most athletic plays I've ever seen, and I'm sure he'll want to impress his new fanbase with some more athletic plays in 2012.
As I already noted, Simpson will be used in intermediate and long routes quite often in 2012.
If that prediction comes true, it certainly would not be far-fetched to seen him lead the team in yards per reception as well.
Percy Harvin is no slouch in yards after the catch either, and honestly, I think this category will be very close, but the more vertical nature of Simpson's game gives him the edge in my opinion.
Greg Childs could be a starter for the first three weeks of the season while Simpson is suspended. If his leg holds up after suffering a strained calf in minicamp, Childs could really plant himself in the core group of receivers.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not ready to jump on Childs' bandwagon yet, but I won't deny that the potential is there if he's healthy.
Childs is the second-biggest receiver currently on the Vikings roster, and if Michael Jenkins doesn't have a stellar camp, I would expect Childs to become the tallest. In the limited role that I believe he'll play, his length gives him an advantage over a lot of DBs when going deep.
That being said, a good 40- or 50-yard reception could give him the longest reception by a Vikings receiver in 2012.
In the two-tight end sets that the Vikings will run in 2012, Kyle Rudolph seems like he's the candidate to be the primary target.
This means that John Carlson will be on the backside as Ponder's safety valve on passing downs. Ponder will have to learn to rely on his check-downs, if he's going to survive as a franchise QB. This will mean a pretty decent amount of targets for Carlson in the lengthy parts of offensive drives.
I expect Rudolph to become more of the red-zone target TE, but Carlson should get a lot of touches while the Vikings try to move the chains.
Like I just noted, Kyle Rudolph will be the red-zone target for the Vikings in 2012.
Ponder's favorite target is quite a matchup nightmare, especially in confined spaces. If the Vikings can grind it out and work their way down the field often enough, I would completely expect some play-action passes to get the ball to Rudolph in the end zone.
Obviously, Percy Harvin will come in a close second to Rudolph, but I really think the second-year TE will take a serious step forward in 2012 and show that he's in the same league as the NFL's best.
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