The Minnesota Vikings training camp is underway, and the first preseason game is less than two weeks away. There are a lot of questions that need answering this year, and one of the most important ones is how last year's class will perform.
The players entering their second full season have a lot to prove, but can provide the team with some much needed improvement.
The Vikings had ten picks last season, with five of them coming in the sixth or seventh round. As many as six could be starting at the beginning of the season, so they are obviously crucial to the team's success.
With the new CBA in place, each rookie will have the benefit of a full offseason this year after missing most of last year's offseason program.
Also, Ross Homan of Ohio State was selected in the sixth round with the 200th overall pick. He didn't end up making the team, as he was among the final cuts made that year. He got signed to Tampa Bay's practice squad for four days before being cut and ultimately retired due to the many concussions he suffered during college.
With these players being such an integral part of the coming season, lets take a look at how each could perform in 2012.
The surprise pick and widely regarded reach of the first round was by Minnesota when they took former Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Rumors were swirling that the team was trying to trade further back in the draft but were unable to get a deal done in time. Thus Ponder came to the land of 10,000 lakes.
He sat behind Donovan McNabb for the first six games of the 2011 season before getting the chance to start against the Green Bay Packers on October 23rd. He impressed many with his athleticism in that game and almost led the Vikings to a big upset.
Throughout the year he was shaky and inconsistent, but he showed flashes of the potential that made him a first round pick.
Ponder has a lot going for him this season, with a bunch of new weapons and better protection all around him. But with that comes higher expectations. Some players thrive in those situations, and we will find out how he does this year. He also has Joe Webb chomping on his heels for another opportunity to prove that he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Worst case: 18 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and 2,500 yards—similar to his rookie season.
Best case: 25 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and 3,500 yards
Expected performance: 20 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and 3,000 yards
I assume Ponder will improve, but he still needs one more year to fully gel with the weapons around him.
The second round pick of a tight end was confusing as well because the team already had Visanthe Shiancoe and Jim Kleinsasser. With so many other holes on the roster, this could have been addressed later. Now Shiancoe is a Patriot and Kleinsasser has retired so the 43rd pick of Kyle Rudolph is looking much smarter.
Rudolph will most likely be starting this year, which will allow him to fully display his talents. He has also spent his whole time in Minnesota developing a close friendship with his quarterback Ponder, which should only increase his production.
The new addition of John Carlson may take some of his targets away, but if they both perform, there is no reason to think there won't be enough opportunities to go around.
Worst case: 30 receptions, 400 yards, and two touchdowns
Best case: 70 catches, 1,000 yards, and 12 touchdowns
Expected performance: 50 catches, 800 yards, and eight touchdowns
He will be a great goal line option and will become Ponder's favorite target. Carlson's presence will limit his numbers a bit, but not significantly.
With their fourth round pick, the Vikings got great value along the defensive line with Iowa's Christian Ballard. The 106th pick was expected to go earlier in the draft, but he tested positive for marijuana right before the combine, which hurt his stock.
The utility lineman had a solid career as a Hawkeye, accumulating over 150 tackles and 12 sacks. He didn't see a lot of time as a rookie, but he did start the final few games after Remi Ayodele was finally benched. He looked like a rookie during his time, sometimes flashing greatness, but at other times, he looked lost.
He should see improved playing time at both the defensive tackle and defensive end positions. On the downside, he is still a developing talent who lacks ideal size for the nose tackle position.
Worst case: Plays in every game, no starts, 20 tackles and one sack
Best case: Plays in every game, 12 starts, 50 tackles and four sacks
Expected performance: Plays in every game, three starts, 30 tackles and two sacks
With a chance to start at nose tackle this season and with a full year under his belt, Ballard looks like he could be primed for a breakout year.
The Vikings attempted to address a weak secondary with the selection of Utah's Brandon Burton with the 139th pick. This fifth rounder entered the draft as a sleeper-type defensive back that could provide immediate help.
He did not see much playing time at all last year, however, it's hard to judge how he played because he saw so little of the field. What I can say is that he looked like a decent tackler, so it all comes down to how solid he is in coverage. He has had a year to develop, so his time could be now.
The new additions to the secondary could limit his chances, especially since he struggled to earn playing time in a depleted secondary last season. The best thing Burton has going for him is that he did see some limited playing time near the end of last year.
Burton will be wearing No. 27 this year, joining fellow corner Chris Cook in changing numbers for the upcoming season.
Worst Case: Practice squad
Best Case: Dime or nickel corner/special teams contributor
Expected performance: Practice squad
Its hard not to question why he didn't see much playing time last year. The team even turned to the free agent market before giving him playing time. I see him as one of the final cuts this year.
The offensive line struggled to protect Brett Favre in 2010, so the team addressed it with the sixth round pick of Arkansas tackle DeMarcus Love. The 168th pick looked like he could be a developmental prospect along the offensive line.
Love did make the team last season, but was inactive for every game. The fact that he stayed on the roster shows that he had earned the coaches trust, but beyond that, it is impossible to know what type of player he will be on game day.
The good news for Love is that starting right tackle Phil Loadholt has struggled throughout the last couple of seasons, so he could see playing time there. The right guard position is still in flux, but that shouldn't impact him too much.
Love will wear No. 73 this year after giving up his old number to first round draft pick Matt Kalil.
Worst case: Practice squad
Best case: Takes over starting time at right tackle
Expected performance: Backup/offensive line depth
I expect him to actually be activated during this season, but barring injuries in front of him, he won't see any starting time.
Seeking more help in the secondary, the Vikings grabbed University of South Florida's Mistral Raymond with the 170th pick. The sixth rounder played corner in college, but made the transition to safety in the NFL, where coaches thought he was better suited.
Raymond was supposed to be given time to adjust to the change, but injuries and poor play forced him into playing time by Week 7, and he saw starting time from Week 13 on.
He didn't overly impress, but considering that it was a completely new position for him, that's understandable. He did show promise, collecting 22 tackles and an interception during his time on the field.
The fact that he has some starting experience is his biggest boost in a reinvented secondary. The new players may make it harder to see playing time, but competition tends to bring the best out of players.
Worst case: Backup/special teams player
Best case: Starter with six interceptions
Expected performance: Starter with three interceptions
His experience will land him the starting safety job opposite first round pick Harrison Smith, and the secondary will be much improved because of it.
More offensive line depth came in the sixth round when Minnesota grabbed small school prospect Brandon Fusco with the 172nd pick. This underrated prospect out of Slippery Rock University didn't have the draw that bigger school players have, so his talent had to really shine through.
He played center at Slippery Rock, but most of his playing time in the NFL has been at guard. He saw some playing time during his rookie season, but it was primarily along the sideline. Hopefully, he used that time to learn the offensive scheme because he has a chance to make a big impact this season.
He has impressed coaches throughout this entire offseason, and with the opening at the right guard spot, it couldn't come at a better time. Like most late round picks, he didn't see much time in 2011, so he may still be raw.
Worst case: Practice Squad
Best Case: Wins starting right guard position
Expected performance: Rotational backup/fill-in for an injured or disappointing starter
I see the starting right guard spot going to newcomer Geoff Schwartz, but don't be shocked to see Fusco fight his way into the starting lineup. The only spots on the line that aren't truly up for grabs seem to be center and left tackle.
One of the few bright spots in 2010 was the defensive line, but that didn't stop the team from drafting Arizona's D'Aundre Reed with the 215th pick. He was a surprise combine invite, as he only started one game his senior year, but he did enough there to warrant a seventh round pick.
He was a physical talent that lacked technique in college. The Vikings attempted to tap into his potential by keeping him on the roster, even though he was never active for any games last season.
His playing time could increase, as Everson Griffen is shifting to linebacker. This opens up the fifth defensive lineman spot, which is crucial to keep the starters fresh. I expect more rotations to be used this season after the many fourth quarter collapses last year, so that could help as well.
His lack of playing time last year could get in his way, but his biggest obstacle toward playing time is the talent in front of him. Jared Allen and Brian Robinson are entrenched as starters, so Reed will have to impress in a backup role.
Worst case: Practice Squad
Best case: Rotational backup, similar to the playing time received by Griffen last season
Expected performance: Similar to last season
Unfortunately for Reed, there just isn't enough room on the defensive line. I think he will make the roster again, but rarely be active. He might see time near the end of the year if the team is struggling.
In the later rounds, teams draft for potential, not instant impact. That is what they saw in the seventh round when they used the 236th pick on Stephen Burton. The second Burton drafted (no relation to Brandon) comes out of West Texas A&M.
Burton spent almost the entire 2011 season on the practice squad, but eventually got the call up after Bernard Berrian was released and Michael Jenkins went down with an injury. He saw limited time on offense (catching only two passes), and instead saw most of his time on special teams.
Burton has impressed during minicamp thus far, and that bodes well for him. He has a bigger body which will allow him to control smaller defenders, and with expected starter Jerome Simpson's three game suspension to start the year, Burton will have a chance to play early. He will have to contend with many other receivers though, as the team currently has 12 on the roster.
Worst case: Practice squad
Best case: Starts in place of Simpson, fights for the third receiver spot
Expected performance: Special team player with limited time on offense
I see Burton as being the final wide receiver to make the roster. He will fight for playing time all year, but after Simpson comes back, his role will completely disappear.