The 2012 Vikings have avoided using the word "rebuilding" when describing their team, but the Vikings aren't as solid as they want to be. A look over their 53-man roster confirms the Vikings still have major strides to make before they are competitive in the NFL.
To that end, the Vikings have made a number of roster moves designed to set the team up for the future. With the third-youngest team in the league, the Vikings have set themselves up for a lot of growth, but many mistakes as well.
Make no mistake, the team is raw. Instead of proven talent, the roster is stacked with potential, which could just as easily mean potential stars or potential disappointment.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the team, but that doesn't mean they've hit success just yet.
How do the positional units grade across the league?
Christian Ponder is the anointed quarterback of the future for the Vikings, and showed promise in a few games last year. That said, he was hardly the gem of the rookie class. He's expected to improve in a big way and has shown some of that improvement in the preseason. Unfortunately, old specters continue to haunt him.
While Ponder has improved in stepping up under pressure and generating torque with all of his throws across the field, he still shows minor problems with ball placement and awareness.
Without a good sense of when pressure arrives, the Florida State graduate won't find himself atop the NFL hierarchy.
He has good presence and has, for the most part, resolved some concerns about his arm strength, but he needs to prove he's a good decision-maker and passer under pressure.
He's more potential than talent at this point, and that makes him less than reliable as a starter for this next season. Grade: C
Entering his third year with the Vikings, Joe Webb has been an intriguing and athletic player for the Vikings—and not always as a quarterback. As someone who has handled quarterback, running back, wide receiver and kick return duties, the Vikings have done all they can to maximize his impact on the field, without as much success as they might like.
His phenomenal athleticism has been highlighted a number of times on the field of play, but in order to remain a consistent threat Webb needs to exhibit a wide variety of skills as a passer and a runner. He's improved as a passer, but still clearly not as polished as Ponder.
Initially criticized for being too quick to run, Webb has made sure to develop as a pocket passer. While he still has trouble reading defenses, he has grown both in pocket presence and field awareness. His throwing is still erratic, but he remains an excellent backup.
For his role as the second quarterback...Grade: B
It's not that he's better than Ponder, but he fulfills his current role better than Ponder does.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson is a bit of a mystery to Vikings fans. While he's known for his powerful arm, not much else is known about the Sacramento State product. He was undrafted coming out of college, and only started one game his senior year after tearing every ligament in his ankle.
He's bounced around different levels of football, starting out as a backup in the Arena Football League for the San Jose SaberCats (earning $296 a week). He signed with the team of his native city, San Francisco, and was expected to make the roster as the third quarterback.
Unfortunately for him, the 49ers cut him and he then signed with the Sacramento Mountain Lions, outplayed Jordan Palmer, Trevor Harris and Ryan Colburn for a job. Later that year, he signed with the Dolphins as a member of their practice squad.
Signing with the Vikings on a futures contract in January, he shockingly made the team over Sage Rosenfels.
In camp, he's been inconsistent, but has had his moments. He's threaded the needle of tight passing windows with strong throws, and has been able to throw the ball accurately 70 yards in the air. He's made poor decisions and has had issues reading the defense, but no more than any other developmental quarterback.
He did cost the Vikings a veteran presence, which is generally regarded as valuable, especially for a young team, so Bethel-Thompson will need to prove his worth.
For a project, he's better than most. Grade: B-
Overall Grade: C+
The Vikings are in a quarterback situation that is probably better than several other teams in the league, but nothing to write home about. All three quarterbacks are young and have some ways to go before really pushing for elite positioning in the NFL, and don't currently have the ability to consistently deliver.
The team's ultimate utility weapon, Percy Harvin is the most dynamic receiver in the NFL. He can and has run every route successfully, and excels in small spaces. His agility has given him incredible leeway, and he's dangerous every time he touches the ball.
While he can be used in a wide variety of ways, Harvin is limited in that he's best when not working alone.
Harvin is not the type of receiver who can win games on his own, but he would be the perfect addition to many teams looking to move from good to great. Some consider him the best slot receiver in the game, and even if that's not entirely true, he's in the conversation.
He's reliable, explodes out of breaks and runs routes with precision. Unfortunately, he is the best offensive complement in the game, not the best centerpiece. Grade: A-
Vikings fans are as excited by Jerome Simpson's potential as by his highlight reel, but they should remember he wasn't re-signed for a reason. An intuitive and athletic receiver, Simpson can find holes in coverage or leap for the ball when necessary.
Unfortunately, his timing might be an issue and he runs sloppy routes. He's certainly capable and has all the physical talents that would make him a top-tier receiver, but there are technical and mental issues that prevent him from being one of the better starters in the NFL at the split end position.
He still has the capability to develop into one of the better deep threats in the league, but right now is not at that level. Grade: B-
Jenkins has been one of the most reliable receivers in the league and catches a lot of balls thrown to him, but is on his way out of the league. After an injury to his hamstring during the 2011 season, Jenkins' stock fell.
When returning to minicamps, Jenkins lost a lot of plant strength at the breaks for his routes and had significantly slowed off the release. He wasn't getting the separation needed for an NFL receiver and was at serious risk of losing his roster spot.
With the injury to Childs as well as improvements in form, Jenkins has landed a spot as the first backup to the split end position. He's had a few good catches in the preseason, but questions remain about his ability to consistently provide that kind of production. Grade: C-
Burton had much the opposite experience of Jenkins. He showed up to camp more well-prepared than perhaps any other receiver and immediately flashed improvement and talent.
He turned into a good route-runner and always had soft hands. His understanding of the playbook was ahead of his teammates, and he was one of the only receivers there who could consistently get good separation.
Unfortunately Burton has been quiet in the preseason and has been fading out of the spotlight since the middle of camp.
The seventh-round pick out of West Texas A&M had more difficulty off the line against press coverage and didn't take advantage of zone coverage nearly as well as he should have.
He can still create separation, but doesn't react as well to contact as he should.
Jammed off of presses, taken down with poor tackles and victim to a forced fumble due to a ball handling error—something else he has consistent issues with—Burton isn't the most reliable receiver, but still offers value to the team.
His ability to play at split end or flanker (where he is currently the first backup to Harvin) gives him added value. Grade: C+
One of three fourth-round picks made by the Vikings, Wright was pegged as a slot receiver with punt and kickoff return capability.
Unfortunately, Wright hadn't done much to impress for most of camp. Even for a fourth-round pick, Wright was relatively quiet.
He seemed tentative in punt returns and didn't play to his agility in tight spaces.
Until the Texans game, that is.
He exploded for six receptions for 122 yards and a touchdown, while also taking a reverse for 20 yards—something the Vikings enjoy doing with their flankers.
This game changed the overall perception of Wright, particularly given the fact he had success running multiple routes, including deep post routes as well as short slants and curls.
Still, Wright has to do much more to assuage concerns about a lackluster camp and preseason before being considered a worthy investment. Grade: C+
Aromashodu has been a lightning rod for criticism in his time with the Vikings. With a 33 percent catch rate, he was one of the least reliable receivers in the league last year.
Still, there's no denying that Aromashodu could get open. He used both his speed and his efficient route running to make sure he's available on a number of plays.
Unfortunately, he's entering his seventh year in the league and still hasn't produced a single impressive season with three different teams. His season high was last year, when he caught 26 passes for 468 yards.
He had a fantastic game against the Texans as well, but has years of poor play on his resume to counteract a single strong performance. Aromashodu has likely hit the peak of his development, so a single game is not as indicative for him as it is for an unproven rookie like Wright.
The ex-Bear simply can't be counted on to move the chains when necessary. If cut to make room for Simpson, he may not make another roster. He's not useless, as he draws coverage and always has potential for a big play, but the Vikings would do better to move on. Grade: D
Overall Grade: C
Harvin saves an otherwise weak receiving corps, but no one in the league will be looking at the Vikings as a model for developing or drafting receiving talent for quite some time.
Some teams, like Miami, may be willing to trade for the receiver situation Minnesota finds itself in, but just as many would balk at the idea.
Kalil has demonstrated all the fundamental skills that made him the (near) consensus pick for Minnesota.
While he still has some scheme/assignment pickup issues that he and Charlie Johnson—as well as the rest of the line—are hammering out, he's been solid in the fundamental pass protection skills needed to keep Ponder upright.
The only sacks Kalil gave up in the preseason were scheme errors, which bodes well, as those should be the easiest to resolve.
He continues to drive his feet on running plays and keeps his head on a swivel in pass protection. He's been displaying more as a pass protector than as a run blocker, but he's reliable in both.
All indications are that he's where he needs to be. Grade: A-
Originally signed as a guard, Johnson was pressed into tackle duty when former left tackle Bryant McKinnie was cut. His biggest weakness is edge rushers, which are a much bigger problem for tackles than guards.
While Johnson is not without mistakes, he clearly excels as a guard more than anything else. He has good footwork in limited space and pulls better than any other lineman on the roster.
He doesn't get backed up as easily in the guard position as he did in the tackle position, and it's clear his technique relies on the natural limitations endemic to the limited space fit for the interior of the line.
He does OK in run blocking and is a good pass protector as well. He gave up a few significant pressures, but most of the errors were not skills-oriented.
They were assignment-oriented.
This is less of an excuse for Johnson than Kalil, as he should have learned the inside zone assignments while as a tackle—even if he was not meant to play a guard. Still, these mistakes will eliminate themselves as the season progresses. Grade: B
One of the most underrated centers in the league, Sullivan did not help his Pro Bowl case too much in the preseason. Some interior pressure given up through his blocking, missed run assignments and miscommunications along the line were surprising problems.
He still did well to get up into the second level, but Sullivan did not play to his ability.
That's not to discount his body of work or his natural ability. Sullivan will outperform his preseason games during the regular season and only performed below expectations, not below average.
He fits well into the blocking scheme for the Vikings, and navigates it well. He can call adjustments and directs the line superbly, especially on runs.
He's still one of the best centers in the game, but must prove it for more than one season. Grade: A-
Fusco is a much more physical than technical guard, but his strength has served him well. He plays through the snap and very well looks like he would have earned the starting spot over Schwartz had Schwartz been given a full opportunity to compete.
He shoots out well and can catch defenders on their heels. He still needs to work on his footwork, and is much more useful on stretch plays or runs between the tackles than on pulling plays and screens.
His development over the past year has been remarkable nevertheless, and he may become the pride of Slippery Rock.
Fusco still has work to do maintaining discipline and may be liable for a few penalties, which could certainly kill drives. He also needs to work on reading defensive tackles in order to counter their pass rushing moves, although he will do well against pure bull rushers. Grade: B-
The enormous Loadholt has been a disappointment ever since his strong rookie season. More than that, he's been remarkably inconsistent, with good pass protection one year and excellent run blocking in another year. Improvements in one have been met with regression in another.
The most important area of improvement for Loadholt is his footwork. A large body like his should not be consistently beat with bull rushes, nor should his impressive wingspan allow speed rushers around the edge. In both cases, footwork is the issue.
Awkward footing has been putting him in positions with poor leverage, and he's become a liability in one way or the other. Beyond that, holding and false start penalties have become somewhat of a norm for him.
He's had a fantastic preseason in both areas of his game, but his history implies that his might not necessarily be something to trust.
If Loadholt finds his consistency, he would be the best right tackle in the league, but his inability to focus, lock down and control himself have made him one of the most maddening. Grade: C-
Berger spent time last year as the center when John Sullivan was out, and may have played better than Sullivan at that role. He spent significant time at guard as well, given injuries across the line.
Berger was one of the few bright spots in the offensive line in 2011.
It seems odd that he would come into his own so late in the game, but he certainly played well while the rest of the line around him faltered. He plays well as a swingman and is perfect as a backup to anyone on the interior line.
Berger is a bigger lineman, although it's a bit hard to gauge relative size when he's on the field next to the massive Loadholt and the relatively small Sullivan.
He uses that size well and is best when run blocking. He has good chemistry with those around him and can do well determining how second-level blocks need to be parsed out.
He's a fine pass protector, and his somewhat slow first step is not a problem. He's one of the better backup linemen in the league. Grade: A
A free agent signing from Carolina, Schwartz was adequate in his limited time in Carolina. Unfortunately, his best games were right before he was injured and out for the 2011 season.
While his performance was average, it was stellar for a seventh-round pick and many people were curious about how high is upside was.
Not many people are asking about that potential now, but the Vikings are hoping he reveals it, now one year removed from competitive play.
Schwartz sports hernia makes him difficult to evaluate, but as a backup he should be serviceable. His career speaks to consistency, especially as a pass blocker, and no discipline problems.
His versatility at tackle and guard make him particularly useful, and he also exceeds many of the backups in the league in pure skill. Grade: B+
Asper was a waiver claim the Vikings used that allowed them to cut Pat Brown from the roster. While Brown had been developing slowly—and very poorly—it's hard to see Asper as too much of an upgrade, even if he does bring a little more to the table.
Schwartz, also a former Duck, seemed to transition fine, but it might take Asper longer simply because he may not hold up sustaining blocks.
Oregon's outside zone-blocking scheme is better suited to stretch plays from players who are better at keeping their head on a swivel than players who lock in, while the Vikings' inside zone-blocking scheme is a little bit different and a little more complex.
This isn't entirely bad news, though. When the Bills cut Asper, a lot of it had to do with scheme and assignment problems in the Bills' much more complicated hybrid blocking system.
The transition from a pure outside zone blocking scheme to an inside scheme is okay, even if major differences lengthen the learning curve.
Regardless, it's hard to see Asper as an immediate upgrade over other Brown. It is very likely that Asper could outperform him by the end of the season, but he doesn't have the scheme or the raw tools down yet. Grade: C
Overall Grade: B
The offensive line is significantly better than last year, if preseason and camp performance is anything to go by. Upgrades at left tackle and right guard have put this offensive line into a position where they've exceeded what one can normally expect of a line, but not by much.
A favorite sleeper pick for several experts in fantasy leagues, Rudolph's much-ballyhooed connection to Christian Ponder is not only real—it's productive.
Rudolph has improved on his blocking skills since the end of the season, which will correct some of his major problems near the end of the year.
His hands are humongous, and they always do a good job capturing the ball in traffic. He runs good routes, although he could stand to be a little better at it.
He's the prototypical tight end physically, but needs to prove he's there mentally.
His catch radius, field awareness and determination make him one of the better sleeper tight ends in the league. It is very likely he'll put up around 800 or so yards. Grade: B+
The second tight end of a two tight end offense, Carlson was a priority target for the Vikings in free agency, going so far as to provide him with enough incentive to visit Minnesota he cut short his time in Kansas City, leaving before he saw a single Chiefs executive.
Fans may balk at his contract, given that it averages out to be $5 million a year for a pass catching tight end with a history of injury and not much production, but the design of the contract only has Carlson taking about $2.9 million the first year and gives the Vikings ample leeway to make cuts if necessary.
He's a smooth pass catcher, but it is difficult to evaluate his durability going forward. None of his injuries are related, but they still provide reason for caution.
As a blocker he'll be limited throughout the first part of the season because of his brace and was never a stellar blocker in either the passing or running department. The Vikings may have overpaid in agency—like nearly every team that grabs a free agent—in order to find a second reliable option in their offensive look.
When healthy he hasn't produced the kind of numbers that might make fans comfortable, but he does look good during his limited time in the NFL. Grade: C-
Ellison was a surprise pick not just for experts, but Ellison himself, who was not expecting to be drafted at all—much less in the fourth round.
Nevertheless, Ellison's skill set has been a pleasant surprise, even for the personnel office that scouted him. He played a hybrid H-back/fullback/tight end position at USC, and excelled as a blocker, both on the line and out of the backfield.
He's been doing much the same throughout camp, and also has been a reliable pass catching option as well. Not only are Ellison's hands better than advertised, he runs a wider variety of routes more smoothly than expected. He gives the Vikings diversity in an offense designed around misdirection. Grade: A-
Reisner ended up being the winner of the competition between himself and Mickey Shuler, and rightly so—both performed very well at training camp, but Reisner showed up more in the preseason games.
Possessing a full skill set that still requires development, Reisner had some highlight plays that included a sideline catch, a few blocks that helped spring a run and decent pass protection.
The Iowa product is a good option in the passing attack and will certainly make contributions on the field. He's relatively well-rounded in his skill set, but more comfortable in a pass-catching role.
He still has work to do running routes from anywhere on the field or being as reliable as someone like Kyle Rudolph, but he's a good option to have at tight end. Grade: B
Overall Grade: B
The Vikings don't have any elite tight ends in a league that may be evolving to reward the position, but they do have much more depth than most teams by a significant margin. Much is riding on Kyle Rudolph showing the NFL what he showed beat reporters at camp—"untested" is not a coveted position to be in.
Once the consensus best running back in football, Peterson's return from injury has been receiving national attention. While his Week 1 status is still a "game-time decision," he seems to be on course for starting early in the season—which would make for a remarkable comeback.
There are serious question marks about how his recovery will affect his play, however.
Running backs typically regress in performance after tearing a knee ligament, sometimes in a big way. Peterson may have all the natural skill he had once before, but could need to spend time redeveloping the muscle memory and aggressiveness that characterized his play from before.
While still an asset to the team, the uncertainty surrounding Peterson makes him a shaky bet. Grade: B
In his absence, Toby Gerhart can be expected to perform extremely well. Gerhart doesn't possess the wide range of skills that Adrian Peterson does, but can catch better.
They both have similar yards after contact, and Toby doesn't need to break off the big plays that Adrian regularly did in order to be effective.
Gerhart has a knack for avoiding bodies by running into arm tackles, and also has enough strength to make arm tackles miss in a big way.
He can't run outside nearly as much as Peterson, but he's about as good up the middle. The Vikings will rely on him as the year progresses.
The Stanford alum has proven that he's an extremely reliable member of the team, enough that they don't have to panic if Peterson doesn't recover on pace. Grade: A
Asiata was a nice preseason surprise for Vikings fans, particularly given the poor play of Lex Hilliard and injury to Jordan Todman. He averaged 6.1 yards a carry in the preseason and reliably pulled off big gains for a first down or more.
His strong running encouraged the Vikings to switch him from fullback to halfback and made him the halfback over quick scatback Todman.
He's shown good intuition for reading the holes in the defense and bursting through them. Beyond that, he's been surprisingly good in pass protection, both in picking up blitzes and in stalling them.
In fact, when Asiata wasn't the favorite to make the roster, he was often used as an example by the coaches to demonstrate good blocking technique.
He still has more to show before he can be counted on as a good addition to the roster, but for now seems like a gem. Grade: B+
There was some minor speculation that Felton may not make the roster as a result of the versatility provided by Ellison and Asiata and his spot may not be secure. The Vikings are committed to lead blocking, however, even if their feature back prefers not to have any.
Felton has been an average fullback over his 4 year career, but last year was waived by the Panthers in favor of a superior fullback (Richard Brockel). Not just a lead blocker, Felton is versatile enough to make a difference as a route running receiver, although he doesn't have the full route tree down yet.
His pass catching ability out of the backfield isn't elite by any means, but this added dimension makes Felton a valuable fullback within the offensive system the Vikings run, which emphasizes versatility and deception.
He didn't make any waves at camp or during the preseason, but was able to execute his job well enough not to be a worry. He's no Kleinsasser, but he won't cost many games with poor blocking, either. Grade: B-
Overall Grade: B+
The Vikings are in a good spot even if it takes Peterson much longer than they anticipate to return to form. There's every reason to believe the Vikings will be among the league leaders in rushing yards once more.
Not just one of the best defensive ends in the NFL, but one of the best players in the league, Jared Allen is the most well-known member of the Minnesota Vikings defense.
The highlight of the relatively blitz-free Tampa-2, the Vikings count on Allen to create the consistent pressure they need in order to execute the rest of their scheme.
A terror as a pass rusher and extremely reliable in the run game, Allen possesses a wide variety of moves to get into the back field all while maintaining composure and playing contain when need be.
History says it's unlikely he'll challenge the sack record, but it's a good bet he'll be one of the league leaders. Grade: A+
One of the best three-techniques to play the game, Williams seems to be on the decline.
His low sack numbers belie his true ability to get to the quarterback, which he did consistently, despite not making the sack. His pressures were consistent and he still had the drive to improve as the season went on.
That said, it's clear Kevin Williams is not the same without Pat and is still clearly getting older. Williams is a fantastic player, and still better than most at his position, but is no longer elite.
He takes great angles to pursuit and sheds blocks as well as anyone, but has lost a step against faster backs and passers. Grade: A-
The weakest link in the chain for the defensive line is probably the most important—the nose tackle. Expected to take up two blockers and close running lanes, the one-technique tackle needs to provide consistent upfield pressure while also maintaining lateral movement in order to shed blocks.
Guion is a powerful lineman, but doesn't play consistently enough to be considered a threat. He would never really be considered dominant at his position, but neither is he a complete liability.
He can plug a lane, but doesn't always direct traffic in ways that are beneficial to the defense. He didn't get the ability to showcase new found consistency, a big focus of his in the offseason because of a knee injury in the first preseason game.
As it is, there's a lot of reason to believe the Guion of 2012 will be the same as the Guion of 2011. Without a threat to his position, the potential running lanes for offenses open up in a big way. Grade: C
Robison—who has more consistently been given the responsibility for run contain than Jared Allen—has been a good pass rusher and a better run stopper.
He's been in Allen's shadow, but can still present a consistent danger to passers. He has yet to break the double digits in sacks, and plans to make this a priority in the coming season.
He hasn't recorded a sack in his very limited snaps this preseason, but he will have to show more to be a real bookend to Allen. He benefits from the attention Allen receives, but doesn't always do enough to take advantage of it.
Better than a number of defensive ends in the league, Robison isn't a slacker, but also is not playing to the line's full potential. Grade: B-
Griffen is a fantastic pass rusher and athlete, who has moved all around the front seven and even spent some time gunning on the punt unit. He's been productive in his limited snaps, but does need to expand his menu of pass-rushing moves.
He excels at rushing from the second level and even spent some time training as a linebacker, so he offers the line versatility as a great subpackage pass rusher. He's got a good first step, but not a fantastic change of direction, making him somewhat one-dimensional.
Other than that, his agility and footwork are fairly good and help the Minnesota line create the pressure it needs to be an effective defense.
While Griffen could start as an outside linebacker and defensive end for several teams in the league, he also doesn't figure to be one of the best backups at this position, either. He has a lot to learn before he can consistently make a big impact this way. Grade: B+
An excellent example of Minnesota's evaluation and development of defensive line talent, Reed was drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 draft and impressed enough over the season to earn the backup spot going into minicamp.
Despite a strong challenge from a number of talented ends, Reed maintained the spot and figures to line up as a backup to Robison.
Reed didn't have many exciting moments in preseason games, but did have a fantastic camp, using his excellent edge rushing speed to get to the passer.
He still has a ways to go before he can be consistently relied upon as a defensive end, but does provide good talent for his spot on the depth chart.
He reads plays well, even if he doesn't always have the ability to react and can provide critical rest to the starting defensive line. Grade: B-
A converted defensive end, Christian Ballard generally plays as Kevin Williams' replacement on passing downs. Ballard has gained weight in the offseason to better suit his role as the undertackle and certainly has a wider variety of pass rushing moves than the typical backup defensive tackle.
He was a natural left defensive end, which means that he knows better how to diagnose run plays and can still take appropriate angles of pursuit.
Last year, Ballard was swallowed up when he transitioned and didn't always get off the line with good burst. He still reacts a little slowly to the snap, but makes his presence known.
Unfortunately, not all of his pass rushing skills have transferred, and he needs to relearn his techniques in limited space. He's still reliable as a backup, but is potentially a nonentity. Grade: C
Evans might be the strongest lineman on the defensive line, but also the streakiest. He runs hot and cold, but does at least have a great burst off the line.
Evans is inconsistent, too. That is, a different set of mistakes will cost him the play on different snaps. In one game, he may have poor hand technique, in another, he may not develop leverage at the point of attack by locking his arms and in another, he might not sink his hips low enough.
He can make some highlight reel plays, but should never be relied on as more than just relief. Evans can command a double team better than Guion on some days and will be completely swallowed up on others. Grade: C+
Overall Grade: B+
The defensive line has all-world talent on the roster, but is relatively weak at the most important position. The depth along the line is not as good as many fans might like to think, even though they still have some premier backup pass rushers.
The defensive line is still the same one that provided 50 sacks in a year, but also give up significant rushing yardage.
Underappreciated for years as one of the better strongside linebackers in the business, Chad Greenway might be on the decline.
In 2011, he finally earned a berth to the Pro Bowl, although this was more a mark of his play between 2008-2010 than it was rightly a signal of his prowess in 2011.
Greenway was spectacularly weak in coverage and allowed a very high number of passes to be completed within his coverage assignment. Greenway did get an unusually high number of tackles for a Sam linebacker, but many of these tackles occurred after the catch.
It is entirely probable that Chad regresses to his mean and is average in coverage while stopping runners before the first down marker, but he had a bad year and needs to find ways to improve.
Nevertheless, when he's on his game, he's the best strong side linebacker in the league. Grade: B
With a great rookie campaign, Brinkley excited a number of fans going into the 2010 season. Unfortunately, he couldn't play a single down of that year because of required surgery and recovery from a shoulder injury.
E.J. Henderson filled in wonderfully, but with his absence, many fans are asking if Brinkley has the talent to be a middle linebacker in the Vikings system.
Jasper is still shaking off rust, but clearly shows a nose for the ball. Unfortunately, not many teams threw it to Brinkley, so it was difficult to determine his skill against the passing game. His general agility and inability to backpedal quickly does give reason for concern.
Most encouraging is Brinkley's gradual improvement over the course of the preseason, but he naturally still represents a big unknown, one that could lead to him being picked on by opposing quarterbacks all season Grade: C-
Sometimes referred to as Henderson the Younger, Erin has shown a surprising proclivity for an undrafted free agent. Henderson has a very good understanding of the system, and has taken over for Brinkley on defensive playcalling duties in certain situations.
Erin is not necessarily the model for coverage against the pass, but neither is he a liability in much the same way the rest of the roster is. Henderson is capable in this aspect of the game, and extremely good at playing as the weak side linebacker.
His role requires, more than anything else, he be a sure tackler. Henderson is not only a sound tackler, but he can quickly react to a developing play and figure out where he needs to be in order to make the stop. It's a nearly uncoachable skill and one that Henderson almost takes for granted. Grade: B+
The immediate backup for the Sam linebacker position, the Vikings will rely on Dean to show much more than he has in the preseason so far. With excellent positioning, Dean has been on hand and in place to make nearly every play, but missed his tackle nearly every time.
Dean is a good special teamer who might find himself to be a linebacker in name only. While the Texans game is a glaring example in particular, Dean has been frustrating in general for his inability to make the play despite his excellent positioning.
Dean sheds blocks well, but can't take on the lead blocker on the point of attack and still find himself making an impact on the play. If Dean is out there, then fans have a good reason to worry. Grade: D+
Alternatively, Mitchell has had a very good offseason overshadowed by rookie Audie Cole's spectacular performances. Probably the best cover linebacker of the three middle linebackers on the roster, Mitchell might end up being more important than the Vikings intended, even with the schematic changes that come with having two linebackers who don't fit the Tampa-2.
He can wrap up OK and reads the flow of the play well. With a command of the defense, Mitchell can also correctly call the defensive audibles that often seem too difficult for backup players to fully absorb. He still will find himself a step behind on the field, but he is generally capable.
Mitchell is clearly no starter in the NFL, but does provide solid depth at a position of weakness for the Vikings. Grade: B-
McKenzie may be the most versatile backup on the roster, and has played all three positions along the line. He's done well on special teams in addition to his play on the field and joins his fellow linebackers in that distinction.
McKenzie's best skill is his ability to move laterally off of blocks and still make the play. He's patient when diagnosing a play, but not too lethargic, either. He has a good sense of timing, although he won't always be there to make the play.
He can generally tackle quite well, but will sometimes be powered out of a play by a dedicated blocker or might engage in overpursuit, something he's had difficulty with for years. McKenzie also represents OK but not stellar depth and will certainly help get the job done. He has exceeded the expectations of him as he leaves the offseason. Grade: B
Audie Cole has gained quite a few new fans over the last couple of weeks thanks in no small part to a pair of heads-up interceptions as well as solid performances in the last several preseason games. Cole is clearly not as athletic as many of the players he's up against on the field, even when the field has been reduced to the third string, but will use his game savvy to make up for it.
So far, that formula has worked, and Cole has only been exposed once or twice for a lack of athleticism. This weakness will be magnified in a big way if he finds himself in the actual field of play, so he needs to play even more intelligently than he has before.
Still, all indications are that Cole is a quick learner; he has been doing well calling the defense and has also performed in every aspect of play demanded of him. For a third string linebacker, he's been excellent and could be fantastic depth well into the future. Grade: B
Overall Grade: C-
Even though all of the individual talent at linebacker may average out to having a better grade than "C-" the overall talent pool at linebacker still creates worries in the passing game. The unidimensional nature of the defense's abilities downgrade it further, especially when some of those players cannot even perform well within that dimension. The Vikings may want to consider why they have so many players who are excellent fits for systems other than their own.
The theoretically undersized Antoine Winfield is still one of the best tacklers in the league, even when you include linebackers. Beyond that, he still provides tremendous value in coverage, with fantastic intuition at closing passing windows and a remarkable ability to stay with some of the top receivers in the game.
While he doesn't match up well with the tall receivers of the NFC North—Johnson, Marshall and Nelson—he still provides value in WR2 and slot matchups.
He has solid footwork and rarely gets tricked by wily receiver moves, and remains a solid force on the roster. Slot receivers rarely have a good day against him, and he remains one of the best blitzing corners in the league.
While he executes his role to a T, his role is also defined in some part by his limitations, which often prevent him from going up against the best receivers the NFL has to offer. Grade: B+
Cook has excellent size for a cornerback and good speed to boost. Defensive backs rarely are as tall as him, and he can use this speed and range to shut down some of the better receivers in the league.
While it can be easy to overstate his performance against Detroit last year, it's true that Cook only had one bad game in 2011—the first one.
Once acclimated, Cook has top ten potential. His absence last year, however, has left the question of his true talent up in the air. Truth be told, the Vikings don't quite know what they have in this veteran who has been on the roster for years now.
Cook has fantastic closing speed, good leaping ability and a good intuition of which routes receivers will run. He may find himself on the losing end of the savvier receivers simply because he doesn't have the experience to diagnose all the tricks, but for the most part, he seems solid. The only issue has been his overall lack of playing time. Grade: B-
The speedy third-round pick out of Central Florida has progressed faster than most expected, and Robinson has shown a knack for the game that few thought he had. He can clearly track the ball, and has some ball skills, but also has no issue staying with his man.
Robinson clearly has functional speed and agility to go alongside it. He still is relatively raw as a cornerback, but seems shockingly ready to play despite missing much of camp with a hamstring injury.
It's fine to play well against backups, however, but it's entirely different to play against the NFL's elite. Robinson still has a ways to go before he's an effective starter in the NFL, but it looks like it's not as far off as people thought. Grade: A-
Brandon Burton has had a very quiet offseason. While he hasn't made an extraordinary amount of impact plays, he also hasn't made very many mistakes.
During the preseason, he was exposed only a few times in coverage and came out favorably compared to veterans Zackary Bowman and Chris Carr. Burton doesn't offer much except for depth, but looks to be a better than average dimeback.
He can stay in-stride with most receivers, but will get burned by top end speed. He seems to be aware of the more common receiver moves, but still doesn't have enough experience to recognize some of the craftier receiver tricks.
Burton is a consistent and reliable cornerback that might exceed the value of most dimebacks in the league. Grade: B-
On the team more for his punt return ability than anything else, Sherels was exposed in coverage in 2011 as well as during the preseason.
Quick but prone to mental error, Sherels doesn't always have the ability to stay with his man. He's a bit better than average for a punt returner, but should generally be fairly replaceable.
The Minnesota native doesn't have the instincts to be much of a ballhawk and so must make his name as a classic Tampa-2 corner. Unfortunately, he's not big enough to really make a difference in rerouting receivers or jamming them to disrupt timing, so he doesn't have the complete skillset that the Vikings may want in a system cornerback. Grade: D+
Perhaps the biggest threat to Sherels is through kick return specialist A.J. Jefferson, who was traded to the Vikings for a conditional late-round pick swap.
While not a starting-level cornerback, Jefferson's coverage abilities exceed that of Sherels and several nickelbacks in the league as well. His kickoff return abilities will allow the Vikings to better protect Harvin while still gaining field position on special teams.
He fits better in the zone coverage system that the Vikings run than the primarily man-to-man coverage employed by the Cardinals, and his closing speed will be a huge asset to a team that maintains a philosophy of keeping completions to a minimal gain.
Jefferson is much better covering underneath and short routes than he is on long routes despite his speed, and can do a much better job closing those passing windows than he can making sure he pays attention to the receiver and the ball. Grade: B-
Overall Grade: C+
The Vikings secondary will benefit from the return of Cook and Winfield to the roster, but need to do more to really prove they have an above-average set of cornerbacks.
Winfield's presence would normally push the grade up, but his "pitch count" will expose less experienced or skilled cornerbacks against starters, which means Robinsons "A-" for being a third cornerback might really end up being a "C" against starting receivers.
Uncertainty brings the grade down, and the Vikings can't really claim they have more than simply average cornerbacks.
Somewhat of a surprise as a pick the Vikings traded up in the first round to take, Smith has been invigorating fans who have become used to seeing lackluster, uncreative and sometimes tentative play from one of the worst secondaries in the league.
More versatile than many expected, Smith has demonstrated an ability to make contributions as a pass rusher, run stopper, deep zone defender, man-to-man cover corner and everything in between.
When paired with Jamarca Sanford in the preseason, he's played much more of a free safety role, but played as a strong safety with Mistral Raymond on the field.
The team refuses to specify who will start on Sunday against the Jaguars, but it seems as if Raymond has the inside track, which means Smith will more likely play in the box than up high.
While he may want to temper his aggression, it certainly will be an asset to an otherwise lackluster secondary.
Smith's skills are impressive, but the rookie still isn't on par with the top safeties in the league. Grade: B-
Raymond is the presumed starter next to Harrison Smith, but back spasms have caused the team to restrict his practice. Regardless, Raymond will start the vast majority of Vikings games barring serious injury, simply because he is a better safety than everyone else on the roster.
The South Florida alum is much better as a free safety than as a strong safety, and he still has some issues with shifty runners. He does surprisingly well in pass coverage given that he was a sixth-round pick and does a good job placing himself between the ball and the receiver at the right time.
He needs to demonstrate better awareness of receiver route patterns, but makes up for it with good reads of the quarterback. Veteran QBs will still force him off the receiver, but for the most part, the sophomore plays above his experience level.
Still, without being a more well-rounded safety, he's below average in the league. Once he improves his run defense, his grade will improve significantly. Grade: D+
Sanford may have been the worst safety in the league last year.
When throwing to his coverage assignment, passers had a quarterback rating of 114.8. He had more blown coverages than any other safety in the league, and often missed assignments.
He and his partner rotated through assignments poorly and Sanford, who is a good fit in systems that utilize the strong safety in the box much more often, often didn't have the closing speed or the experience to play deep zones.
In the preseason, Sanford looked much better than he did during the 2011 season, but he still needs to do more to shake off the worry he's not worthy of an NFL roster.
This would not be as much of an issue if it wasn't clear that Sanford is clearly the next backup. Grade: F
Blanton missed almost the entire preseason with a hamstring problem, and clearly had rust to shake off. Blanton outperformed Frampton in a big way, but this isn't much of an accomplishment. He played intelligently, read the flow of runs well, and took proper angles to ballcarriers.
Unfortunately, had had some minor issues reading offenses, but reacted to the quarterback well enough. He seemed slow, and that could be because of the injury or because of his natural limitations.
Blanton needed to show more awareness of the field, positioning and the sideline, but otherwise played his part well. He tackled with good form and seemed to have an eye for the ball, so that may be all that can be asked of him.
As the fourth backup safety, Blanton may have a high degree of upside, but seems to be largely average right now. Grade: C
Sendejo's addition to the roster over five-year veteran Eric Frampton came as a big surprise to many people, but the change was well warranted.
Sendejo played on special teams just as well, if not better, than Frampton, and showed the patience of a veteran on some of these plays.
He outperformed Frampton on the field as well—saving a touchdown that Frampton gave up—and tackling well. He was a liability in coverage, but was always near his assignment—allowing him to stop the play. He took good angles to ballcarriers and generally read the flow of the play well.
While he and Frampton had communication problems, Sendejo recovered well enough to stay relevant on broken plays. He clearly isn't a starting caliber safety right now, but is an excellent prospect who can do much more than most who occupy a spot reserved for a special teams ace. Grade: B-
Overall Grade: D
Until the safeties have more experience under their belt or obviously improve, it's still an area of concern. This doesn't mean the Vikings should target safety as a position to improve next offseason. They have one year of combined experience starting in the position.
That inexperience will lead to big mistakes, even if the safety tandem does end up being part of one of the better secondaries in the game. As of right now, safety is the biggest current question mark in terms of performance, even if it is locked up for years to come.
Another surprise pick in the fifth round, Blair Walsh has been impressing journalists and teammates with the strength of his leg. Regularly making 60+ yard field goals in practice, Walsh has been tested several times in game conditions at nearly 50 yards.
While having missed three field goals in the preseason, he has been accurate on every kick below 40 yards. There's good evidence that two of his missed kicks were on botched snaps, too.
It's easy to make excuses for Walsh in the preseason, but it will be much more difficult come game time. A botched snap is no mere excuse, but it also gives some context—none of the specialists have worked out the timing that Longwell, Kluwe and Loeffler had down pat just a season ago.
Walsh has quite a leg, but needs to resolve concerns about performance under pressure and the dip in accuracy he experienced senior year. Right now, there are more concerns about Walsh than about many other kickers in the league, so his current grade is below average. Grade: D+
Kluwe is perhaps the most entertaining player in the game, but he has done well to keep his hobbies and interests separate from football. The Deadspin contributor is an extremely serious competitor who makes sure that all gears are working before setting out to do his job.
As a punter, Kluwe is above average. He does an excellent job pinning the ball inside the 20, even in adverse conditions, and shows an ability to kick the coffin corner punt when necessary.
He isn't completely consistent, however, and is still attempting to go through a Bears game without kicking it to punt return phenom Devin Hester.
His other job is as a holder, and while Longwell, Kluwe and Loeffler had done well as the longest running specialist trio in the league, he has been struggling a bit in the preseason in this capacity.
Timing issues have made it difficult for Walsh to achieve consistency, and Kluwe's job as a holder might be the biggest weakness in the group.
Because of the combination of potentially below average holder duty and above average punting, Kluwe ends up with an average grade. Grade: C
Loeffler is a surprisingly important member of the Vikings squad, one who signed a three-year extension with the team before suffering from a lower back fracture.
Matt Katula was called in to replace him and the difference was stark. Kluwe's gross and net punting averages dropped from tenth in the league to 25th. Longwell notably suffered from accuracy problems near the end of the year when Matt Katula took too many hits to be effective.
Loeffler is the fifth-highest paid long snapper in the league, and the reason is clear: he's one of the best. He generally does well on timing, accuracy and cohesion, although he had an off year last year.
If he and Kluwe can work out an appropriate timing for Blair Walsh, Loeffler might once again be considered one of the top long snappers in the league.
As it is, some recent concerns drop his grade down a little bit, but not too much. Grade: B
Overall Grade: C+
The specialists aren't too much to worry about once they are comfortable with each other, but are only slightly better than the average trio in the league at their current state—despite the fact that they each have top ten talent.
A year ago, this grade would have almost certainly been at least an "A."