NFL Preview 2012: 10 Questions for the Minnesota Vikings
When you go 3-13 in the National Football League, there usually is nowhere to go but up.
This is where the Minnesota Vikings stand after 2011 where they tied a franchise-low with three wins and a dearth of talent compared to their NFC North counterparts.
In short, the prognosis doesn't look good for the 2012 season as Adrian Peterson, the face of the franchise, will be recovering from a torn ACL and MCL.
Also, the Vikings decided to bring one of the youngest rosters in the NFL that will have to learn on the fly as the season goes on.
While things don't look promising, there are plenty of things that Viking fans will learn about this team as the season progresses. Here are some of the questions that will need to be answered in 2012.
Will Christian Ponder Show Improvement in 2012?
Christian Ponder showed flashes of brilliance in 2011, but he also missed time with injuries and made bad mistakes with 13 interceptions.
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The Christian Ponder era got under way sooner than expected last October when Donovan McNabb proved that he was as washed up as everybody thought he was.
There were times in 2011 where Ponder looked like the franchise quarterback the Vikings had hoped they were getting with the 12th-overall pick in the NFL Draft.
However, there were also times where he looked like a rookie quarterback that had no OTAs or any contact with coaches until August.
Year two will be important for Ponder as he'll look to show that he was worthy of the high selection with a full offseason under his belt.
The Vikings have also given Ponder more weapons than he had one season ago as they added wide receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end John Carlson to the passing game.
Overall, Ponder will need to improve the 1-to-1 (13 TD, 13 INT) touchdown-to-interception ratio he posted a season ago if he wants to show he can keep up with his fellow franchise quarterbacks in the division.
If not, the Vikings may have a crack at USC quarterback Matt Barkley in April.
How Much Will the Vikings Miss Jim Kleinsasser?
Jim Kleinsasser called it a career after 13 seasons in the NFL last winter. Can the Vikings fill his role?
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Jim Kleinsasser was never the sexiest name in the NFL, but he played an important role in making Adrian Peterson one of the most feared rushers in the league.
Father Time eventually catches up with everyone in the NFL though, and Kleinsasser called it quits after a solid 13-year career.
While some have snickered when people mention how important Kleinsasser was to the organization, the Vikings will miss his presence in their blocking scheme.
That's where fourth-round pick Rhett Ellison out of USC will be a wild card for this team. As somebody who didn't expect to be drafted, Ellison has been chosen to fill Kleinsasser's role for Peterson, Toby Gerhart and anybody else the Vikings decide to throw in the backfield to run wild.
If Ellison can clear some lanes and keep Christian Ponder off his back, the Vikings may have unexpectedly hit on one of their draft picks.
Will Kyle Rudolph Break out in 2012?
Rudolph could become Christian Ponder's security blanket and put up huge numbers for the Vikings in 2012.
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The Vikings thought they got a steal in tight end Kyle Rudolph with their second-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
As a tight end that has similar measurements to last year's breakout tight end Rob Gronkowski, a lot of people have expected Rudolph to take the next step with the departure of Visanthe Shiancoe.
Rudolph has the talent, but the obstacles around him may prevent that from happening. It's still unknown what Christian Ponder will bring to the table at quarterback, and the signing of John Carlson didn't do Rudolph any favors.
Still, the Vikings envision Rudolph and Carlson as their version of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (which is a statement that every team in the NFL has made at some point this offseason).
If Rudolph could have a major impact in the offense, things will open up for Percy Harvin, Adrian Peterson and the rest of the Vikings' playmakers.
Will the Defense Be Better Under New Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams?
Alan Williams will have the unenviable task of improving one of the NFL's worst defenses.
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Leslie Frazier is sticking to his guns with the hiring of former Colts secondary coach Alan Williams to become his defensive coordinator.
Williams was the secondary coach for the Indianapolis Colts before coming to Minnesota where they also ran the Cover 2 defense that was made famous by former Colts coach Tony Dungy.
Frazier has taken that philosophy everywhere he's been, and now it's Williams turn to team with him to transform one of the worst defenses in the NFL into a legitimate unit.
The cupboard is not completely bare on defense as Williams will have sack machine Jared Allen at his disposal along with a healthy Antoine Winfield.
However, the linebackers and secondary on the Vikings will need to have somebody such as Jasper Brinkley or Harrison Smith break out in order to help a defense that ranked 26th in the NFL in expected points from a defense (-81.06).
It won't be easy, but if the Vikings can make some stops, they will have a chance to win some of the close games that eluded them a season ago.
Is Jerome Simpson for Real?
Jerome Simpson electrified training camp and OTAs, but can he translate that success after a three-game suspension?
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The Vikings desperately needed to add a playmaker alongside Percy Harvin in the passing game, and they believe they've found just that in Jerome Simpson.
Simpson, who is most known for his flip into the end zone against the Arizona Cardinals last Christmas Eve, was unstoppable this offseason as he seemed to build an early rapport with Christian Ponder.
It's possible that the extremely athletic Simpson could be another breakout star on the Viking offense as he has come to a system that should utilize his talents more than Jay Gruden's west coast scheme did in Cincinnati.
Unfortunately, the verdict on Simpson will have to wait as he will serve a three-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. It will be interesting to see upon his return if he is indeed the downfield threat the Vikings need or just another flash in the pan.
Can the Revamped Offensive Line Be Effective?
The Vikings selected Matt Kalil fourth overall in the NFL Draft last April to solidify their weak offensive line.
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Last offseason, Leslie Frazier wanted to prove a point by sending Bryant McKinnie packing after he showed up to training camp weighing in at 400 pounds.
This proved to be a massive mistake as Charlie Johnson could not fill McKinnie's void (as his No. 74 jersey implied) and Donovan McNabb, Christian Ponder and Joe Webb were pounded all season long.
This season, the Vikings have made a priority in giving Ponder more time to throw and getting more out of the running game. With that mindset, the Vikings selected Matt Kalil with the fourth-overall pick in the NFL Draft and made some shuffling across a unit that had the fourth-worst sack percentage in the league.
Kalil's arrival has moved Johnson over to left guard to replace the aging Steve Hutchinson. The Vikings also have inserted Brandon Fusco at right guard to team up with enigmatic tackle Phil Loadholt who many believe will perform in a contract year.
The Vikings also believe that their center, John Sullivan, is one of the best in the NFL after giving him a five-year, $25 million contract extension last December.
If the offensive line can give Ponder a little extra time in the pocket, the chances of Ponder taking the next step and improving should significantly increase.
How Dangerous Can Percy Harvin Become?
Percy Harvin lead the NFL with 100 touches over the final 10 games last season.
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Percy Harvin has long been considered one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL since his debut in 2009. Still, the Vikings have been reluctant to use him as they've kept him off the field due to his duties as kickoff returner.
That should change in 2012 as Harvin looks to be the only sure thing on the Viking offense.
Harvin is coming into this season as the undisputed No. 1 receiver despite playing most of his snaps in the slot. In fact, the Vikings will play Harvin all over the place as they look for more ways to get him involved in the offense.
That process started in the final 10 games last season when Harvin touched the ball 100 times. With Adrian Peterson likely to be weened back into action, it's possible that Harvin could eclipse that 10-touches-per-game rate and become even more dangerous.
If Harvin has a big season, it could give the Vikings a huge boost in 2012.
Can Jared Allen Break the Single-Season Sack Record?
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In 2012, Jared Allen came within a half-sack of breaking Michael Strahan's single-season record with 22.5 from 2001.
While the onus will be on Allen to become a more complete player than he has been over his career, he still will excel at getting to the opposing quarterback. That raises the question whether Allen can duplicate his success and break Strahan's record in 2012.
The "menu" for Allen in 2012 could call for success, as five of the 12 projected opponents for the Vikings had quarterbacks that were ranked in the top 10 last season in sack percentage.
(That includes taking account for rookies such as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and would have been six if we counted both Kevin Kolb and John Skelton who were second and ninth respectively.)
If Allen can feast on some of the weaker offensive lines in games such as Week 1 against Jacksonville, Week 7 against Arizona and Week 15 against St. Louis, he may have a great shot at taking down Strahan's record in the final games of the season.
It could be the last exciting thing Viking fans would have to look forward to come December.
Will Leslie Frazier Survive 2012?
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Head coaches don't always get the fairest of welcomes in the NFL.
While a lot of people would refer to 2012 as a rebuilding year for the Vikings, Leslie Frazier does not have that luxury to have another three-win season.
Instead, Frazier needs to show improvement in season two to try to save his job or else.
The decisions by Frazier in his first season weren't always the best for the team in 2011.
Frazier was the one who pleaded with general manager Rick Spielman and owner Zygi Wilf to bring Donovan McNabb in. Frazier was also the one who let Bryant McKinnie have a pro-bowl caliber season for the Baltimore Ravens.
In short, it was not a good first season for Frazier, but he didn't exactly get a fair shake either. The NFL never allowed Frazier to install his system due to the lack of OTAs, and by the time the season got going, many Vikings were still learning the system.
Now Frazier has a complete offseason under his belt and is in a situation similar to that of his quarterback Christian Ponder.
The two seem to be linked as we head into 2012, and if Frazier can start having success on the field, it may solidify his future in Minnesota.
How Healthy Is Adrian Peterson?
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Finally, we get to the biggest question of them all with the status of Adrian Peterson.
By now, the story has been told a million times that Peterson suited up for a meaningless game against the Washington Redskins on Christmas Eve and tore both his ACL and MCL.
Since then, Peterson has been relentlessly rehabbing the injury hoping to get back on the field in time for Sunday's game against Jacksonville.
So the real question is how healthy will Peterson be upon his return? In many cases, it takes a running back a full year after the surgery to return to his current form.
That's why in many similar situations around the league (Rashard Mendenhall in Pittsburgh and Jamaal Charles in Kansas City as examples), running backs have been carefully inserted back to action rather than having them take 25 carries right away.
The Vikings will use the same approach after signing Peterson to a massive contract extension last September. While it may be the smart thing to do, one has to wonder how much it will affect an offense that runs through Peterson.
It's a story line to keep an eye on, because if Peterson is the same guy that has terrorized the league the past couple of seasons, the Vikings could give the rest of the NFL one big surprise in 2012.