The Vikings are a team that was not quite as bad as people imagined they were back in August. 2011 was, while not a complete aberration, a bit of a nasty mirage.
There were problems, of course.
They just weren't as bad as some saw them to be. Having a healthy Adrian Peterson helped that certainly, but the defense and offensive line both were much better than expected.
There are still some huge holes to fill (wide receivers anyone?) and questions to answer (is Christian Ponder the guy?) but overall this team is not the rebuilding-from-scratch group people made it out to be.
Perhaps the biggest key to fixing what's wrong with this team is this draft class. In his first draft as GM, Rick Spielman did a masterful job of getting the right talent to fill needs.
Let's put on our "hindsight is 20-20" glasses and see how the Vikings 2012 rookie class looks after the season.
Round 1, Pick Four: Matt Kalil, LT—A-
Kalil stepped in immediately and did a very good job at left tackle for the season. Kalil saw a ton of high end talent coming at him all season long—guys like Aldon Smith, Julius Peppers and Chris Clemons—and more than held his own.
According to Pro Football Focus (premium stat), Kalil allowed a whopping three sacks all year long—no small task given who he faced.
Oddly enough, Kalil grades out as a better pass-blocker than a run-blocker—I say oddly because of the season Adrian Peterson had which one would think meant the whole line would grade out high.
Overall though, Kalil did well enough run blocking and will get better at that as he gets more experience.
There was a lot of talk prior to the Draft about whether Kalil was really the smart pick—or if perhaps Morris Claiborne or Trent Richardson was the way to go. Maybe even Justin Blackmon.
I've always felt that offensive line stability and ability were the cornerstone of any offense. If your line sucks, your quarterback will have issues, unless he happens to be the next Aaron Rodgers.
Even then, you can seriously hinder his development.
Kalil proved to be the perfect pick. In fact, he made the idea of going any of the other directions sound pretty silly in retrospect.
Round 1, Pick 29: Harrison Smith, S—Grade: A-
As much as I liked the pick of Kalil, I didn't much like Smith. Well, not that I didn't like Smith; I just disliked moving back into the first to get him.
Mark the calender folks because here is the rare instance when I am wrong.
OK, it isn't the first (or last) time for that, but the point is that the move was worth the effort.
Smith immediately stepped into the free safety spot and put together an outstanding rookie season, delivering jaw-shaking hits and picking off a few passes along the way (his three are tied for the lead on the team which is actually more of a statement about the secondary than Smith really).
Two of his picks were returned for touchdowns as well.
All that is nice, but it's those crushing hits which really have set him apart and, to me, help set the tone for the defense's better efforts this season.
Receivers know that when they cross into Smith's territory, they will get hit and they will get hit hard.
The thing is, he's not even fully polished. He has a great ability to read a play but sometimes reacts a tad slowly and as many tackles as he racked up this year, his technique can get sloppy.
So, this is essentially his floor. I can't wait to see the ceiling.
While I expect Casey Hayward, Bobby Wagner or Luke Kuechly to win the DROY, Smith should be in the running. I might not be alone in that sentiment either.
Round 3, Pick Three: Josh Robinson, CB—Grade: B
Robinson didn't quite have the success Smith did, but not for lack of effort. Early on in the season, he got a start over Antoine Winfield in Week 6, and responded with five solo tackles, five assists and an interception against the Washington Redskins.
He followed that up with a great performance against the Arizona Cardinals, where he notched a sack and 10 tackles. He almost returned an interception for a touchdown in Week 14 against the Chicago Bears but stepped out of bounds at the five yard line.
While he hasn't grabbed a permanent starting job, he's been outstanding as a nickel corner and pretty much shown he is able to handle just about anything the team throws at him.
Like Smith, Robinson is a very hard worker both on and off the field, while on the field he has flashed some great ball skills and a nose for the play. He's a willing run defender in addition to being able to cover receivers.
He definitely has some developing to do both in terms of coverage skills and overall play, but in year one he has definitely shown he has the skills to make the transition to full time starter.
It's a matter of "when", not "if."
Round 4, Pick 23: Jarius Wright, WR: Grade: C+
I am still unsure why Jarius Wright was inactive for as long as he was given how underwhelming the receivers on the Vikings are (at least those not named Percy Harvin).
It turns out that the Vikings might be wishing they'd activated him before Week 10.
When Wright did get on the field, he had an instant impact, scoring a touchdown and showing some good chemistry with quarterback Christian Ponder.
Wright cooled for much of the rest of his time playing in 2012, but showed some very reliable hands, good speed and a nose for open field.
He's very similar to Harvin, just with less speed and playmaking ability. That said, he was a welcome addition to a group of receivers who didn't do much most of the season.
Wright still needs a bit more polish, but he shows a lot of promise and a few times really stood out with some nice catches.
I can see him getting more play next season, but given the team is desperate for wide receiver help, he will either get the chance or they'll bring in more guys and he'll have a fight on his hands.
Or maybe a little of both.
I dinged him a bit because I still don't know why he was inactive for almost ten weeks—something must have been up (not getting the playbook down or something) but I can't find it.
Round 4, Pick 33: Rhett Ellison, TE/FB: Grade: C+
Forget stats when you talk about Ellison because they're almost irrelevant when you look at his contributions. Unless of course, you're looking at Adrian Peterson's stats, in which case it's fair game.
Because Ellison, along with Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson (when he finally got healthy) and Jerome Felton were instrumental in the success of Peterson this year.
Ellison is a hybrid player, not quite a full time tight end, not a full time fullback. He's a blocker with hands—in other words, he is there to knock people over and if on occasion he can catch the ball, so much the better.
In that capacity he did well. Ellison did a fairly good job alternately clearing the way for "All Day" and helping to keep Christian Ponder upright.
He's probably not going to be asked to do much more than that next year, though the potential to see a little more wider variety of responsibility is there and he has the skillset.
Round 4, Pick 39: Greg Childs, WR: Grade: Incomplete
After coming back from a knee injury which robbed him of his Junior year at Arkansas, Childs' potential NFL career was dealt an equally harsh blow when he tore both patellar tendons during a preseason practice.
The Vikings had high hopes for Childs—planning to have him start opposite Harvin when Jerome Simspon was serving his suspension—and he was looking like a solid vertical threat.
Now it's fair to wonder if he can return and when. There is a fair chance he won't be back this coming season. The team hopes he will and it would be a great story, but on top of the tendon he tore in college, the road back is pretty steep.
Round 5, Pick Four: Robert Blanton, CB: Grade: B-
Blanton had an up and down year, battling injuries and finding himself inactive a few times during the course of the season.
His highs weren't tremendously impressive, but he was always a bit of a project and he may yet find a more consistent spot in the Tampa 2-style scheme the Vikings run.
Blanton has very long reach and once he learns to use his body a little more, should be able to use it to break up passes more consistently.
For a later round pick, Blanton performed well and his upside has yet to be fully tapped.
Round 6, Pick Five: Blair Walsh, K—Grade: A+
Is this where I mock the Jacksonville Jaguars for taking a punter in the third round?
See this is how you get value for a pick. You wait, you do your homework, you grab the best guy in the later rounds.
Oh, you get lucky too.
As good as Walsh was supposed to be, did we expect him to break an NFL record for 50-yard-plus field goals?
For any kicker—much less a rookie kicker—to be as good as Walsh has been is impressive on a huge level. Kicking 92 percent of your attempts is pretty darn good for anyone, much less a rookie.
Can he repeat it? Can he keep it up?
Kickers are notoriously streaky. In a league of "what have you done for me lately," kickers are guys who can have a fantastic year and then disappear.
Walsh does not seem to be that guy—and while it's not the most vital position on the field, assuring yourself that your kicker can be counted upon to come through when it counts is a lot more important than many give it credit for.
The Vikings seem to have their guy.
Round 7, Pick 3: Audie Cole, LB—Grade: D+
Let's just start out by admitting this: since they picked him I've been a HUGE—advocate? Fan? Proponent? Take your pick—of Cole's. So factor that into the grade however you want.
The key, to me, has always been Cole contributing on special teams while he develops as a player. I believe he has the skills to be a good rotational defender.
If he can do well on special teams, he buys himself time to develop.
Unfortunately, Cole hasn't been active much less on the field often this year.
He's contributed some good tackles but overall, hasn't been much as a factor.
It's hard to call a seventh-round compensatory pick a "disappointment" because the expectations for the spot are low.
However, I did expect more from him this year on special teams and he just couldn't get on the field.
Offseason workouts will probably be very critical for Cole and he's going to have to work super hard to keep his spot with another crop of players coming in.
I still believe he has the talent—he just needs to stick around long enough to show it.
7.12 Trevor Guyton, DE—D-
Like Cole, I also felt like Guyton had a lot to offer if he could stick around on special teams long enough to deliver.
That didn't happen, in part because Guyton struggled a bit and in part because the Vikings were really deep on the defensive line when the final cuts came down in August.
A Day Three player not making the roster at a deep position isn't tragic, but a player not even getting a practice squad contract is bad. Especially when nobody else around the league shows interest.
This was a miss, it seems. Guyton was a hard working, high motor guy coming out of Cal, who was extremely raw but had a lot of potential.
Sometimes those guys don't pan out and even in the seventh round, end up a miss.
I nearly graded this an "F" but it's not like he's a Day One or Two player who missed. Seventh rounders miss more often than not.
Overall Grade: A
The Vikings hit on most of their picks, but more than that, they found impact players with them.
Kalil, Smith and Walsh were players who might be Pro Bowl-level players for years to come and Blanton certainly shows the potential to be that good down the road.
Ellison and Wright were role players who stepped up multiple times last season, and in Wright's case could very easily take on a much larger role in 2013.
I still believe in Cole (clearly) but even if they end up missing on both Cole and Guyton, a seventh round miss has minimal impact.
The only real disappointment is Childs, and one can only hope he is able to come back from a severe injury in the future. The recent tendon injury perhaps might have given them more pause, but the chances of him hurting himself again weren't great.
It was bad luck.
This a tremendous building block for the Vikings, a team that isn't in complete rebuilding mode but certainly had and has holes.
This crop of rookies appears to be a huge step in changing that.
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