Even though the Minnesota Vikings are coming off their best single-season turnaround in franchise history, they need to make some improvements in order to sustain their success. Their seven-game improvement over 2011 was one game better than that of the 1998 team, which finished 15-1.
The success of this past year was fueled behind the record-setting season of Adrian Peterson. AP became only the seventh player in NFL history to surpass 2,000 in a season. He also passed Robert Smith to become the Vikings' career franchise leader in rushing.
The success was also made possible through an extremely successful draft. General manager Rick Spielman was able to improve the offensive line and the defensive backfield with his first three selections of the draft. Left tackle Matt Kalil is the cornerstone of the Vikings' offensive line and safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Josh Robinson are positioned to be a part of an improved defensive backfield for years to come. Kalil and Smith started all 16 games last season, while Robinson made six starts at cornerback.
Spielman needs to have another offseason like last year if the Vikings are to make a repeat appearance in the the playoffs. Here are the top five areas that need to be addressed.
No. 5: Quarterback
Even though no one is going to confuse Christian Ponder with Aaron Rodgers, he did have a better season in 2012 than 2011. He finished with a 10-6 record as the starting quarterback, but that included winning a games against the Cardinals when he completed only eight of 17 passes for 58 yards.
In a report from 1500ESPN.com, Tom Pelissero reported that head coach Leslie Frazier has indicated that Ponder will be the starter next season. However, Joe Webb may not be his backup.
Webb demonstrated his inability run the Vikings offense in the Wild Card playoff game against the Packers. Through three quarters, he completed only eight of 22 passes for 64 yards and an interception.
The Vikings will be looking to sign an effective veteran quarterback to replace Webb. According to Mark Craig of StarTribune.com, Derek Anderson, Jason Campbell, David Carr or Rex Grossman are all among the candidates to replace Webb.
And all pose no threat to challenge Ponder for the starting job.
No. 4: Cornerback
The Vikings defense only intercepted 10 passes last season, ranking 27th in the NFL. Starting cornerback Antoine Winfield, who turns 36 in June, led the team with three. Chris Cook, who opened the season as the starter opposite Winfield, has not been able to play a complete season since being drafted in 2010.
In three seasons he has only started 18 games and has yet to intercept a pass in the NFL. Third-round pick Robinson, who also had three interceptions, provided an upgrade as the third cornerback.
The Vikings need to decide who follows Robinson on the depth chart. Currently A.J. Jefferson is a restricted free agent, and Marcus Sherels is an exclusive rights free agent. The only other cornerback on the roster is Brandon Burton. A fifth-round draft pick from 2011, Burton was only active for four games last season.
The Vikings will most likely re-sign Jefferson to a one-year contract, and look to add another cornerback early in the draft. Depending on who is available when the Vikings draft in the second round, Jordan Poyer from Oregon State, Logan Ryan from Rutgers or Jamar Taylor from Boise State are possible cornerbacks the Vikings might consider drafting.
No. 3: Linebacker
Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson, two of the three starting linebackers from last season, are free agents. Combined they have 40 starts. Compare that to Chad Greenway, who has started 95 games—playing in every game since 2007.
Last year the Vikings had a chance to wrap up Henderson with a long-term contract, but instead signed him for one year for $2 million. A two-year starter, Henderson will turn 27 this summer, while first-year starter Brinkley will turn 28.
Last year the Vikings drafted Audie Cole from North Carolina State in the seventh round. Despite returning two interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive passes against the Bills in the preseason, Cole was active for only five games. Marvin Mitchell, who backed up Henderson last year, has only three starts on dense in six seasons.
The only other linebacker on the team is Larry Dean who went undrafted out of Valdosta State in 2011. Dean has played on the special teams the last two seasons for the Vikings.
With few options on the free-agent market, the Vikings will most likely re-sign both Brinkley and Henderson, and look to add some depth later in the draft.
No. 2: Offensive Guard
The Vikings didn't surprise anyone last season when they selected Kalil with the fourth pick in the draft. In Kalil they found a left tackle who can anchor the offensive line for the next decade. Now they need to determine how to provide him some help.
Charlie Johnson, who moved from left tackle to left guard, had a better season last year than in 2011, but the Vikings could use an upgrade. While they will not be able to find another player of Kalil's caliber, they might be able to find a starter if they choose to use their first-round pick on a guard.
Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina, the second-best rated guard in the draft, could be available when the Vikings select at 23. Spielman could try to work his magic in the draft and try to find a way to move up in the first round to attempt to draft Chance Warmack, the top-rated guard in the draft from Alabama.
However, if the Vikings go this route, it would go against what many draft experts are predicting.
No.1: Wide Receiver
To no surprise, this is the biggest need for the Vikings. Last season Percy Harvin led the team with 62 receptions and 677 receiving, despite missing the last seven games of the season. No other receiver had more than 500 receiving yards.
The Vikings will need to decide if free agent wide receiver Jerome Simpson is worth another year.
Working in their favor is that Simpson, after serving a three-game suspension, was never able to get his season going, and it shouldn't cost them a lot to keep the five-year veteran. Nerve issues in his back caused weakness in his legs and limited his effectiveness.
He only caught 26 passes for 274 yards in 12 games.
While many fans would like to see the Vikings sign a big-name free agent at wide receiver, it's unlikely to happen. Spielman needs to try and agree to a contract extension with Harvin. No doubt after leading the NFL in receptions and all-purpose yards early in the season, Harvin will be looking for top dollar.
The top 10 receivers in the NFL all have base salaries of at least $5 million per season. With bonuses, they're counting between $8 and $15 million against their team's salary cap. It will be interesting if the Vikings and Harvin can come to an agreement, or if the Vikings will put him on the trading block.
Look for the Vikings to draft another two wide receivers in the draft again this year. Most likely they will use the the 23rd pick to select either DeAndre Hopkins from Clemson, Terrance Williams from Baylor, Keenan Allen from California or Cordarrelle Patterson from Tennessee.
At least those are the options from a compilation of expert picks, with Hopkins projected to be the Vikings selection by three of them.