The Minnesota Vikings surprised everyone (even many of their fans) with an incredibly good showing, including a playoff appearance that, given the strength of the NFC North coming into 2012, looked unlikely.
Despite that, the team has more work to do in order to remain competitive at that level. The good news? Many of the pieces that allowed them to make their playoff run will remain in place.
Adrian Peterson will be more than a year removed from his surgery and coming off a career year. Christian Ponder has a full season of experience, and Percy Harvin will be healthy (and hopefully happy). Most of the defense is coming back, including standout rookie Harrison Smith.
It's a good core group to build on.
Here's a look at what the team looks like heading into the 2013 NFL offseason.
It was very clear that this group doesn't have what the team needs to get the job done. Jerome Simpson (who is a free agent) could come back and improve upon his 2012 performance, but beyond Percy Harvin and a raw but effective Jarius Wright, there just isn't much there.
Assuming the Vikings keep Harvin, he won't be cheap, and as his contract is up at the end of this year, they'll work to lock him down sooner than later. So don't expect them to break the bank in free agency—especially after misses with the likes of John Carlson (who in my opinion should be cut, but that's a piece for another day).
I would not be shocked to see the Vikings go for two receivers again this April, perhaps with one on the second day of the draft. This isn't a top-heavy class, but it is relatively deep, and there is some great talent there.
However they do it, though, this offense needs help.
Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson are both free agents, and the Vikings may not be able to keep both. Assuming they can, the team still lacks depth at the position. Chad Greenway is great, but nobody else seems to have stood out as a potential replacement either now (if they can't keep Brinkley and Henderson) or down the road.
Anyone who reads me knows I love Audie Cole, and he may yet become the player I believe he can be, but he's clearly not there yet.
So—and this depends a little on how they handle their free agents—the Vikings should definitely look at linebackers in this draft. If not for starters, then most definitely for depth.
Chiefly, this is about defensive tackle, but I'd like to see some more defensive end depth as well. Jared Allen is getting on in years (though he still performs at a pretty high level), and while Brian Robinson and Everson Griffen have done very well next to him, finding a home-run replacement for Allen would be nice.
Ultimately, though, this is about Kevin Williams and replacing him at tackle. Williams is definitely slowing down, and while he might play a little longer, you need to replace him at some point. Letroy Guion and Christian Ballard are fine, but both have a low ceiling, in my opinion.
Looking for a better-than-average player for the tackle spot should be on their priority list.
Matt Kalil was a huge help, but the line still needs more. Specifically at guard, where Charlie Johnson continued to struggle and neither Geoff Schwartz nor Brandon Fusco excite me long term.
This line is really quite good (Pro Football Focus had it ranked ninth in their O-line rankings) but if there is a weakness it's at guard.
With an aging Antoine Winfield and an oft-injured Chris Cook, this group is primed for a makeover. A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robinson show some promise, but not enough and surely nowhere near enough to replace both Cook and Winfield at some point.
Adding Harrison Smith at safety was a brilliant move and went a long way toward solidifying the secondary.
But in this league—in this division—you cannot survive without very good cornerbacks. The Vikings need to find themselves a pair and soon.
This is not to say the Vikings should draft a starting quarterback. First of all, this is a bad year for it, and secondly, Ponder has played well enough to keep his job.
No, this team is desperate for at least a backup quarterback.
The way Joe Webb was used against the Green Bay Packers was borderline ridiculous and made it clear that he was not a guy who can step into this offense and succeed. The offense either doesn't fit him, he doesn't fit it or they cannot adapt to each other—really all of the above.
Of course, it'd be nice if they got a guy with some upside in the draft who could step in and start if Ponder implodes.
First and foremost, though, they need someone who can run the offense they play if Ponder gets hurt again.
Most people probably feel the highest-priority free agents the Vikings will be looking at are Brinkley, Henderson and Simpson, along with tackle Phillip Loadholt.
For me, Jerome Felton is right up there. There's no denying Felton's impact on the run blocking (and pass blocking, to some extent) in the 2012 season, and while many teams have moved away from utilizing fullbacks, Felton showed that having a good one can be a big boon.
He won't cost much (fullbacks don't), but keeping him is my No. 1 priority.
As for the rest—Simpson, I could honestly give or take. I still contend he is better than he looked last year, but his contract demands have to be reasonable. They should be, so I expect him back. Then again, we've seen receivers price themselves out of the market before, so anything is possible.
Henderson could be expensive, and as the team could have locked him up long term last year, they might pay for it now. Again, though, Henderson should be back, and Brinkley as well.
Loadholt was tied with Kalil for 22nd-best tackle in Pro Football Focus' linebacker ratings, and his only real problem was penalties. That can be overcome, and given that the Vikings have issues at guard, it'd be better if the team can have some continuity at tackle by retaining Loadholt.
As for the rest—there's a fair chance that Geoff Schwartz is back (again for the right price) given how uninspiring Fusco was, though one could argue Schwartz wasn't really much better in limited action. Still, it might be a way to have at least one reliable guard.
Schwartz was a guy who looked OK in limited action—that warrants a little longer time to find out if he can be an answer.
Finally, there is Jamarca Sanford. While Mistral Raymond didn't exactly light the world on fire this year, he outplayed Sanford. Even as a returner, Sanford was lacking this year.
It will be interesting to see where the Vikings go with him this offseason. This was a big year to prove himself, and yet we ended up with as many questions as answers.
Of the NFC North teams, the Vikings are in the best shape from a salary-cap standpoint.
This isn't to say they are in great shape—at $16.1 million in free space, they are the low-middle of the NFL. Still, when you see teams like the Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys in double-digit negative cap numbers, Vikings fans can smile.
Of course, they have some significant cap hits which drag it down. Jared Allen ($17 million), Adrian Peterson ($13.9)** and John Carlson ($4.25) chew up a bunch—just to name a few.
Whether the team can jimmy those numbers to try to make more cap space remains to be seen. We know Harvin will want an extension, so at some point that has to be factored in.
I don't expect the team to dip its toe into free agency very much, so the cap space shouldn't be a huge issue.
It will dictate some of what they can do this year with contracts, and they may need to convince players to take less this year, with an eye toward paying more heavily a year or two down the road.
**The original piece had the incorrect cap impact numbers for both Allen and Peterson. Thanks to the commenter who caught that. It has been adjusted for.