Minnesota Vikings fans know the 2014 Super Bowl is within their team's reach. They'll face some unique challenges and might have further to go than other several other teams. But they can get there.
However, the Vikings need to be careful because they overperformed their Pythagorean win projection, a system that uses point differential to calculate "expected wins," according to Football Outsiders. Teams that overperform in this system consistently "regress" to their (lower) expected win total, according to Pro-Football Reference.
The good news is that they didn't exceed their "expectations" too much. At 1.2 wins over their likely win value, they aren't raising alarms, but there are signs that the Vikings need to do more than most to improve on their first-round playoff defeat this season.
They'll need to manage every part of their roster. According to ESPN, the Vikings have $12.3 million of cap space—$8.1 million more if they use all their carry-over. It's not a license to spend, so they will need to be careful about re-signing their in-house free agents as well as free agents from other teams.
That $12.3 million initial cap space calculation likely doesn't take into account the bonuses that Chris Cook and Percy Harvin received, so the safer route is to assume the Vikings' initial cap space is closer to $9.6 million.
Further, they'll have to make the same smart choices they made in last year's draft they want to be ready to compete. Coming up with two immediate starters and an excellent special teams player last year was a good way to begin.
The excellent depth that wide receiver Jarius Wright provides and the potential for cornerback Josh Robinson to make a big impact cemented the fantastic work that general manager Rick Speilman and the rest of the staff have done in evaluation and draft strategy.
More than that, the Vikings' will have to evolve tactically, both on offense and defense. They have a long way to go before fans will believe they are true contenders. But here's how they can get there.
The Vikings do have a much-improved roster from their failed 2011 campaign, partly due to free agents but mostly due to draftees. With that in mind, they still have holes that need to be filled.
Of the players committed to contracts for next year, the Vikings could have issues with guard Brandon Fusco, guard Charlie Johnson, safety Mistral Raymond, wide receiver Stephen Burton, wide receiver Michael Jenkins and tight end John Carlson. Tackle DeMarcus Love is also a concern, and his injury issues can cause real problems for the Vikings. Defensive tackles Letroy Guion and Fred Evans have also not performed up to par.
They might also want to see more from backup linebacker Larry Dean, who was an average special-teams player and showed an inability to consistently wrap up tackles. His stiff hips also make him a liability in coverage, although he's not extraordinarily worse than most backups. At 24, he has a lot of room to improve, however.
Audie Cole, despite his excellent preseason, could be on the chopping block as well, given he reportedly still needs to improve his coverage skills, according to ESPN, which are critical for a middle linebacker in the Vikings' system.
The Vikings might elect to keep the two young linebackers, but the rest of the roster is up for debate. Brandon Fusco's improvement from his rookie year to this year might give the Vikings reason to keep him as well, although they would do well to back him up.
Mistral Raymond has significantly underperformed as a safety and presents a real liability. Despite beating out Jamarca Sanford for a starting job, it's clear that Raymond was the worst of the two safeties on the field. Cutting Raymond would not create any dead space on the cap and would save about $500,000 for 2013.
Stephen Burton is a poor receiver on a poor receiving corps. He blocks well, but he hasn't offered much in the way of the passing game. He's improved a lot over the course of his two seasons with the Vikings, and that might give him another shot at making the team in camp.
The Vikings could lose a number of receivers, and replenishing the corps after cleaning house might be harder than it looks. Keeping Burton won't be that expensive and it gives them another year of evaluation.
On the other hand, Michael Jenkins won't be getting much better and is already much slower than he was in his prime. While he is somewhat of a wily veteran, he hasn't been able to translate that experience into separation or catches. With 40 receptions for 449 yards, the Vikings aren't getting much out of someone who is tagged as a starter.
For perspective, Adrian Peterson also had 40 receptions.
Given that free agent receivers like Domenik Hixon, Rod Streater and Harry Douglas all have a similar number of catches (and Hixon and Streater have more yards), Jenkins' value is severely limited. His 2012 cap hit is the same as those three receivers combined ($3.9 million). In 2013, he's slated to take less space ($3.2 million), but cutting him will still create value for the team.
The dead space after cutting him would cost a little less than $700,000, so the Vikings would create $2.5 million of cap space to work with. If he had led the league in first downs, or first downs per reception, it would be a different story—but he's not even in the top 20, according to the Washington Post.
Charlie Johnson has been disappointing at left guard, but could do as a backup. His cap space would take up $4.5 million dollars, money the Vikings need to use elsewhere. Luckily, the dead cap space from cutting Johnson would only cost the Vikings $1.5 million. Overall, they would free up an addition $3 million.
Even better, the Vikings could cut Johnson before June 1st and absolve themselves of any dead weight in cap space by designating him as a post-June 1st cut, according to the National Football Post, a move teams can use on two players a year.
Swingman DeMarcus Love was slated to back up Johnson, but he performed extremely poorly in the preseason and in practices before ending up on injured reserve. Cutting him shouldn't cost the Vikings any significant cap space, as he doesn't have much money guaranteed. That move ends up saving $580,000 in cap space.
At defensive tackle, Letroy Guion and Fred Evans have been disappointments. Evans, the backup, was the better of the two, but should remain as depth. Guion has performed at a subpar level in stuffing the run, redirecting runners and taking on multiple blockers to justify his $3 million cap hit in 2013.
Cutting Guion would incur around $1.7 million in dead space penalty. It would save $1.3 million overall, but that might not be worth it. Regardless, the Vikings need to be bold if they want to push for the Super Bowl. In this blueprint, that's what the Vikings do.
Unfortunately, the Vikings have a bit of a problem with John Carlson. He signed a contract that guaranteed him $9.1 million, according to ESPN, and cutting him after the first year would incur a cap cost of $5.4 million. Even if the Vikings chose to spread out the dead space over two years, that's a very large hit—$2.7 million over two years in cap space.
The post-June 1st designation helps a little bit, but it would still cost the Vikings $3.75 million in cap space to do that ($1.9 million over two years). Carlson will cost $4.25 million in cap space if he's on the roster, so cutting him would only save $500,000 at best.
Replacing Carlson with another tight end will cost significantly more than $500,000, but it might be worth the hit, especially if they spread it out.
In this scenario, the Vikings cut Johnson, Carlson, Raymond, Love, Guion and Burton. They could also cut marginal players like defensive end George Johnson and cornerback Nick Taylor and save $1 million in cap space by doing so. Overall, that will give the Vikings $10.9 million more to work with, boosting their total cap space to $20.5 million.
They need to be careful about boosting it by $8.1 million more using carryover cap space, as they will not be able to use the rolled-over space in the year after (this would hit especially hard if they choose to spread out the cost of Carlson's contract). They will want to use this option as little as possible.
They will also want to restructure contracts with Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, who combine to cost the Vikings $25.8 million in space in 2013. There's a good chance the Vikings could do so, and Williams certainly seems open to it, according to ESPN.
Reforming those contracts could bring the cap hit down to $15 million, but something higher—$18 million, for example—seems more likely. That should give the Vikings a little more than $28 million to work with, but they'll need about $5 million in cap space reserved for their incoming rookies.
All told, that gives the Vikings more than $23 million to work with. For the purposes of this blueprint, $23.3 million seems appropriate.
Williams' contract costs $8 million in 2013 and 2014, but his willingness to restructure it will do a lot for the Vikings. He missed 12 tackles in 2012 and only recorded two sacks. He seems to be a player on the decline, and he may not have the longevity that Pat Williams had. At 32 years of age, Kevin is worth a lot less.
If the Vikings can extract a contract that only costs them $4 million in cap space, they'll have a lot more latitude to work with, especially because Antoine Winfield's contract escalated from $3 million to $7.25 million for 2013, according to ESPN, as a result of playing more than 80 percent of the team's snaps.
Jared Allen is a tougher nut to crack. At $17.8 million, Allen is going to consume the sixth-most cap space of any currently contracted player for 2013, according to spotrac.com Projecting his hit is going to be hard, and he might not be as willing as Williams to take a pay cut.
If the Vikings can get Allen down to $12 million for next year, it might be a success. More likely, he would reduce his cap hit to something around $14 million, which would still make him the sixth or seventh-most expensive end in the country, according to spotrac.com.
If the Vikings successfully renegotiate these contracts, they will have much more room to work with when they hit free agency.
The Vikings don't have any superstars hitting free agency, but they do have a sizable list of starters. They don't have a lot of space to play with, but they do have more than most.
After making their round of cuts, they could be staring at even more cap space, enough to lure other players to the fold. Before they can do that, however, they need to take care of their own.
Among the free agents are middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, outside linebacker Erin Henderson, split end Jerome Simpson, fullback Jerome Felton, safety Jamarca Sanford and right tackle Phil Loadholt.
Along with that are depth players, such as split end Devin Aromashodu, rotational guard Geoff Schwartz, center/guard Joe Berger, nickel cornerback and punt returner Marcus Sherels, outside cornerback A.J. Jefferson, linebacker Marvin Mitchell, tackle Troy Kropog and undrafted free agent Andrew Sendejo.
Re-signing all of those free agents would be expensive and likely unwarranted. Loadholt, for example, would probably command a cap hit next year between Tyson Clabo's new deal ($4.8 million) and Todd Herremans' new deal ($3.7 million), likely closer to Herreman's more than anything else.
Based on the deals Pro Bowl fullbacks have been getting, Felton could take up $2 million or more in cap space. Underperforming middle linebackers like Curtis Lofton have been able to sign deals where the space they take up is around $1.5 million, and Jasper Brinkley could find himself looking at a similar contract on a one-year "prove it" deal.
All told, re-signing all the starters could cost a little more than $15.1 million in cap space, creative structuring notwithstanding. That's too much for too little. Re-signing the depth would cost between $7.8 million and $8.2 million, depending on how much Berger and Schwartz can demand.
The Vikings will not want to spend $23 million in cap space to re-sign all of their free agents, so they need to figure out who they'll let go.
Of the starters, the Vikings will definitely want to bring back Henderson, Loadholt and Sanford. Henderson and Loadholt are obvious—both are well above-average starters at their position.
Jamarca Sanford is less obvious, but he is definitely a starting quality safety who has gone underappreciated by the fanbase for his play this year, largely due to his terrible play in 2011. His 2012 campaign more than made up for it, however, and his ability to force fumbles has helped the Vikings tremendously (he led the team in forced fumbles with four).
He is a bit above average in coverage, but it's his tackling that makes him such a valuable safety. He ranked third among safeties in run stop percentage by Pro Football Focus (subscription), a measure that determines how many of a player's tackles were losses for the offense. He also was better than most starting safeties in tackling efficiency—a metric for figuring out how often a player misses tackles.
If the Vikings could negotiate a salary like one that Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud earned, they would be a little lucky. DeCoud was perhaps underpaid, and his cap hit this year (the first of his contract) is $2 million. Given his poor performance in the past, Sanford doesn't have a lot of room to demand more.
From there, it seems obvious that the Vikings would want to re-sign Jerome Felton, but Rhett Ellison has fallen into a fullback role very well. His blocking quietly improved over the course of the season and it may have been better than Felton's by the end of the year, according to Pro Football Focus.
But a large part of his blocking improvement was as an in-line blocker. When Felton is on the field, Adrian Peterson averages almost four yards better per carry, according to ESPN. So, despite Ellison's improvement, the Vikings will want to keep Felton on the roster, likely at $2 million for the next year.
Geoff Schwartz provides good depth at a position of need, and it might be difficult for the Vikings to keep him when he might feel he can start for other teams. He performed better than starter Brandon Fusco in his rotational role, but the Vikings awarded the job to Fusco full time at the end of the season.
Schwartz doesn't have a lot of negotiating clout because injury concerns kept him out of contention early in the season, but wanting a fresh start might seem like a reasonable option. Nevertheless, the Vikings should seek to sign him and once again hold an open competition with Fusco as the preseason begins. This could cost the Vikings around $1.7 million in cap space, although injury concerns could force Schwartz to repeat his $1.5 million, one-year contract.
Joe Berger, a backup at both center and guard, is going to be 31. He has done well in his limited time these past two years, replacing John Sullivan, Steve Hutchinson or Anthony Herrera. In fact, he played better than he ever had in his career. Nevertheless, that sort of performance is probably an anomaly, and if Berger could not beat out Johnson or Fusco for a starting position, his true value lies only in depth.
That's OK—getting rid of veterans simply because they are aging isn't enough, because the team would severely limit its options should a player go down. Getting rid of Johnson and Love will provide enough holes so that the team can bring in new talent, while Berger could end his career with the Vikings. A small contract that recognizes his veteran status would give him a cap hit of $1.5 million for the next year seems appropriate.
Troy Kropog is also at risk of that as well. He doesn't provide much and has performed below his projected level. A fourth-round pick, his steadiness as a zone blocker who can pass protect with intelligence and agility was supposed to be an asset, one he hasn't consistently provided to his teams. He doesn't maintain effort, contact or power in his blocks, and the Vikings can do better.
At linebacker, the Vikings should feel free to let Jasper Brinkley and Marvin Mitchell go. Mitchell will be 29 and hasn't caught on for any teams, while Brinkley performed as one of the worst linebackers in the league, particularly in coverage over the middle. This will create huge holes at linebacker, but that's something the Vikings will find themselves addressing anyway.
The split ends (or 'X' receivers) Aromashodu and Simpson have both fallen short of expectations. Aromashodu is showing little sign of improvement and will be 29 this next year. After several years of trying to secure a spot onto receiver-depleted rosters (Chicago and Minnesota) and several more years of bouncing around, he could be let go for a developmental player who could make a big impact.
Simpson, on the other hand, might have underperformed as a result of his back injury, which caused numbness in his leg. He played without the explosion he showed in Cincinnati and was out of sync with the offense.
Still, he read coverage well and could get his old speed back. The Vikings could give Simpson another shot, so long as they don't rely on him as a starter. Getting rid of Jenkins and Aromashodu would require that the Vikings keep some players on their roster, and Simpson has the highest upside. Another one-year "prove it" deal, at perhaps a lower cap hit of $1.7 million, would be good for depth.
The cornerbacks A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels have both been disappointing. Jefferson has the physical tools necessary to do well in the league, but he is probably a perpetual backup. That's OK, because the Vikings need depth, even if Jefferson doesn't do well locating the ball in the air and gets turned around too easily. He wouldn't command much more than the veteran's minimum at $630,000.
Jefferson was an electric punt returner in college, even if his limited time at punt returner for the Vikings didn't go well. He could make another go of it and make Sherels' role at punt returner redundant. Sherels is very poor as a slot cornerback and he doesn't line up well. Quarterbacks continued to target him when he was on the field. He was a big weakness on the Vikings' defense. They would do well not to sign Sherels again and should provide competition with Jefferson at returner through the draft and free agency.
Andrew Sendejo impressed the Vikings in 2011 on the practice squad, and he made the Vikings team proper in 2012. As one of the top special-teams performers and a solid player in the preseason, he could be good depth for the Vikings at the minimum salary of $630.000.
All told, that should take up $18.1 in cap space, leaving $10.2 million to sign free agents. The Vikings certainly have a challenge ahead for themselves and may have to dip into their carryover (again, an additional $8.1 million) if they're willing to gamble.
The free agency market will be particularly important after the Vikings let go of 12 players, even with the eight picks they have in the draft. In all likelihood, Minnesota will only be able to go after one relatively high-value free agent and then grab a few prospective depth vets.
With three starters gone from the roster, the Vikings need to make sure they make a splash in free agency and shore up the back end of the roster in case the injury bug strikes. With needs at guard, defensive tackle, middle linebacker and wide receiver, the Vikings have a lot cut out for them.
None of the cuts or decisions not to re-sign would happen without sending feelers into the free agent market, so Step 3 and Step 4 are fairly concurrent.
Regardless, at least one, if not two, needs should be met in free agency.
Unfortunately, the middle linebacker class in free agency and the draft are thin. Knowing this, it could be a bit puzzling to allow Brinkley to hit the market, but nearly any other free-agent linebacker is an upgrade, so long as they can maintain the coverage responsibilities of a Tampa-2 middle linebacker.
Ravens inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is an excellent linebackers, but he doesn't fit well in the current system. Ellerbe is a liability in coverage and his stiff hips can't turn well enough to track running backs or tight ends, particularly up the seam.
The Vikings lose two linebackers in this blueprint, so they could target one in free agency and another in the draft. With depth in the draft at defensive tackle and wide receiver, they might want to take a shot in the third or fourth round at signing a cover linebacker. To compete with that draftee, they should sign Brad Jones, currently an inside linebacker for the Packers.
While his backpedal isn't amazing, he can turn and run with any number of tight ends or running backs, including the quick Chris Johnson. Defending the seam is something the Vikings had difficulty with last season, and Jones is better than most inside linebackers with that responsibility.
Inside linebackers run a bit more than outside linebackers, so he would likely take up what looks to be $3.6 million in cap space. Jones hasn't proven himself as a consistent producer, so he won't get an extraordinary number of offers from other teams, especially because this is the first time he's played in a consistent non-pass rushing role (his last three seasons were as an outside linebacker in a 3-4). His coverage ability is surprising, to say the least, and the Vikings might need to coach him out of a purely downhill style.
His versatility is useful, and he could provide defensive end depth in a pinch.
At guard, there's the possibility that the Vikings could look at Andy Levitre of the Buffalo Bills, but they have consistently shown a preference for run-blocking guards over pass protectors, and Levitre is not well known for his ability to grade the road. He fits in a zone-blocking scheme well, but given his high price tag for a skill set that doesn't fit what the Vikings necessarily want, they will likely pass.
Brandon Moore from the New York Jets is certainly an appealing option. He's performed at a high level for years, but doesn't get much recognition for it. Marshal Yanda and Jake Scott were in a similar position as they received new contracts, but had wildly different cap hits. Yanda pulled in $4 million, while Scott didn't even hit $1 million.
The Jets have a lot of issues evaluating their quarterback, but they are very willing to pay their talented offensive linemen. In 2010, they were in the running for the highest-paid offensive line, consuming a cap space of $22.1 million. Brandon Moore might therefore run at $4 million, in which case the Vikings should probably pass.
Instead, they might be able to grab San Diego guard Louis Vasquez for $2 million. Aside from a slump at the end of 2011, Vasquez has consistently been a good guard, balanced in his ability to clear the road for runners and protect the pocket. In 2012, he only allowed two sacks, which is one more than in 2011. Extraordinarily strong, he was voted the AFC West rookie of the year in 2009, but has gone unnoticed by the media.
This gives the Vikings $4.6 million to sign other free agents. Given the nature of the 2013 draft, they will likely find their DT and WR starters there, but will want to grab some depth to fill out their roster before April.
Knowing that they have another $8.1 million of carryover to play with, the Vikings could target a good tight end to fill out a complete roster, but it would create big issues for the 2014 season.
If they were to go that route, Martellus Bennett would be the best option, as he has a very good balance of effective blocking and extremely useful receiving. Unfortunately, he would fetch a high price, especially knowing that he's willing to give the Giants a "hometown discount".
Instead, the Vikings will want a pass-receiving tight end who can come cheaply to replace John Carlson. Delanie Walker will be on the minds of a few fans, but he dropped nearly a third of the passes thrown in his direction this year—a staggering amount, according to Pro Football Focus, given the rates of the other tight ends who have butterfingers.
He's been better in other years, but Walker has probably increased his price with this Super Bowl run. Instead, targeting a tight end like Dennis Pitta or Fred Davis would be smart. Pitta produced more than 600 yards, so he might come at a higher price than Davis (325 yards), but Davis had a very productive 2011 that might make him attractive to other teams.
Either way, one of them should be available for less than $2 million, perhaps around $1.8.
They could also seek to attract young depth at wide receiver, given that they'll need to make sure they grab a linebacker in the early rounds instead of picking several receivers early. A receiver like Domenik Hixon would look like a good fit, given his smart route-running, quick feet and fast straight-line speed. Unfortunately, two ACL tears in two years will make him a risky investment. It might be worth it if the Vikings could convince Hixon to sign for less than $2 million in the first year, but that seems unlikely.
Instead, they should target a receiver like Emmanuel Sanders—a restricted free agent will be more difficult to get—who has a lot of ability but hasn't been able to get on the field due to the talent in front of him (Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown). Sanders is a willing blocker who can run a variety of routes and should be able to fit in either at split end or flanker in the base offense.
He shouldn't command as much as many think, given his low production. Historically, receivers with his production level should typically consume a little less than $3 million of cap space, but the Vikings can effectively plan for a little more. He's worth a bit more than most receivers with his history of production. If the Vikings can get him for $3.2 million of cap space, it's worth it.
The elephant in the room, however, is the worrisome quarterback play. With only $1.4 million left, the Vikings might have to dip into their carryover and start getting creative with their contract structuring, especially as they work on negotiating extensions for 2014 free agents Percy Harvin, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Chris Cook.
Bringing in a veteran quarterback to compete with Christian Ponder or back him up will be important for any run the Vikings want to make at the Super Bowl. If the Vikings want to "win now," having a solid veteran will be critical. When Ponder couldn't play in the playoff game against the Packers, the abysmal performance of Joe Webb forced observers to question the reliability of his play at quarterback.
High-quality backup quarterbacks like Jason Campbell will cost serious money, and the best available option is Matt Moore, who finished the 2011 season ranked 16th in yards per attempt and 12th in passer rating. Moore might not be able to garner enough interest to receive a similar deal to Campbell, who is taking up $3.5 million in cap space.
Expect Moore to take a contract closer to $3 million in the first year. If that's the case, a competition in camp will allow the Vikings to cut whichever backup loses the competition. If Matt Moore beats out Joe Webb, as should be expected, the Vikings could cut Webb and save an additional $500,000 in space.
The Vikings then begin to dip into their carryover space—contract space they won't have in 2014. If they want to win now, that will occasionally be the cost. They will want to use the remaining $7.5 million to negotiate front-loaded contracts with the 2014 free agents.
The Vikings are short an offensive lineman, a defensive tackle, a safety, a receiver and a cornerback after this maneuvering, but much of that can be acquired in the draft.
The Vikings have started the Spielman era with a bang and will need to repeat that success if they want to make a Super Bowl run.
In 2011, the Vikings were able to pick two impact players in the first round, both of whom seem to be unanimous locks for various all-rookie teams, including those put out by Pro Football Weekly, CBS, ESPN, and Pro Football Focus. In fact, PFF went further and named Rhett Ellison to the team as the fullback as well.
Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith are shining examples of how a good draft class can change the fortunes of a franchise, and the Vikings need to score another hit to build on their success.
Naturally, Blair Walsh was a big hit as well, but it is unlikely (although not impossible) that they would draft another specialist.
Minnesota could find itself trading down or trading up, but it's clear that with the holes on its roster, it will have to find immediate starters.
Ideally, in a draft full of receivers and defensive tackles, the Vikings would be sure to find who they need, especially with the pass-catchers expected to fall so far in the first round.
Between Cordarrelle Patterson, DeAndre Hopkins, Terrance Williams, Aaron Dobson and Justin Hunter, the Vikings could find a deep threat to stretch the field.
If they decide that consistent downfield movement is more useful than the occasional big play, they could go after Keenan Allen, Robert Woods, Quinton Patton or Markus Wheaton. With Wheaton's speed and the potential for Woods' ankle to fully heal, the two of them could provide an explosive element to the offense that the Vikings don't have.
Either way, the rookie that Spielman picks will be expected to produce immediately, given the dearth of talent the Vikings have at the position.
While rookie receivers don't always make a big impact, the Vikings will need their pick to change the way defenses play them almost immediately.
In the past 20 years, only 30 receivers have had 800-yard seasons, according to Pro-Football Reference. But three rookies have done it in each of the past two years, and 10 have done it in the past five years. This is a unique time for passing games to flourish, and the Vikings—by selecting the right receiver—could catch lightning in a bottle.
For that, they might want to pick the most "NFL-ready" receiver. Players like Woods and Allen are extremely polished, while Patterson and Williams have more to learn.
Without Guion, the Vikings also need to fill the vital nose tackle position. With a great number of pass-rushing defensive tackles, many fans might want to see a more "productive" linemen go—players like Sheldon Richardson, Shariff Floyd, Kawann Short or Sylvester Williams. With Kevin Williams aging, it would make sense.
But the more immediate need (and more important player) is at nose tackle—a player who can consistently take on double teams without getting moved around. Jesse Williams and Johnathan Jenkins are both players that are within range for the Vikings to target. Star Lotulelei could fall, but it's unlikely. Instead, a more likely fall is for a player like Johnathan Hankins, who would also be a fit.
The final nose tackle prospect in the first two rounds is surprising riser Brandon Williams, but he has a lot to learn before he can start in the NFL—he played in the undertackle role at Missouri Southern, and doesn't have much experience playing against high-level talent.
Regardless, the Vikings should come away with a productive receiver and an effective nose tackle.
The draft isn't just about finding immediate starters, however. Developmental players and players who can provide solid depth are critical. John Sullivan, perhaps the best center in the league, was selected in the sixth round. The Vikings also found starter Brandon Fusco in that same round.
Jarius Wright filled in better than one might expect for Percy Harvin, and he was a fourth-round selection. This year, the Vikings will need to find depth at several positions to be prepared for the inevitable injuries that will hit the team.
They will primarily need to focus on their secondary, but middle linebacker will be a concern, with only Brad Jones at play in this blueprint. Audie Cole could fill in, but again, he needs to show more in coverage before he can be considered reliable depth. In addition, adding depth at weakside linebacker and tackle would be necessary.
The secondary will need help shoring up holes as well, and grabbing a safety and cornerback will be important. Secondary depth is something they know is critical.
Those five positions can all be addressed and then some in the next six picks. To create competition at middle linebacker, the Vikings might want to start there first, choosing to pick either Jon Bostic or Kiko Alonso in the third or fourth rounds—both players excel in zone coverage and exhibit awareness in the passing game, unlike Nico Johnson, who is a superior run defender, but a very poor player against the pass.
From there, the Vikings will want to assure that they have a reliable punt returner to compete with A.J. Jefferson. Picking fourth-round riser Terry Hawthorne, a cornerback from Illinois, or Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a cornerback from Connecticut, could meet that need. If they chose to go after a linebacker in the fourth round instead of the third, a player like David Amerson or Darius Slay would be available.
Or the Vikings could gamble on the small-school wunderkinds B.W. Webb from William & Mary and Robert Alford from Southeastern Louisiana. Hawthorne, Wreh-Wilson and Amerson might be the best choices for a reliable replacement in the nickel package, and that could very well be what the Vikings are aiming for.
Later in the fourth round, the Vikings could choose to back up Erin Henderson at the Will linebacker spot and grab either Sio Moore, Zavier Gooden, Keith Pough or Gerald Hodges. Each of those players has the capability of playing the weakside linebacker spot and all had good all-star game experiences.
From there, the Vikings should seek a safety and a backup tackle. They could target Bradley McDougald, Josh Evans or Earl Wolff in the sixth round and be happy.
McDougald is a bit more raw than the other two, but has versatility as well as a good sense of route awareness. Evans is competitive and consistently plays his receivers tough. Even though Josh Evans is aggressive, he doesn't trust his instincts quickly enough—something that can be coached out of him. Wolff had a good all-star experience and made up for a reputation as just a heavy hitter, covering tight ends and running backs extremely well. He does, however, have to show more awareness in the deep zone.
The last pick could be used for a developmental tackle to take over for Kalil or Loadholt if they need to be rested for a spell or if they need an immediate substitute. Manese Foketi from West Texas A&M might be the best bet, as he has all the physical tools of a good tackle but needs to clean up his technique.
Braden Brown might also be available, but he is a bit one-dimensional: he excels as a pass-blocker but is a liability in run-blocking. This is a bit harder to coach, but might be OK as just a depth pick. Tanner Hawkinson has agility and the framework, but a few more technique issues as well as some issues with power. Either way, these three tackles could provide the Vikings with the back-end depth they will want as they enter the season.
While the Vikings' offense started out strong, much of the dip in the middle of the season could be attributed to its reliance on constraint plays—plays designed to take advantage of cheating defenders, like bubble screens and draws, according to smartfootball.com.
The Vikings moved away from those plays in the final stretch of the season and did much better, and they'll have to do the same in 2013 if they want to win more games.
The versatility of the receiving corps—now bolstered by Emmanuel Sanders and potentially a polished player like DeAndre Hopkins (who needs work in route-running but not in many other aspects of the game) should allow the Vikings to use a wider variety of plays. They need to inject more variety than consistently pounding more of the same.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave should build upon his excellent use of space and the hash marks to give the ball to playmakers, but slow-developing plays in the backfield can get tiring and are vulnerable to studious defenses.
Naturally, the offense will still run through All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, but natural regression in his game might require the quarterback to step up and make bigger plays. The combination of power running and zone stretches that the Vikings run shouldn't need to change—a predictable running offense isn't necessarily a bad one.
Play-action passing is a staple of a run-heavy offense, but simple routes on normal dropback passes will be more effective in consistently generating yardage.
According to the National Football Post, the Vikings should take advantage of a replenished receiver corps by running top-down levels concepts to stress zones and put pressure on certain defenders, who can be identified and targeted in the game plan if they are known to be weak. They consistently use motions to widen defenses and help Ponder read the coverage, but without a threatening passing game, those motions are wasted.
Musgrave did well attacking zone plays by running routes inside the numbers and in unusual spaces. While that tailed off as the Vikings found themselves up against more man coverage looks, it needs to come back.
To force defenses into the zones that the Vikings seem to pass better against, they could do much more with bunched formations and motions to isolate matchups instead of consistently lining up receivers apart from each other and encouraging man-coverage defenses.
With that, Minnesota should add an element of offensive checks that change the play at the line, including different routes for the flankers and split ends based on the man looks they get. Outside or inside coverage should either encourage hard slants or out routes, while bail coverage should encourage comeback and stick routes.
Either way, the inflexibility of the passing game has to go. If Ponder (or Moore, if he wins a competition) is going to be the quarterback of the future, more complex and reactive offenses will need to be the order of the day. The best passing offenses in the NFL—Atlanta, New England, Denver, etc.—all are reactive, and all find ways to win games.
To prevent the offense from going stale, changes need to be made to the passing game, even if Minnesota wants to remain "run-first" in its execution.
The Vikings' defense has improved in a big way. It ranks seventh in rushing yards allowed per carry and also seventh in rush success rate, according to advancednflstats.com. As a pass defense, the Vikings leave more to be desired, but still have improved. They rank 22nd in yards allowed per attempt, better than 2011's 30th-place ranking.
But more than anything else, they have to be more consistent in preventing gains. They rank 27th in opponent success rate—the rate at which a team has a "successful" play, generally defined as increasing win probability based on down, distance, time remaining and point differential.
Much of that has more to do with situational defense than it does with total yards allowed (where they rank 21st) and with how many first downs or scores they allow per drive, which Football Outsiders has defined as drive success rate. The Vikings' defense ranks 26th in this metric. And they rank 31st in third down conversions allowed per game.
This could be because the Vikings have consistently allowed underneath plays to gain yardage without embodying the principles of gang tackling and reducing yards after the catch. But it could also be because the Vikings' defense rarely plays with down markers in mind. Both are problems.
Defenders don't always play with the instinct to play their landmarks closer to the down markers on third down or be cognizant of the types of routes that teams like to run when they hit third down.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams has done a lot to find the right schemes that fit for the Vikings, but to make them a Super Bowl-caliber team, the defense will have to move in a different direction. Williams has done a good job making sure that the base defense isn't called upon too often and mixes up coverage well. Unfortunately, defensive game-planning effectiveness has varied game-by-game.
The Vikings have rarely played pattern-read coverages, but have been very effective on the occasions that they've taught their defensive players to play their zones like they have man-to-man assignments. It would require more study and less on-field practice perhaps, but they should implement it more—it's hard to attack and neutralizes some of the best receivers in the game.
Shifting zones to enable creative blitz packages might be the next step for the Vikings, who blitz extremely rarely. A player like Brad Jones would make for very effective blitz packages, as he could line up anywhere in the box and be a threat to rush the passer. It introduces an element of risk to the Vikings' defense, but it could push it to the next level—consistent, conservative play tends to get carved up over time.
Changing coverages and deploying the players creatively will allow the Vikings to become Super Bowl contenders, even if they would still be a long shot.