The Minnesota Vikings exceeded expectations in 2012. They posted a 10-6 record after going 3-13 the previous year, marking the greatest turnaround in franchise history. The infamous 15-1 season in 1998 after a 9-7 season in 1997 was the prior record.
With that said, there are several players who need to improve in 2013 for the Vikings to remain relevant in the NFC North. One player exempt from the discussion is Adrian Peterson, who became the first running back to win the MVP award since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.
Standout rookies Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Blair Walsh are also safe from criticism, comprising a stellar draft class orchestrated by Rick Spielman.
The following five teammates will have the most to prove in 2013 and are key elements for the Vikings to reach the next level beyond a playoff berth. Leslie Frazier's job security also rests securely on these players' collective shoulders.
The Vikings signed John Carlson to a five-year, $25 million contract in 2012, exciting the fanbase for a dual tight end set with fellow Notre Dame alumnus Kyle Rudolph. The result was a brutal season, with Carlson recording eight receptions for 43 yards and zero touchdowns.
Minnesota would take a $4 million cap hit if they cut Carlson prior to the start of the league year, with $1.2 million owed as guaranteed money if he stays on past that point. Considering the team already paid the disappointing tight end $7.9 million for one season, they will most likely give him another chance.
Allen set the bar high in 2011 with 22.0 sacks, just missing the record held by Michael Strahan at 22.5 in 2001. The Vikings' defensive end also had 66 combined tackles and four forced fumbles.
He shouldn't be penalized for his sack total coming back to reality in 2012 (12.0), but he posted his lowest combined tackle numbers (45) since 2004. Allen was also playing hurt for the entire year with a torn labrum in his left shoulder—he underwent surgery on Feb 2 to have it repaired.
Allen enters his final year under contract with the Vikings before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2014. This fan favorite will be playing for a contract extension in 2013, as he turns 31 heading into the season.
It's hard not to root for Marcus Sherels. The undersized Minnesota native is a fan favorite with a strong work ethic and skills as a return specialist. He scored on a 77-yard punt return in Week 4, leading to a 20-13 Vikings win against Detroit.
Unfortunately, Sherels is bad on defense—really bad. With Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield both fighting injuries, the second-year cornerback had abysmal performances in the secondary. He missed tackles and blew coverages to the point of complete frustration. For a player that every Vikings fan wants to succeed, Sherels must improve on defense to retain a roster spot on his hometown squad.
With a team that finished second in rushing behind Washington in 2012, you wouldn't expect an offensive lineman to fall under players who must improve in 2013. Unfortunately, Charlie Johnson has been an average lineman who has not performed to NFL standards.
With the selection of Matt Kalil in the 2012 draft, Johnson moved to left guard and has been serviceable but not strong in his position. For Christian Ponder to succeed, the Vikings need improvement from Johnson in pass protection. He consistently allows pressure to the quarterback—a theme at both tackle and guard.
Did you expect someone else? Christian Ponder ranked 25th in the league in passing yards (2,935), 23rd in touchdowns (18) and 21st in passer rating (81.2). Few players have experienced highs and lows like this second-year quarterback has.
The Vikings started the season 4-1, struggled midseason at 2-5 and finished 4-0. A playoff berth helped calm the frustration against Ponder, but fans have a short memory once the season starts. If the third-year quarterback plans to continue wearing purple and gold, he will need to improve on decision-making in the red zone and attack vertically down the field.
The Vikings are poised to select a wide receiver in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, providing an additional weapon for Ponder. The team should also consider options in free agency, addressing an offense that finished 31st in total passing yards.
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