Predicting the Minnesota Vikings' Starting Lineup Post Week 1 of Free Agency
The Minnesota Vikings' biggest splash in free agency might be as much who they signed as who they did not. They addressed one of their biggest needs at wide receiver with the addition of Greg Jennings, but there are still several holes to be plugged.
With plenty of time for general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier to finalize the roster, here's an earlier look at the top of the depth chart for the Vikings.
Quarterback: Christian Ponder
Head coach Leslie Frazier has repeatedly stated that Christian Ponder is the Vikings' starting quarterback—it's going to take either a serious injury or an act of God to change that.
Before the Vikings would sign backup quarterback Matt Cassel, they made him acknowledge that he was not going to be the starter. I suspect they had him write out 100 times I am not going to start for the Vikings before they allowed him to sign the deal.
Last season the Vikings were loathe to replace Ponder during the season. Perhaps they were concerned about shaking the confidence of their second-year quarterback, or perhaps they knew exactly what they had in place waiting on the sideline in Joe Webb.
With the addition of Cassel, one of these suppositions has been removed.
Wide Receivers: Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright
The Vikings' two biggest moves so far this offseason have surrounded the wide receiver position. First it was the trade of Percy Harvin to the Seahawks, then it was the free-agent signing of Greg Jennings.
The net effect of these moves is a positive for the Vikings as Jennings has said all the right things about his new team and his new quarterback. In a phone interview with ESPN, he indicated that he has confidence in Christian Ponder.
Without question Jennings takes over as the top receiver. A second-round selection of Green Bay in 2006, Jennings averaged 65 receptions, 1,028 yards and eight touchdowns from 2006 to 2011. He's coming off a season where he missed eight games due to an injury. His four touchdowns in 2012 would rank him second on the Vikings.
As the roster stands right now, Jerome Simpson is the second wide receiver on the roster. Coming off a disappointing season with only 26 catches for 274 yards, Simpson actually gets a $100,000 raise for 2013. With how his new one-year contract is structured, he could make $2.1 million this season after getting $2 million last year.
The Vikings are hoping that this is a rebound year for Simpson, and that he can return to the form he had in Cincinnati in 2011. His best year since being drafted in 2008 in the second round, he caught 50 catches for 725 yards and four touchdowns.
In the mix to take over as the slot receiver is second-year receiver Jarius Wright. Wright was not active on Sunday until after Harvin was injured in Week 9. In seven games he caught 22 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns. In a much smaller sample size, Wright averaged 3.2 yards more reception than Harvin. If we continue to spin the statistics, his average of 11 catches per touchdown is much better than the 20.6 receptions per touchdowns for Harvin. But, let's not get too carried away, Wright is not going to be as good as Harvin.
The biggest question remains who the Vikings will select in the draft. Perhaps Keenan Allen from California, Cordarrelle Patterson or Justin Hunter from Tennessee will emerge as the Vikings' top receiver this season.
Running Back: Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson carried the Minnesota Vikings into the playoffs last season, especially after the Vikings lost Percy Harvin.
With Harvin on the field, Peterson averaged 106.3 yards per game. In four of the nine games, he rushed for at least 100 yards and he scored nine touchdowns. In the final seven games with Harvin out of the lineup, he picked up his game. He averaged 162.9 yards per games, eclipsing the 100-yard mark in six of those games and scored seven touchdowns.
There's no question who will be the starting running back this season. The bigger question is who will be No. 2. Last season was supposed to be Toby Gerhart's shot to prove he is an NFL running back. With Peterson coming off major reconstructive knee surgery, Gerhart was sure to get plenty of carries.
Instead, he had the fewest carries in his three seasons, with only 50 attempts for 169 yards. In the last year of his contract, there's a chance that general manager Rick Spielman could trade him for one more draft pick.
Fullback: Jerome Felton
Sometimes it pays to be the guy blocking for The Guy.
Jerome Felton has found a home in Minnesota. After playing for three different teams in 2011, the chance to block for Adrian Peterson earned Felton a trip to the Pro Bowl.
The Vikings rewarded him with a three-year deal worth $7.5 million. With a cap hit of $1.67 in 2013, Felton ranks fifth among fullbacks in the NFL.
All this comes after having the fewest carries in his five-year career. It's no surprise that with the caliber of running back in Peterson that Felton did not get a single carry.
He did finish with three receptions for 35 yards.
Offensive Line: Kalil, Johnson, Sullivan, Fusco and Loadholt
You cannot argue with success. The Minnesota Vikings offensive line was very successful in 2012. According to Pro Football Reference, it was the first time the Vikings offensive line had started all 16 games as a unit since 2003.
After the Vikings released veteran guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, the Vikings were able to put together an offensive line that helped Adrian Peterson rush for 2,097 yards. They also did a better job of protecting their quarterback. The number of sacks allowed dropped from 49 in 2011, to 32 in 2012.
Most of this was done by drafting Matt Kalil with the fourth pick in the draft.
That allowed the Vikings to move Charlie Johnson from left tackle to left guard, a position he started all 16 games for the Colts in 2008.
On the other side of the line the Vikings plugged in second-year player Brandon Fusco. There was supposed to be an open competition when the Vikings signed free agent Geoff Schwartz from Carolina. Schwartz, who missed the entire 2011 season with a hip injury, suffered a sports hernia that slowed him down in training camp. The result—Schwartz did not make a single start in 2012, and Fusco became the starter. Not wanting to be a backup, he signed a one-year deal with Kansas City.
The Vikings were able to re-sign Phil Loadholt to a four-year deal worth $25 million. The move keeps the Vikings' second-round draft pick from 2009 at right tackle, a position he has played—and started—in 63 of the Vikings' 64 games over the past four seasons.
That leaves center John Sullivan who is developing into one of the best centers in the league. According to Pro Football Focus (h/t Rotoworld), Sullivan was the top-rated center in 2012.
Here's hoping this line can stay intact for another couple of seasons, after all, the oldest player on the line is Johnson who turns 29 this season.
Tight End: Kyle Rudolph
Just in case you missed it—and I suspect, many did—Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph was named the MVP of the Pro Bowl. He finished with five catches for 122 yards and a touchdown.
Rudolph is developing into a scoring machine. After catching only three touchdowns in his rookie season, he led the team with nine scores in 2012. A highlight-reel producing tight end, Rudolph is poised to have a spectacular year, especially if the Vikings add some talent at wide receiver on offense.
Starting all 16 games last year, he was second on the team with 53 receptions for 493 yards.
Of course Rudolph doesn't have a lot of competition to challenge him as the starter. Last year the Vikings signed John Carlson to a five-year, $25 million contract, making him the top-paid tight end on the team. Carlson finished with eight catches for 43 yards in 14 games. In Seattle he averaged 46 receptions for 506 yards and four touchdowns. Even though he has no chance to be the starter, the Vikings would welcome any improvement in performance from him.
Defensive Line: Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, John Jenkins and Brian Robison
The Vikings oldest unit on the team is now the defensive line. With the release of Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams takes over as the oldest player on the team. Williams will be 33 this summer. Next month Jared Allen will be 31 and Brian Robison turns 30.
That leaves one spot to bring the average age down some.
If the fourth starter were chosen based on raw talent alone, Everson Griffen would be the man. But because the Vikings need an inside presence, at 280 pounds Griffen is a little light. Last year Letroy Guion got the chance to secure a spot on the defensive line. He made 16 starts but finished with only two sacks and 29 tackles. While it was an upgrade over Remi Ayodele (1.5 sacks and 14 tackles) in 2011, the Vikings need to find another player that can become a starter as a rookie and make an impact like Williams did in 2003.
One potential player that could fill those shoes is John Jenkins from Georgia. With two first-round picks in the draft, the Vikings would be wise to use one on another defensive starter. A two-year starter for the bulldogs, Jenkins had 50 tackles last season. At 6'3" and 359 pounds he has plenty of bulk to plug up the middle.
Jenkins will be 24 this summer. His addition to the line would drop the average to 29.5—that sounds a lot better than 30.
Linebackers: Chad Greenway, Larry Grant and Erin Henderson
A big need for the Minnesota Vikings is linebacker. With the departure of Jasper Brinkley to Arizona, the Vikings have to plug a hole in the middle of their defense.
As a first-year starter, Brinkley finished fourth on the team with 99 tackles. Audie Cole, one of last year's seventh-round picks, was listed as Brinkley's backup. However, he was only active for five games last season. That does not indicate that Cole is ready to step in and start.
The Vikings have no interest in signing 35-year-old Brian Urlacher who parted ways with the Bears this week. Look for them to sign free agent Larry Grant from the 49ers. Grant started three games for the 49ers in 2011. He finished with three sacks and 35 tackles for the second-rated defense in the NFL.
He has just enough experience to be able to fill in until the Vikings find a long-term solution. The Vikings could use their second-round pick on Manti Te'o from Notre Dame or Kevin Minter from LSU to fill this need, if one or the other is still available.
The other two starters are set. Two-time Pro Bowler Chad Greenway is set to start at strong-side linebacker. Greenway led the Vikings with 148 tackles and finished third in the NFL. After missing his rookie season in 2006 with a torn ACL in the first preseason game, Greenway has played in every game since 2007, starting all but one of them.
On the weak side the Vikings re-signed Erin Henderson to a two-year deal worth $4 million. Coming off a one-year deal worth $2 million, Henderson doesn't get an increase, but he gets the security of two years. In his second year as a starter, the Vikings needed to bring back at least one of their free-agent linebackers in order to maintain some consistency. Last year Henderson finished with 80 tackles and three sacks, starting 10 games on defense.
Cornerbacks: Josh Robinson, Chris Cook and A.J. Jefferson
Even with the need to find a middle linebacker, the biggest hole in the Minnesota Vikings' defensive will be that of replacing Antoine Winfield. Unwilling to pay the 35-year-old the $7 million he was due, the Vikings were hoping to renegotiate his contract. That didn't happen and they lost their best corner from 2012.
After playing only five games in 2011, a clause in Winfield's contract knocked his salary down to $3 million for 2012. He responded by having one of his best seasons in years. He finished third on the team with 101 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
Without Winfield, that leaves the starting jobs for Chris Cook and second-year corner Josh Robinson. In six starts Robinson finished with 52 tackles and two interceptions. Look for him to take over as one of the starting cornerbacks.
On the other side the Vikings will once again send out Cook. They better make sure to add some depth because in three seasons, since being drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, he has not been able to play an entire season. And while some people credit the 6'2" corner for dissuading quarterbacks not to throw his way, Cook has yet to intercept a pass in the NFL.
As of right now that leave A.J, Jefferson as the nickel cornerback. A restricted free agent, the Vikings have extended an original-pick tender to the fourth-year player who went undrafted from Fresno State. Jefferson looked awkward for the Vikings last season, as he made seven starts. I
Safeties: Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford
Last year the Minnesota Vikings filled one of their biggest needs when they drafted Harrison Smith in the first round. The Vikings made Smith earn his way up the depth chart during training camp last year, but there was no doubt he was going to be a starter.
Smith led the team with three interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns. He was also second on the team with 104 tackles making the start in all 16 games.
The plan last year was for Mistral Raymond to start at safety, moving Jamarca Sanford back to special teams, despite making 15 starts in 2011. A bone bruise knocked Raymond out of the lineup after three starts and Sanford took advantage of the opportunity. Raymond, although he returned from the injury, he did not start another game. Sanford finished with 66 tackles and a team-high four forced fumbles.
The Vikings liked what they saw in Sanford, and re-signed him to a two-year, $5 million contract. He will retain the starting safety position and Raymond will be his backup again this season.