Predicting 5 Problem Spots for the Minnesota Vikings in 2013
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The Minnesota Vikings had an eventful offseason.
The lead-up to 2013 started with a big splash, when Minnesota traded versatile wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks for a bevy of draft picks.
The next day, the Vikings cut veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, who eventually ended up with Harvin in Seattle.
A day later, the Vikings made a bigger addition, signing former Packer wideout Greg Jennings as a free agent.
The rest of free agency was relatively quiet for Minnesota. The team retained a few of its own veterans (Erin Henderson, Jerome Felton, Jerome Simpson, Phil Loadholt and others) and signed Seth Olsen away from Indianapolis.
Then came the NFL draft.
The Vikings stole the show at the 2013 draft. As Sports Illustrated's Peter King indicated, the Vikings used a combination of strategies to land three top-flight prospects in the first round. Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson could all end up starting for Minnesota this season.
Even with all of these high-profile moves, the Vikings have roster issues to address before the season starts. The following slideshow predicts five problem spots for the Vikings in 2013.
Honorable Mention: Special Teams
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While many experts agreed that the Vikings hit a home run in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Minnesota's decision to draft UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round raised a few eyebrows.
The acquisition of Locke and his subsequent performance at the Vikings' rookie minicamp allowed the team to cut ties with veteran punter Chris Kluwe.
Kluwe's ouster caused a bit of an uproar. The former Viking is an outspoken advocate of gay marriage and other causes. Some, including celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, assume that Kluwe was cut primarily due to his activism.
Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman, in an interview with 1500 ESPN, stated that cutting Kluwe was purely a football move and had nothing to do with the punter's off-field activities.
Kluwe took to Twitter to bid farewell to the fans of Minnesota.
So long, Minnesota, and thanks for all the fish!
— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) May 6, 2013
There are reasons to believe that Spielman was being truthful about cutting Kluwe. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Kluwe's gross average of 45 yards per kick was the second-highest total of his career. His net average of 39.7 was a career high. However, these numbers only ranked him 17th amongst NFL punters, and he had a couple of disastrous shanks during the season. Kluwe's $1.4 million salary is relatively high for a punter and made him a target as the Vikings needed to gain some cap space.
Locke is likely to produce similar punting numbers to Kluwe's and will do so for less than half the money. He also held for field goals and extra points for the Bruins, so he can fill Kluwe's shoes in those situations as well.
If Locke doesn't punt well or botches the hold on a key kick attempt, fans will bemoan the loss of Kluwe. However, the team made a similar move last season, replacing long-time kicker Ryan Longwell with Blair Walsh. Walsh went on to set an NFL record by making 10-of-10 kicks from 50 yards or more.
If the Locke move is even half as successful as the Walsh decision, the Vikings will have made a smart choice.
5. Defensive Line
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One area where the Vikings might have some issues is along the defensive line. While the team returns all four starters from last season, age and declining performance led Minnesota to snap up Florida's Sharrif Floyd with the 23rd pick in the first round of the draft.
The Vikings' top-three defensive ends, Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, will be free agents after the 2013 season. Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams will also be a free agent. Behind those four, the depth and talent level are questionable, although Minnesota did sign veteran defensive end Lawrence Jackson from Detroit.
Compounding the issue is that, other than Griffen, the other defensive line starters didn't produce the same numbers in 2012 as they did in 2011. Allen dropped from 22 sacks in 2011 to 12 last year. Robison recorded 8.5 sacks, up from eight in 2011, but he only recorded 37 total tackles, down from 44 the previous year.
Williams' numbers were down across the board as age began to catch up to the former All-Pro. Only Griffen, who doubled his previous career best with eight sacks, is certain to return.
Floyd should make an immediate impact for Minnesota, even if he begins the season in rotation with Williams. Considered by many to be a top-10 talent in the draft, Floyd fell to the Vikings when offensive linemen started coming off the board with surprising rapidity. Floyd makes big plays and is tough and mobile, but he will have to step up his consistency to be a star in the NFL.
If everyone on the line plays to his ability, the Vikings should be OK. If production or injuries become a problem, there's not much quality depth.
Even if everything goes well this season, filling all four line positions in 2014 might be a problem. Williams is probably in his last season, and Allen and Robison will both want big money to stay.
All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
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While depth may be a problem on the defensive line, depth and quality are both concerns for Minnesota at the cornerback position. Cornerback moved to the fourth spot on this list because, while the Vikings have potential at the position, the players on the roster don't have the same history of top-level performance as the standouts on the defensive line.
Chris Cook, projected as one starter, has had problems staying on the field during his three-year career. Cook has only managed to play in 22 games over that span and has yet to record an interception in the NFL.
Antoine Winfield was the only proven performer at cornerback last year, and he was cut by the Vikings in an attempt to clear cap space to sign Greg Jennings. The Vikings made an attempt to re-sign Winfield, who eventually opted to go to Seattle instead.
First-round pick Xavier Rhodes is the likely starter at the other corner spot. While he has a strong pedigree from Florida State, Rhodes is still a rookie. With receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, James Jones and Randall Cobb populating the NFC North, Rhodes will face a steep learning curve.
Even if Cook and Rhodes perform up to their potential, cornerback could prove to be a tricky position for Minnesota. Minnesota's other top cornerback, Josh Robinson, is relatively small and struggles against big, physical receivers. Robinson played mostly on the outside as a rookie in 2012 but will likely be pushed into slot duty if Rhodes and Cook are healthy and playing well. Robinson struggled in that spot last year.
Behind Robinson, the other corners on the roster (Brandon Burton, Bobby Felder, A.J. Jefferson, Jacob Lacey and Marcus Sherels) aren't NFL-caliber starters. In order for the Vikings to be strong at the cornerback position, everyone on the roster will have to have his best season and manage to stay healthy.
We all know that isn't likely in the NFL.
3. Wide Receiver
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Minnesota's situation at wide receiver is similar to its conundrum at cornerback. The Vikings signed Greg Jennings to replace Percy Harvin, but there are questions about Jennings' health and ability to produce big numbers with a quarterback not named Aaron Rodgers.
Since the Vikings also have questions at quarterback (which will be discussed later), production from the receiving corps is even more problematic than the lack of proven performers at cornerback.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, Jennings has averaged more than 60 receptions, 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns per year in his career. However, he is coming off an injury-shortened season in 2012 and has never been the clear No. 1 option for his team.
The other veterans on the roster, Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson, have never spent an entire season as starters in the NFL, and the rest of the corps is unproven.
The Vikings tried to address their needs at the receiver spot by trading a slew of picks to the New England Patriots to garner a third first-round pick in the draft. They used the No. 29 pick on Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson, who is a remarkable athlete but also very raw.
According to KJ Segall of the Daily Norseman blog, Patterson looked good at the Vikings' recent rookie camp. However, he was playing against other rookies and undrafted free agents, so it remains to be seen if he will be able to adapt to the pro game quickly enough to benefit Minnesota on the field in 2013.
The problem for the Vikings is that it might take both Jennings and Patterson to replace Harvin's contributions to the Minnesota offense. Patterson is likely to take over for Harvin as the Vikings' primary kick returner, and Jennings might be able to duplicate Percy's production as a receiver. However, if it takes two players to replace the one they lost, the Vikings will be in trouble at wide receiver in 2013.
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Despite the Vikings' protestations to the contrary, the quarterback position could prove a problem for the team in 2013. The signal-caller situation is similar to the issues at wide receiver and cornerback.
Minnesota doesn't have a proven, top-flight quarterback on the roster. If the quarterback doesn't play well, the rest of the team is doomed. That makes the potential problem at quarterback the second-biggest issue faced by the Vikings heading into the new NFL season.
Christian Ponder is the starter. The team has stated that it will stick with the former No. 1 pick for at least one more year. While Ponder hasn't been horrible, he has been inconsistent for the most part.
Last season, Ponder started out hot, and the team got off to a 5-2 start. Then, Ponder began to make bad decisions in the pocket and turn over the ball. The Vikings went 1-4 during that stretch. Next, Ponder improved his performance, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions as Minnesota won its last four games to finish 10-6.
Minnesota needs Ponder to play like he did at the beginning and end of last season if the Vikings want to return to the playoffs in 2013.
NFL.com's Marc Sessler, referencing an interview that defensive end Jared Allen did on Jim Rome's radio show, indicated just how important Ponder's performance is to the team. Allen told Rome that championship teams have solid quarterbacks.
I tell him all the time, you have to be the guy. Adrian (Peterson) can carry this team so far; our defense can carry this team so far...You know, you look at teams that historically win championships, and they have consistent play from the quarterback position.
The Vikings signed Matt Cassel hours after he was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in the offseason. While Cassel offers an upgrade over former backup Joe Webb, he shouldn't be seen as anything more than a stopgap measure behind Ponder.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, Cassel threw 16 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in his last two years with the Chiefs. As last year's performance demonstrates, the Vikings don't have enough offensive firepower to overcome that many mistakes.
In order for the Vikings to progress in 2013, Ponder will need to have the best and most consistent season of his career. In a perfect world, Cassel will never take a regular-season snap in Minnesota.
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The single biggest problem area on the Vikings roster heading into the 2013 season is at middle linebacker. Minnesota lacks depth at some positions (defensive line and wide receiver) and proven performers at others (cornerback and quarterback), but it has an even bigger problem at middle linebacker.
The problem is that the Vikings don't have a player on the roster to fill the position. Last year's starter, Jasper Brinkley, signed a free-agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason, leaving a void on the roster that must be filled before the 2013 season starts.
Minnesota is exploring several options to meet its needs at this key defensive position.
According to ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert, the Vikings might use Erin Henderson in the middle. Henderson, who started on the weak side last year, has reportedly added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame and will be the default choice when organized team activities begin later this month. If Henderson is the choice, fourth-round draft choice Gerald Hodges would be the likely starter on the outside.
According to Tom Pelissero at 1500 ESPN, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier isn't ready to hand the position to Henderson just yet. If Henderson doesn't make the move, Minnesota could look to second-year man Audie Cole or Tyrone McKenzie to fill the bill.
Seventh-round draft pick Michael Mauti of Penn State is also a possibility, but the rookie has undergone three reconstructive knee surgeries in the past four years and won't be able to practice with the team until training camp, at the earliest.
Minnesota's other option is to pick up a veteran free agent to fill the middle. Judd Zulgad and Tom Pelissero of ESPNTwinCities.com reported that the Vikings might be interested in Brian Urlacher, who was released by the Chicago Bears. However, Urlacher's injury history and salary demands have cooled the speculation.
Karlos Dansby, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, is also available. Minnesota hasn't expressed any interest in Dansby, who recently visited the Arizona Cardinals, where he played until signing with the Dolphins in 2010.
In the Vikings Tampa 2 defensive system, the middle linebacker is akin to the quarterback on offense. He calls the defensive signals, sets the coverages and needs to be strong against both the run and in coverage. Right now, the team doesn't have a proven player in place.
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The Vikings have the potential to continue their improvement in 2013.
By all accounts, the team had another strong draft and picked up a couple of key free agents in the offseason. All things considered, the roster looks younger, deeper and stronger in most areas than it did entering the 2012 season.
Adrian Peterson, though unlikely to repeat his otherworldly 2012 performance, is still the best running back in the NFL, and the offensive line remains intact. Blair Walsh is the best kicker in the NFL, and the Vikings have an emerging star in tight end Kyle Rudolph.
If Minnesota is going to be successful in 2013, the quarterback and middle linebacker spots are going to be key. If Christian Ponder continues to develop, the offense should be fine. If he doesn't, the team will struggle to put points on the board.
If Henderson plays well at middle linebacker, the defense could rise to elite status. If he doesn't, or if the team keeps him on the outside, opposing teams might exploit the soft middle of the Vikings defense.
Only time will tell if the Vikings' eventful offseason was enough to shore up the roster heading into the new season.
Have your own opinions? Think a position is a bigger problem? Think the team will be even better in 2013 than it was in 2012? Speak your mind in the comments section below.
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