Minnesota Vikings: 4 Young Players Poised to Break out in the 2013 NFL Season
The Minnesota Vikings are one of the youngest teams in the NFL, and poised to make great gains with their youngest players as a result. Historically, teams do much better building through the draft than anything else, and developing young players is a critical part of the process.
While ESPN has identified Harrison Smith as a breakout player in their Insider article on sophomore players, the Vikings have a number of non-obvious young athletes poised to make an impact this year or next.
Aside from high-profile players like Christian Ponder, Kyle Rudolph, Harrison Smith and Matt Kalil, who is in a position to break out and prove himself as the next draft steal for general manager Rick Spielman and his crew?
1. Brandon Fusco
While Brandon Fusco's play tailed off at the end of the year (at the same time Geoff Schwartz received more snaps and did much better), Fusco's performance has been nothing short of shocking.
At the beginning of the year, he was impressive, performing his duties at the level of some premier interior linemen. Strong and stout, Fusco hung his hat on aggressive run mauling.
According to data derived from Pro Football Focus (a subscription service), Adrian Peterson averaged 6.9 yards a carry, running behind Fusco in the first six weeks, at a time when he was normally averaging 4.4 yards a carry overall.
But by the end of the season, Fusco had only produced 5.2 yards a carry for Adrian Peterson overall, despite Peterson finishing the season at an astonishing 6.0 yards a carry. Fusco clearly lost some of the run-blocking advantage that he had had at the beginning of the year against tough defenses like San Francisco's.
Defensive players may have figured him out and took advantage of his reaching and aggressive play. He'll need to shore up his pass protection and re-establish his dominance as a run-blocker.
Most of this means work on recognition, awareness and technique. He has all the physical tools to do well and gets off the snap with suddenness and strength, but has to find ways to stick his assignment, maintain his block and pick up twisting linemen.
If his growth over this next year is half as positive as his sophomore growth, he'll be a very good player at a time when the NFL is full of great guards.
2. Robert Blanton
Robert Blanton may have difficulty getting himself on to the football field in 2013, but if he does, Vikings fans shouldn't worry too much.
His limited time on the field showed an excellent awareness at his new position, and he seems perfectly fit to play as a center fielder in the Vikings defense. He only played in 60 snaps on the field with the Vikings, but in that time, he had no passes thrown to him—a fairly decent indicator that he's been positionally aware.
According to PFF data, the average safety sees targets on four percent of their his snaps. Again, the fact that he didn't see many targets could have just as easily been a statistical anomaly that can be attributed to a small sample size more than anything else, but it seems unlikely; NFL teams like to game-plan around weaknesses and substitutes.
Instead, Blanton manned the deep zone and even made four tackles—one of them for a loss. He has surprising closing speed and fits the Vikings Tampa 2 philosophy to a T. He likely has to make more adjustments to fully transition to becoming a safety, and in particular, learn new techniques to stay up top, but his trial-by-fire was a success.
Matt Flynn serves as caution against overvaluing a single game, but at least Vikings fans can be optimistic about the progress Blanton has made. Should he see the field, Minnesota may be pleasantly surprised.
3. Jarius Wright
Most well-known for being held out of games until a shocking debut brought about by Percy Harvin's absence, Jarius Wright has been a pleasant surprise for the Vikings faithful. He's explosive and agile and was responsible for two of Christian Ponder's eight completions beyond 20 yards, despite taking as few as 246 snaps.
Using more of Pro Football Focus' data, receivers have averaged about one yard a snap, with elite receivers like Calvin Johnson producing 1.67 yards in a snap. Wright's 1.26 matches some very good receivers, like Wes Welker, Steve Smith and Santana Moss.
Naturally, it's far too easy to get caught up in Wright's performance in very limited snaps. This makes sense; he revitalized a passing game in sore need of help.
While Ponder's performance did drop without Harvin—6.4 yards per attempt in games with Harvin and 5.7 without, along with a completion percentage of 64.1 percent with Harvin and 59.3 percent without—Wright was a nearly indispensable part of the passing game, contributing a third of Ponder's passing yards in games he was active.
Still, it's important to point out that he was held out of half of the season for a reason. He has natural athletic ability, but will need to expand his route tree to continue being a serious threat in the NFL.
With an explosive debut of 65 yards on three catches, Wright didn't repeat that performance until the final week of the season against a weak Green Bay Packers secondary, grabbing 90 yards on three catches.
At the same time, Wright looks to be outperforming the expectations you would normally expect of a fourth-round prospect, and five catches against Houston is nothing to dismiss. Wright could be one receiver to overcome the three-year rule.
4. Rhett Ellison
When Rhett Ellison was initially drafted, he didn't think the phone call he received was about an NFL job. He was sitting on a boat on a river in California.
So far, the fourth-round pick has panned out.
Some fans questioned Ellison's choice to pick the No. 40 for his jersey, given that fan favorite and then-recently departed Jim Kleinsasser famously wore that number for his 13 years with the Vikings. As a fullback/tight end hybrid, Ellison had big shoes to fill.
He hasn't quite reached that level yet, but his surprisingly good play for the Vikings has given fans hope that he could replace the type of play on the field that Kleinsasser brought.
In the offseason, Vikings beat reporter Tom Pelissero floated the idea that the Vikings could choose not to re-sign Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton in favor of letting Ellison take the reigns as the lead blocker for the best running back in the country.
It's not a crazy idea: In many ways, Ellison was a better player as a rookie than Felton was as a five-year veteran. As a versatile player, Ellison could contribute more as a pass-blocker, an in-line blocker and as a pass-catcher, with Felton possessing more savvy as a lead blocker.
But Ellison isn't too far behind when it comes to playing the classic fullback position.
He doesn't plunge into the line and hold his block with the same technical skill as Felton. He still likely has more to learn about reading blocks and shooting the correct gaps (important for when the Vikings choose to play their favored zone-running scheme), but he could develop into a worthy successor to the No. 40.
He's a very solid blocker when lined up with the rest of the offensive line and runs better routes than many might have expected. In his short time as a pass-blocker (36 snaps), he has yet to give up pressure, which is far better than Felton—who has given up one hit and two hurries in 51 pass-blocking snaps.
That's not to say that Ellison will completely supplant Jerome Felton. The Vikings like to have both on the field. But over time, don't be surprised to see Ellison take Felton's snaps when they only need one of them in the set.