Minnesota Vikings: 7 Players Who Must Step Up in 2013

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IJune 7, 2013

Minnesota Vikings: 7 Players Who Must Step Up in 2013

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    The NFL's 2013 free-agent class is down to the leftovers and scraps. What began as a sale at Macy's in Herald Square the weekend before Christmas has turned into a deserted outlet mall somewhere in the Nebraska plains.

    The Minnesota Vikings became bigger players than normal, reacting to the trade of Percy Harvin by inking former Green Bay Packer Greg Jennings to a deal and also by adding veteran quarterback Matt Cassel to back up starter Christian Ponder.

    The Vikings had what looks like another outstanding draft, landing four or five players who could spend some time in the starting lineup in 2013.

    Coming off a surprising 2012 season that saw a 4-0 run to the playoffs has raised expectations in Minnesota. There is no doubt that general manager Rick Spielman has put together a very talented roster, and with up to 14 key players playing on the last year of their contracts, the Vikings will be looking to make plenty of noise in the NFC North in 2013.

    We take a look at seven key players for the Vikings in 2013 who need to step up their games for Minnesota to reach its lofty goals.

Defensive End Jared Allen

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    Recently ranked the 14th greatest Viking of all time by yours truly, Jared Allen enters his 10th season in the NFL with something to prove.

    Obviously he doesn't have to prove what a great football player he's been. With 117 sacks, five interceptions, 28 forced fumbles, 17 fumble recoveries and five Pro Bowls under his belt, Allen is a Hall of Famer in waiting.

    What he does have to prove, however, is that at 31 years old, he can still play at a level that will justify a big payday when the season is over. It's worth noting that Julius Peppers is the only defensive end who's ever signed a deal averaging over $10 million a season after turning 30. Dwight Freeney found out the cold reality of what the market is for aging sack specialists this offseason.

    But let's not kid ourselves, Jared Allen has a history of making reality whatever he wants it to be.

    Allen has been perfectly content to play out the terms of his six-year, $73 million deal, that will pay him $14.3 million in 2013, the last year of his contract. The Vikings, as far as we know, never asked Allen to restructure, and the team has held steady in not over-extending itself with a future deal as of yet.

    Allen has declared himself fully healthy after battling a torn labrum for the past season and a half. He told Vikings.com that he's ready for a big season in 2013.

    What the Vikings can reasonably hope for is a season somewhere between the 22 sacks in 2011 and the 12 in 2012. Allen brings a passion and a fighting spirit to the Vikings that simply makes them a better football team.

    Expect Allen's play in 2013 to solidify another couple of years in purple. 

Quarterback Christian Ponder

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    It's year three for Christian Ponder. It's time to take off the training wheels and show everyone that he can be the leader of a playoff-caliber football team.

    The Vikings have had two stellar drafts in the years since selecting Ponder with the 12th overall pick in 2010. They have the returning MVP and the best running back in the game in Adrian Peterson. They have a tight end who's coming off an MVP performance in the Pro Bowl and looks like he's on the verge of a breakout season.

    There is, gulp, a mightily improved group of receivers, even after losing the mercurial Percy Harvin. 

    Nobody is expecting Ponder to make the Pro Bowl in 2013. Nobody is expecting him to throw for 30 touchdowns or 4,000 yards. Everyone is expecting him to be better.

    For the Minnesota Vikings to reach their full potential, he simply has to be better than he's been so far. 

    Unfairly thrown into the fire his rookie season, Ponder was treading water quickly during a season where nothing seemed to go right. For every step forward Ponder took in 2012, he seemed to take another one back. He was steady down the stretch when the Vikings won their last four games to make the playoffs. 

    It's now year three in the league. He's got 26 starts under his belt. The game should start slowing down for him, and he should be able to play a little more relaxed and with a little more confidence in what he's doing.

    The Vikings have stocked up some very impressive talent on both sides of the ball, but in the current world of the pass-happy NFL, you need a quarterback to lead you. Like it or not, Christian Ponder is by far the most important player for the Vikings heading into the 2013 season.

MLB Erin Henderson

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    Believe it or not, Erin Henderson has started in just 21 games for the Minnesota Vikings, five less than Christian Ponder.

    He's never started at middle linebacker, but he'll take over in the middle to start the 2013 season. 

    Henderson has been adequate in his two seasons as a starter on the outside, he hasn't been spectacular, but he hasn't been terrible either. At 6'3", 242 pounds, he's certainly big and fast enough to take on the demands of middle linebacker.

    Henderson will certainly have to step up his game to take advantage of the opportunity he's being given—to help improve the Vikings defense over last year's unit.

    Henderson is not a complete stranger to the position; he moved to the middle in the Vikings nickel packages last year and performed just fine. But there's something about being a team's starting middle linebacker that carries a heft to it. A defense is tied to the identity brought to it by its middle linebacker.

    There's no doubt that the pass-happy league has diluted the need for a dominating, intimidating force in the middle, but you still have to have someone with some presence in the middle of the field. Henderson will have to get more aggressive as a run-tackler and more aware as a pass defender.

    Henderson will start the season as the starter at middle linebacker. It's up to him whether he stays there.

Wide Receiver Jerome Simpson

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    Everyone likes a mulligan, right?

    When the Vikings signed Jerome Simpson away from the Cincinnati Bengals in 2012, he was advertised as a field stretcher who would make big plays. He was dripping with potential coming off a season where he caught 50 balls for over 700 yards and four touchdowns.

    What the Vikings got was completely underwhelming. For the audio version of Simpson's 2012 season, go into your garage and pop a basketball.

    Were there glimpses of what might be? Sure, but if you blinked, you missed them. Simpson caught 26 passes for 274 yards and no touchdowns in 12 games. 

    It was a frustrating year for Simpson as he was hampered by a back injury that led to some leg issues that ultimately kept him from ever really playing at full speed. It's a tough spot for an athlete who's trying to prove himself to have to play at 60-70 percent all season.

    The Vikings are letting Simpson re-tee it for the 2013 season. There was really no downside to bringing him back, but now he certainly has to prove he belongs. With Greg Jennings signed on to be the No. 1 guy and athletic freak Cordarrelle Patterson waiting in the wings, Simpson will have to assert himself early and often for the Vikings to build up some faith in him.

Cornerback Chris Cook

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    Chris Cook, the Minnesota Vikings' first pick in the 2010 draft, is still looking for his first NFL interception.

    Richard Sherman, taken a year after Cook in the fifth round, has 10 picks for the Seattle Seahawks.

    It's time for Chris Cook to become a player of impact for the Minnesota Vikings. At 6'2", 212 pounds and with good speed, Cook has all the tools to be a legitimate shut down cornerback. He was clearly immature coming out of college, but he's 26-years old now and the clock is ticking on an NFL career that has yet to take flight.

    Cook was playing good football last season when he unfortunately broke his arm and missed the last six games of the season. With Antoine Winfield now a member of the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings need a lot more from Cook. He needs to become an impact player, a difference-maker. Harrison Smith is clearly the leader of the secondary, but Cook needs to be the second in line, a guy who comes up with big tackles and difference-making plays.

    An interception or two would be nice as well. 

Guard Charlie Johnson

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    You can certainly make an argument that any offensive lineman who blocked for a running back that rushed for over 2,000 yards had a pretty decent season.

    You can also make an argument that any team where the  quarterback averages under 190 yards a game probably needs some better pass protection.

    It's really no secret that the Vikings' strengths on the offensive line are at center and the two tackles. Guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco were both up and down and could definitely be better in 2013.

    Johnson made a position switch after playing three years at tackle. He was overwhelmed at left tackle and is much better suited for the inside, but he still needs to provide a little more oomph in his blocking. The Vikings have assembled quite a few rookies and second- and third-year guys who will certainly push Johnson and Fusco for playing time.

    2013 will be Johnson's eighth year in the league, quite a feat for a sixth-round draft pick who was never expected to amount to much. Johnson needs to work hard and provide a little more space for both Christian Ponder and Adrian Peterson if he wants to stay in the league much longer. 

Defensive End Everson Griffen

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    Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen is kind of like the Vikings version of Twins pitching prospect Kyle Gibson.

    We've been hearing forever about the high ceiling of talent, tons of adjectives to describe all the potential.

    OK, let's see it already.

    Sure, that might be a little unfair when it comes to Griffen, as he's the third defensive end on a team with elite pass-rushers in starters Jared Allen and Brian Robison. At 6'3", 270 pounds, Griffen is one of the best athletes on the Vikings roster and he truly is oozing with potential.

    Still only 25 years old, Griffen put together his best month of football down the stretch in 2012, finishing with eight sacks and an interception. Eight sacks out of a guy who only started one game gives you an indication of why hopes are so high for an explosion season out of Griffen.

    It will certainly be an interesting year at defensive end for the Vikings. They have three players who are good enough to start, and all three of them will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. If the Vikings could only keep one of them heading into to 2013, it would certainly be Allen, but the question is, who will they decide to keep after 2013?

    Let's hope that all three have monster seasons and it's an agonizing decision for the Vikings front office.