Examining Minnesota Vikings' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles
The Minnesota Vikings went 10-6 and defeated the Green Bay Packers in Week 17 to earn a playoff berth last season. They drafted well. They made some smart offseason signings. They’ve done almost everything right.
And yet, despite all that, many are still expecting the Vikings to struggle in the stacked NFC North this season, destined to miss the playoffs behind the Packers and Chicago Bears.
Not so fast.
The Vikings have some flaws to still address before they should be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders, granted, but there’s no reason to believe Minnesota won’t make the playoffs again this season. Anyone who believes otherwise didn’t pay close enough attention this offseason.
Minnesota made its first big offseason decision by exercising the final-year option on head coach Leslie Frazier’s contract, securing the 54-year-old through the 2013-14 season. While he hasn’t done quite enough to warrant a full extension at this point, he certainly showed enough last year to earn the final year of his current deal.
Frazier hasn’t had the kind of success that warrants an immediate extension, but there’s something to be said for maintaining continuity at the top of the pyramid. Instead of jeopardizing the team’s momentum following a successful 2012 campaign, the Vikings opted to perpetuate that environment going forward, giving Frazier a chance to prove last season wasn’t an anomaly.
With Frazier at the helm for another season, there wasn’t a reason for the Vikings to make additional personnel changes. As a whole, the coaching staff we saw last season is the same coaching staff that will have the reins in 2013.
But Minnesota did make some notable roster changes this offseason, starting with the release of cornerback Antoine Winfield.
Despite a solid 2012 season, the 36-year-old was slated to make $7.2 million this season with the Vikings—a hefty sum for an aging veteran whose best years are likely behind him. Winfield defected to the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, leaving a hole that needed to be addressed this offseason.
Minnesota wasted little time filling the void. With the 25th pick in the NFL draft, the Vikings selected Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes—a player many considered the second best cornerback behind Alabama’s Dee Milliner.
The need for a wide receiver was evident after the Vikings opted to cut ties with wide receiver Percy Harvin this offseason. By trading him to the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota netted an addition first-round section (as well as a seventh-rounder and a 2014 third) with which they selected Rhodes, later trading back into the first for Patterson.
But Minnesota wasn’t without a contingency plan following the Harvin trade. Even before acquiring Patterson, Spielman had addressed the need.
The second-year general manager made one of the biggest signings of the offseason in inking former Packers standout Greg Jennings to a five-year contract, effectively filling that need and giving quarterback Christian Ponder a new weapon with which to work. Paired with budding star tight end Kyle Rudolph and the immense upside of Patterson, Minnesota’s passing attack should be ready to take off in 2013.
It’s no secret All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson was the focal point of the team’s offense last season. Perhaps the greatest NFL runner of his generation, Peterson came within nine yards of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, finishing the year with 2,097 yards on the heels of a devastating ACL tear a year prior.
Peterson has the talent to continue carrying the Vikings offense, but, at some point, the abuse is going to take its toll. For Minnesota to build on its 2012 success, Ponder and the rest of the team’s passing attack has to step up in 2013.
We’ll take a closer look at Minnesota’s offseason, including free agent acquisitions and departures, the 2013 NFL draft and a few key positions to watch as the season approaches. Read on.
2013 NFL Draft
Round 1 (Pick 23): DT Sharrif Floyd, Florida
Round 1 (Pick 25): CB Xavier Rhodes, Florida State
Round 1 (Pick 29): WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee
Round 4 (Pick 120): OLB Gerald Hodges, Penn State
Round 5 (Pick 155): P Jeff Locke, UCLA
Round 6 (Pick 196): OG Jeff Baca, UCLA
Round 7 (Pick 213): LB Michael Mauti, Penn State
Round 7 (Pick 214): OG Travis Bond, North Carolina
Round 7 (Pick 229): DT Everett Dawkins, Florida State
There’s absolutely nothing to dislike about the Vikings’ draft class. Rick Spielman nailed all three of his first-round selections and continued targeting value and upside throughout the process.
Sharrif Floyd was expected to be a top-10 selection on Day 1. Xavier Rhodes could have easily come off the board in the first 15 picks. Cordarrelle Patterson was considered the draft’s top receiver before West Virginia’s Tavon Austin seemingly picked up steam weeks before the draft.
All three players fill huge holes on Minnesota’s roster, and none of the three were likely to fall any further than where Spielman selected them. Even before Day 2, the general manager earned his team one of the best grades of any team in this draft.
Even outside the first round the Vikings keyed in on need and value, drafting a pair of Penn State linebackers in Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively. Hodges’ availability in the fourth round wasn’t a huge surprise, but the fact that Mauti fell to the final round certainly was.
The 6’2”, 243-pound bruiser has the talent to have been an early round selection in this year’s draft, but three ACL tears in the last four years facilitated a huge slide down the draft board.
If Mauti can stay healthy—obviously a huge “if” at this point—he has the potential to be a building block in the middle of Minnesota’s defense. Either way, the risk was a minimal.
In an effort to continue building a strong interior offensive for Adrian Peterson, Spielman also targeted guards Jeff Baca and Travis Bond in the later rounds. While neither player is guaranteed playing time this season, the added youth and depth will go a long way toward sustaining the growth of perhaps the most important interior offensive line in football.
Spielman’s only questionable pick came in the form of UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round. While punters don’t typically warrant early Day 3 selections, his acquisition is a minor quibble in an otherwise tremendous draft class. The pick also allowed Minnesota to cut veteran leg Chris Kluwe, who finished the 2012 season 17th in the league in net punting average (39.7).
In all, it was a fantastic draft for Spielman and the Vikings. When need and value meet—especially in the first round—it’s hard to miss. The Vikings earned their “A” grade and will continue making big strides on both sides of the ball as a result.
Picking Up the Passing Game
With Percy Harvin now in Seattle, the Vikings face an interesting situation. They’ll look to Greg Jennings to replace that production, but the former Packers No. 1 hasn’t been able to stay healthy in recent years, missing 11 games in his last two seasons in Green Bay.
Still, Jennings was worth the price on the free-agent market. If he can return to his 2010 form (125 catches, 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns), Harvin will be a distant memory.
Jennings is a lock for the No. 1 receiver position, but things get a little more interesting beyond that spot on the depth chart.
Jerome Simpson caught 50 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns in 2011 before the Vikings signed him from the Cincinnati Bengals. But the 27-year-old struggled to find his rhythm last season after being suspended four games at the beginning of the season.
Simpson’s experience makes him a frontrunner for the No. 2 spot opposite Jennings. At 6’2” and 190 pounds, he has the size and hands to work the middle of the field and open things up for Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Speaking of Patterson, the Tennessee product is arguably the most intriguing player to watch this offseason for several reasons. While he’s still extremely raw in a lot of areas, he has the speed, quickness, athleticism and big-play ability to work his way into a substantial role early in the season.
Patterson may not be as polished as Harvin, but he does offer a similar skill set.
While some feel Patterson will be limited by Christian Ponder’s questionable arm strength, we may see just the opposite this season. In fact, Patterson could be even better than expected given the presence of Jennings on the outside.
Patterson excels in open space, using his athleticism to turn short passes into huge gains. At Tennessee, he was often used on end-arounds and flanker screens to let him work in space—much like Harvin did in his time with the Vikings.
Provided Patterson can hone his route-running abilities, he won’t need to be just a speedy deep threat for Ponder.
With Patterson eyeing the No. 3 spot on the depth chart (probably in the slot), Joe Webb and Jarius Wright are the most likely candidates to round out the active roster at the receiver position, as well as Greg Childs, who is coming off serious knee problems.
Vikings fans don’t need an introduction for Webb. Following his putrid performance under center in the playoffs last season, the Vikings opted to move the UAB product to receiver this year, potentially also using him as a returner. Given Webb’s limited NFL experience at the position, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him relegated to a much smaller role in 2013.
That leaves Wright and Childs as the only viable options to round out the depth chart, and it seems Wright is the leading candidate given Childs’s knee issues.
Wright caught 22 balls for 310 yards and two touchdowns last season in limited action, but he showed enough to warrant a closer look this season. At 5’10” and 180 pounds, he has the speed and athleticism to fit in nicely as a fourth option and potential deep threat this season.
Beyond those six, there isn’t much experience to speak of. LaMark Brown, Rodney Smith and Chris Summers will be competing for a roster spot this offseason, but it’s unlikely any of the three make the final regular season roster as viable receiving options.
Jennings, Simpson and Patterson have the talent to be a solid corps for Ponder, but all three need to remain healthy and make big strides in 2013. There’s no reason to worry about this group, but there are certainly still some questions that remain unanswered.
Projected Depth Chart
|No. 1||Greg Jennings|
|No. 2||Jerome Simpson|
|No. 3||Cordarrelle Patterson|
|No. 4||Jarius Wright|
|No. 5||Joe Webb|
|No. 6||Greg Childs|
Closing the Gap
With Antoine Winfield’s departure, Minnesota is left with a glaring hole a cornerback. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams and defensive backs coach Joe Woods have some options, but there are plenty of questions left to address.
Fourth-year cornerback Chris Cook is in line to fill Winfield’s spot, but the Virginia product has missed 26 games the last three seasons and certainly isn’t a guarantee to stay healthy in 2013. On top of that, he’s failed to record an interception in those three seasons and hasn’t been the impact player the Vikings expected to get when they drafted him 34th overall in 2010.
Still, Cook has the size, strength and experience to excel in Minnesota’s Tampa 2 base schemes, and he’ll have his opportunity this season. As quoted by Brian Murphy of TwinCities.com, Cook is ready to step up and fill a leadership role this season as well:
I don't really think about it. I'm just looking forward to going into training camp healthy. I don't really worry about circumstances or situations or a contract year. I'm just playing football, (happy to) be able to do what I love. I'm definitely ready to step up. Just lead by example. That's the biggest thing. Show guys how to practice. Show them how to study, what's expected of you, especially for Xavier, a guy coming in as a first-rounder. Sometimes it can do something to your character. But he's a well-grounded guy. I feel like my job is to keep him that way.
Now would be the perfect time for Cook to realize his potential. The Vikings need him.
With limited experience behind Cook, Xavier Rhodes could be in line for the Week 1 starting role opposite him. Minnesota didn’t use a first round selection on the Florida State product to have him sit on the bench in his formative years, and there’s certainly a spot open for him.
Second-year cornerback Josh Robinson could also see an expanded role in the defense this season after limited time last season. Robinson has been working out in the slot, as noted by Mark Craig of the Star Tribune, but the Central Florida product doesn’t have experience playing the nickel corner position and may need some playing time to adjust to the transition.
A.J. Jefferson signed his restricted free agent tender this offseason and enters the campaign the most likely candidate for a sub package role, along with 2010 undrafted free agent Marcus Sherels. Neither player presents a particularly exciting battle for the position, however.
There’s reason to be hopeful that Minnesota can improve on its No. 24 pass defense of a year ago, but expectations should be tempered as a result of inexperience and injury issues. As it stands, the Vikings’ cornerback group is still a major question mark entering the 2013 season.
Front Seven Fill-Ins
With Kevin Williams on the downturn and Minnesota yet to find a suitable replacement for Pat Williams, Rick Spielman did well to address the need in the first round with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd.
As previously noted, Floyd was expected to be selected much earlier in the first round. What we haven’t discussed, however, is why Floyd is the perfect fit on Minnesota’s defensive line.
At 6’3” and 297 pounds, Floyd is much more than just a big body to fill Minnesota’s 4-3 nose tackle or under tackle role. In Minnesota’s base Tampa 2 schemes, defensive linemen have few responsibilities, short of shooting gaps and getting after the quarterback.
Floyd excels in both areas. Perhaps the most athletically gifted defensive tackle in the 2013 draft class, the Florida product is an ideal fit in a one-gap 4-3 front like Minnesota’s, providing the Vikings with an interior pass-rushing presence to pair with defensive end Jared Allen.
Williams will likely stay at under tackle allowing Floyd to earn his keep at the one-technique position. With incumbent starter Letroy Guion returning after an underwhelming season, Floyd gives Minnesota some options and also puts Guion in a position to add some depth in a rotational role.
Allen, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison comprised a solid trio of pass-rushers (28.5 sacks in 2012) from the defensive end positions, and while Allen is in the final year of his contract, there’s really nothing to worry about in that department entering the 2013 season.
Maintaining that pass rush will be absolutely critical this season, though. With an inexperienced secondary sure to experience its share of bumps—especially in a division loaded with big-play receivers—Minnesota’s pass rush can be its equalizer.
A portion of that pass rush will also come from the linebacker positions. Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of uncertainty in that unit.
The team re-signed Erin Henderson (likely to remain at middle linebacker), and Chad Greenway will be back to fill the strong-side linebacker role. But opposite Greenway, it’s unclear which young player will step in the fill that void.
Gerald Hodges may have the inside track after being drafted in the fourth round this year. As quoted by Vikings.com, defensive coordinator Alan Williams seems excited about seeing what the rookie can do:
He has great feet. It looks like looks like he has good instincts. I can’t wait until the pads get on to see how he hits and how he runs around and mixes it up. I think that’s what all the coaches are waiting on to see. Right now we are just in shorts and they all look great so I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm and wait until we get pads on.
As reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the Vikings also acquired Desmond Bishop this week to add some depth and experience to the linebacking corps:
Williams suggested to Vikings.com that he’s unsure whether Bishop will be playing outside or inside this year. Regardless of his positional fit, Bishop is a terrific linebacker who, if he can stay healthy, will be a huge acquisition for a team in need of experience at the position.
Linebacker may have been a concern entering this offseason, but there’s not much reason to worry about the group as a whole. With Greenway and Henderson back, the Vikings have enough continuity to facilitate a smooth transition for the younger members of the unit and ensure the position won’t be left to be exploited by an offensively adept division.
|2013 Minnesota Vikings Schedule|
|1||Sept. 8 ||@ Detroit Lions||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|2||Sept. 15 ||@ Chicago Bears||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|3||Sept. 22 ||vs. Cleveland Browns||1:00 p.m.||CBS|
|4||Sept. 29||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||1:00 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Oct. 13||vs. Carolina Panthers||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|7||Oct. 21||@ New York Giants||8:40 p.m.||ESPN|
|8||Oct. 27||vs. Green Bay Packers||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|9||Nov. 3||@ Dallas Cowboys||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|10||Nov. 7||vs. Washington Redskins||8:25 p.m.||NFL|
|11||Nov. 17||@ Seattle Seahawks||4:25 p.m.||FOX|
|12||Nov. 24||@ Green Bay Packers||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|13||Dec. 1||vs. Chicago Bears||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|14||Dec. 8||@ Baltimore Ravens||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|15||Dec. 15||vs. Philadelphia Eagles||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|16||Dec. 22 ||@ Cincinnati Bengals||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|17||Dec. 29 ||vs. Detroit Lions||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
*For a complete look at Minnesota's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.
Minnesota isn’t exactly faced with an easy 2013 schedule—and that may be putting it mildly.
The NFC North is one of the toughest divisions in football, and along with six contests against the Packers, Bears and Detroit Lions, the Vikings also have to square off with the AFC North, NFC East and the Seattle Seahawks.
The Vikings have the talent to traverse that section of the schedule above the .500 mark, but they can’t afford to drop winnable games this season. The margin for error is extremely slim.
If Adrian Peterson stays healthy, there’s no limit to what Minnesota’s offense can do this year, but no team can get by in the modern NFL without at least an average passing game. Christian Ponder absolutely must show progress in his third year with the team.
Ponder piloted the league’s second worst passing offense in 2012. If he struggles with the same issues this season, the Vikings will be up against it in the race for the NFC North title.
Still, Minnesota had a productive offseason and addressed some glaring weaknesses from a season ago. While uncertainty remains, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Minnesota doesn’t at least match its 10-6 2013 mark.
Prediction: 11-5, Second in the NFC North
With a tremendous running game and solid pass-rush in place, the Vikings won’t struggle to be competitive against quality competition this coming season. They need to prove their passing game and passing defense are up to par, but the ceiling is pretty high for this team in 2013.
Realistically, Minnesota could win between eight and 12 games this season, but 10 or 11 seems to be the most likely result. As long as the Vikings don’t fall apart against division opponents, there’s no reason they can’t make the playoffs again in 2013.