Minnesota Vikings: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit Heading into Camp

Mike NelsonCorrespondent IJuly 24, 2013

Minnesota Vikings: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit Heading into Camp

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    Let the criticism begin.

    The Minnesota Vikings report to training camp Thursday and begin practices on Friday. They enter 2013 with playoff aspirations after a 10-win 2012 that ended in a wild-card weekend loss to the Green Bay Packers.

    The Vikings have made some good moves this offseason. But will it be enough to repeat or improve upon 2012?

    That's, in part, what we're looking at here. We're going position by position (I lumped offensive and defensive lines, running backs and fullbacks and kicker and punter together) and grading that unit as training camp begins.

    The grading scale ranges from as low as "F" to as high as "A." No "A+" here. "C" is considered average.

    Depth and starting talent are taken into consideration when making grades.

    Can't wait to hear what you all have to say.

    Let's begin.

Quarterbacks

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    No one player will determine how far the Vikings can go this season than Christian Ponder.

    In his third year with Minnesota, it's make-or-break time for Ponder, who showed glimpses of greatness at various points of 2012 but was overly inconsistent. 

    Between Week 6 and Week 9 last season, his passer ratings were 83.2, 35.5, 74.8 and 37.3 respectively. Ponder threw for 2,935 yards with 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions while completing 62.1 percent of his passes last season.

    He, appropriately, is the starter entering camp and should start Week 1 regardless of his performance in training camp. Minnesota drafted him with its first round pick in 2011 and he deserves more time to prove himself.

    Should he falter, the Vikings signed Matt Cassel to back him up. He's shown glimpses of greatness and led the Kansas City Chiefs to believe he was worthy of a full-time gig. But he never lived up to the hype there.

    At 31 years old and with eight years of NFL experience, including time with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in New England, he should have plenty of wisdom to impart onto Ponder and has accepted his role as the backup. There's no quarterback controversy. Yet.

    McLeod Bethel-Thompson is clearly the third-string quarterback. A close eye should be kept on him during training camp to see how he grows in his second year in that role.

    This position is a big question mark for Minnesota. We don't know what type of showing Ponder will make and, should he falter, how quickly the Vikings will pull the trigger on the switch to Cassel and what type of performance he'll give.

    The NFL is a quarterback's league, and Minnesota has a BIG question mark there. It'll be intriguing to watch.

    Grade: C+ 

Running Backs

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    There's little question about the immediate future of this position.

    Adrian Peterson is the game's best running back and Jerome Felton is the game's best lead blocker at the fullback position.

    Peterson is coming off one of the best season's in the history of his position. He fell nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record and said his goal is to rush for 2,500 yards. The bar is high for him and the sky's the limit for what he can do on a football field.

    Toby Gerhart is the big question at this position. He appeared ready for a breakout in 2012 after an impressive 2011 campaign (averaging 4.9 yards per carry and rushing for 90 yards in three of the season's final six games), but dropped an egg with his 2012: 169 yards on 50 attempts (3.4 yards per carry) with one touchdown.

    Gerhart's opportunities were limited with Peterson playing out of his mind, but when given the ball he didn't run with the same aggression he did in 2011. He looked soft. In the final year of his rookie deal, he'll be out to impress for his next contract wherever he may sign.

    Matt Asiata surprised in earning a spot as the team's third back last season and shouldn't be a lock to make the team again in 2012.

    Grade: A

Wide Receivers

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    How improved are the Vikings at wide receiver?

    This is one of the great questions facing Minnesota entering the season.

    The signing of Greg Jennings from the rival Green Bay Packers and trading back into the first round to select Cordarrelle Patterson grabbed all the headlines, but it's tough to absolutely believe the immediate future of the corps is in good hands.

    Jennings' receptions, touchdowns and receiving yards have been on the decline for the past two years. Much of that is due to injuries (11 games missed) and the depth of Green Bay's receiving corps. But some are suggesting part of it is due to regressing skills.

    At 29 years old, Jennings should have plenty left in the tank to improve Minnesota's corps. But it's naive to believe he's automatically the team's No. 1 receiver for the life of his five-year deal. He's talented, but he's got plenty to prove.

    If anyone questions Patterson's athletic abilities, please have them checked into a mental asylum. That's not the issue. Once the ball is in his hands, Patterson is an elite playmaker.

    The problem is about how it will get into his hands. His NFL.com scouting report raises questions about his catching, route running and ability to break from jams. He should follow Jennings closely throughout the season to learn what it takes to be an NFL receiver. 

    Don't expect Patterson to start across from Jennings in Week 1 and until he's ready, Jerome Simpson is likely to start. That should last until about midseason.

    Simpson was a huge disappointment in Year One in Minnesota: 26 catches for 274 yards and zero touchdown receptions. He has plenty to prove.

    Jarius Wright rounds out the first four names on Minnesota's depth chart. He showed glimpses as a playmaker from the slot. He's nowhere near as electric as Percy Harvin, but should develop into a team's top-four receiver.

    The fifth spot is up for grabs, but Stephen Burton has the inside edge. Keep an eye on Greg Childs' health. The 2012 fourth round pick is recovering from torn patellar tendons in both knees.

    The position is in better shape than it was in 2012, but is still up in the air.

    Grade: B-

Tight Ends

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    John Carlson was signed to a five-year $25 million deal last offseason.

    After an eight-catch, 43-yard season he restructured his deal to stay in Minnesota for 2013.

    Minnesota had hoped it could pair him with Kyle Rudolph to form a top-notch receiving duo at the position.

    Rudolph lived up to his end of the bargain (53 receptions, 493 yards and nine touchdowns), but got no help from Carlson, who was limited by a knee injury.

    At 6'6" and 258 pounds, Rudolph is intimidating physically and has the tools to become an elite pass-catching tight end. He showcased his talents in the 2013 Pro Bowl, where he was named the game's MVP after catching five passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.

    He's far from perfect, though. He went three games without a reception last season, which is inexcusable. Some of that is on him doing a better job getting open and some is on Christian Ponder for failing to get him the ball. The Vikings need him to become a more consistent part of the offense.

    Rhett Ellison is a hybrid tight end/fullback option who will give Felton breathers. Ellison enters his second year out of USC looking to showcase his lead-blocking skills more so than he did in 2012. Anything the Vikings get from him as a receiver is a bonus.

    Grade: B+

Offensive Line

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    The future of this unit is much more defined entering 2013 than it was in 2012. All five starters return from last season.

    Matt Kalil, 24, has a year of NFL experience and is one for one on Pro Bowl nods. He's on track to become a franchise left tackle and should protect the blindside of Minnesota's quarterback for the next 10-plus seasons, should he choose to stay in Minnesota.

    Phil Loadholt, 27, showed further progress in 2012 after regressing in 2010 and 2011 after a strong rookie campaign in 2009. He still is prone to allowing sacks to quicker defensive ends, but he's a force in the running game. He was rewarded with a new contract this offseason reportedly at a value of $5 million per year.

    Loadholt and Kalil should combine to form one of the best tackle tandems in the game.

    John Sullivan, 27, is one of the game's most underrated centers. He was named to the 2012 Pro Bowl as an alternative, but should have been named initially. He's the leader of the line and has picked up the torch as it was left to him by Matt Birk and Jeff Christy before him.

    Guard is where the questions are most pertinent.

    Charlie Johnson, 29, should not be a starter for any team, but is slated to reclaim his post at left guard. He's the weakest link of the line. He consistently misses blocks in the run game and in pass protection.

    Brandon Fusco, turns 25 on July 26, surprised last season and held onto the right guard job with help from injuries to Geoff Schwartz, who's now with the Kansas City Chiefs. Fusco doesn't standout in pass protection or as a run blocker, but he's adequate at both.

    The line is young and talented. It's future is bright and it was a strength of the team last season. It allowed the 11th fewest sacks (32) and fifth fewest quarterback hits (32).

    Joe Berger is a very versatile backup, who's capable of subbing at either guard or center.

    Grade: A-

Defensive Line

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    For years, this has been one of the greatest strengths of the Vikings.

    It should still be a strong unit in 2013 with good depth, but this could be the beginning of the end for some of its most recognizable members.

    Kevin Williams went into full regression mode last season (two sacks, career-low 30 tackles) and restructured his deal to stay in Purple & Gold. He'll be a free agent after this season and isn't expected to return.

    Williams' free fall, combined with an uninspiring season from first-year starter Letroy Guion, prompted the Vikings to select Sharrif Floyd with the first of their three first round picks.

    Floyd should develop into a well rounded defensive tackle in time, but may struggle early as he studies the three-technique full time. He rotated throughout Florida's defensive line, which may have stunted his growth.

    Floyd isn't expected to compete for the other starting defensive tackle spot as Minnesota wants him to understudy Williams. The other defensive tackle spot is a battle between Guion (31 tackles, two sacks) and Fred Evans (23 tackles, two sacks). I expect Evans to trump Guion.

    Defensive end is set with Jared Allen and Brian Robison back. Allen and Robison are pending free agents in 2014 with Allen not expected back, due to his likely great salary demands combined with depth at the position.

    Even at 31 years old, Allen should be an elite pass rusher who continues to play with a high motor. He had surgery on his left shoulder, which hindered him throughout last season and he still recorded 12 sacks. He remains one of the game's best defensive ends. 

    Robison posted a career-high 8.5 sacks last season and should be good for between eight and 10 again this season.

    Rotate in Everson Griffen and the Vikings could have the most depth at defensive end in the league. Griffen is also a free agent in 2014, so he'll look to make a point in 2013. He had eight sacks in limited playing time.

    Defensive end remains strong, but keep an eye on the defensive tackle play. It could be a serious concern.

    Grade: B

Linebackers

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    This will be one of the funnest positions to watch in training camp and early in the season.

    Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop are expected to start, but Greenway is the only one who knows what position he'll play. He is entrenched outside and is coming off his second straight Pro Bowl with 148 tackles.

    The Vikings planned on Henderson as their middle linebacker throughout the offseason, until they signed Bishop last month after he was cut by the Green Bay Packers.

    Bishop, 29 years old, played inside linebacker for the Packers and recorded 115 tackles in 2011 and 105 in 2010. His 2012 was ruined by a torn hamstring.

    The odds are likely that Minnesota shifts Henderson back to outside linebacker and Bishop to the inside. It only makes sense, as both players are more comfortable with those positions. Would it really be wise to start two players out of their usual positions?

    We'll see.

    Minnesota got linebacker happy in the draft, snagging two former Penn State Nittany Lions: Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges.

    Mauti is recovering from his third torn ACL but is expected to be ready for training camp. He'll compete for a backup spot.

    Hodges was in the conversation for the starting outside linebacker spot before the Bishop signing, but now appears destined for a backup role.

    Marvin Mitchell and Tyrone McKenzie will provide veteran depth and help on special teams.

    How this position pans out depends on Henderson and Bishop. At this point, we know what to expect from Greenway. Henderson's been inconsistent and Bishop is an injury concern.

    Grade: C+

Cornerbacks

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    After things got ugly with Antoine Winfield and he signed with Seattle, Minnesota had to address cornerback early in the draft. And they did, in a big way.

    Xavier Rhodes, the 25th overall pick, is a large (6'1" and 210 pounds) and physical cornerback who is expected to start across from Chris Cook immediately. He profiles as a shutdown corner down the road, but in the immediate future that role belongs to Cook—barring injury.

    Cook, a fourth-year pro and 26 years old, looks to prove he can stay healthy for an entire season and evolve into a leader in the secondary looking for one with Winfield's departure. He has yet to play more than 10 games in a season. Some of that is due to legal issues, but that's on him that much more.

    Second-year corner Josh Robinson is out to show he can play the slot, something he never did at Central Florida. There will be growing pains as he learns the position, but Minnesota should be patient with him. It's not as if the position is overly deep.

    A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels are likely the fourth and fifth corners, respectively.

    Should injuries strike, the position could become a liability. But for now, it's a top-heavy position.

    Grade: B-

Safeties

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    Harrison Smith is the face of the safety position for Minnesota after his standout rookie campaign (104 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble).

    He's a playmaking safety in pass coverage and as a run defender. He isn't as electric of a pass defender as a Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed, but he's on par with Polamalu as far as physicality is concerned.

    Smith (6'2" and 214 pounds) is a stud who will start. The question is who will be beside him.

    Jamarca Sanford, who ended 2012 as the other starter, will open as Smith's partner. But Mistral Raymond and Robert Blanton will get consideration.

    Sanford (66 tackles, four forced fumbles) is known for his run-stopping skills and struggling in pass coverage. Raymond is the opposite and Blanton is still making the transition from cornerback to safety.

    Raymond opened 2012 as a starter but never fully regained his job after suffering an ankle injury.

    This grade reflects the depth and Smith's talent. Safety is quietly one of Minnesota's best positions.

    Grade: B+

     

Kickers

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    They're at it again.

    One year after cutting veteran Ryan Longwell in favor of rookie Blair Walsh, the Vikings enter 2013 with rookie Jeff Locke as their punter after cutting veteran Chris Kluwe.

    We all remember how well the Walsh move went. He was the NFC's kicker for the 2013 Pro Bowl after making 35 of 38 field goals and 36 of 36 extra points. Two of the three kicks he missed were outdoors or from more than 40 yards away.

    On top of all that, he consistently limited opportunities for kickoff returns by booting the ball into or through the end zone. It's safe to say he's one of the best in the business. 

    The Walsh experiment is what has me comfortable with the move to cut Kluwe in favor of Locke.

    Locke averaged 43.3 yards per punt, booted 22 kicks of 50-plus yards and downed 34 kicks inside of the 20-yard line last season at UCLA.

    Kluwe averaged 45 yards per punt, booted 18 kicks inside the 20-yard line and posted a net average of 39.7 yards per punt.

    College is different than the pros, but punting doesn't get much more complex at the next level.

    Locke should, at the very least, mirror Kluwe's 2012 productivity.

    Minnesota is in good shape in the kicking game.

    Grade: A-