Burning Questions for the Minnesota Vikings' 2013-14 Season
Thank goodness the preseason ended on a high note for the Minnesota Vikings with a 24-23 win over the Tennessee Titans. The win gave the Vikings a 1-3 finish to the preseason—now let's get ready for the real thing.
Fans of the Vikings need to keep telling themselves it's only the preseason, that these games don't count, that you can throw the records out the window. Remember, coaches don't like to reveal too much in the preseason, and things really open up with the start of the regular season.
On top of all that, the Vikings' best player, Adrian Peterson, was only on the field for two plays the entire preseason—and on both of them, Christian Ponder faked the handoff to Peterson who took a nice, wide route into the flat, making sure he didn't get hit.
Now, after repeating the above mantra several times, take a deep cleansing breath and relax. Breath in—think only good thoughts. Breath out—expel all that bad karma. The Vikings are going to be just fine.
Feeling better? Good.
Now, let's come back to reality and pull our heads out of the sand. The Vikings have some issues that if left unaddressed will make the 2013 season an exceptionally long one.
Here's a look at some of the burning questions the Vikings are facing as the regular season looms.
Will 2,500 Yards Be Enough?
By now everyone has heard Adrian Peterson's bold predictions. He wants to gain 2,500 yards this season, and he predicts he will break Emmitt Smith's career rushing mark of 18,355 yards by Week 16 of the 2017 season.
Neither of these claims are really to be questioned.
After his incredible performance last season, Peterson proved that he is not from this planet. He finished a mere nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards—a feat made all that much more incredible after having major reconstructive knee surgery just nine months before the 2012 season started.
The real question is whether or not 2,500 yards will be enough?
Last year Peterson led the NFL with 2,314 yards from scrimmage. This accounted for a whopping 42.9 percent of the Vikings' total offense. Last season the average in the NFL for a team's top-yardage gainer was 24.6 percent.
Jamaal Charles was second, comprising 32.4 percent of the Chief's offense, with 1,745 yards from scrimmage. Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions finished second to Peterson with 1,964 yards from scrimmage, which accounted for "just" 30 percent of Detroit's total offense.
The Vikings offense struggled this preseason to get on any kind of a roll. Of course with 42.9 percent of the team's offensive production on the sidelines, it kind of makes sense.
If Peterson struggles to replicate his 2012 performance, Christian Ponder must pick up the slack, otherwise the Vikings will have a disappointing season, and 10 wins are out of the question.
How Will the New Helmet Rule Affect Adrian Peterson
As most people know by now the NFL passed a new rule that prohibits offensive players from using the crown of their helmet when initiating contact with a defender.
There's no way to tell how this rule will affect Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson. If Peterson had been allowed to carry the ball during the exhibition season, perhaps there might have been an opportunity to see what impact the change might have.
According to B/R featured columnist Chris Trapasso, Peterson is one of 10 running backs on whom the rule will have a "drastic effect."
Peterson is not afraid to initiate contact. In the above video against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009, he absolutely destroys William Gay. A closer look at the hit suggests that this season that play will cost the Vikings 15 yards.
In the end, Peterson should not change the way he plays. No doubt his contributions from his physical running style will far outweigh the number of penalties he is assessed.
Will Any Receiver Amass 1,000 Yards Receiving?
From 1998 to 2003 Randy Moss led the Minnesota Vikings in receiving yards. He averaged 88 receptions for 1,396 yards and 13 touchdowns per season.
His last season to surpass 1,000 receiving yards for the Vikings came in 2003 when he finished with 1,632 yards. Since then only two other Minnesota receivers have exceeded 1,000 receiving yards in a season—Nate Burleson with 1,006 yards in 2004 and Sidney Rice with 1,312 in 2009.
It didn't matter who was throwing the ball to Moss, he was an exceptional athlete who commanded the ball be thrown his way.
The Vikings don't have anyone as good as Moss on the roster. In fact, they might not have anyone on the roster who was as good as Percy Harvin last season.
Cordarrelle Patterson may be the next breakout receiver for the Vikings, but he will first have to break into the starting lineup. He's off to a good start as he led the Vikings with eight catches this preseason.
How Badly Will the Vikings Miss Antoine Winfield?
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In 2012, cornerback Antoine Winfield had one of the best seasons of his career. He finished with 101 tackles, the second most in his career, and he led the Vikings with three interceptions.
The most likely candidate to take over his role as the slot corner is Josh Robinson. Last season Robinson did well as a rookie, he played in all 16 games and started six of them. He finished with 56 tackles and two interceptions.
According to a report from 1500ESPN, though, covering the slot receiver will be new to Robinson; he didn't even play over the slot in college. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) only Bobby Felder did a poorer job during the preseason of covering receivers than did Robinson, no matter where he lined up.
The Vikings cornerbacks are going to be very green and will have to do a lot of learning on the fly. Chris Cook, the Vikings' 2010 second-round draft pick, is the elder statesman. But, heading into his fourth season, Cook he has yet to play an entire 16-game season.
Next on the Vikings' depth chart is Robinson, the Vikings third-round draft pick a year ago, and Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings first-round draft choice this season. These three will see most of the action among Minnesota cornerbacks. Combined they have only 38 games of experience.
Throw in reserve corners A.J. Jefferson, Marcus Sherels and Brandon Burton and Minnesota's top six corners have only 12 years of NFL experience. Compare that to Winfield who took his 14 years of experience to Seattle.
Will the Vikings Miss Jerome Felton?
It seemed that Jerome Felton finally found a home. After three years in Detroit, and a year bouncing between Carolina and Indianapolis, he wound up in Minnesota blocking for the best running back in the NFL.
Now he will open the 2013 season serving a three-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. According to ESPN, the punishment is (finally) being handed down by the NFL for Felton's arrest last summer on a DUI charge in Hennepin county. I guess they wanted to make the penalty hurt that much more, waiting for Felton to sign his three-year, $7.5 million contract for 2013.
Felton earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2012, accompanying his backfield partner, Adrian Peterson. He was able to parlay all of this into a new deal, a deal that landed him atop Forbes' most overpaid players list.
Before Felton arrived in Minnesota, Peterson averaged 1,350 yards in his first four seasons. Last year, with Felton leading the way, he ran for 2,097 yards—that's a 55.3 percent improvement.
It will be interesting to see how well Peterson does without Felton in front of him. Second-year fullback/tight end, Rhett Ellison will most likely get the opportunity to lineup in front of Peterson. If Ellison does well, it could spell the beginning of the end for Felton and his overpriced contract.
How Quickly Will the QB Controversy Develop
Christian Ponder threw only 37 passes in the preseason, completing 19 of them for a 62.2 completion percentage. Based on the results, head coach Leslie Frazier should have allowed Ponder to throw a few more. He averaged only five yards per attempt and didn't develop any chemistry with wide receiver Greg Jennings, who caught only three passes.
Ponder's passer rating was only 72.9.
It's one thing to get plenty of reps in practice, but the pressure increases in a game against another team—even though it's only preseason. Once the regular season starts, that pressure rises yet another notch. The games moves a bit faster, and the hits come a bit harder.
Working in Ponder's favor, only slightly, is the fact that Matt Cassel has not played any better.
After completing all three of his passes in the final preseason game against the Titans, Cassel finished 22-for-40, a completion percentage of only 55.0. He did finish with a slightly higher passer rating of 78.8.
In fact, through the first three preseason games, both McCleod Bethel-Thompson (81.1) and James Vandenberg (91.7) had higher passer ratings. The Vikings released Vandenberg on Monday before teams had to reduce their rosters to 75 players, and it's possible that Bethel-Thompson could also be released if the Vikings feel Joe Webb can serve multiple roles as the team's emergency quarterback.
Granted, neither quarterback had the opportunity to turn around and give the ball to Adrian Peterson. As previously pointed out, Peterson accounted for over 40 percent of the offense's production last season.
Perhaps we'll see a miraculous transformation once the regular season starts when the games really count.
I'm betting on a slow start by Ponder with plenty of fans calling for Cassel by the time the Vikings play their second home game.
Who Starts at Weak-Side Linebacker
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The Minnesota Vikings depth chart still lists Marvin Mitchell ahead of Desmond Bishop at the weak-side linebacker position. Both players have been in the league for six seasons, and both are 28 years old, the biggest difference is Bishop has started 26 games on defense, compared to only three for Mitchell.
Of course Bishop is also coming off a hamstring injury that cost him the entire 2012 season. Because Mitchell is listed as the starter, he did not see as much preseason action as Bishop, who took advantage of the opportunity and finished the preseason with 18 tackles. Mitchell finished with eight.
Of course there's much more to playing linebacker than making tackles. Linebackers often need to understand the responsibilities of other positions and make sure teammates are where they need to be in order for the entire defense to perform as effectively as possible.
I admit that these are nuances that escape me, but I find it hard to believe that in his sixth season Mitchell could suddenly develop and improve enough to become a starter. Perhaps it indicates how weak the Vikings are at linebacker.
It will be interesting to see if the Vikings will sign any linebackers cut NFL teams when they reduce their rosters to 53 players on Aug. 31.
Who Experiences the Worst Sophomore Slump?
The 2012 draft was extremely productive for the Minnesota Vikings. Of their 10 draft picks, eight of them played in at least five games, and two of them—left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith—started all 16 games as rookies.
Smith made a tremendous impact on defense, finishing second on the team with 104 tackles. He led the team with three interceptions, scoring touchdowns on two of them. He provided a lift to the defense, improving its overall rank in points allowed from 31st to 14th.
Matt Kalil solidified the left tackle position and started all 16 games. According to Pro Football Focus, he gave up only two sacks all season. At the end of the season, he was one of six Vikings named to the Pro Bowl.
Cornerback Josh Robinson made six starts and finished with two interceptions, and fullback/tight end Rhett Ellison got seven starts. Both are expected to make significant contributions this season. Robinson is poised to take over the slot corner role occupied for so many seasons by Antoine Winfield, and Ellison will most likely take over for Jerome Felton, while he serves a three-game suspension.
Kicker Blair Walsh, although not technically a starter, made perhaps the biggest splash of all the rookies by making all 10 field-goal attempts from greater than 50 yards away. Not only did he set an NFL record, his 141 points are the second most in franchise history. Only Gary Anderson has scored more points in a season. In 1998, with the help of the top-scoring offense in the league, Anderson scored 164 points as the Vikings finished the season 15-1.
If the Vikings are to repeat last season's success, they will need all five of these players to be as good if not better than last season.
Unfortunately for Walsh you cannot top perfection, and even one miss beyond 50 yards will be a letdown from last season.
Will the Defense Be Good Enough?
The Minnesota Vikings averaged just over two touchdowns per game in the preseason. Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, their top two quarterbacks, threw only three touchdowns.
That's asking the defense to hold teams to fewer than 14 points per game—a tough task considering it yielded almost twice that this preseason. Here's hoping the Vikings defense is able to take it to another level once the regular season starts.
Part of the problem could be that the Vikings defense practices against the Vikings offense—neither side is being challenged like they will be in the regular season.
Sure, these results are from the preseason, and there is very little correlation between these games with second-, third- and fourth-stringers playing, and the regular season when the starters really crank it up.
But still, it would have been nice to see something on offense to get excited about as the season approaches.
Where Will the Scoring Come From?
This preseason no one projected to be starting for the Minnesota Vikings' offense, with the exception of Christian Ponder, has scored a touchdown.
Undrafted rookie Zach Line led the team with two touchdown catches. Wide receivers Joe Webb and Rodney Smith have the other touchdown catches through the first three games.
Again, it's only the preseason. We need only to look back to last year when the Vikings scored but five touchdowns in four preseason games.
To prove the preseason means nothing, Devin Aromashodu was the team's leading receiver in the 2012 preseason with eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. Once the games started to count, he disappeared. Over 15 games, he only caught 11 passes and did not score a touchdown—it's no surprise he's not with the team this year.
Adrian Peterson, who led the team with 13 touchdowns last season, is the only starter who can be excused for lack of production—he was not allowed to touch the ball in the preseason. Yet Peterson scoring at least 12 touchdowns this season is as close to a sure thing as there is.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who led the team with nine touchdown receptions last season, caught eight passes in the first three preseason games, but did get into the end zone. Last season Rudolph's nine touchdowns were the second most among tight ends. He needs to continue his ascent as one of the league's best at his position.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Rudolph 15th among 62 tight ends in the NFL last season.
The Vikings are planning on a lot scoring from free-agent wide receiver Greg Jennings. In only eight games last season for the Green Bay Packers, Jennings caught four touchdown passes, which would have been good enough for second place among Vikings receivers.
Jarius Wright, Michael Jenkins and Stephen Burton totaled one more touchdown than Jennings in a combined 35 games last season.
Will the Offensive Line Be as Good as Last Season?
Last season the Minnesota Vikings started the same five players in all 16 games on the offensive line. According to Pro Football Reference, the last time that happened was in 2003.
Rookie Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt anchored the ends of the line, with Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco at guard. Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ranked John Sullivan as the top center in the NFL last season.
In 2012, the offensive line improved significantly over 2011. They allowed 32 sacks, a 34.7 percent decline from 2011, when they allowed 49 sacks. They also provided the run-blocking for a team that improved by 13.6 percent over the previous season.
Certainly most of the improvement in the ground game was due to Adrian Peterson, but in total the Vikings increased their rushing yards from 2,318 yards in 2011 to 2,634 yards last season.
The Vikings are set to open the season with the same five starters up front on offense.
Thus far this preseason, the offensive line has allowed 10 sacks through three games. Six of these 10 were with Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel at quarterback. That's a rate closer to the 2011 total than that of 2012.
If that trend holds into the regular season, it will not bode well for the Vikings.
Who's Going to Start at DT Against the Lions?
The Minnesota Vikings, once flush with talent at defensive tackle, now face a problem with depth at the position.
First it was Sharrif Floyd, the team's top rookie, suffering a knee injury in the preseason opener against the Texans. Floyd underwent a "procedure" on his left knee. According to NFL.com the injury and procedure are not considered serious, and Floyd should be ready for the season opener against Detroit.
Then it was Kevin Williams suffering a knee injury when 49ers offensive guard Joe Looney hit him in the knees with a chop block. According to ESPN, Williams suffered a hyperextended knee, a bone bruise and postular capsular strain. There was no ligament damage, and the injury will not require surgery.
There's a lot of uncertainty whether Williams will be ready for Week 1.
That certainly sounds like Floyd could be the starter come Sept. 8 in Detroit. The bigger question is what to do if Williams needs more time to recover. The Vikings must have a contingency plan.
That means Floyd, who played only 53 snaps, all in the first preseason game, will need to be ready for some significant playing time when the season opens in Detroit.