What to Expect from Each Minnesota Vikings Starter in 2013-14

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IAugust 28, 2013

What to Expect from Each Minnesota Vikings Starter in 2013-14

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    Coming off a surprising 2012 season that saw the Minnesota Vikings go 10-6 and make the playoffs, expectations heading into 2013 are as high as they've been in the Leslie Frazier era.

    With that in mind, let's take a deep dive and look at every starting position for the Vikings heading into the coming season to see if the high expectations have merit.

    It's no secret that Minnesota is led by returning MVP Adrian Peterson and boasts a roster that has far more depth than it had in the last two seasons.

    But, like every team in the NFL, the Vikings have plenty of question marks. First and foremost, doubts remain about the play at quarterback. Christian Ponder is entering his third season as a starter, and he's yet to prove that he's capable of making the team better with him at the helm.

    It doesn't help that an 0-3 start in the preseason has Vikings fans' nerves as frayed as Miley Cyrus' public relations team.

    Take a deep breath. After Thursday night's glorified scrimmage against the Tennessee Titans, the slate will be wiped clean, and the Vikings will be 0-0 like everyone else in the league.

    As the preseason winds down, it's time to look at every Vikings starter and decide what the fair expectations are heading into the regular season.

Quarterback Christian Ponder

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    It's Season 3 for the Vikings starting quarterback, and unfortunately we don't know a whole lot more about his long-term viability as an NFL starter than we did on the day he was drafted.

    For every glimpse of talent that Ponder has shown, he's revealed just as many question marks. The clock is ticking for him to provide some answers, and his third season in the NFL will go a long way toward revealing the type of player he can be.

    Will he be a quarterback who can make plays that decide football games? Or is his ceiling as a game manager who simply compliments Adrian Peterson and avoids the big mistakes that keeps the team from winning games?

    It's unfortunate for the likes of Ponder, Andy Dalton and Jake Locker that the three-year quarterback curve has been shrunk by the success of Andrew LuckRobert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Such is life on the big stage.

    For Minnesota fans, the best course of action is to ignore the exploits of the other young quarterbacks and focus on how Ponder can make the Vikings a better team. What the Vikings should expect from him in 2013 is a quarterback who is more proactive than reactive. They should expect him to show a calmer demeanor in the pocket and a better ability to make the correct decisions on reads, throws and runs.

    For an offense that uses such a controlled passing game, he has to raise his completion percentage up from 62 percent. Something in the 65-67 percent range would be a nice improvement. At the same time. fans hope that he can also raise his yards per attempt from the paltry 6.08 yards in 2012.

    As far as the sexy numbers go, he should be able to raise his touchdown-to-interception ration from last year's 18-to-12 to around 25-to-12. The 183 yards passing per game has to take a leap up to the 220-230 range, which would still be on the lower end of NFL averages.

    Ultimately, the only statistic that matters for a starting quarterback is wins, and Ponder gave the Vikings 10 in 2012. That number was far too dependent on Peterson's remarkable season, and for the Vikings to return to double-digit wins, Ponder will have to improve his numbers across the board.

Running Back Adrian Peterson

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    What can reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson do for an encore?

    He virtually carried the Vikings on his back to a 10-6 record in 2012, rushing for 2,097 yards and averaging six yards per carry, all while returning from complete reconstructive surgery on his left knee in January of last year.

    So what can we expect from him in 2013?

    Of the six NFL running backs who have posted 2,000-yard seasons before Peterson, Barry Sanders had the best follow-up season in yards gained and still ran for 575 less yards than he did in his magical season. Every back before Peterson that has rushed for 2,000 yards averaged at least a full yard less per attempt the following year, and none of the six averaged more than 4.3 yards per carry.

    History says that he can't come close to matching his ridiculous numbers from 2012, but history hasn't collided with Peterson yet.

    He hasn't been shy when asked about his goals for 2013, saying several times that he can rush for 2,500 yards.

    Those who have watched him have no reason to doubt him. Blessed with a perfect skill set to play running back, he combines power, speed and elusiveness. With a competitive streak and a burning desire for greatness, he is the best back in the league and in the conversation for best of all time.

    So what should Vikings fans expect in 2013?

    The hope is that the passing game takes a leap forward so Peterson isn't counted on nearly as much as he was in 2012. If defenses are forced to respect the Vikings passing game, that could open up more space for him to run.

    While he'll obviously be the focal point of the offense once again, hoping for more than 1,500 yards for any running back is assuming the best-case scenario. It's silly to put any expectation on Peterson at this point.

    The best the Vikings can hope for is that he's remains injury free. If that's the case, all bets are off.

Fullback Jerome Felton

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    Vikings fullback Jerome Felton will miss the first three games of the season serving a suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

    According to USA Today's Tom Pelissero, the suspension stems from a June 2012 DUI charge that was reduced to reckless driving.

    Felton's suspension will provide an opportunity for someone else to step up, which improves the odds of rookie fullback Zach Line making the roster. Line has looked good in the preseason with a pair of touchdowns. Combo fullback/tight end Rhett Ellison will also probably see more snaps with Felton out of action.

    In the long view, the suspension probably won't matter much, and we'll have a better answer to the question, "Does it really matter who's blocking in front of Adrian Peterson?" Peterson averaged 6.9 yards per carry last year with a fullback in front of him and just 4.6 yards without one. 

    When Felton returns to action, the expectation will be the same as last year: He'll have very limited carries and a few receptions out of the backfield.

    The job of the Vikings fullback is to take on one tackler and let Peterson do the rest.

Center John Sullivan

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    Vikings center John Sullivan enters his sixth year with the Vikings and his fifth as a starter heading into the prime of his career.

    At 28 years old, he is among the best centers in the league. While he may not be as physically dominant as some other pivot men, he takes a back seat to no one in the league when it comes to the mental aspect of the position. From making line calls at the line of scrimmage to adapting to defensive schemes during action, he is as intelligent as anyone in the league.

    Sullivan has improved every year in the league, and there is no reason to think he won't be better in 2013. With no newcomers on the starting offensive line, he will be leading a crew that has been to battle together before and knows one another's tendencies and habits.

    Expect another stellar season from the Vikings center. If all goes well, he'll achieve a Pro Bowl berth that has been six years in the making.

Right Guard Brandon Fusco

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    Vikings right guard Brandon Fusco enters his second full year as a starter, and the year of experience should pay off in a better season.

    He joined the Vikings in 2011 after playing for Slippery Rock University. The transition from small school to the big time is a steep one, but he showed a ton of promise as a rookie and earned the starting job last summer.

    His play in 2012 was more inconsistent than you'd like, but that's expected from someone with his limited experience.

    With a year under his belt as a starter, he should know his way around the league better. There is no such thing as overpowering people in the NFL trenches; there are many tricks to be learned, and Fusco should be improved this season.

    The right guard job is Fusco's heading into the regular season, but he can't take anything for granted. The Vikings drafted two guards this spring and have high hopes for both Jeff Baca and Travis Bond.

Left Guard Charlie Johnson

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    Vikings starting left guard Charlie Johnson is living on borrowed time in the NFL.

    He was inconsistent at best last season, which was his first time starting at guard after previously playing tackle. He is a hard worker and a veteran voice on the offensive line, but he's limited physically and can get pushed around by the league's better defensive tackles.

    He restructured his contract after last season, taking a pay cut that may have saved his job. According to ESPN.com's Andrew Krammer, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said that Johnson's starting job isn't completely secure.

    The 29-year-old Johnson has stayed in the league by being a team-first guy who will do anything that's asked of him. The Vikings are hoping that he can play well enough this year to hold off any of the backup linemen from taking his spot.

    It would be surprising if this wasn't his last year as a starter in the league, but a solid season could change that.

Right Tackle Phil Loadholt

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    The Vikings eased a lot of their fans' minds when they re-signed starting right tackle Phil Loadholt just before he was due to become a free agent in March. Minnesota inked him to a four-year, $25 million contract that solidified the Vikings at offensive tackle for the near future with Loadholt and Matt Kalil.

    Loadholt has never been a spectacular player, but he's the type of offensive linemen you'd miss if he was gone. His play can sometimes be inconsistent, but he's a pro on and off the field and is among the better right tackles in the league.

    The Vikings offensive line has played poorly in the preseason, but the fact that all five starters are back on the line that paved the way for Peterson's 2,000-yard season is a good sign.

    Right tackle is usually a position that fans only notice when players do something wrong, and Loadholt wasn't noticed very much in 2012. This will be his fifth year in the league as a starter, and he's taken steps forward every season, proving that experience is invaluable in the NFL trenches.

    Fans hope to notice Loadholt less and less in 2013. He might even end up in the Pro Bowl.

Left Tackle Matt Kalil

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    Matt Kalil came to the Vikings in 2012 advertised as a possible franchise left tackle, the type of prospect that a coach could just plug into the starting lineup and not worry about for a decade.

    He was better than advertised.

    The 6'7", 305-pound Kalil showed tremendous athletic ability as a rookie and took no time at all to adjust to blocking the best defensive linemen on the planet. He has great feet and knows how to use his arms to slow down and contain defensive players. He capped off his superb rookie season by playing in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

    He has hit a few bumps in the 2013 preseason, getting beat off the line too many times and taking some unnecessary penalties. For players like him, that's what the preseason is for. They make some mistakes and learn from them.

    For the Vikings, the hope is that 2013 will be the second season in a long career that is filled with Pro Bowls and accolades. The Vikings might have missed out on two franchises quarterbacks in the 2012 draft, but in drafting Kalil, they have an anchor for their offensive line for years to come.

Tight End Kyle Rudolph

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    We'll keep it simple when assessing the expectations for Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph heading into the 2013 season: He's going to become a star.

    The third-year man out of Notre Dame has oozed potential since his first day with the Vikings, and his tremendous second season was capped off by an MVP performance in the Pro Bowl.

    He basically doubled his numbers in receptions and yards in his second season, and his nine touchdowns were tied for second among tight ends.

    The 6'6", 260-pound Rudolph has established a chemistry with Christian Ponder, and the huge target has become the quarterback's de facto target when things break down.

    Rudolph has shown great hands and a fine ability to provide a target on both short and long routes. A big threat in the red zone, he should once again be among the leaders in touchdowns for tight ends.

    His MVP in last year's Pro Bowl came as a surprise to many, but many return trips to that game won't be.

Wide Receiver Greg Jennings

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    Vikings fans were stunned when the team traded leading wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks on March 11. How could a team with such a weak receiving corps trade its top threat?

    The Vikings alleviated many of their fans' fears when they signed former Packer Greg Jennings just five days later. After signing him to a five-year deal that can pay up to $47.5 million, the Vikings finally have an established veteran receiver for the first time since Randy Moss departed.

    Jennings had been a part of one of the NFL's deepest receiver groups in Green Bay, and before missing half of last season, he had amassed five straight seasons with more than 50 catches and 900 yards.

    While he lacks the explosiveness of Harvin, he'll be a valuable addition to the squad as a leader and teacher of a young wide receiver corps. Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright will become better players by paying attention to how he goes about his business.

    Expect Jennings to catch at least 50 balls for 800 yards in 2013.

Wide Receivers Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson

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    While Greg Jennings will be the undisputed lead receiver for the Vikings in 2013, expect the other receptions to be spread evenly among Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson.

    Simpson is coming off a forgettable, injury-laden season and needs to prove that he's an NFL receiver in 2013. He has the speed and athletic ability to grab between 30-50 balls and be a legitimate deep threat for Minnesota.

    Jarius Wright will start the season as the Vikings slot receiver and be moved all over the field to take advantage of his skill set. According to The Associated Press, he has impressed the coaches with his grasp of the offense and his ability to relay information to the other receivers.

    He showed an ability to get open on all kinds of different routes last season and should be an asset on crossing routes out of the slot. He can get behind defenders when they aren't careful. Expect anywhere from 30-50 catches out of him in 2013.

    The wild card for the Vikings receivers will be the rookie, Cordarrelle Patterson. Clearly the best and most explosive athlete among the wideouts, he is raw and will have an adjustment period while he learns how to harness his natural ability against the best defenders in the world. He should be an excellent kick returner from the outset, and only time will tell how much a part of the passing offense he will become.

    A big year from him would go a long way toward making the Vikings legitimate contenders in the NFC North.

Defensive Tackle Kevin Williams

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    Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams is lucky that a low hit by San Francisco 49ers backup lineman Joe Looney didn't injure him more seriously.

    USA Today's Tom Pelissero reports that Williams' status for the opener against the Detroit Lions remains uncertain, but his knee injury isn't serious and he won't miss extended action.

    He restructured his deal with Minnesota this offseason, saving the team around $2.5 million. He is entering 2013 as a starter for the Vikings, making it the 11th straight season that he'll man the middle of the line for Minnesota.

    He has been a spectacular player for the Vikings during his career, but it's no secret that there is plenty of tread on his tires and he'll play less snaps in 2013 than ever before. The hope is that less time on the field will make him more productive when he's part of the action.

    His experience and veteran savvy make him the perfect tutor for first-round pick Sharrif Floyd, who stands as the heir apparent at the under-tackle spot once Williams is gone.

Defensive Tackle Letroy Guion

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    Letroy Guion will be the starting nose tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, at least to start the season.

    Expect the Vikings to shuffle players in and out of the lineup often on the defensive interior. Guion will join Fred Evans, Sharrif Floyd and possibly Christian Ballard in a rotation that will ride the hot hand depending on different situations.

    Neither Guion nor Evans won the job outright in 2012, and they remain very close in play through training camp. Neither one of them has proved to be the run-stopper the Vikings have lacked in the middle since Pat Williams left.

    Both are capable of making plays and will see plenty of snaps in 2013. Floyd, the first-round pick out of Florida, has flashed excellent athletic ability and talent and will be used at both the nose and under-tackle spot at times.

    Ballard has been gone from camp for personal reasons, and his future with the team remains in doubt. He's undersized to play the nose but is quick enough to make plays and be a part of the rotation.

Defensive End Jared Allen

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    After he spent a frustrating 2012 season with a torn labrum among his assortment of injuries, expect a massive comeback season for the Vikings' charismatic defensive end Jared Allen.

    It's funny that a 12-sack season can be considered frustrating for him when it would have been a career year for most defensive ends.

    He has piled up an incredible 117 sacks in his nine years in the league, including his dominant 2011 season when he finished with 22 sacks.

    He enters 2013 perfectly healthy and is primed to have a monster year before heading into free agency after the season. He brings a tenacity and a personality to the Minnesota defense; the swagger is absent when he isn't on the field.

    For the Vikings to reach their expectations as a team in 2013, a big year out of the face of the defense is a must.

Defensive Ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen

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    It doesn't matter who's playing left defensive end for the Vikings in 2013; they'll be getting an amped up playmaker who is in the middle of a contract push.

    Both Brian Robison and Everson Griffen are good enough to start for just about every team in the league. But they are on a team that has Jared Allen at one end, which leaves reps and sack opportunities to be shared at the other end.

    Robison has battled nagging injuries for the last two seasons but still managed to register 16.5 sacks in that time. He has had his best camp as a pro in 2013 and looks ready to have a big season heading into free agency.

    Griffen remains perhaps the Vikings defender with the highest ceiling from this point forward. Blessed with speed and athletic ability, he has been a tantalizing prospect since joining the Vikings. He just hasn't found a way to keep his button switched to "on."

    He lost his mother in the middle of the 2012 season, which seemed to motivate him to grow up. As a result, he was monstrous down the stretch, finishing with eight sacks including three against the Green Bay Packers in a must-win game to close out the season.

    Like Allen and Robison, Griffen is heading into a season that will see him as a free agent at year's end. At just 25 years old, he could command a huge payday if he's able to perform up to expectations in 2013.

    Don't be surprised if he explodes for 15 sacks.

Middle Linebacker Erin Henderson

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    2013 looms as a season of opportunity for Vikings middle linebacker Erin Henderson.

    When he was told he was going to be moved to the middle when the team didn't re-sign Jasper Brinkley, many questioned if Henderson was up to the switch, especially when Minnesota signed Desmond Bishop, who had played in the middle for Green Bay.

    The sentiment ticked Henderson off, and he has played with a chip on his shoulder in training camp and preseason that the coaches are delighted to see.

    What remains to be seen is whether he can withstand the more vigorous, physical nature of playing in the middle rather than on the edge. It's not completely new for Henderson, who played in the middle when the Vikings used a nickel package.

    It's a big move for him, and the hope is that he can be a difference maker in the middle for the Vikings. They would like more than 100 tackles from him and for him to be a presence against the pass, whether as a blitzer or while dropping into coverage.

Strong-Side Linebacker Chad Greenway

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    The Minnesota Vikings defense is full of question marks, but strong-side linebacker is not one of them.

    Chad Greenway is a Pro Bowl player who seems to get a little bit better every year he's in the league.

    Nobody who watches the Vikings closely has ever doubted his value to the team, but it had been popular to say that he was lacking in "splash" plays heading into the 2012 season.

    While his sack totals haven't been much over the last four years, he hasn't been put in a position to make them. He is a player who can play from sideline to sideline. He'll lead the team in tackles once again and make his share of "splash" plays whether they're sacks, interceptions or forced and recovered fumbles. 

    He is one of the premier outside linebackers in the league and will prove that again in 2013.

Weak-Side Linebackers Desmond Bishop and Marvin Mitchell

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    Desmond Bishop will be a member of the 2013 Minnesota Vikings.

    While that might sound like a no-brainer, it wasn't a sure thing while he missed time during camp due to a sore groin. He missed all of last season with a hamstring injury, and missing time in his first camp with Minnesota had him close to getting the "fragile" tag.

    Bishop showed why the Vikings were excited to add him to the roster during Sunday night's loss to the 49ers, leading the team with eight tackles. He's now fully engaged in a battle with Marvin Mitchell to be the starter at weak-side linebacker.

    According to ESPN.com's Andrew Krammer, Coach Frazier is pleased that Bishop is finally healthy and flashing his talent on the field.

    With Mitchell having a good camp and putting his fingerprints on the starting job, the Vikings are in the good position of having two players capable of seeing reps at weak-side linebacker. Bishop, until he proves otherwise, has to be considered an injury risk, so having Mitchell available helps to ease any worries.

    Bishop has a more proven track record than Mitchell and might take the majority of playing time if he can stay healthy and continue to make plays like he did on Sunday night.

Cornerback Chris Cook

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    Chris Cook is entering his fourth season in the NFL, and yet it seems like he's still waiting for his career to begin with the Vikings.

    He missed an entire season with legal issues and has missed a lot of games due to various injuries. While he's been on the active roster, he has played in 22 games and missed 16 with injuries. A high-second round pick, he is still looking for his first career interception and is anxious to make his imprint on the league.

    With a secondary that is short on experience, Minnesota is desperate for him to remain healthy and to make some impact plays on the field. The 6'2", 212-pound Cook has the size and tenacity that the Vikings are looking for on the corner to take on the likes of Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall.

    Although he strained his groin against the 49ers on Sunday night, it is considered minor, and he should be good to go come opening day.

    The Vikings need Cook to take a step forward on defense. As well as the defensive line has rushed the quarterback over the last couple of seasons, the Vikings' lack of takeaways isn't acceptable. Cook should be able to come up with three or four interceptions in 2013 and increase his number of passes defended.

Cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson

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    Things broke the Minnesota Vikings' way during the 2013 NFL draft.

    Not only was Minnesota able to address three of its biggest needs at defensive tackle, cornerback and wide receiver, but the Vikings were able to get three players (Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson) who had a chance not to be available when it was their turn to pick.

    That good fortune now has to pay off on the field to mean anything.

    If Rhodes isn't starting from the first snap in the opener, he'll be on the field quickly enough. At 6'1" and 215 pounds, he is the type of physical corner the Vikings need against passers like Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.

    Rhodes excels at stuffing receivers off the line of scrimmage and slowing them from getting into their routes. He has a nose for the ball and could be the type of corner who comes up with interceptions, an area the Vikings need to improve.

    Joining Rhodes and Cook in the rotation will be Josh Robinson, who will take over the slot corner role that Antoine Winfield used to man. Robinson has the speed to get to spots, but he'll have to learn to navigate the middle of the field and to solidify his tackling. Nobody expects him to be the tackler that Winfield was, but his speed will help him to reroute runners and receivers back to his defensive help.

    Robinson came up with a couple of interceptions as a rookie, and he'll need to do that again. The Vikings secondary has to come up with more possessions for the offense.

Free Safety Harrison Smith

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    Second-year free safety Harrison Smith is the undisputed leader of the Vikings secondary and a rising star in the NFL.

    He landed at No. 4 on NFL.com's list of players on the rise. He has a perfect blend of talents to play free safety. He's smart, strong and tenacious and has a nose for the football. Tough against the run and with a high football IQ to make plays against the pass, he already acts like another coach on the field for the defensive backs.

    Smith came up with three interceptions as a rookie and took two of them back for touchdowns. He has the hands and instincts of an offensive skill position player but also the hitting mentality of a linebacker.

    The sky is the limit for him as he begins his second year. He should only be better with a year of games under his belt.

    The Vikings defense needs more takeaways in 2013, and Smith will provide his share. Look for five interceptions and a share of forced and recovered fumbles for a guy who's quickly established himself as one of the best safeties in the league.

Strong Safety Jarmarca Sanford

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    Jamarca Sanford has done a season worth of battling just to get the starting job for the Vikings at strong safety. Locked in a training camp battle with Mistral Raymond and Robert Blanton, he has once again earned his way into the starting lineup.

    He is a vocal leader on the Minnesota defense and the kind of positive influence you want on the field. He's a hitter who's become good against the run, and he led the team with four forced fumbles in 2012. He will continue to be effective against the run, with his natural instinct to sniff out the run and get to the spot of impact with authority.

    Sanford has to show improvement against the pass for the Minnesota defense to improve. While his instincts against the run are superb, he can enhance his pass coverage by picking up his receiver earlier and learning how to give and close ground more quickly.

    He put himself in position to make some plays against the pass in 2012 but didn't come up with any interceptions. The Vikings would love to see him at least return to the two picks he came up with in 2011.

    Sanford is a charismatic player, and his positive attitude is infectious for the rest of the defense. But he has to make plays, especially with Raymond nipping at his heels for playing time.