The Minnesota Vikings are set to open the 2013-14 season with high expectations, however, it is going to be a lot tougher to sneak up on opponents than it was last season. Coming off a 10-6 record and a return to the playoffs, the Vikings offense needs to find some balance and start getting significant production from players not named Adrian Peterson.
The defense is also in a state of transition with four of their top five linemen playing in the last year of their contract, a defensive backfield that boasts two second-year players and a rookie set to get significant playing time.
This is also a critical season for head coach Leslie Frazier. After a very successful season on last year—a seven-game improvement over 2011—the team rewarded him by exercising the option on his contract. That only added one more year to his deal, making him the coach through 2014.
I guess if he wants a long term extension, he will need to replicate the success of last season.
Here's a look at what's in store for the Vikings this season.
Alan Williams returns for his second full season as the Vikings' defensive coordinator.
One thing that might be considered new for the Minnesota Vikings is that they return the same old coaching staff from last season. It ends four years of changing among the team's coordinators.
This will be Leslie Frazier's third full season as the Minnesota Vikings head coach. While it will be tough to improve on the team's 10-6 record, there are still plenty of areas where the Vikings can improve.
Under the guidance of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, the offense improved every year—at least in points scored. In 2010, the offense finished with 281 points—good for only 29th in the league. In 2011, under Musgrave, they scored 340 points and jumped to 19th in the league. Last season the offense, behind the running of Adrian Peterson, finished with 379 points—ranked 14th, good enough to crack the top half of the NFL.
In 2009, with Frazier as the defensive coordinator, the Vikings defense was ranked 10th in the NFL in points allowed. They fell to 18th in 2010 and plummeted to 31st in 2011. That prompted Frazier to replace Fred Pagac with Alan Williams at defensive coordinator. While there was little room for them to drop any further, Williams was able to get a huge improvement, and the defense improved to 14th in the league.
With some continuity in the coaching staff the Vikings should be more consistent on the field—something they desperately need in order to make a return trip to the playoffs.
The Minnesota Vikings used two of their three first-round draft picks to bolster the defense. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd was taken with the 23rd pick and cornerback Xavier Rhodes with the 25th pick.
Sometimes rookies come with a steep learning curve, and with it some growing pains. Speaking of pains, both suffered minor injuries that limited their playing time in the preseason. As of Friday, both were still listed as backups on the team's depth chart, but both are expected to be ready for the season opener against Detroit.
Depending on the final cuts due Saturday, the Minnesota Vikings could have two-thirds of their receiving corps turned over from last season. Gone before training camp began were Michael Jenkins, Percy Harvin and Devin Aromashodu. On the roster bubble is Stephen Burton, and converted quarterback Joe Webb.
Most of the excitement around the position comes with the oldest and youngest additions to the roster.
The Vikings are hoping they have a true No. 1 receiver with the signing of seven-year veteran Greg Jennings, and an explosive replacement for Harvin in first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson.
Jennings brings experience with 425 career receptions and three 1,000-yards seasons. With Aaron Rodger slinging passes to him, Jennings led the Packers with 1,265 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. That year the Packers finished 10-6 and won Super Bowl XLV.
Patterson brings versatility, after leading the Tennessee Volunteers with 1,858 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns. He scored almost every way possible in his only season in Knoxville—receiving, rushing and on punt and kickoff returns. At 6'2" and 216 pounds the Vikings are hoping he develops to join the ranks of big receivers in the NFC North.
The other significant change on offense for the Minnesota Vikings comes at the backup quarterback position. Instead of the highly talented and athletic Webb backing up Christian Ponder, the Vikings signed a veteran backup who plays a lot like Ponder.
|Player||Christian Ponder||Matt Cassel|
|Career Passer Rating||77.1||80.4|
It's a good thing they have different jersey numbers, otherwise we might not be able to tell the difference.
If, or rather perhaps, it should be when Ponder struggles, it will be interesting to see how quickly he gets the hook.
Last season, Adrian Peterson accounted for 43 percent of the Vikings' offensive production. While he has set his sights on another 2,000-yard season, head coach Leslie Frazier has indicated he would like the offense to be more balanced.
That means Peterson would have 348 rushing attempts and might not see the ball quite as often as last season.
The ideal situation would be for Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and Cordarrelle Patterson to play well enough that defenses must account for them. That opens up the field for tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson to have a productive season. Then, when the Vikings have a lead, they can hand the ball to Peterson and grind away the clock and wins a lot of games 20-14.
Of course that strategy breaks down is Peterson, who had six games last season with at least one run of greater than 50 yards. Like last season, handing him the ball could be the Vikings' quick-strike offense.
Perhaps the most key departure this offseason is that of Percy Harvin. The Vikings were able to pull off a tremendous deal for the disgruntled wide receiver and kick returner, trading him to Seattle for three draft picks, including a first-round pick this year. The deal was all that much sweeter after Harvin suffered an injury that could keep him out for the season.
Still the Vikings will need to replace the production of their leading recover the last three seasons. They also lose a player that had the ability to turn around a game any time he touched the ball. In his four seasons with the Vikings, he returned five kickoffs for a touchdown.
The other key departure comes on the defensive side of the ball. Antoine Winfield was set to make more than $7 million in 2013. The problem was the Vikings were not willing to pay the 36-year-old that much. They released him in hopes of re-signing him to a more reasonable contract. Instead, after having one the best seasons in his career, he signed with Seattle.
He finished third on the team with 101 tackles and led the team with three interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was the top overall rated cornerback in the league last season, and the best against the run.
The Vikings also lost their middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley. A four-year veteran, Brinkley broke into the starting lineup last season with the departure of E.J. Henderson. This will be the fourth straight season the Vikings will have a different combination at linebacker.
Erin Henderson will move over from the weak-side linebacker position taking over at middle linebacker with Marvin Mitchell and Desmond Bishop battling to line up next to him.
If there's one thing that the Minnesota Vikings have been extremely successful at over the past few years, it's been incorporating their draft picks into the lineup. Before the final cuts on Saturday, the Vikings still had 24 of 33 draft picks since 2009 still on the roster—that includes Greg Childs who is on the PUP list.
Like last season, general manager Rick Spielman traded for an extra first-round draft pick. With the success of Harrison Smith, Matt Kalil and Blair Walsh—all rookies drafted in 2012—the expectations are sky high for defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
Floyd is the heir-apparent to six-time Pro Bowler Kevin Williams at defensive tackle. At 6'1" and 215 pounds, Rhodes, another big cornerback to pair with Chris Cook, is expected to see significant playing time and Patterson is a bigger version of Percy Harvin.
If all three of these rookies are not starting by midseason the Vikings' draft may be considered a disappointment.
It's going to be very difficult for the Minnesota Vikings to replicate the success from last season. With the jettisoning of several veterans, the Vikings are a younger team from last year. While on paper the roster appears to be improved, a 10-6 record in 2013 may be even harder to achieve.
A couple of weeks ago I predicted each game for the Vikings for this season, with the team finishing 9-7, and most likely, not making the playoffs.
I am standing by those predictions, at least until they have a signature win on their resume or Christian Ponder demonstrates that he can take his game to the next level and lead the Vikings to victory.