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Safety Harrison Smith must step up for the Minnesota Vikings in his upcoming third season.
Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Spor

The Minnesota Vikings are preparing feverishly for the 2014 season, currently evaluating college prospects at the NFL scouting combine.

But the talent pool in Indianapolis is only one factor in the equation for long-term success.

General manager Rick Spielman and newly appointed head coach Mike Zimmer have a handful of players on the roster who must serve as foundational pieces to build around for the future.

Each of the following five players serves as a cornerstone for the Vikings on offense or defense. They are ordered based on their impact to the team in helping Minnesota get back into playoff contention. 

And while the old adage of synergy still applies, that the whole (or team in this case) is greater than the sum of its parts, these players are vital in pulling that concept together.

 

Statistics courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted. Player rankings and advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

All contract details courtesy of OverTheCap.com.

5. Cordarrelle Patterson

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Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

As it relates specifically to the wide receiver position for Minnesota, this was somewhat of a difficult decision to determine who will be the most integral component.

Although the Vikings just signed Greg Jennings to a five-year, $45 million contract last season, it was rookie Cordarrelle Patterson who stood out as the most electrifying force on the squad.

His level of versatility as a kick returner and running back also plays into Patterson's value, and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will look to utilize the dynamic receiver much earlier in the season than last year.

In fact, according to Spielman (via Ben Goessling of ESPN.com), Turner has "already put in 10 plays for [Patterson]." He added, "That’s the first thing he was doing when he was putting the X’s and O’s part of it together."

Patterson set multiple records last season and will look to build on his breakout season.

According to AJ Mansour of KFAN.com, Patterson set franchise records for kickoff return yards in a season (1,393), average kickoff return yards (32.4) and longest run for touchdown by a wide receiver (50). 

The player nicknamed "Flash" also set an NFL record for most rushing touchdowns by a wideout in a season with three scores. 

Expect Patterson to improve on his receiving numbers from last year, where he had a modest stat line of 45 receptions for 469 yards and four touchdowns. With a new play-caller in town, the Vikings offense is in line for a shakeup that should see an increase in plays run through Patterson.

4. Brian Robison

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Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Despite the atrocious season the Vikings had on defense—the team finished 31st in total yards per game and last in points allowed—the defensive line had some bright spots throughout the year.

Minnesota finished tied for 13th in the league with 41 sacks, led by defensive ends Jared Allen with 11.5 and Brian Robison with nine.

According to PFF, Robison ranked as the 16th best defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and was eighth in pass rushing. He finished with 63 quarterback hurries, which led the NFL among all defenders.

Unlike the uncertainty surrounding Jared Allen, Robison recently signed a four-year, $22.4 million contract with the Vikings. He must fill the role of leader on the defensive front, with rookie Sharrif Floyd serving as an up-and-coming threat at defensive tackle.

 

3. Harrison Smith

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

The Vikings' struggles in the secondary were magnified in 2013, primarily due to the drop off in production and eventual injury of second-year safety Harrison Smith.

The former Notre Dame standout was an instant success in his rookie season, ranking as the 19th best safety in the NFL and sixth in pass coverage, via PFF.

However, 2013 was a challenging sophomore season for Smith, who was part of both early-season collapses to the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns.

After a turf toe injury sidelined Smith following the Week 6 contest against the Carolina Panthers, the Vikings defense further spiraled out of control.

Even with the strong season by rookie Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings clear leader in the secondary is Smith. He must captain the struggling secondary and provide the anchor to build around as Zimmer and new defensive coordinator George Edwards look to turn around an ugly showing from last season.

2. Matt Kalil

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota drafted Matt Kalil in the 2012 NFL draft with the fourth overall pick, making him the first offensive lineman the Vikings selected in the first round since Bryant McKinnie in 2002.

Kalil immediately contributed in his rookie year, ranking 22nd overall among tackles and 12th in run blocking, via PFF.

And despite a slump in performance last year from the franchise left tackle, it was the right choice by Spielman and the front office to draft the former Trojan. 

Although Kalil remains the future for the Vikings—especially in protecting an incoming rookie quarterback—fellow tackle Phil Loadholt has also proven to be a dominant force on the offensive line.

After signing a four-year, $25 million contract prior to last season, Loadholt backed up the investment and ranked as the 10th best tackle overall by PFF. He was even more asserting in run blocking, ranking third.

Overall, the Vikings have a solid core up front with Kalil, Loadholt and center John Sullivan. Given the poor performance in the passing game and importance of time in the pocket for a quarterback—whoever that may be—Kalil gets the nod as the pillar of the team's offensive line.

1. Adrian Peterson

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Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

The final and most important player the Vikings will continue to build around should come as no surprise.

While it seems to have become fashionable to contemplate what Minnesota could receive in a trade for Adrian Peterson, the team has repeatedly shot down those rumors. 

Spielman recently told Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, via Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, that "Adrian is not going anywhere."

He continued, "We have him under contract. He's the face of our franchise. He is a blue-chip player. And we have a new coaching staff in place, and (the Vikings are) very excited about what's coming ahead for us."

Fans still remember the 2012 season where Peterson came oh-so-close to breaking the single-season rushing record, finishing with 2,097 yards that was nine shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's mark.

Last season was far from a follow-up act to that performance, as the star running back seemed to be pressing at times and eventually was sidelined due to injury. Peterson finished the season with 1,266 rushing yards for 10 touchdowns and an average of 4.5 yards per carry.

There are a lot of unknowns heading into the 2014 season and beyond. Who will be the Vikings starting quarterback? How will Turner approach the offensive play-calling? Can the defense turn around a pathetic showing from last season?

All of those questions are relevant and important in determining whether this club can be successful. But Peterson remains the mainstay for the Vikings as a franchise.

Now just go find a quarterback to pull it all together.

 

Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+

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