NFL: Minnesota Vikings' 5 Sleeper Breakout Candidates of 2011
They're in no-man's land. Caught in the middle.
They're the Demi Moore of the NFL.
Nightmares of Los Angeles and the lockout will subside, but the memory of a horrific 2010 campaign is here to stay. Picking up the pieces will be a tall task with key veterans aging or departing, a new coaching staff playing catch-up and a rookie quarterback learning on the fly.
Yes, the Vikings are on thin ice. There's a fine line between 10-6 and 6-10, and barring any major personnel moves, the following five players may determine whether the Vikings sink or swim in 2011.
5. Erin Henderson, OLB
Ben Leber, a solid starter since 2006, appears ready to part ways with the Vikings. The team will miss his veteran presence, and the options to plug the weak-side hole are uninspiring.
Jasper Brinkley is the team's top back-up linebacker, but he belongs inside. Heath Farwell and Kenny Onatolu are undersized and best suited for kick coverage. Ross Homan of Ohio State will compete, but he's a sixth-round rookie.
That leaves Erin Henderson, who should have the inside track for the soon-to-be vacated weak-side job. The 6'3", 244-pound baby brother of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson will be 25 years old when the season starts. He's a good athlete with a sturdy frame; unfortunately, he's about as developed as an Olympic gymnast.
Henderson's playing time increased once Leslie Frazier took the reins last season, and the hope is new linebackers coach Mike Singletary will chisel him into a disciplined playmaker.
4. Lorenzo Booker, RB/KR
Clearly, 27-year-old Lorenzo Booker doesn't fit the mold of a typical break-out candidate. After a prolific California high school career, Booker disappointed at Florida State, then failed to stick with Miami or Philadelphia at the next level.
Breakout? Dude's a washout.
Last December the Vikings plucked Booker from the UFL's Hartford Colonials. Surprisingly, he immediately showed some juice as a return man and third-down back.
Going into 2011, his skill set could be a major commodity for the Purple.
Toby Gerhart was badly miscast as a third-down back for much of last season. He's a between-the-tackles grinder and a backup workhorse to Adrian Peterson, not a change-of-pace complement.
Booker is a nifty speedster with great hands. He creates mismatches with linebackers, and he'd make an outstanding check-down target for a young quarterback. Moreover, his abilities in the return game could allow the Vikings to protect Percy Harvin from extra collisions.
He can't run inside, but Booker has the physical ability to become a hybrid of David Palmer and Chester Taylor if given the chance.
3. Letroy Guion, DT
Just weeks ago it was a foregone conclusion that the Pat Williams era was over in Minnesota; local restaurants even reduced buffet prices back to pre-Pat levels.
However, Williams is now reportedly "50-50" on returning for his seventh season with the squad.
Regardless, he'll turn 39 in October, and his skills have noticeably diminished. What's more, he'll miss the first four games of the season as penalty for the 1982 StarCaps debacle, so the team is in dire need of young talent inside.
The gifted Christian Ballard of Iowa was added in the fourth round of April's draft, but his most natural position is the same three-technique tackle spot Kevin Williams plays. Fred Evans was not extended an offer, and Jimmy Kennedy is a career backup who couldn't find his way onto the field last season.
That leaves Letroy Guion, a 2008 fifth-rounder.
Like Ballard, the 6'4", 303-pound Florida State product is a one-gap penetrator, not a nose tackle.
However, the 24-year-old flashed some nice promise in limited opportunities last season. Once a raw prospect, Guion's arrow is pointing up, and he has the support of the coaching staff. He'll see plenty of reps through the season's first four games, and if he's able to add some bulk this offseason, he could push his way into regular playing time, even if Pat returns.
2. Chris Cook, CB
After a lost rookie season, Chris Cook is a bit of an enigma to Vikings fans.
He was the team's top pick in the 2010 draft (Round 2, pick 34), and outside of "Dangle Gate", Cook was the buzz of training camp last season. As the team's biggest cornerback (6'2", 212 lbs.), he displayed a nose for the ball and oozed with confidence—the sky was supposed to be the limit.
He was supposed to be Devin McCourty.
Cook tore the meniscus in his right knee prior to the season, then suffered an identical injury to his left knee just weeks later. By the time he found the field, his preseason swagger was replaced by tentative indecision; he'd gone from bull to Bambi.
Cook would be placed on injured reserve Dec. 14. Since then, the only news he's made involves a brawl and a handgun.
Cook has loads of ability, and if he can come back healthy and confident, the door is still wide open. His size and athleticism are ideal for the Cover 2 at either cornerback or safety. Cedric Griffin is attempting to come back from his second ACL surgery, Antoine Winfield is in the twilight of his career and the team doesn't have a NFL-level safety or nickelback on roster.
1. Brian Robison, DE
All signs point to a breakout for fifth-year left defensive end Brian Robison.
The Vikings extended the former Longhorn for three years and $14.1 million (including a $6.5 million signing bonus) in early March, and ignored the position until the third day of April's draft. They're more than ready to part ways with Sugar Ray Edwards, and Robison's impressed as a key reserve and situational pass-rusher since the Vikings drafted him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.
At 6'3" and 259 pounds, Robison is a touch undersized, but he's an exceptional athlete with a Texas-sized motor. In a pre-draft interview I conducted with him, the 28-year old took exception to the notion that he wasn't big enough to play every down.
The Vikings have clearly committed to Robison, and working opposite Jared Allen, he could push for double-digit sacks in 2011.