It's hard to believe that just two seasons ago, the Minnesota Vikings were one play away from their first Super Bowl appearance in over three decades. Now, Viking fans (myself included) are hoping a new coaching staff can "re-tool" the team enough to be in playoff contention once again.
Leslie Frazier and his staff have quite a bit of work to do on both sides of the ball.
They took a giant leap forward by drafting Florida State signal-called Christian Ponder to lead the franchise for the next decade with the 12th spot in the 2011 NFL Draft.
But with a roster full of pending free agents, the 2011 Vikings will most likely look different from the team that had such a promising season in 2009.
Leslie Frazier, the defense minded Head Coach will look to keep his teams defense in the Top 10 ranking in the NFL, but with so many free agents, there is only so many players he can replace in the Draft.
Which means General Manager Rick Spielman and the Vikings brass will have to make some moves during Free Agency to bolster the Defense and Offense in order to stay relevant in a vastly improving NFC North.
Now, I'd like to give you my prediction, position by position, at the 2011 starting Defense of the Minnesota Vikings.
On the right side of the ball, the Vikings have a potential Hall of Fame lineman in Defensive End Jared Allen. Since coming to Minnesota via trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, Allen has been anything but a disappointment.
Allen, who was drafted by Kansas City in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft was traded to Minnesota after the Vikings surrendered a first-round pick, two third-round picks, and switched sixth round picks. What did the Vikings get in return? An absolute animal.
In his first season in purple, Allen racked up 14.5 sacks and his second Pro Bowl appearance in 2008, after signing a 6 year $72.35 million contract extension. 2009 was no different for the All-Pro, literally, Allen again sacked opposing quarterbacks 14.5 times that season and was named to his third Pro Bowl (and third All-Pro honors).
Although he only managed 11.5 sacks in 2010, Allen was still a force as a pass-rusher.
Look for Jared Allen to bounce back to the seasons he had in 2008 and 2009 with the Vikings.
On the Left Side, Ray Edwards will most certainly be on a different team next season. His stats are pretty impressive... but are the inflated from playing alongside Pat and Kevin Williams, and of course, Jared Allen? We won't know until next season (when Ray is gone). The Vikings resigned Edward's "back-up" Brian Robison to a 3 year, $14 million contract. Look for Robison to start opposite Allen in 2011.
Robison, at 6'3" and 260 pounds, has a great motor. The young man is a great athlete and he should replace Edwards rather easily. Some think he is a bit undersized, but when given the chance in situational purposes, he's shown he can produce. The Vikings have faith in the former Longhorn, evident from his recent contract extension.
Jared Allen, DE (right) Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $8.97 million
Brian Robison, DE (left) Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: n/a (but signed a 3 year $14 million extension.)
Minnesota's Run-Defense has certainly benefited from the two Pro Bowl Tackles that make up the "Williams Wall" in the center of the defensive line.
Pat and Kevin Williams (no relation) have been disrupting quarterbacks and stuffing the run for the Vikings since 2005 (When Pat joined Kevin in Minnesota after being signed as a Free Agent.) Together, they both made the Pro Bowl three times in three seasons (2006-2008).
But recently, it seems old age has begun to catch Pat Williams, who is the NFL's oldest active defensive player. His production just hasn't been the same since those three seasons and it looks like the Vikings could be moving on from him. Pat indicated he's "50-50" on whether he'll return to Minnesota, and Head Coach Leslie Frazier took it a step further saying "I hope he (Pat Williams) retires a Viking..." I expect the Vikings try to resign the veteran tackle, but ultimately, I think the Vikings really want to get younger on defense. So look for the Vikings to ink a younger, promising defensive tackle to replace big Pat.
Kevin Williams, on the other hand, has continued to live up to his first round selection in the 2003 NFL Draft. A six-time Pro Bowler and five-time All Pro, can rush the quarterback as well as stuff running backs at the line of scrimmage (or in several cases, behind it). Williams should have another stellar season for the Vikings in 2011, the only question mark is whether he will serve his four game suspension for his *alleged* use of a 'banned-substance'.
So, who will it be? Who will replace Pat Williams? I mentioned the Vikings want to get younger... that doesn't mean someone who is inexperienced though. I expect Minnesota's front office to make a good run for DT Aubrayo Franklin (from San Francisco.) It's true, he is 30, but considering Pat Williams is 38, Franklin is young. The connection between Franklin and (former head coach) new Viking's LB Coach, Mike Singletary doesn't hurt either.
Letroy Guion has shown great potential for the Vikings, and he will certainly start for the Vikings at some point this season, if Kevin Williams is at all suspended for his 'banned-substance' use. Guion is Kevin Williams' clear-cut replacement. The Vikings front office loves him, but unfortunately for him, Kevin is still under contract and Guion isn't "big bodied" enough to replace Pat.
Kevin Williams, DT (right) Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $6 million
Aubrayo Franklin, DT (left) Minnesota Vikings - signed to 4 year $36 million contract
2011 Salary: $4.75 million
From 2007 to 2009, the Minnesota Vikings had one of the most underrated linebacking corp in the entire NFL. Unfortunately for the Vikings, it's almost certain that the trio of Ben Leber, E.J. Henderson, and Chad Greenway will be split this season.
Leber, the Viking's Weak-Side LB is 32 and a pending free agent. As stated previously, the Vikings have to get younger. Last season, E.J. Henderson's little brother, Erin, started some last season in place of Leber and looked pretty good. Let's be honest, the Vikings wouldn't carry the kid just because he is E.J.'s brother, they obviously think he can contribute to the team, which was evident when they placed a tender on the 25 year old restricted free agent. Erin will be back for Minnesota, has his career ahead of him, and has both big brother, E.J. and LB Coach Mike Singletary, to learn from. The Vikings will have nearly $15 million tied up between two linebackers, they won't spend money on any in free agency.
In the middle, the Vikings Field General is still E.J. Henderson. Henderson is a tough player. The guy broke his femur in December of 2009 had immediate surgery (placing a titanium rod in his leg) and rehabbed quick enough and well enough, to start the 2010 season. Amazing. On top of that, he made his first Pro Bowl in 2010 after racking up 100 tackles and three INTs. Henderson will once again make the calls for the defense, mentor the young linebackers, and stop opposing offenses in 2011.
Chad Greenway is the Vikings Strong-Side LB as well as their "Franchise Player" after racking up 144 tackles in 2010. He'll make roughly $10 million in 2011, but the Minnesota front office wants to ink the former first-round pick long term, solidifying the position for the next six years. Chad Greenway will make it to his first Pro Bowl in 2011 (bold prediction) as a starter.
Erin Henderson, WLB Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $750,000
E.J. Henderson, MLB Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $4.7 million
Chad Greenway, SLB Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $10 million
Believe it or not, Minnesota's pass defense was ranked in the Top 10 of the NFL. Hard to believe considering their best cornerback is 34, had two starters placed on injured reserve, and their safeties are, well... bad.
The secondary certainly has some much needed work, but being placed in the Top 10 is something to definitely build upon. At cornerback, I do not see the Vikings pursuing anyone in Free Agency. We drafted a very talented one in Brandon Burton out of Utah in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, and another in the second round in 2010...
Chris Cook had a very promising rookie training camp last season, making plays all over the field. He displayed awareness and great instincts. But Cook, took a step back during the regular season and eventually found his way on Injured Reserve after tearing a ligament in his knee. But the kid is 24 and has excellent size and speed to be an elite corner in the NFL. The Vikings will work with Cook vigorously this offseason, turning him into a starting-caliber corner. Another bold prediction, Cook will be the starting Left CB in 2011, ahead of Cedric Griffin.
Asher Allen, a third round pick out of Georgia in 2009, has shown improvement each season for the Vikings. Allen broke up seven passes, intercepted three, and made 53 total tackles, while starting 11 games for the Purple and Gold in 2010. Asher has a promising young career at RCB and has almost the same frame as his veteran teammate Antoine Winfield, one of the greatest CBs in the NFL. Look for Allen to have a breakout season in 2011 at his starting position, Right CB.
Antoine Winfield had a remarkable season in 2010, rightfully deserving of his Pro Bowl invitation. But the Vikings featured Winfield in a lot of nickel-packages, because of his age (34) he has lot some of his speed. Winfield flourished in that position (see his Week 14 performance against the Philadelphia Eagles.) Antoine provides great veteran leadership for the Vikings and an elite nickel-package starter for the Purple. He signed a five year extension with the team, but a de-escalator was put in place if he loses his starting spot in 2011. Winfield knew that when he signed.
Chris Cook, LCB Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $405,000
Asher Allen, RCB Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $480,000
Antoine Winfield, Nickle-Corner Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $3 million
Arguably the worst position on the Vikings roster for multiple reasons. For one, they don't have very much talent (Husain Abdullah had a good season considering he wasn't considered a starter.) and they also have a ton of money tied up in that position (mostly Madieu Williams.)
That being said, changes must be made. According to (now Redskins FS) then free agent Safety, O.J. Atogowe, the Vikings gave him "serious" consideration before the Lockout, not very promising for those already entrenched at the top of the depth chart at Safety.
Remember how I left out Cedric Griffin in the Cornerback slide...
Cedric Griffin is coming off his second straight ACL tear in two seasons, that doesn't sound very promising. But the young man has great awareness and has very good hands. With two ACL tears though, he most likely won't have the speed needed to keep up with opposing Wide Receivers... the Vikings should look to move Griffin to Safety this offseason (I know in a previous article I suggested Winfield... scratch that.) Griffin produced great season in both 2008 and 2009, but tore his ACL in the NFC Championship in 2009 and again during the early part of the 2011 season. His size (6'0" 202 pounds) make him ideal for the Safety position, where he played some in college for Texas. Griffin should make the move to Free Safety for the Vikings, and they should release Madieu Williams.
At Strong Safety, Husain Abdullah provided solid play for the Vikings last season - 71 tackles, three interceptions, and seven pass deflections. He is only 26, with little wear and tear on his body (first season as a starter in 2010.) So the Vikings could have a potential long-term starter on the roster, they even tendered him (second round tender) at the end of the 2010 season. Although Coach Frazier stated there would be an "Open-competition" at the Safety position, I see Abdullah retaining the top spot.
Madieu Williams, as nice a guy as you will find, is a terrible Safety for the Vikings, his 2011 salary is $5.4 million, far too much for a guy who misses tackles and takes horrible angles, not to mention cannot hang on to potential interceptions. I'd expect him to be a Free Agent in 2011.
Cedric Griffin, FS Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $3.35 million
Husain Abdullah, SS Minnesota Vikings
2011 Salary: $1.75 million
There it is—my prediction for 2011 starting defense for the Minnesota Vikings.
Although I only have the Vikings signing one free agent for the defense this offseason, it's a big one.
Abrayo Franklin, DT San Francisco 49ers, four years, $36 million
What do you think? Does this starting defense look threatening to opposing offenses?
I think it does, and the good thing is that the Vikings look younger and cheaper but still have veterans at key positions. This puts them in good position to possibly make some noise in a couple seasons, and in 2011 for that matter.
I have said all along that the Vikings only have to fix a few key positions. With both my offense and defense prediction slides, if a couple players can make the switch to other positions while some younger guys can to step up, I think the Vikings could have a talented young team.
The Vikings have the good coaching in place already.
Just to summarize, I feel the Vikings will sign these three offensive and defensive free agents this 2011 offseason:
Marc Bulger, QB Baltimore Ravens, one year, $3.25 million
Aubrayo Franklin, DT San Francisco 49ers, four years, $36 million
Please give me your thoughts.