Where Can the Minnesota Vikings Improve Most in 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJune 27, 2013

Adrian Peterson can't improve on his 2012 but other Vikings must.
Adrian Peterson can't improve on his 2012 but other Vikings must.Andy King/Getty Images

A year ago, the Minnesota Vikings were an easy choice for a team ready to improve given their 3-13 season in 2011 with many close losses.

However, no one expected a 5-2 start with Percy Harvin playing like a MVP candidate. In the wake of Harvin’s season-ending injury, running back Adrian Peterson went on perhaps the greatest eight-game rushing performance in NFL history, gaining 1,313 rushing yards.

Still, the Vikings only went 4-4 in that span. They had to win the final four games of the season to make the playoffs at 10-6, which they did against some solid competition.

Quarterback Christian Ponder had his best game in a Week 17 win over Green Bay, while Peterson, the league’s MVP with 2,097 rushing yards, came up nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record.

The hot finish just to get into the tournament was for naught, as Ponder was a surprise scratch for the playoffs after a triceps bruise. Joe Webb, who has since been converted to wide receiver, never had a shot in Green Bay in the playoffs.

Leslie Frazier enters his third full season as coach with Ponder back at quarterback. And Peterson, still eying the record, upgrades at receiver with a rare draft yielding three first-round picks.

Some would say this is a team on the rise, but just to return to the playoffs in 2013, some serious improvements are going to have to happen first.

The Offense: Hide the Quarterback

The Vikings are a tough team to preview, as so much of the focus comes back to the offense. Defensively, the team was about as average as it gets whether you are talking about points, yards or turnovers. As you will see later with the roster changes (or lack thereof), the defense will likely remain mediocre.

Yet this run-heavy team, according to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, played with the lead 58.7 percent of the time last year. Only New England (65.2 percent) was higher.

This statistically unlikely season put the Vikings as the fifth-biggest overachiever in 2012, winning 1.32 more games than predicted based on regression data.

With so much success on the ground from Adrian Peterson, some thought Christian Ponder should have had it easy throwing the ball against favorable defensive fronts.

Rarely does the NFL work that way. There is a balance between the run and pass. There is a relationship, but it’s not as dependent as many believe. Most defenses are going to be good enough to contain one aspect of an offense. The one-dimensional offense can succeed if the team goes all in with that philosophy.

When O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards in 14 games for Buffalo in 1973, his passing game only managed 1,236 yards and four touchdowns all season. That should never happen again in NFL history, though some compared the 2012 Vikings as the modern-day equivalent.

Ponder infamously struggled to surpass the 100-yard passing mark in multiple games, even failing to reach it three times. Minnesota still won two of those games. This happened in spite of the fact that Ponder stayed healthy in the regular season and attempted every last one of the team’s 483 passes.

The 2012 Vikings were the seventh team since 2000 to have multiple games in a season with fewer than 50 net passing yards. That short list includes an expansion team (2002 Texans) and arguably the two worst offenses of the 21st century (2005 49ers and 2006 Raiders).

Ponder actually completed a lower percentage of his passes (60.3 percent) when using play action compared to not using it (63.0 percent). About the only thing he did better on play-action passing was throw fewer interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus.

The team’s running game was brilliant, compiling 486 carries for 2,634 yards. The 5.42 yards-per-carry average is the fourth highest since 1970. The top 15 teams in that category all failed to win a single playoff game as well.

All that rushing success yet Ponder played average at best, finishing with 2,935 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an 81.2 passer rating.

Pondering the Combo of Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson Versus Percy Harvin

Some will say Ponder did not have enough weapons. Percy Harvin missed roughly half the season. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was only in his second season. Veteran Michael Jenkins became the third leading receiver on the team. Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson did not contribute too much.

Well, this year Ponder is all but out of excuses to not be more productive on offense.

Harvin was traded to Seattle, but the Vikings brought in Greg Jennings through free agency from Green Bay. Jennings has been very prolific in his career, though he is used to playing with quarterbacks like Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Mike McCarthy’s pass-happy approach.

Jennings is also a different receiver from Harvin, who can be a return specialist, slot guy and someone who can play in the backfield. He’s more likely to catch shorter, high-percentage passes than Jennings.

That’s probably why the Vikings aggressively traded up with the Patriots to acquire raw Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson with the 29th pick in the draft. This pick has very high bust potential written all over it.

You have a raw receiver with little college experience, suspect hands, a run-heavy offense with a veteran No. 1 receiver and a quarterback not really capable of getting the ball deep with consistency.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ponder only attempted a pass 20-plus yards downfield on a league-low 7.5 percent of his passes. He only completed 8-of-36 deep passes with one drop. His 25.0 accuracy percentage was the worst in the league. He was the only full-time starter to not have a touchdown pass of more than 20 yards last season.

How does Patterson develop in this setting? He can probably do some damage on special teams, but he was drafted to be a big-time wide receiver.

Jennings has the long-term deal and is used to putting up stats. He has 425 receptions for 6,537 yards and 53 touchdowns in his career. Here are his advanced receiving stats:

Jennings is good after the catch, gaining 37.8 percent of his yards that way. He catches 58.1 percent of his targets, which are at times deep down the field. He was more of a deep threat earlier in his career than recently though.

Now let’s compare the career splits for Harvin with a focus on last season when Ponder was the quarterback for all of his targets:

There are some staggering numbers here. For starters, Ponder’s drop in efficiency without Harvin was massive. Harvin was catching over 72 percent of his targets in each of the last two seasons as the team moved away from gunslinger Brett Favre to dink-and-dunk Ponder.

Harvin gaining 81.4 percent of his yards after the catch (YAC) last season is an absurd number. It just shows how unique he was.

I have data on over 600 individual seasons from many of the greatest wide receivers of the last 25 years. None of them had a higher percentage of YAC than Wes Welker’s 65.1 percent in 2008. That was the New England season with Matt Cassel, who oddly enough is in Minnesota now as the backup. Harvin missed seven games but was easily on pace to shatter that percentage.

Harvin’s had some health concerns in his career, but at five years younger than Jennings, you have to admit he was a better fit for Ponder. This combination of Jennings and Patterson could have overpriced disaster written all over it should Ponder continue with failing to stretch the field.

Just giving a quarterback more weapons is not the answer. It’s still a matter of fit. With Harvin gone, it’s now a good bet Ponder will look for Rudolph underneath.

Adrian Peterson: 2,500 Yards Rushing?

Like last year, no matter what Ponder does, Adrian Peterson is likely going to get his. His return from a torn ACL to having a career year was a remarkable story.

However, his lofty goal of 2,500 rushing yards in 2013 is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Yes, if Peterson sustained his best eight-game stretch last year for a full season, he would finish with 2,626 rushing yards. Yet if you think he’s going to even come close to doing that, you haven’t followed the NFL for long.

Twenty times in NFL history has a running back rushed for at least 1,800 yards in a season. Only Eric Dickerson was able to increase the benchmark with his record 2,105 yards in 1984, which followed his rookie record of 1,808 yards.

Forget 2,500 yards—Peterson will try to become just the fifth player to follow a huge rushing season with at least 1,500 rushing yards.

Following up historic greatness with more greatness is hard for anyone to accomplish:

  • These players averaged 361.2 carries for 1,913 yards (5.33 yards per carry) when they rushed for at least 1,800 yards.
  • The following year, they averaged 280.4 carries for 1,246 yards (4.44 yards per carry).
  • Only Eric Dickerson (1983-84), Tiki Barber (2005-06), O.J. Simpson (1975-76) and Barry Sanders (1994-95) were able to rush for at least 1,500 yards the following season.
  • Only Dickerson increased his average yards per carry the next year, and he did it twice.
  • The average decline in rushing yards was 668 yards.
  • Seventeen times a player decreased by at least 300 yards. Tiki Barber had the smallest decrease at 198 yards in 2005-06.
  • Two big injuries in 1999 to the previous season’s Super Bowl backs, Denver’s Terrell Davis and Atlanta’s Jamal Anderson, brought the numbers down.

Given that Peterson has finished with less than 1,400 yards four times in his six-year career, he would be very fortunate to rush for 1,600 yards this season. Minnesota will not be ahead as often, so Ponder will likely be throwing more this season.

Last year, the offensive line actually stayed healthy all season with the same five guys starting all 16 games. That consistency is important.

Then you have the big runs. Peterson incredibly ripped off seven runs of 50-plus yards in 2012. He had 11 such runs in his first five seasons combined. Three of the four longest runs of Peterson’s career came last season.

It was literally “AD” all day once Harvin went down last year, but this roster is a little different. Peterson does not have to be as dominant.

Some are wondering if the NFL’s new “Crown Rule” will hurt Peterson since he’s such a physical runner. Having studied all of Peterson’s runs from 2011-12, I found at worst 11 plays that could be penalties now. That is 1.98 percent of all of Peterson’s runs from the last two seasons combined.

Peterson’s physical, but he’s also smart and does not lead with the helmet that often. This rule should not have a big impact unless the referees do a poor job of utilizing it.

It is great for Peterson to have huge goals, but for the Vikings to be successful, it’s going to take a more balanced effort. Getting less production out of your best player is not a bad thing if it means more teammates are contributing and playing well.

As Peterson’s forgettable playoff performance showed, the MVP cannot win anything by himself.

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

With big moves at the top receiving spot headlining the changes, here is a projected list of Minnesota’s 2013 starters with research courtesy of Ourlads.

Not only did the offensive line not miss a start last season, but the same five players return this year to help protect Ponder and block for Peterson. Last year’s No. 4 pick left tackle Matt Kalil remains the upcoming star to watch.

Pro Football Focus graded right guard Brandon Fusco (-11.9) as the weak link, so the third-year player needs to improve to keep his job. He plays next to center John Sullivan, who was the highest-graded player (27.3) at his position last year.

Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu were marginal wide receivers who departed. Obviously the big news is the trade of Percy Harvin to Seattle and the five-year deal worth $18 million guaranteed given to Green Bay’s Greg Jennings, who will turn 30 in September.

Drafting Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round gives Ponder a nice trio of weapons with improving tight end Kyle Rudolph going into his third season. Rudolph had nine touchdowns last year.

Ponder has no excuses this year.

It was a busy draft for the Vikings, as they even found a new punter, Jeff Locke, in the fifth round to replace Chris Kluwe. That’s enough talk about the players fans never want to see take the field, though kicker Blair Walsh was outstanding as a rookie and is already one of the best in the league.

The 4-3 defense remains led up front by Kevin Williams inside and Jared Allen providing the pass rush. They may be getting up there in years, but that’s 11 combined Pro Bowls. Rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd plummeted to No. 23 in the draft, but the Vikings are hoping he was a steal. He may not see a ton of snaps in 2013.

Linebacker Gerald Hodges was just a fourth-round pick, but he has a chance to start on the outside. Minnesota just recently signed Desmond Bishop from Green Bay. He missed all of last season. Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson are familiar names to this corps, which lost 2012 starter Jasper Brinkley to the Cardinals. He will not be missed.

The secondary lacks experience, especially with cornerback Antoine Winfield going to Seattle. Safety Harrison Smith was last year’s first-round pick, and he shined with some slash plays.

This year’s first-round pick, Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes, is likely to start right away, though the Vikings may not want to expose him on the road against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson in Week 1. Then again, it hardly gets any easier with Chicago’s Brandon Marshall in Week 2. We’ll learn things about Rhodes quickly this year.

It may only be a Cover-2 defense, but the Vikings need more splash plays. They had just 10 interceptions last year while allowing a 92.3 defensive passer rating. That looks incredible next to 2011’s eight interceptions and 107.6 defensive passer rating. But when you are not a great passing offense, you need to lower that number below 85.0 to start winning more pass-efficiency battles.

Outside of the scoreboard, nothing is more important in the NFL than winning the pass-efficiency battle.

For what was an average defense last season, little has changed this year. That means the stars like Allen and Greenway will have to play better, while the young guys like Rhodes, Smith, Hodges and possibly Floyd will need to exceed their learning curve for this defense to move up to the top 10.

The overhaul to the receiving corps was understandable, but the Vikings really did little to make the rest of the team better this season. This is why an aggressive move like the trade to get Patterson reeked of a team trying to win now, even if reality and other moves did not mesh with that strategy.

Conclusion: Vikings Go As Ponder Goes

If the Vikings’ moves to add talent around Ponder bring the best out of his athletic ability, then the team may have a real shot to return to the playoffs.

However, if Jennings fails to adjust to a quarterback who’s not Hall of Fame caliber, Patterson is screwing up his routes and Peterson is not as dominant, then it’s going to be a long junior season for the young quarterback.

As we watched last year, Peterson could be incredible, but the Vikings still lost those games because of how ineffective Ponder played. Even when limiting his throws, a huge mistake like a red-zone interception could have a significant impact on the game’s outcome.

Given what was on the line in Week 17 last year, Ponder throwing three touchdowns and posting a career-high 120.2 passer rating was a good sign. He ended his season on a high note, technically. Now he must continue to improve, or else it’s time to shop for the next quarterback or throw backup Matt Cassel into the game.

If there’s one thing we know about Cassel, it’s that he can manage well enough with talent around him and a weak opponent on the other side. Good luck scanning the Minnesota schedule and coming up with a lot of weak opponents. It is a tough division, and the Packers should still be the favorite.

Should the Vikings finish in last place with at least 10 losses, it would not come as a surprise.

If you had to pick the 2012 playoff team least likely to return in 2013, safe money would have to go on Minnesota. In the era of the 5,000-yard passer and franchise quarterbacks galore, consistently winning with someone who needs coddled is just not that feasible anymore. It’s even harder to do without an elite defense.

Peterson can be Walter Payton, and Ponder can be Jim McMahon on his good days, but the Vikings are not your 1985 Chicago Bears in 2013.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.