The Minnesota Vikings enjoyed a special season in 2012. A year after going 3-13, the Vikings re-established Adrian Peterson as the NFL’s top rusher and hopped on his back as he carried the team to a surprise playoff berth. The regular season culminated with the Vikings winning their fourth straight game, over division rival Green Bay, as Peterson rushed for 199 yards to finish eight yards away (2,097) from tying Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing mark (2,105).
The euphoria from clinching a postseason berth on the last day of the season ended just a week later against that same Packers team. With starting quarterback Christian Ponder out with a severe elbow injury, backup QB Joe Webb went just 11-for-30 with two turnovers as the Vikings fell 24-10.
Looking ahead to 2013, Vikings fans have reason to be both optimisitc and apprehensive at the same time. While they return many of the key pieces that led them to the playoffs, there are still question marks. I already mentioned Peterson’s near record-breaking season and he played all 16 games for the first time in his career, which was great for him, but can he do it again? He has already eclipsed 1,700 carries in his career including close to 350 in 2012. How long can he shoulder the bulk of the offensive burden without breaking down?
The answer to that question rests with Christian Ponder, at least for now. Ponder enters his third season and the numbers from his first two were average at best. In 2012, he completed 62% of his passes with 18 TD’s compared to 12 INT’s but he averaged just 183 yards per game. Can he make the leap that the Vikings have been waiting for since they made him a first round pick?
If Ponder and the Vikings receivers can consistently pick up bigger gains through the air, it would take a ton of pressure (and a significant number of carries) off of Peterson. If Ponder can’t get the job done, new backup Matt Cassell is waiting in the wings…and he wouldn’t be an improvement.
Of course Ponder’s progression will also depend on how well his receivers perform. The Vikings attempted to bolster the receiving corp by adding former Green Bay standout Greg Jennings. Jennings battled injuries in 2012 that limited him to just eight games but had been extremely productive in his seasons for the Packers. Starting opposite of Jennings will most likely be Jerome Simpson who caught 26 passes in limited action last season. Minnesota also drafted WR Cordarrelle Patterson with their third first round selection in the 2013 Draft. Patterson, listed at 6’3″, 205 pounds, was a speedster at the University of Tennessee and the hope is that he earns the third receiver spot. The aforementioned Joe Webb is being converted to receiver and he will battle Stephen Burton and 2nd year man Jarius Wright for a roster spot.
Kyle Rudolph established himself as a No. 1 option at the tight end position. The Notre Dame product caught 53 passes and nine TD’s in 2012. His backup is another Fighting Irish alum, Jon Carlson.
A major strength for the Vikings last season was the play, and durability, of the offensive line. Aside from opening holes for Peterson, each of the starting linemen played all 16 games. All five starters are back for 2013. Left tackle Matt Kalil returns after a terrific rookie season of protecting Ponder’s blind side. At right tackle is Phil Loadholt, who has started every game each of the last three seasons. Five year veteran John Sullivan will start again at center with guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco flanking him. Beyond backup center Joe Berger, who has played for nine years, there is little-to-no experience for the reserve linemen so the starters ability to stay healthy will be huge for the offense again in 2013.
On defense, everything starts up front for the Vikings. They finished 11th in the league against the rush (105.8 yards per game) and recorded 44 sacks (tied for fifth). The six-man defensive line rotation that the Vikings used in 2012 (Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, Everson Griffen, Letroy Guion and Fred Evans) combined for 34.5 of those 44 sacks. Allen led the way with 12. All six players return for 2013 plus the Vikings added depth by drafting DT Sharrif Floyd from the University of Florida with their first selection of the first round (23rd overall).
Pro Bowler Chad Greenway, who led the team with 146 tackles to go with three sacks and two fumble recoveries, returns at strongside linebacker. Erin Henderson (79 tackles, 3 sacks) is slated to start again at weakside linebacker. Jasper Brinkley, who started 15 games at MLB in 2012, departed for the Cardinals so in steps Marvin Mitchell, who has played sparingly and on special teams in his first six seasons. Minnesota also signed former Packer Desmond Bishop to a one-year contract this summer. Bishop had two straight spectacular seasons for Green Bay in 2010-2011 (Over 300 combined tackles, 8 sacks, 4 forced fumbles) before missing all of last season with a leg injury. Minnesota is hoping he can get back to playing somewhere close to that level. Beyond Bishop, there is not much experience among the reserve linebackers.
The Vikings were 30th against the pass in 2012 as they gave up an average of 244 passing yards per game and that was before they lost 14-year veteran (9 w/ Minnesota) cornerback Antoine Winfield to Seattle in the offseason. Josh Robinson and Chris Cook will most likely start at the corner spots although keep an eye out for rookie CB Xavier Rhodes who was selected with the Vikings second first round pick (25th overall) out of Florida State. With Winfield’s departure, Chris Cook becomes the veteran of the secondary with just four years of experience. Strong safety Jamarca Sanford played well down the stretch alongside rookie FS Harrison Smith. Both are back for 2013. SS Mistral Raymond and FS Robert Blanton are both reliable backups.
Kicker Blair Walsh earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. He connected on 35 of 38 field goal attempts including a perfect 10-for-10 from 50+ yards. Nine year veteran Chris Kluwe signed with the Raiders in the offseason so the Vikings drafted Jeff Locke out of UCLA as their new punter. Marcus Sherels and Cordarrelle Patterson will split return duties. Sherels averaged 26 yards on kickoff returns and had a punt return for a TD in 2012.