2011 team previews
Leslie Frazier got a tough education in his debut as an interim head coach, finishing out the season that Brad Childress had begun with so much promise but ended prematurely with so much misery.
The names alone are enough to send shivers down Vikings fans' backs — and not in a good way.
Brett Favre. Randy Moss. Sidney Rice's hip. Percy Harvin's migraines. The list goes on.
But Frazier also instilled a focus at season's end, along with a measure of respect and a dose of old school. He got the interim tag removed from his name and received the job for good because of the improved finish, including an unexpected win over the Eagles in Week 16.
That all is a distant memory, however. Frazier and the Vikings have put most of last season behind them and are starting fresh. And even though they have star-caliber players such as Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen and Harvin, there also is a sense that this club is rebuilding. After all, the NFC North appears stacked with the world-champion Packers and Bears meeting in last season's NFC title game and the Lions looking like a club on the rise.
The Vikings hope that the acquisition of QB Donovan McNabb will keep them competitive and in the race — despite the loss of Rice, which will hurt — until rookie Christian Ponder is ready to take over. That might not be until next season because of the lockout.
The Vikings are a tough team to read — still bound together by veteran talent but also with youth and several holes on the roster.
The offense will be Adrian Peterson-centric no matter whether Donovan McNabb or Christian Ponder is taking the snaps. Coordinator Bill Musgrave will import elements of the Falcons' scheme (he coached quarterbacks there the past three years), the West Coast offense the Vikings have used recently and the old Steelers run-heavy scheme that Mike Mularkey brought to Atlanta. Expect a lot of inside-outside zone runs with Peterson, setting up play-action to Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian with the tight ends also heavily in the mix.
Quarterbacks: The Vikings went to the well one too many times with Brett Favre and got a quarterback past his prime last season. They are hoping that Donovan McNabb is not a Favre Redux situation. He struggled with the Redskins last season and was sold for pennies on the dollar, which raises some concerns, but the Vikings' skill-position talent might be better. McNabb has never read defenses very well, and his accuracy is a point of contention. But he generally avoids interceptions, can throw on the move and still has a fairly strong arm. Whether he's a good mentor or not, that's another issue altogether. Christian Ponder, the surprise first-round pick, says he plans to compete for the starting job but likely will have to wait. He is a quick learner, extremely tough and has surprising athleticism. But Ponder also has a below-average arm and must prove he can stay healthy once he gets his chance. Joe Webb didn't embarrass himself in his emergency starting assignment against the Eagles by leading a colossal upset, and though he's still a major project, he has some NFL skills. He must work closely with Bill Musgrave and QB coach Craig Johnson on the basics (footwork, release, reading defenses, etc.) to take the next step.
Running backs: Adrian Peterson seemed to curb the fumbling issues that plagued him before. He is a hard-charging, tackle-breaking force, often carrying an offense that had become too Brett Favre-reliant after the success of 2009. Although Peterson didn't break a ton of long runs in '10, he gained a lot of yards after contact and wore down defenders. He also emerged as a solid receiver, though his blocking still needs work. Ankle and knee problems took their toll late, but he still might be the best pure tailback in the NFL. Backup Toby Gerhart got off to a slow start and has something to prove. He lost three fumbles — two more than Peterson, despite having 202 fewer carries — and was not a big factor in the passing game. But Gerhart eventually carved out a role and ran through some would-be tacklers, so there's hope. Lorenzo Booker could revive his career as a change-of-pace third-down back. At fullback, you could see converted LB Ryan D'Imperio take the role of lead blocker and run with it.
Receivers: This position was a season-long concern in 2010, with ill-fitting pieces, subpar performances, injuries and letdowns. Percy Harvin struggled with Sidney Rice out and Bernard Berrian a nonfactor, so somehow they are going to have to make it work. Moving out of the slot took away some of Harvin's best opportunities and minimized his strengths. But once he was back in the slot, Harvin mostly shined. He has explosive ability and can burn lesser corners on two-way go routes. Harvin has a chance to be special if he can avoid injuries, overcome his migraine headaches and clean up some of his technique. The back-shoulder fade is likely out of the playbook with no big receiver who can run the way Rice did. The hope is that Berrian can provide the vertical speed and Michael Jenkins, acquired from Atlanta, can be a good intermediate option as a chain mover. That might be asking a lot, however. Greg Camarillo's hustle, blocking and versatility are assets, but he wasn't used often. Jaymar Johnson, Devin Aromashodu and Juaquin Iglesias are vying for the final WR spots and might need to make impacts on special teams to do so. TE Visanthe Shiancoe was frustrated with his role last season after breaking out in '09. He can drive the seam, work in space underneath and be a third-down weapon. But his blocking is a bit inconsistent, and he has faded in and out of game plans. Enter rookie Kyle Rudolph to the mix. He has good seam-splitting ability but must prove he can remain healthy. They could make a fine duo. Underrated, selfless Jim Kleinsasser and versatile Jeff Dugan round out this solid position.
Offensive linemen: Injuries were a factor for the O-line's poor play, and one big change already was made. OLT Bryant McKinnie was cut at the start of camp when it was clear that the team no longer could put up with his fluctuating weight and commitment. By contrast, new OLT Charlie Johnson is an overachiever, but his physical skills pale by comparison. OLG Steve Hutchinson was at times the most consistent lineman, but he also began to show his age. Hutchinson is no longer the road grader he was in his prime and is coming off a broken thumb. C John Sullivan was beset by calf problems early and later developed a shotgun snapping problem. He is smart and can handle the OL calls but lacks the girth to handle big nose tackles and can get pushed around. ORG Anthony Herrera suffered knee and triceps injuries. Although he has a nasty demeanor, his technique and talent are just average. ORT Phil Loadholt is massive, but scouts say he doesn't play with enough consistent power or aggressiveness. Discipline is also an issue. Although he can lay the wood in the run game, those powerful blocks are too infrequent. Ryan Cook has versatility but has lost starting spots at center and right tackle previously and is just a reserve. OG Chris DeGeare didn't shine in Hutchinson's place and needs to be more assertive, but the coaches like his upside. The rest of the depth is just OK.
It's not clear if new coordinator Fred Pagac will blitz more, as he did down the stretch, or if that was more based on late-season matchups. The Vikings run a 4-3 "over" front, funneling run plays back inside toward the strength of the defense — linebacker — and pressuring with stunts and twists. Leslie Frazier preferred a base Tampa-2 coverage, but Pagac might use more of the cover-3 looks that other teams with similar personnel around the league use when they are not blitzing.
Defensive linemen: It will be interesting to see what the Vikings' once-fearsome front looks like without NT Pat Williams and DE Ray Edwards. DE Jared Allen and DT Kevin Williams remain elite players, but their supporting staff has taken a hit. A notoriously slow starter, Allen took longer than in the past to heat up his play in 2010. Questions of whether his hell-bent style had taken its toll were legitimate. But Allen rallied, finished with 11 sacks and made big plays. He's not the every-down terror he was two seasons ago but remains a factor. Kevin Williams had a career-low one sack and missed plays that he normally makes but is sturdy, solid and can play hard 60 snaps per game. At 31, however, he is no longer the best three-technique in the NFL. He also faces a suspension that has hung over him for two years and injured his foot in camp, leaving his immediate availability in doubt. The team re-signed DE Brian Robison for his consistency and pass-rush ability. He can kick inside in pass-rushing situations and has worked to get better against the run, even with limited snaps. Robison will have a chance to start or work in a rotation with talented but enigmatic Everson Griffen. Although Griffen is by far the more impressive physical specimen, he's also immature, as his legal troubles suggest. The coaching staff will push him hard to get better and stay focused, but it's anyone's guess if he'll deliver. Former Saints NT Remi Ayodele replaces Pat Williams on the nose, and though Ayodele doesn't carry the same bulk, he can play with power as well as split gaps. DTs Letroy Guion, rookie Christian Ballard and Fred Evans will be the other reserves inside. Guion has flashed in camp, but he has done little in his previous regular-season action.
Linebackers: SLB Chad Greenway didn't force a ton of turnovers but had 12 games with eight or more tackles and no fewer than six in any game last season. That's remarkable, no matter how you spin it. He seldom came off the field, and consistency was his hallmark. He's rangy, strong and smart. The mere fact that MLB E.J. Henderson played in all 16 games represents an amazing feat and is a testament to his passion, love for football and incredible toughness. The leg injury that ended his 2009 season was gruesome, and many thought it was amazing he came back the way he did. That said, Henderson's play was uneven at times. He was targeted occasionally in pass coverage and missed a few tackles he would have made pre-injury. But he's also tough against the run and was around the ball a lot. Expect a stronger season entering the final year of his deal. Brother Erin Henderson was in Brad Childress' doghouse but has a chance to start under Fred Pagac. Erin Henderson is not nearly the player E.J. is, but he could vie for the open WLB job. Other weak-side possibilities include special-teams ace Kenny Onatolu and overachieving sixth-rounder Ross Homan, who has missed time with a concussion. Jasper Brinkley filled in nicely for E.J. Henderson down the stretch in '09 but struggled at times on special teams last season. He's probably strictly an interior reserve. Onatolu and Heath Farwell are respected special-teamers, but their work last season didn't match their '09 output.
Defensive backs: CB Antoine Winfield is seldom tested as the Vikings' best defensive back — by far. An excellent tackler who breaks on the ball quickly, Winfield didn't make a ton of big plays, but some of his best ones came in the red zone. Despite less-than-ideal size and reaching the backside of his career, he's tough as nails and a great player who sometimes doesn't get his due. Right cornerback is Cedric Griffin's job if he's healthy. The Vikings are upbeat about him, despite back-to-back knee injuries the past two seasons. He's a strong tackler and physical press corner, but it will be another long road back. Chris Cook could be the nickel back if his legal troubles don't mount. He stood out early in his rookie training camp before fading and suffering two knee injuries. He's big and superathletic but must prove the game isn't too big for him. Tackling was a trouble spot for Asher Allen, and he committed too many penalties and allowed too many catches. Allen might never become a quality starter. CB Brandon Burton is a project with upside. Husain Abdullah did a respectable job last season and should remain a starter at safety. Best-suited to be a jack-of-all-trades, Abdullah was guilty of missteps and will need to work on his play-to-play consistency. Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford are vying for a starting safety job, with rookie Mistral Raymond in the mix, but none has stepped out yet. Johnson has had his confidence shot since losing a starting spot, but he has excellent athleticism. Sanford is a big hitter who doesn't have the best range or size. Eric Frampton is a special-teamer and so-so backup safety.
The special teams were a weakness last season, despite a solid kicking game. Percy Harvin is a game-changing returner when healthy, though, and a change of coordinators might improve the coverage and blocking. PK Ryan Longwell is a captain and had only one FG miss in 2010. The new kickoff rules probably stand to help him, as he often hit low line drives, trying to get it to the endzone. In one of his better* seasons, outspoken P Chris Kluwe eliminated much of his inconsistency and became a very good directional punter with hang time. KR Lorenzo Booker came on late and might earn the role again.
The Vikings are somewhere between rebuilding and reloading, young and old, talented and undermanned. They have the NFL's best runner plus gifted receivers, talented linebackers and a few other pieces that will keep them competitive. However, the strength of the division, the heavy free-agency losses and a fierce schedule appear to make winning the NFC North this season a pipe dream.
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