|Jared Allen is a special player, but there isn't much talent around him on a 21st-ranked defense. (US Presswire)|
Was it really just two years ago that the Minnesota Vikings were coming off an overtime loss in the NFC Championship Game and appeared to be a team stocked with talent?
That sure seems like a long time ago.
The Vikings went 3-13 last season and will be picking third in the first round of this year's draft. The 2011 Vikings were plagued by a lot of problems.
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• Bad quarterback decision to sign and play Donovan McNabb, who was eventually benched after six games.
• Bad defense. The Vikings were 21st overall and 31st against the pass.
• Bad offensive line play. The Vikings were 25th in sacks per pass play.
• Injuries. They were hit with a ton of them, the worst a late-season knee injury suffered by star running back Adrian Peterson, one that could slow him to open the 2012 season.
Coach Leslie Frazier faces a big challenge to turn this team around. There are a lot of holes, especially if Peterson can't bounce back.
QB: The Vikings drafted Christian Ponder in the first round last year and many people scoffed. But he did some good things once he took over for McNabb. He is a smart player who understands the passing game and will get better as the people around him improve. He had 10 starts, but seemed to struggle as the season moved on. Joe Webb took over late when Ponder got hurt and also impressed. Webb is much more mobile, and that helped playing behind a bad offensive line. But if the Vikings are to make big strides here, it has to be with Ponder.
RB: The Vikings have one of the game's best in Peterson, but how effective will he be coming off the torn-up knee? Peterson is one of those players who will put in the work, but there is no guarantee he will be the same player. He's also entering his sixth season. Backup Toby Gerhart is also coming off a knee injury, but a lesser one. He was hurt in the team's final game but is expected to be ready by late May. Gerhart impressed at times last season, rushing for 531 yards. Percy Harvin carries from the backfield at times and gained 345 yards. Lex Hilliard, Caleb King and Jordan Todman are the backups as of now.
WR: Harvin is this unit's best player, but he averaged just 11.1 per catch on his 87 receptions. He has too much speed for that number to be that low. The problem is there isn't much around him. Michael Jenkins has never played to his 40 time and had 38 catches for 466 yards. Devin Aromashodu caught 26 passes, but he did average 18 yards per catch. There isn't much experience behind those three. Stephen Burton did catch two passes for 38 yards last season as a rookie and has some ability.
TE: Kyle Rudolph flashed future star potential as a rookie. He caught 26 passes but will increase that number a bunch this season. He is a big target who has decent speed. He will become one of Ponder's go-to guys this season. The Vikings signed John Carlson from Seattle as a free agent. He is also a former Notre Dame tight end who is a capable receiver. Look for more two-tight sets. Mickey Shuler is listed as the third tight end.
OL: The line struggled in a big way in 2011. Left tackle Charles Johnson was overmatched by speed rushers and really was a problem. They need an upgrade there in the worst way. Johnson could slide inside to guard. Steve Hutchinson, the team's left guard, was released for cap reasons and signed with Tennessee. Johnson could move to that spot to battle Joe Berger if a tackle were drafted early. Brandon Fusco is also in the mix. John Sullivan is a good center, although big players on his nose can give him problems. The right guard will be Geoff Schwartz, who comes over from Carolina. He was mostly used as a tackle with the Panthers. The right tackle is Phil Loadholt, who needs to amp up his game. He looks the part, but seems to coast at times. DeMarcus Love is the top backup at tackle. They will certainly use one pick and maybe two to upgrade this line.
DL: Jared Allen had a special season with 22 sacks. He proved that he has good football left in his body. He plays with a relentless style and has a great knack for getting to the quarterback. Brian Robison took over as the starter at left end when Ray Edwards left and did a nice job with eight sacks. It has to help that teams focus on Allen first. Everson Griffen is an athletic reserve at end who had four sacks. Christian Ballard, a rookie last year from Iowa, had eight quarterback hurries and should have a bigger role this season, maybe even some at tackle. Kevin Williams didn't look as good last season as he had in previous years when he was dominant. He could be slowing down at the age of 32. Remi Ayodele wasn't the answer next to him, so Letroy Guion will get the first shot there. He's been a capable backup, who had three starts last season. Fred Evans is a good backup.
LB: Chad Greenway remains a steady player on the defense and led the team in tackles. He isn't flashy, but gets the job done. Erin Henderson, who was fourth in tackles last season, will start on the weak side. The change will come in the middle where E.J. Henderson, Erin's brother, is no longer with the team after being second in tackles last season. Jasper Brinkley, who spent last season on injured-reserve, will get the first crack to win the job if E.J. Henderson, who is still unsigned, doesn't return. Marvin Mitchell and Tyrone McKenzie are backups inside with Larry Dean outside.
DB: The secondary was terrible. Teams threw all over the Vikings as they finished second-to-last in pass defense. Injuries crippled this unit. Only strong safety Jamarca Sanford opened as a starter and finished as a starter. He led the team with two picks. Two. Mistral Raymond started five games as a rookie and made a lot of mistakes. But he is expected to be the first one to get a shot to start opposite Sanford. Eric Frampton and Andrew Sendejo are the reserves. The Vikings added Zach Bowman and Chris Carr as free-agent corners to give this unit some help. Veteran Antoine Winfield, who played just five games because of injuries, is also back. Chris Cook, who had some off-field issues, is expected to be one starter. Asher Allen is a top reserve.