2012 NFL Season Preview

CBSSports.com Staff
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By Clark Judge | Senior NFL Columnist

Offense

When the subject is the Minnesota Vikings, the conversation usually starts with running back Adrian Peterson and works its way from there. But Peterson is coming off a torn ACL and MCL and might not be ready for the season opener.

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Granted, he says he feels great, is on target with his recovery and hopes to make it for the Sept. 9 opener, but when coach Leslie Frazier says he'll "tread lightly as far as Week 1," he's telling you he's in no rush to return Peterson to the lineup. The Vikings are prepared to start the season with Toby Gerhart at the position if necessary, and that's not a bad emergency plan. But Gerhart is not Peterson, and the Vikings absolutely, positively must have Peterson on the field to be competitive.

But Peterson's return isn't the only question with this unit. So is quarterback Christian Ponder's development as a bona fide quarterback. The Vikings made him a first-round pick because they believe he can be their starter for the next 10 years, and there were times as a rookie he looked the part. But he was inconsistent, especially late in games, and must improve with his decision-making.

Of course, the Vikings must surround him with better players, too, and they have. Wide receiver Jerome Simpson is a gamble -- especially with a three-game suspension -- but his big-play ability makes him worth a one-year trial. It should also make Michael Jenkins, the third target, more effective. Newcomers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs could help, but they're rookies -- which means they're unpredictable. Tight end John Carlson is not. He's a solid pass receiver and, along with Kyle Rudolph, gives Ponder a pair of sure short-to-intermediate options.

The most important addition, however, isn't a receiver but tackle Matt Kalil. He protects Ponder's back, and having him instead of Charlie Johnson at left tackle should solidify the position. Moreover, it allows Johnson to shift to left guard and improves the protection for a quarterback who will need it.

Defense

A dreadful season can be traced to a dreadful start when the Vikings went 0-4, despite dominating opponents in first halves. That was the first clue that their defense, which had been reliable in the past, was about to crater -- and it's the pass defense I'm talking about. It allowed an NFL-high 34 touchdown passes, with opposing quarterbacks producing a passer rating of 107.6, and that's an issue when you play in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford and Jay Cutler.

But it's an issue with the secondary, where the Vikings are vulnerable and where they spent two of their first three draft picks. Cornerback Antoine Winfield is 35, and Chris Cook has all the measurables -- but he has off-the-field concerns, too. Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson should help, as should free-agent addition Chris Carr. Another rookie, first-rounder Harrison Smith, will push for a starting job at safety where Mistral Raymond, Robert Blanton and Jamarca Sanford are in the mix. Smith will crack the lineup sooner or later, but he must improve his coverage skills. The point is: The Vikings are making changes to improve.

There are questions at linebacker, too, where Chad Greenway is a team leader but where Jasper Brinkley -- who replaces E.J. Henderson -- is coming off hip surgery and is limited in coverage. The strength of the unit remains the defensive line, where end Jared Allen produced a career-best 22 sacks a year ago and is one of the NFL's premier pass rushers. Brian Robison and Kevin Williams are solid, too, with the Vikings tied for the NFL lead in sacks at 50. If there's a concern it's this: Where the team's defense used to dominate vs. the run it doesn't anymore. It ranked ninth in 2010 and 11th in 2011, and don't look for much change there.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: TE John Carlson; CB Chris Carr; FB Les Hilliard; LB Marvin Mitchell; G Geoff Schwartz; WR Jerome Simpson

Roster Departures: S Husain Abdullah; LB E.J. Henderson; TE Jim Kleinsasser; K Ryan Longwell; S Tyrell Johnson; CB Benny Sapp; TE Visanthe Shiancoe

Staff: Defensive coordinator Alan Williams takes over for Fred Pagac, now the team's linebackers coach, and change should be good. Last season, the Vikings ranked 21st overall and allowed an NFL-high 34 touchdown passes. Williams and Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier worked together with the Indianapolis Colts, with Williams the Colts' secondary coach. Look for Frazier to be more involved with the defense this year.

Even though Simpson faces a three-game suspension, his addition should help the club at one of his weakest positions. Carlson is a sure receiver who must learn to block, but that's not why he's here. He's another set of hands for a young quarterback, and that's a plus. If there's a question it's with the change of kickers, where sixth-round pick Brian Walsh replaces veteran Ryan Longwell -- who nailed an NFL-best 94.4 percent (43 of 46) of his field-goal attempts in 2009-10. Walsh has a strong leg, but he was inconsistent his last season at Georgia. When you're a team that loses nine games by seven or fewer points, as the Vikings did last season, your field-goal kicker better be accurate.

X-Factor: Percy Harvin

He's the Vikings' big-play threat on the outside and their most dangerous receiver. But he could be a distraction waiting to happen. Harvin this summer expressed unhappiness with his situation -- though he never specified why -- and boycotted part of minicamp to prove it. That's fine, except he was way too public with his frustration, calling for the Vikings to trade him. That, in turn, caused Minnesota's front office to remind Harvin that the Vikings, not Harvin, make that call and that they're not interested.

So Harvin calmed down, promising to show up at the team's training camp, and stay tuned. There's always the threat of him walking out, not showing, malingering, you name it. At his best, he's one of the most productive and electrifying performers in the game. But he's also a potential headache -- and, no, I'm not talking about those migraines he experienced. I'm talking about the migraines he could give a club that needs him if it's going to improve.

Can they win with Ponder?

He had his moments last season, but the jury's still out on the guy. He looks the part and throws well on the run. But give him a chance. The Vikings will. They believe in him, and they believe he's a long-term solution.

Keeping AP off the DL

Has Peterson recovered from his injury, and when do we see him? Peterson says his knee is OK, and there were reports of him outracing teammates this spring. He also said he hopes to be ready for the season opener, but team officials are more cautious ... and they should be. Peterson is coming off a severe injury, and they want to make sure he's right before putting him in the lineup.

What next for Harvin?

We're about to find out. He missed part of minicamp because he said he wasn't "happy" with his situation. Most persons thought he was talking about a new contract, but Harvin said this has nothing to do with money. So what is it? He never let on. He says now that everything is OK and promises to be there for the start of training camp. But then what?

Insider's Take

The Vikings are the fourth-best team in their division, and the chances of them climbing to say, third, are remote. For one, there's more talent at the three others within the NFC North. There's also a philosophical difference: The Vikings are rebuilding; the Packers, Lions and Bears are reloading. Second, the Vikings have significant shortcomings, especially in the secondary, where they just added new faces. Third, there's no assurance that Ponder can or will be a franchise quarterback. It's a critical season for the guy, the franchise and coach Leslie Frazier. The Vikings stood by Frazier after last year's 3-13 finish, and they believe in him. So do his players. But this process will take time -- which means time for Ponder to develop, time for Peterson to return to form and time for the defense to come together. Minnesota is young, and young teams need to mature. This team is no different. Bottom line: The Vikings are at least a season away from being a factor within their division.

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

The Vikings' offense is built around Adrian Peterson, and even though the philosophy is moving away from the zone blocking scheme and more into an angle blocking team, Peterson will get his yards. The big concern is whether he is able to go early, coming off major knee surgery.

Vikings' Rivals: NFC North

2012 Preview • Schedule
Bears @ Vikings: 12/9 (1 p.m. ET)
Vikings @ Bears: 11/25 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Lions @ Vikings: 11/11 (1 p.m. ET)
Vikings @ Lions: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Packers @ Vikings: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Vikings @ Packers: 12/2 (1 p.m. ET)

Two of the Vikings' most winnable games are Week 1 and Week 2, and there is a possibility it will be Toby Gerhart at running back. If that's the case, the opposing defenses will have the ability to double Percy Harvin every play and wait to see if Gerhart can beat them. It also means third downs could be longer situations for second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.

Expect the Vikings to use a heavy dose of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) throughout most of their games. WR Jerome Simpson is going to miss the first three games and there is little reason to put backup wide receivers on the field when the tight ends are Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. The passing attack will be short to intermediate, and outside of WR Percy Harvin there isn't a deep threat.

The offensive line got help when Minnesota drafted LT Matt Kalil, but he will need help against the likes of division pass rushers Julius Peppers and Kyle Vanden Bosch, so the two tight end sets will help him. Last year the Viking offense averaged 18 points a game in the division, and it may be more of the same if AP isn't 100 percent.

The Vikings' defense is built around a four-man front that gets after the QB without help from the back end. Jared Allen will get the protection call to him on every play, yet he still thinks he can top his 22-sack season last year and get to 25. Allen told me he doesn't like to jump around looking for a matchup he can win, but rather likes to work the left tackle all game long.

The coverage unit should be a lot better than it is with the solid pressure up front, but the 26th-ranked defense against the pass needs Chris Cook to step up and become a top corner. There's a chance the Vikings will be starting two rookie corners in their cover two scheme, and that means offenses will flex tight ends and motion running backs out of the backfield to get the matchups they want.

Last year, the Vikings gave up 32 points a game in the division. Here's the dilemma in a nut shell: The Vikings sacked Matthew Stafford 10 times in two games and lost both games, as Stafford threw for 605 yards and four touchdowns.

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

The Vikings were widely known to be enamored with Southern Cal left tackle Matt Kalil, but general manager Rick Spielman did an excellent job in landing three additional draft picks to slide down one spot to No. 4 overall while still getting his man.

Vikings Draft Analysis

Considering the 2011 first-round pick used on quarterback Christian Ponder and the deep group of pass rushers in the NFC North, it was a wise investment to select Kalil, a technically sound and very experienced player who has the makings of an excellent blind-side protector.

A compensatory fourth-round pick could prove to be the steal of the Vikings' haul. Before tearing the patella tendon in his right knee in 2010, I gave Arkansas wide receiver Greg Childs a second-round grade. The 6-3, 219-pounder proved his straight-line speed at the combine (where some had him as fast as 4.40) and during his pro day (4.41) in the 40-yard dash, as well as his explosiveness (41.5-inch vertical jump). This explosiveness was evident in his ability to stretch the field vertically on go-routes before his injury.

The strong workouts lead me to believe Childs has regained his explosiveness and could be poised to surprise early in his career.

The rest of the Vikings' picks:

1st Round - No. 4 overall - Matt Kalil, OT, Southern Cal
1st Round - No. 29 overall - Harrison Smith, SS, Notre Dame
3rd Round - No. 66 overall - Josh Robinson, CB, Central Florida
4th Round - No. 118 overall - Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas
4th Round - No. 128 overall - Rhett Ellison, TE, Southern Cal
4th Round - No. 134 overall - Greg Childs, WR, Arkansas
5th Round - No. 139 overall - Robert Blanton, CB, Notre Dame
6th Round - No. 175 overall - Blair Walsh, K, Georgia
7th Round - No. 210 overall - Audie Cole, ILB, North Carolina State
7th Round - No. 219 overall - Trevor Guyton, DL, California

 
 
 
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