Coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the Minnesota Vikings have shifted gears and embarked on a rebuilding process they hope results in postseason play sooner rather than later.
The 2012 season will be Leslie Frazier's second full campaign as the Vikings' head coach, and he figures to pilot a team with plenty of new faces.
Entering training camp, the Vikings' roster had 41 new players since the conclusion of their disappointing 2011 season with two first-round picks (left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith) along with two free-agent acquisitions (tight end John Carlson and wide receiver Jerome Simpson) figuring to be the key contributors that help fuel the hopeful turnaround in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Of course. the real measuring sticks for success or failure this season will be the development of second-year starting quarterback Christian Ponder as well as the health of All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson.
Ponder had a rocky rookie season after taking the reins from disappointing veteran Donovan McNabb a year ago. The No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Ponder showed more than enough athleticism and arm strength to handle the position at the NFL level, but like most rookies struggled to read opposing defenses.
The Florida State product seemed to lose confidence as the season wore on and kept making similar mistakes, something that's normally a red flag when assessing signal-callers.
That said, Ponder ended up beginning the final 10 games and matched Fran Tarkenton's team record for starts by a rookie quarterback, while setting the franchise mark for most passing yards in a game by a first-year player when he threw for 381 against Denver.
"Last year was definitely different and the lockout didn't help things," Ponder said. "But it was a great experience for me and a lot of things to learn from, and going through that is only going to help me out this year and make this year a lot more fun."
The Vikings think a major improvement in protection with Kalil now in place at left tackle and adding skill-position threats like Simpson and Carlson to a nucleus that includes two of the game's elite playmakers, Peterson and wide receiver Percy Harvin, will speed up Ponder's development.
"[I'm] a lot more confident," Ponder said. "Going through OTA's and having time to meet with the coaches and being more comfortable with my teammates, being comfortable with my surroundings down here at training camp. I know what to expect. I just feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident."
Peterson has been the best pure runner in the NFL since arriving in Minneapolis as the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft. A genetic freak with a work ethic to match his extraordinary physical gifts, the Texas native started training camp on the physically unable to perform list after tearing his ACL in Washington late last season.
However, Peterson has had an amazing recovery and was activated for practice on Aug. 12 with an eye on the regular-season opener against Jacksonville in early September.
"He could be a good politician," Frazier said after activating his superstar. "He did a good job of lobbying [to practice], but it wasn't his lobbying that got us to this point. It was his work, the things that he's done up to this point in his rehab. You have to credit him with the hard work he's put in."
Peterson runs with an impressive combination of power and speed rarely seen and if anything, the Vikings -- who have an impressive backup in Toby Gerhart and signed Peterson to a long-term contract extension last season --have been trying to slow the All-Pro down.
"[The] knee feels great," Peterson said at training camp. "I have been working hard for this moment to get back out here and get the ball rolling. I'm excited about where I'm at now and the leg is feeling great."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Minnesota Vikings, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 3-13 (4th, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to New Orleans in NFC Championship
COACH (RECORD): Leslie Frazier (6-16 in two seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Musgrave (second season with Vikings)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Alan Williams (first season)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Adrian Peterson, RB (970 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 13 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Jared Allen, DE (66 tackles, 22 sacks, 1 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 18th overall (4th rushing, 28th passing), 19th scoring (21.3 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 21st overall (11th rushing, 26th passing), 31st scoring (28.1 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Jerome Simpson (from Bengals), TE John Carlson (from Seahawks), LT Matt Kalil (1st Round, Southern California), FS Harrison Smith (1st Round, Notre Dame), K Blair Walsh (6th Round, Georgia), RB Lex Hilliard (from Dolphins), FB Jerome Felton (from Colts), OG Geoff Schwartz (from Panthers), DE Nick Reed (from Buccaneers), DE Jeff Charleston (from Saints), OLB Marvin Mitchell (from Dolphins), CB Josh Robinson (3rd Round, Central Florida), CB Chris Carr (from Ravens), CB Zackary Bowman (from Bears)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Visanthe Shiancoe (to Patriots), TE Jim Kleinsasser (retired), LG Steve Hutchinson (to Titans), RG Anthony Herrera (released), NT Remi Ayodele (to Saints), MLB E.J. Henderson (free agent), CB Cedric Griffin (to Redskins), FS Husain Abdullah (free agent), K Ryan Longwell (released), RB Lorenzo Booker (to Bears), WR Greg Camarillo (to Saints), OT Scott Kooistra (free agent), OLB Kenny Onatolu (to Panthers), OLB Xavier Adibi (to Bears), CB Asher Allen (retired), CB Benny Sapp (free agent), S Tyrell Johnson (to Dolphins), S Jarrad Page (free agent), LS Matt Katula (to Steelers)
QB: The book on Ponder (1853 passing yards, 13 TD, 13 INT in 2011) when he arrived in Minneapolis raved about his smarts and questioned whether he had the arm strength and accuracy to be an upper-echelon signal-caller in the NFL. He proved he could make all the throws as a rookie, but his accuracy was very spotty at times and his decision-making regressed as the season progressed. That has to be cause for major concern, whether the Vikings admit it or not. Backup Joe Webb (376 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) is a superlative athlete who was originally drafted with the intent of moving from quarterback to wide receiver after being named the 2009 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year as a senior at Alabama-Birmingham. Webb, however, showed enough at quarterback to stay put and saw significant time in three games in 2011, including a win at Washington in Week 16. He's not the smoothest player under center and his arm strength is below average by NFL standards, but his athleticism and ability to extend plays with his legs make him a more than adequate backup in the NFL. Veteran Sage Rosenfels figures to hold off the strong-armed McLeod Bethel-Thompson for the No. 3 spot.
RB: The Vikings sport impressive depth and ability at the running back position with Peterson (970 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 13 total TD) and Gerhart (531 rushing yards, 23 receptions, 4 total TD) figuring to be quite a one-two punch. There is little doubt Peterson will be back at a high level, though it remains to be seen if he returns with the same kind of explosive big play ability. Gerhart, the bruising Stanford product who ran for 369 yards over the final five games of the 2011 season, is a move-the-chains type of back who can wear down defenses with his punishing style of running. The third back figures to be either Jordan Todman, a scat-back type with impressive speed who has battled a balky ankle in training camp, or Lex Hilliard, a former Miami Dolphin who doesn't have Todman's skill set but has the edge as a good special-teamer. At fullback, free agent signee Jerome Felton is a capable lead blocker who is trying to hold off Ryan D'Imperio, a college linebacker at Rutgers who is still trying to make the transition. D'Imperio has better movement skills and offers far more on special teams, but Felton is a superior lead isolation option.
WR: One of the major reasons Ponder struggled in 2011 was the lack of a downfield threat at split end. General manager Rick Spielman feels he filled that hole by signing the gifted Simpson away from Cincinnati after a bit of a breakout 2011 season in which the Coastal Carolina product had a career-best 50 receptions for 725 yards and four touchdowns. He certainly has the speed and physical gifts to stand out, but he's been inconsistent as a route runner and will be suspended for the first three games of 2012 after pleading guilty to a felony drug charge stemming from a shipment of marijuana to his home. The Vikings had hoped rookie Greg Childs (4th Round, Arkansas) could hold down the fort until Simpson returned. However, the talented youngster, who dropped in the draft due to knee problems in college, suffered a catastrophic and possible career-ending injury in training camp, rupturing the patellar tendons in both knees. Veteran Michael Jenkins (38 receptions, 3 TD), a sure-handed receiver with little speed, agreed to a pay cut in an effort to stick around and will try to hold off Devin Aromashodu (26 receptions, 1 TD), who has physical skills and works hard but didn't impress in extended playing time in 2011, as well as youngsters like Stephen Burton and Manny Arceneaux until Simpson returns. The Vikings are far more secure at flanker, where Harvin resides. A playmaker extraordinaire, he was honored by his teammates as the Vikings' 2011 Offensive MVP after he led team in receiving with 87 catches for 967 yards as well as yards from scrimmage (1,312). Harvin is a triple-threat, also holding the franchise record with four career kickoff returns for touchdowns as well as breaking the team record for career and single-season rushing yards by a wide receiver. A "Where's Waldo" type of threat, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave can line Harvin up outside, in the backfield or in the slot and he's a matchup nightmare for any defense. The team also has high hopes for rookie Jarius Wright (4th Round), a teammate of Childs in both high school and at Arkansas. The speedster left the Razorbacks as the school's record holder in receptions (168) and receiving yards (2,934) and figures to be a handful in the slot down the road.
TE: Like a lot of teams, the Vikings were envious of New England's two tight- end situation and went in a copycat direction by signing Minnesota native Carlson away from Seattle to team with the ascending Kyle Rudolph (26 receptions, 3 TD. Both are Notre Dame products and can really make things happen in the seam as receivers. There are injury concerns with Carlson, who missed all of 2011 with a shoulder problem and went down with a sprained MCL in camp. When healthy, however, he knows how to separate and work a zone. Rudolph, meanwhile, looks like a future star, a player with amazing hands and an imposing catching radius thanks to his 6-foot-6 frame. Rookie Rhett Ellison (4th Round, Southern California) figures to fill the Jim Kleinsasser role as an H-back who can move from the backfield to the line, enabling the creative Musgrave to use a lot of different formations. Mickey Shuler, who was originally taken by the Vikings in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft, also looks like he has a good chance to stick as the team's best pure in-line blocking tight end.
OL: This is the unit which figures to be the most improved on the Vikings. The drafting of Kalil with the fourth overall pick figures to fortify the all- important left tackle position for the next decade and also enables Minnesota to slide last year's starter at that spot, Charlie Johnson, inside to left guard. Kalil, a Southern California product, became the second highest offensive lineman drafted in Vikings history behind tackle Ron Yary, the No. 1 overall pick in 1968 (also out of USC) who ended up in the Hall of Fame. It's a little early to make reservations in Canton for Kalil, but he does have the look of a future Pro Bowl selection. Johnson, meanwhile, was miscast at left tackle and seems well-suited inside. The veteran was just too stocky and possesses short arms that exposed him on the island that is left tackle in the NFL. That said, Johnson projects as an above-average left guard thanks to his lower body strength and movement skills. Center John Sullivan was the most improved Viking last season and played at a Pro Bowl standard. He was rewarded with a big contract extension and should anchor the line at a high level for years to come. The new right guard figured to be Geoff Schwartz, a once- ascending player in Carolina before a right hip injury derailed his 2011 season. The injury bug hit Schwartz again in training camp, as he was forced to undergo sports hernia surgery that left the door open for second-year man Brandon Fusco. The Vikings love Fusco's natural strength and nasty disposition, but he was out of control at times in short stints during his rookie season. Veteran swingman Joe Berger and Chris DeGeare, who spent all of last season on the practice squad, could also get looks until Schwartz's return, which is expected to be early in the season. The right tackle is massive Phil Loadholt, who is entering a contract year. An absolute road- grader in the running game, the Vikings would like to see more consistency from him as a pass blocker before they commit to the former Oklahoma star for the long term. Berger figures to be the key reserve inside, while the team has high hopes for second-year tackle DeMarcus Love, who was battling a strained pectoral muscle in camp with a strained pectoral muscle. Veterans Pat Brown and Levi Horn could also fit in as reserve swing tackles.
DL: The Vikings, as usual, possess one of the game's best defensive lines, with veteran Pro Bowlers Jared Allen (66 tackles, 1 INT) and Kevin Williams (38 tackles, 5 sacks) as the cornerstones. Allen is the game's best pure pass rusher who finished with 22 sacks last season, one-half sack shy of tying Michael Strahan's NFL single season mark in that category. A well-rounded player who can also stop the run and drop off into coverage in zone-blitz concepts, Allen is the poster child for the cliched non-stop motor. He keeps himself in incredible shape and succeeds by outworking his opponents. Opposite Allen at left end is Brian Robison (44 tackles), an ascending player who mirrors Allen's work ethic. In his first full season as a starter, Robison posted a career-best eight sacks in 2011, a number which figures to improve this season. Williams was once one of the NFL's best interior linemen but is coming off a down year at under tackle thanks in large part to a painful case of plantar fasciitis. The veteran seems healthy again and has a lot to prove this season. Letroy Guion (21 tackles) takes over full-time at nose tackle after rotating at the position last year and has always had the physical gifts to stand out. He has upper-echelon quickness and a blinding first step, but is undersized and must prove he can hold up to a double-team on the nose consistently. New coordinator Alvin Williams compared his defensive line philosophy to hockey line shifts during training camp and would like to give Allen, Kevin Williams and Robison in particular more reps off with the intent on keeping them fresh for late-game situations. Everson Griffen (21 tackles, 4 sacks) and D'Aundre Reed, two physically gifted ends, along with tackles Fred Evans (22 tackles) and Christian Ballard (13 tackles) give Minnesota plenty of depth and Alan Williams plenty of ammunition to implement his plan. Griffen is a starting-caliber player and a phenomenal athlete who has also been used at linebacker and as a gunner on special teams despite weighing 270 pounds. The Vikings want him on the field more, especially in the nickel pass rush, but he's been a bit undisciplined at times.
LB: The Vikings' defense could resemble a doughnut, at least early on. There is a big hole in the middle with Jasper Brinkley, who missed all of 2011 with a hip injury, taking over for veteran E.J. Henderson, a former Pro Bowl-level player who was never the same after fracturing his leg late in the 2009 season and wasn't re-signed in the spring. Brinkley has the reputation of being a solid run defender who struggles in space, but the South Carolina product looked lost early in the preseason, getting caught up in trash far too often and sealed far too easily. Erin Henderson (70 tackles, 1.5 sacks), E.J.'s younger brother, had a breakout year at weakside linebacker last season and is an emerging player who figures to handle the defensive play-calling since he mans the middle in the nickel. Chad Greenway (154 tackles, 2 sacks) made his first Pro Bowl last season despite having perhaps his worst season. Though he easily led the team in tackles, Greenway made few other big plays and wasn't utilized well by former linebackers coach Mike Singletary, who had him moving forward and smashing helmets all too often. Greenway is at his best when he is using his athleticism to run and chase. Fred Pagac, who is back as linebacker coach after a year as defensive coordinator, better understands how to use him, so expect a bounce-back season from the former first-round pick. Depth is a concern with veteran special-teamer Marvin Mitchell (30 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT with Dolphins) the only somewhat proven commodity. Tyrone McKenzie, a former third-round pick in New England, performed well in OTA's as well as camp in the middle, but Spielman seems intent on giving his hand- picked players like rookie Audie Cole (7th Round, NC State) and Larry Dean (8 tackles) a chance to develop. The team has also flirted with switching the super-athletic Griffen to linebacker full time, but that's a difficult move to make and Griffen is far too valuable as a pass rusher.
DB: The Vikings' defensive backfield was a disaster last season, with injuries and legal problems crippling the unit. Chris Cook (20 tackles), the team's best pure cover cornerback, missed most of 2011 after being arrested for domestic abuse charges. Intent on proving he has turned over a new leaf, Cook could surprise this year, as he has the physical skills to be a top-10 corner in the NFL. Veteran Antoine Winfield (40 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) also missed more than half the season with a strained neck and then a fractured clavicle. The 35-year-old former Pro Bowl selection remains one of the NFL's best pure tacklers and is still quite a weapon in the slot, both as a blitzer and cover guy. Alan Williams, however, would like to put Winfield on a "pitch count" and monitor the number of plays he gets each week. The team certainly improved its depth at corner by signing ex-Ravens starter Chris Carr (19 tackles, 1 sack) and former Bear Zack Bowman (15 tackles) as well as drafting the speedy Josh Robinson (Central Florida) in the third round of the draft. Brandon Burton, a fifth round pick from last season, remains a Spielman favorite but has shown little to this point. The Vikings are particularly high on Robinson, who has high-end recovery speed and carries himself with the swagger you see in elite defensive backs. The safety situation is far more muddled, although 2012 first-round pick Smith is expected to earn one of the positions, which are virtually interchangeable in Minnesota's base Cover 2 system. A smart and savvy player, Smith figures to be the best safety Minnesota has had since Darren Sharper left for New Orleans after the 2008 season. The team would like second-year pro Mistral Raymond (22 tackles, 1 INT) to win the other safety spot. An ex-corner in college at South Florida, Raymond showed decent ball skills in a short audition last season, but is raw and needs to improve his tackling angles when he's caught in space. Veteran Jamarca Sanford (75 tackles, 2 INT) is an excellent special teams player but best served as depth after struggling in coverage in a starting role last season, while Smith's teammate at Notre Dame, fellow rookie Robert Blanton, could also play his way into the mix at some point.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Vikings chose field position over a consistent field goal threat when they went with rookie Blair Walsh (6th Round, Georgia) over the proven Ryan Longwell. Walsh has a monster leg and figures to be near the top of the NFL in touchbacks, something the aging Longwell was rarely able to accomplish. Walsh was very impressive in training camp and showed off his prodigious leg strength by nailing a 71-yard field goal in practice, but it's all about consistency in the NFL and he was anything but that during his senior year at Georgia. Walsh made just 21-of-35 three-point tries with the Bulldogs last season, but the team felt he'll improve those numbers and that gaining yardage on kickoffs was more important to the big picture. Punter Chris Kluwe (45.7 avg.) also has a big leg, but the Vikings have given up a ton of big returns since he has been the team's punter. Some of them have been due to Kluwe's struggles in directional kicking and his frustrating habit of outkicking his coverage down the middle of the field, giving big-time return men like Devin Hester multiple options. In the return game, Harvin is one of the NFL's elite players taking back kickoffs but the Vikings like to limit his workload there, while the punt return job is wide open. Cornerback Marcus Sherels handled some kickoffs and all of the punt returns last season, averaging 8.4 yards in the latter, and did an excellent job with ball security. He also has the requisite speed, though he is small and has a tough time breaking tackles. If he doesn't shine as a return man, it will be hard for Sherels to make the final roster due to all the improvements at cornerback. The Vikings would love Robinson and his speed to take over on returns and there are others in the mix, particularly Wright on punts and Burton on kickoffs. Long snapper Cullen Loeffler remains one of the NFL's most consistent at the position while Sanford, Griffen, Dean and safety Eric Frampton figure to be some of the core guys covering kicks.
PROGNOSIS: A possible franchise left tackle and an improved secondary means Minnesota should be much tougher to deal with in 2012, but expecting the Vikings to compete in an NFC North division which features quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford is probably too much to ask. The NFL is all about quarterback play these days, and there are too many question marks surrounding Ponder to expect more than five or six wins for this group.
"We're not going to have too many people barking up our tree for playoff births or division titles," Greenway said. "We're just going to have to grind for every win and we're young, and it's going to be the best scenario for us to kinda lie in the weeds and be the underdogs so to speak."