(SportsNetwork.com) - Perceived upgrades at the quarterback position and the head coaching job have people excited about Minnesota Vikings football again.
The Vikings franchise was set back years by 2011 draft bust Christian Ponder and the former first-round pick's inability to handle things at the NFL level eventually cost Leslie Frazier his job.
The real culprit in the Ponder debacle, however, was general manager Rick Spielman, who panicked and reached for the Florida State product, a player who was given a second-round grade by most, with the 12th overall pick.
For whatever reason team owner Zygi Wilf gave Spielman one last mulligan to clean up his mess and the veteran personnel man deserves some credit for learning from his mistakes.
Spielman has now amassed seven solid first-round picks in his last three drafts since the Ponder debacle -- Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith in 2012, Shariff Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and the explosive Cordarrelle Patterson from last year, and now Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater in 2014.
Add in the hiring of the highly-regarded, no-nonsense Mike Zimmer to be the team's new head coach and you can see the Vikings are back on an upward trajectory.
The key to the Vikings moving forward, though, will be Bridgewater because Minnesota needs the answer at the game's most important position. That said, getting a player with the 32nd overall pick who was once considered a top- five-level prospect is a prudent gamble.
"There is no pressure on this kid to come in and play," Spielman said. "We're very comfortable with (veteran QB) Matt Cassel right now. He'll come in and compete and then the coaches will determine if he's even ready to play this year."
Most understood Cassel, who has captained 10 win teams twice in his NFL career, was the best QB in Minny last year but the Vikings were slow to make the move in hopes the light would finally go off for Ponder, something which never happened.
This time it's Cassel's job until the entire organization is convinced that Bridgewater is ready, something that may not happen until 2015, especially if Cassel performs like he did in 2008 with the New England Patriots when he went 10-5 as a starter while filling in for an injured Tom Brady or in 2010 when he matched that record in Kansas City.
Last year the Vikings were 3-3 with Cassel at the helm and most believe the team could have competed in the downtrodden NFC North if the Southern Cal product started from Day 1. Green Bay won the division with a shaky 8-7-1 record.
Unlike Frazier, whose devotion to the archaic Tampa-2 philosophy defined him, Zimmer is regarded as a far more innovative mentor who surveys the talent he has and molds his game plans to their strengths.
The veteran coach, who has been a defensive coordinator in Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati, has had success running both 3-4 and 4-3 base schemes and is known for getting the most out of what he has available.
In Cincinnati players like Vontaze Burfict, an undrafted college free agent, and Geno Atkins, a fourth-round pick, developed into stars, while Zimmer got more out of defensive backs like Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson than any of their former coaches.
2013 RECORD: 5-10-1 (4th, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to Green Bay in wild card round.
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike Zimmer (first season with Vikings)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Norv Turner (first season with Vikings)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: George Edwards (first season with Vikings)
KEY ADDITIONS: OG Vladimir Ducasse (from Jets), DE Corey Wootton (from Bears), DT Linval Joseph (from Giants), DT Tom Johnson (from Saints), ILB Jasper Brinkley (from Cardinals), CB Captain Munnerlyn (from Panthers), CB Derek Cox (from Chargers), S Kurt Coleman (from Eagles), LB Anthony Barr (first round, UCLA), QB Teddy Bridgewater (first round, Louisville)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB Toby Gerhart (to Jaguars), WR/QB Joe Webb (to Panthers), TE John Carlson (to Cardinals), DE Jared Allen (to Bears), DT Kevin Williams (to Seahawks), DT Letroy Guion (to Packers), CB Chris Cook (to 49ers)
QB: For now, Cassel will be the placeholder for Bridgewater, an intriguing prospect who struggled in the pre-draft process but has drawn rave reviews from new Minny offensive coordinator Norv Turner so far.
Cassel has started 68 regular season games and understands how to win in this league. He is no star but he's a competent guy who can take advantage of all the extra attention superstar running back Adrian Peterson generates.
The long-term answer, however, is Bridgewater, who was once considered a top- five-level prospect. The Louisville product is the most polished and NFL-ready signal caller from this year's draft class.
Ponder is now the third-stringer and might be released if the team can't trade him. He has always been able to verbalize on what he needs to improve on but the fact remains he often regresses to what's natural to him, and his default settings as a quarterback are just not conducive to solid play at the NFL level.
"My biggest thing is just to become a better football player," Ponder said. "There are probably specifics that I'll work on but the general idea for everyone, it's all the same, we want to be better."
RB: Peterson remains the best pure runner in the game and one of its few, true home-run hitters who can take it the distance every time he touches the football. A frightening combination of power and speed, coupled with a prodigious work ethic have turned Peterson into perhaps the best football player in the world. He's the best bell cow in the business, a guy who can handle 30 touches and wear down the opposition.
Depth took a hit when Peterson's long-time caddy, Toby Gerhart, fled to Jacksonville in free agency for a chance to start, Peterson is so good you never thought or saw much of Gerhart, a bruising Stanford product, but replacing him won't be easy.
Matt Asiata, a versatile hybrid who can handle snaps at fullback or tailback and is a solid special-teamer, isn't nearly as explosive as Gerhart was. Meanwhile, third-round pick Jerrick McKinnon has immense physical gifts but he is a very raw player and it could be difficult to get him on the field except in very manufactured situations.
The starting fullback is Jerome Felton, a battering ram who is one of the better lead-isolation blockers in football.
WR: The Vikings expect the explosive Patterson, a stick-his-foot-in-the- ground, explosive big-play machine. to take a big leap forward this year as a receiver.
Patterson, who was selected with the 29th overall pick out of Tennessee in 2012, was right there with Tavon Austin as the biggest playmakers coming out of that draft. He, however, was not a polished route runner and former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave had a tough time getting him touches until later in the season. By all accounts Patterson worked hard on his craft in the offseason and could be ready for a breakout year with consistent QB play.
Veteran Greg Jennings, a two-time Pro Bowler while he was in Green Bay, isn't as scary as Patterson but he is one of the best pure route runners in the game and one of the few receivers in football who can line up outside the numbers or in the slot and be just as effective. His professionalism and consistency on the field are also without peer.
Jerome Simpson is a competent split end with the size, speed and physical gifts to be a problem, especially on inside routes. He's always been inconsistent as a route runner, though, and has had off-the-field issues with another potential three-game suspension looming at the outset of this season.
The speedy Jarius Wright looks like he will be a solid contributor as a slot receiver and Rodney Smith, a 6-foot-5 physical guy with a wide catching radius should end up as Simpson's replacement while the veteran is sidelined. Minnesota also needs to find a spot for the versatile Adam Thielen, a Gopher State native who helps at both receiver and on special teams.
TE: Kyle Rudolph, a player with amazing hands and an imposing catching radius thanks to his 6-foot-6 frame, is the kind of tight end Turner has always salivated over. Many are expecting a monster year from the Notre Dame product, who lost weight and has seemed much quicker in the preseason.
Third-year man Rhett Ellison is a core special-teamer and a real positive as an h-back, filling the role Jim Kleinsasser used to handle with such effectiveness in Minnesota. Ellison can move from the backfield to the line as a plus blocker in both spots.
Potential third tight end Chase Ford, who showed some signs late last year after Rudolph was injured has missed the entire preseason thus far with a broken foot. If he's healthy by Week 1, though, the Vikings will stick with him although Allen Reisner has quickly become a Bridgewater favorite, snaring three TD catches from the rookie in the preseason.
OL: The Vikings line should be one of the NFL's best thanks to four stalwarts: center John Sullivan, guard Brandon Fusco and tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt.
Kalil, however, must have a bounce back year. The third-year Southern Cal product, played hurt for much of last season and wasn't nearly as effective as he was in his rookie season. A return to that rookie form will greatly bolster the Vikings' hopes. Unfortunately his play has been spotty again in the preseason.
Sullivan is one of the better centers in football, a smart and instinctive player who handles all the line calls, mirrors well and excels on double-team blocks.
Right guard Fusco turned a corner last season, developing into one of the top guards in the NFC, especially as a run blocker. The Vikings have always loved Fusco's natural strength and nasty disposition, but in the past he would play out of control at times and be caught leaning too much. Experience has helped clean up those technique problems.
Loadholt is an absolute road-grader in the running game and a solid pass protector, although he will struggle with undersized, speed rushers on occasion.
The lone projected weak spot is at left guard where veteran Charlie Johnson is back. Johnson should be better because he has solid lower body strength and movement skills but a lack of quickness off the ball has always been a problem for the ex-Oklahoma State star.
Veteran Joe Berger figures to remain the key reserve inside with ex-Jet bust Vladimir Ducasse, a physical specimen who just doesn't seem to get the game, and former Stanford star David Yankey on hand. It remains to be seen if Yankey's athletic enough but he is a physical guy with solid technique who could push Johnson at left guard down the line.
The swing tackle is down to a pair of undrafted free agents, Tennessee's Tiny Richardson or Fresno State's Austin Wentworth. Both had significant starting experience in college but Richardson's upside is far greater.
DL: Minnesota re-built the front four waiving goodbye to potential future Hall of Famers Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, while re-signing promising pass rusher Everson Griffen and inking ascending nose tackle Linval Joseph, as well as underrated swingman Corey Wootton.
Unlike the previous regime Zimmer believes in having a strong rotation to cut down repetitions in an effort to keep his best players fresh for the fourth quarter.
Griffen, an athletic marvel who has been used as a gunner on special teams in the past, can play inside or outside and could be a future star as a pass rusher. On paper he's the replacement for Allen at right end but you can bet Zimmer will take advantage of his versatility and move him around while looking for the best advantage he can get.
Floyd was out of shape last year and had a disappointing rookie season but he's extremely talented and the heir apparent to Williams. The Philadelphia native lost weight and remade his body in the offseason and some have begun to see the a Richard Seymour-like factor playing the three-technique.
Joseph, who signed a five-year, $31.5 million contract with the Vikings in March after spending four seasons with the New York Giants, is the run stuffer the Vikings haven't had since Pat Williams and the coaches were raving about him but his status was complicated by an off-the-field incident in which he was shot in the calf by a stray bullet at a night club in early August. He's expected to be ready by Week 1 but that remains to be seen.
The underrated Brian Robison, who possessed an outstanding work ethic and a high-level motor, returns at left end.
Inside veterans Fred Evans and Tom Johnson are being pushed by seventh-round rookie Shamar Stephen, a UConn product being cross-trained as both a three- and zero-technique. Evans has always had upper-echelon quickness and a blinding first step, but is also undersized and wears down if he plays too much. Stephen will likely have to beat out Johnson, a free agent signee from the Saints, for a roster spot.
The backup ends figure to be Wootton, a lengthy athlete with the lateral quickness to skate down the line of scrimmage, and rookie third-round pick Scott Crichton, who seems tailor-made for Zimmer's rotational style of defense up front.
LB: Rookie first-round pick Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway will start on the outside, sandwiching either downhill run stopper Jasper Brinkley, who returns to Minnesota after a year in Arizona, or the rangy Audie Cole.
Barr is raw, spending just two years on defense at UCLA after flipping from running back, but his athletic skills are off the charts and some look at him and think Jason Taylor.
"I've never had a linebacker, even thinking back to my Dallas days, that has the size and speed and all the things that this guy has," Zimmer said when talking about Barr.
Barr is a great example of what Zimmer does so much better than Frazier. His strengths right now are as a downhill player who can run and chase people down. Zimmer will use him as a pass rusher in third-down situation while the Tampa-2 would have wasted him in space or as a coverage linebacker because of his athleticism.
Greenway played hurt last year and had a bad season. Few linebackers were asked to do as much as Greenway and he generally excels in all facets, although the former University of Iowa star is at his best when he is using his athleticism to run and chase. He'll also project much better in Zimmer's schemes.
The coach, meanwhile, recently explained how close the race is between Brinkley and Cole.
"Jasper seems to be a little bit more communicative, and Audie seems to have a little more range," the coach said. "As far as the running game, they're very close -- and (in) the passing game they're similar. You have to look at all the different things, how it affects the rest of the guys on the team. You have to look at their blitz ability, their communication on different formations."
Brinkley started the first three preseason games and remains No. 1 on the depth chart.
Depth is promising but largely unproven. Rookie Brandon Watts and second-year man Gerald Hodges are tremendous athletes, while Michael Mauti is especially intriguing. A third ACL tear in his final season at Penn State sent Mauti tumbling from a second- or third-round grade. The Vikings took a flyer on Mauti in the seventh round of the 2013 draft and he is an instinctive, natural Mike who could develop into a starter at the NFL level down the line.
DB: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is exactly what the Vikings needed. Minnesota mistakenly moved on from veteran Antoine Winfield before the 2013 season and the results were nothing short of disastrous.
A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Winfield was a rock at the Vikings' all- important left cornerback position and an even more critical lynchpin to the club's defensive scheme when he moved inside to play the slot on obvious passing downs.
Josh Robinson, a raw player with elite speed but little feel for coverage, was lost in Minnesota's antiquated cover-2 defensive philosophy as Winfield's replacement, and he and fellow corner Chris Cook, a lengthy player with no discernable ball skills who is now in San Francisco. were arguably the worst starting duo in the entire NFL last year.
In fact Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013 out of Florida State, was the only bright spot at corner for the Vikings last season. Rhodes is penciled in as one starter opposite Munnerlyn, an undersized but scrappy option expected to take over the Winfield role as the corner who holds his own outside the numbers before moving inside in the nickel where "The Captain" was a difference maker with the Carolina Panthers.
Robinson, who has high-end recovery speed but little feel for coverage, and veteran Marcus Sherels, a solid tackler, are set for reserve spots while rookie Jabari Price and Shaun Prater could also stick.
The only thing you can pencil in at safety is the emerging Harrison Smith, a smart and instinctive player who is the best safety Minnesota has had perhaps since Hall of Famer Paul Krause was toiling for Bud Grant.
Veteran Chris Crocker, who comes out of retirement, seemingly every year to help out Zimmer is the coach's comfortable old shoe but it's pretty clear the Vikings want Smith's teammate at Notre Dame, Robert Blanton, to win the strong safety job.
Blanton, who was a corner in college, has the coverage skills Zimmer wants but he has been hampered by a hamstring injury and has missed a ton of time in the preseason.
Ex-Eagle Kurt Coleman and former starter Jamarca Sanford are also in the mix and the team will try to find a roster spot for rookie Antone Exum, who isn't ready now but has plenty of upside.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Blair Walsh set an NFL record by making all 10 of his field goals from 50-plus yards and tied another NFL record with three FGs of 50-plus in a game at St. Louis en route to being named a first-team All-Pro as a rookie. He wasn't nearly as good in his sophomore season, though, after a change from Chris Kluwe to Jeff Locke as his holder and has struggled again in the preseason, leading many to think consistency will be an issue with the Georgia product. His ability to tilt the field with imposing kickoffs remains, however.
Locke in an Aussie-style kicker who was below average as a rookie but he has the monster leg and did have a feathery touch at UCLA so there is hope he turns things around and things click.
In the return game, the Vikings are very good. Patterson is an electric kickoff returner, perhaps the best in all of football, while Sherels has proven to be a top-10 punt returner.
COACHING: Zimmer should easily be the Vikings best coach since Dennis Green and Turner figures to be a huge upgrade on the repetitive Musgrave. Defensive chief George Edwards is really just a rubber stamp to implement what Zimmer wants.
THE SKINNY: The Vikings will finally sport a 21st-century defense now that Zimmer has taken over the head-coaching duties from Tampa-2 acolyte Frazier.
The real issue in Minneapolis, however, remains the game's most important position. Spielman had done a nice job adding talent, especially in the guts of the draft. Now, he's just got to get the quarterback position right and Bridgewater's fate will ultimately define him and this team.