The Vikings start the 2013 season smack in the middle of the pack. They likely won’t finish there.
The unlikely 2012 wild-card team will get either a lot better with the development of a strong passing game, or a lot worse without it.
And so the focal point of the entire franchise becomes the man who is the most important player on every NFL team: the quarterback.
The Vikings will go as far as Christian Ponder will take them. And before we go much farther with that point, let’s defer to the various categories we use for every team.
The Vikings’ biggest strength comes from an offense built around Adrian Peterson, the reigning league MVP. If Peterson, who came within nine yards of the single-season rushing record despite tearing an ACL on Christmas Eve of 2011, runs in 2013 like he ran during the second half of 2012, he could put up 2,500 yards or more.
Helping him try again to topple Eric Dickerson’s record is an offensive line that returns all five starters, even though questions swirl around John Sullivan’s knee, which required microfracture surgery to simulate cartilage growth. They stepped up to pay right tackle Phil Loadholt, and Matt Kalil had a solid rookie season at left tackle.
Elsewhere on offense, the tight end position features tight end Kyle Rudolph and fullback Jerome Felton. Both made it to the Pro Bowl; Rudolph was the game’s MVP.
The defensive line continues to be a strong suit for the Vikings, but the winds of change are blowing like that big horn that blares whenever a touchdown is scored. Defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams enter contract years. The Vikings need rookie Sharrif Floyd to make a quick impact, and they need guys like Brian Robison and Everson Griffen to show that they can get it done if/when Allen is elsewhere in 2014.
The safety position went quickly from perennial weakness to strength with the arrival in 2012 of Harrison Smith. If he can continue to develop, the Vikings could soon have one of the strongest last lines of defense in the league.
The Vikings have one of the best kickers in the league in 2012 rookie Blair Walsh, and they could have one of the best punters in 2013 rookie Jeff Locke, who was deemed to be good enough after one minicamp to justify jettisoning veteran Chris Kluwe.
The Vikings’ biggest weakness, like their biggest strength, comes from an offense built around Adrian Peterson, the reigning league MVP. Similar to the pre-Favre years, the Vikings have been unable to take advantage of the attention paid to Peterson with a passing game that stretches the field, in turn making it easier for Peterson to pile up even more yards.
Despite all the bouquets being thrown to third-year quarterback Christian Ponder, he enters a distinct “prove it or lose it” campaign in Minnesota. And the verdict could come even before the end of the coming season. If Ponder, the 12th overall pick in 2011, stinks it up badly enough, Matt Cassel could get a chance to resurrect his own once-promising career.
It’s hard to label the receiver position as a strength or a weakness in isolation, but it doesn’t matter. Together with Ponder, the unit will be viewed as a weakness until they prove otherwise, with Ponder reaching his potential, free-agent Greg Jennings staying healthy and playing effectively, raw rookie Cordarrelle Patterson making an impact more like Randy Moss and less like Troy Williamson, and veteran Jerome Simpson living up to the hype that made him a free-agent arrival in 2012.
On defense, middle linebacker isn’t a weakness as much as it’s unsettled, with Erin Henderson sliding in from the outside and newcomer Desmond Bishop hoping to get healthy and reacquainted with the 4-3 defense.
The cornerback position also has question marks with the departure of Antoine Winfield, but first-round rookie Xavier Rhodes bolsters a group that features quietly improving former second-rounder Chris Cook.
The release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield could be the first gust that will impact the defense in the coming years, with standouts like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams likely making way for cheaper, younger players. Two of those guys came via round one, with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes joining a gradually improving defense.
With Jasper Brinkley gone for Arizona, the middle linebacker spot is wide open. Former Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop joins Erin Henderson as the primary candidates to fill the void.
On offense, two new receivers — veteran Greg Jennings and first-rounder Cordarrelle Patterson — make it harder for Christian Ponder to cite a lack of weapons if the passing game doesn’t improve. They replace Percy Harvin, who was shipped to Seattle for more than the Vikings, who made their playoff push without him in 2012, should have gotten.
Finally, one of the most intriguing players on the roster isn’t a new arrival, but he has a new position. Three years after switching Joe Webb from receiver to quarterback after his rookie minicamp, Webb has returned to the receiver position, where he’ll have to win a roster spot any way he can.
On offense, many of the jobs are set. Christian Ponder enters the season as the unquestioned starter; questions will arise only if he stinks it up.
The depth chart at receiver starts with Greg Jennings and continues with a cluster of guys who’ll earn their playing time during training camp and the preseason. Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Jarius Wright will battle for playing time.
The biggest question comes at the bottom of the depth chart, where converted quarterback Joe Webb will have to earn his roster spot. If he can contribute on special teams (he could be returning punts), it’ll help his cause.
First-round rookie Sharrif Floyd will have a chance to take reps from last year’s starters at defensive tackle, Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion, even if Floyd doesn’t get a starting job himself. Generally speaking, the rotation on the defensive line needs to be determined, with the Vikings hoping to get defensive end Everson Griffen on the field.
At linebacker, Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop will battle both in the middle and elsewhere, since the guy who loses out on the chance to replace Jasper Brinkley could end up starting on the strong side, across from Chad Greenway. Don’t rule out Gerald Hodges for some playing time, since he had a very strong offseason.
In the secondary, Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson will fight for a starting spot across from Chris Cook. A.J. Jefferson could have a chance, too. Robinson also will battle Jacob Lacey for the nickel position.
At safety, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, and Robert Blanton will compete to start alongside Harrison Smith.
The Vikings won three games in 2011 before rebounding in unexpected fashion with a playoff berth in 2012. The team currently lands somewhere in the middle, and it will skew toward good or bad based on Christian Ponder’s ability to develop into a consistent starting quarterback.
At a time when parity has allowed any team to get to the playoffs, only teams with franchise quarterbacks win Super Bowls. Still, the Vikings have the ability if Ponder is merely competent to become an elite team, thanks to the skills and abilities of Adrian Peterson, an underrated defense, and a young kicker and punter who can contribute three-pointers and field position.