Minnesota Vikings 2010 Preview
A 2010 Minnesota Vikings preview should be pretty straightforward, right? After all, we’re talking about a team that was 12-4 a year ago and, if not for five turnovers in the Conference Championship overtime loss at New Orleans, would have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Any Vikings discussion is mandatorily predicated on whether Brett Favre is coming back. But the year in question is no longer 2010 – it’s now 2011. (We’ll go ahead and assume Favre doesn’t yet know his status there.) Barring a major shock, the future Hall of Famer will be under center in 2010. It was an easy choice. Who wouldn’t want to play in an offense where you’re handing the ball to Adrian Peterson – the NFL’s leading rusher over the last three years – or throwing it to a quartet of dynamic receiving weapons in wideouts Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, Percy Harvin and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe? With the exception of Chester Taylor, every key contributor from the NFL’s second-ranked scoring offense returns.
Defensively, the Williams Wall (Pat Williams, Kevin Williams) remains intact. (And – God bless America’s convoluted judicial system and appeals processes – whatever suspension the two defensive tackles are facing from the 2008 StarCaps incident almost certainly won’t occur until after this season.) Joining the Williams Wall is arguably the best defensive end combo in the NFL: Jared Allen and Ray Edwards. In short, every Vikings defensive player who took the field in the NFC Title Game is back in 2010.
In an “almost too good to be true” scenario, the bulk of the coaching staff returns, as well. Head coach Brad Childress is not overtly beloved by the Minnesota faithful (Childress’s personality is about as warm as The Lake of the Woods in January). But the reality is the man won six games in his first season, eight games in his second, 10 games in his third and 12 in his fourth. According to this pattern, the Vikings will go undefeated as soon as the NFL officially oversaturates fans with an 18-game schedule (2012).
In addition to Childress, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is back for a fifth season, and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier – one of the league’s perennial head coaching bridesmaids – returns for a fourth. In the front office, owner Zygi Wilf is an effective delegator, which has allowed VP of player personnel Rick Spielman (now in his fifth season) to flourish.
So, again, it’s pretty simple. Given the talent, experience and continuity, we’re looking at a Super Bowl club…right?
But what if we’re actually looking at a Wild Card club? What if the devastating NFC Title Game loss is not a sign that this team is close, but rather, a sign that this team has already peaked?
Favre had a magical season in ’09. But, for the second time in three years, his season ended with a costly interception late in an NFC Championship overtime loss. In other words, the sprinkle of “bad” you get with Favre ultimately prevailed over his bundles of “good”. But never mind how the season ended – do you really think Favre can match his ’09 performance in 2010? This isn’t about age; by now we should all know better than to doubt the spryness of the soon-to-be 41-year-old (who, by the way, literally became a grandpa over the offseason). And this isn’t about health (Favre’s surgically-repaired ankle will almost certainly be a non-issue come September). This is about the simple improbability of any quarterback posting 4,202 yards, 68.4 completion percentage, 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
You might think the Vikings won’t need Favre to top his ’09 performance. After all, Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the NFC (when he’s not fumbling). But one of the driving forces behind Minnesota’s late-season decline – three of their four losses came in December – was the offense’s inability to run the ball. The stagnation of the ground game was the product of a soft, methodical front five. That line was not upgraded over the offseason.
Another driving force behind the decline was the loss of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who suffered a horrific femur fracture in Week 13. Henderson hopes to be back in 2010, but the cold truth is he’ll probably never be the same again. The defense could also be without top cornerback Cedric Griffin – at least early on – thanks to an ACL tear suffered in the NFC Championship. If 12th-year corner Antoine Winfield is as banged up and vulnerable as he was down the stretch in ’09, this pass defense will be in serious trouble.
Sprinkle in little side concerns about Peterson, Shiancoe and budding outside linebacker Chad Greenway wanting new contracts, Percy Harvin still battling migraines, Sidney Rice being criticized by Cris Carter over the offseason for taking his foot off the gas in workouts, the offensive line losing top veteran backup Artis Hicks and this team no longer flying near the bottom of everyone’s radar like it did last September. What does all this point to? A great team dangerously close to becoming “very good”.
No matter how well Brett Favre slings the ball, and no matter how feeble the offensive line’s run-blocking is, Adrian Peterson needs to be the first option in this offense. Peterson is the most violent, demonstrative runner in the game. He also has the speed to create cutback lanes and go the distance at any time. Sure, there are fumbling problems – significant fumbling problems, in fact – but that risk is dwarfed by the reward that comes with a once-in-a-generation talent.
Part of that reward is Peterson’s value as a decoy. His presence either forces a defense to bring an eighth man in the box or play a safer form of coverage. This is primarily what makes Minnesota’s passing game potent. Of course, Favre helps, too. Favre’s rocket arm gets plenty of attention, but his greatness stems largely from his abilities to quickly process information and manipulate defenders with subtle fakes.
Favre has a litany of options to throw to. Fourth-year receiver Sidney Rice is the first option. Rice is neither shifty nor explosive, but his fluid long strides and leaping ability make him an ideal vertical threat. The key is whether Rice will stay focused and dedicated now that he’s enjoyed the perks of having a 1,300-yard season in the NFL.
Bernard Berrian is the titular No. 2 receiver, but Percy Harvin will emerge as Favre’s second option in 2010. In fact, by the end of last season, Favre was forcing the ball to the electrifying Offensive Rookie of the Year. Harvin’s flexibility in the slot creates critical mismatches for this offense. To a certain degree, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe does the same. Shiancoe can operate off the line of scrimmage, go in motion or flex to the slot. True, he’s a body catcher more than a hands catcher, and his big plays are often a product of opponents paying attention to the stars around him. But Shiancoe has a unique ability to keep plays alive, which is huge when working with a master of improvisation like Favre.
Jim Kleinsasser is the No. 2 tight end, though in this scheme, he’s used more as an H-back. Kleinsasser is important because fullback Naufahu Tahi does not jump out on film.
On the off-chance that Favre won’t be around in 2010, Minnesota will rely on athletic but eternally raw Tarvaris Jackson. It’s curious that the scramble-oriented fifth-year pro has so easily beat out veteran pocket passer Sage Rosenfels, a viable career-long backup who was once thought to have legitimate starting potential. But Childress remains intent on proving that Jackson was indeed worth that second-round pick in 2006. (There are also whispers that coaches don’t like Rosenfels’s attitude.)
A more important backup will be second-round rookie running back Toby Gerhart. The Heisman runner-up from Stanford is tasked with replacing super-dependable third-down back Chester Taylor. Gerhart, however, is more of a bruiser who, in college, needed a high volume of carries to be effective. Here, he’ll to be a spot contributor. He’ll be given every chance to succeed, but if it doesn’t work out, the Vikings can go with Ryan Moats, a downhill runner who accelerates well.
As for that offensive line…To start with, understand that left guard Steve Hutchinson is not a problem. Yes, at 32, Hutchinson has lost a hint of power. But he still creates great angles off the snap and mixes things up with dexterity at the second level. The rest of the offensive linemen are problems, though. Well-paid left tackle Bryant McKinnie is soft and inconsistent. His lack of physicality stands out in run blocking, and too often his poor technique is exposed in pass protection.
Third-year center John Sullivan might have a decent future, though he hasn’t quite figured out how to consistently mask his subpar strength. Part of the reason is he’s playing next to a run-blocking liability in right guard Anthony Herrera. Rounding out the line is right tackle Phil Loadholt, an ’09 second-round pick who needs to be reminded that he’s a long-armed 6’8”, 343-pounder. The only experienced backup is Ryan Cook, a sloppy athlete whose value is in his ability to play all five positions.
This front four is spectacular, which is fortunate, as Leslie Frazier’s Tampa 2 scheme hinges on winning battles at the line of scrimmage. Overall, Kevin Williams is the most disruptive defensive tackle in the game. Pat Williams is 38 and likely in his final season, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he still plugs against the run. He’s the primary reason the Vikings ranked second in run defense last season and first in run defense each of the previous three seasons. The depth behind the Williams Wall is stellar. Jimmy Kennedy will never completely shake the underachiever label – and rightfully so, considering he was a high-first-round pick in St. Louis – but he’s learned how to effectively throw his weight around as an interior nickel pass-rusher. Kennedy has better feet than you’d guess. Fred Evans is not great in a phone booth, but he’s proficient in sliding down the line of scrimmage.
Jared Allen might be the best right end in the business. He’s a double-team magnet who is good for roughly 15 sacks and five forced fumbles a season. Plus, his run defense is every bit as formidable as his pass-rush. Left end Ray Edwards spent the offseason away from team facilities in protest of the RFA tender that the NFL’s 2010 uncapped season brought about. Can’t blame him – the supple fifth-year pro (who is only 25, by the way) had 8.5 sacks in ’09 and deserves a fat long-term contract. Backup Brian Robison provides speed and energy, and there’s hope that versatile fourth-round rookie Everson Griffen will turn out to be an inside/outside pass-rushing gem.
With E.J. Henderson’s status iffy, the spotlight once again falls on Jasper Brinkley. The fifth-round rookie from a year ago had a terrific offseason. Brinkley has good explosiveness but was too wide-eyed last year to consistently show it. The keys for him will be a.) improving run/pass recognition and b.) attacking downhill against the run (as opposed to playing laterally). Strongside linebacker Chad Greenway is one of the best underneath pass defenders in the game. He also closes well on tackles. Weakside linebacker Ben Leber is the definition of a reliable role player.
Minnesota’s secondary is a question mark. A lot depends on whether Antoine Winfield can regain his form as an elite ball-swatting, swift-tackling cornerback. If the 33-year-old proves to indeed be washed up or still hobbled by the bad foot that ruined him in ’09, the Vikings are in trouble. Cedric Griffin won’t be available until October, and even then he’ll probably be a step off. Two-time Pro Bowler Lito Sheppard was brought in, but he was benched as an Eagle and Jet over the last two years.
The Vikings invested a second-round pick in corner Chris Cook. Cook has great size (6’2”, 212), but many expect his initial contributions to come on special teams. Asher Allen and Benny Sapp both got serious snaps in ’09, but if coaches were high on either guy, Minnesota would not have acquired Sheppard or Cook.
It’s vital that the Viking safeties finally step up. Neither starter has been enough of a playmaker. Strong safety Tyrell Johnson has excellent straight-line speed. Free safety Madieu Williams is experienced in this scheme. They must somehow adopt each other’s traits (Johnson must play with more intelligence; Williams must be more willing to pin his ears back).
Ryan Longwell was successful on 92 percent of his field goal attempts last season. However, only five of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Thus, Longwell is still the placekicker, but much to his chagrin, Rhys Lloyd was given a two-year contract to do the kicking off. Lloyd had 21 touchbacks for the Panthers last season. Punter Chris Kluwe is nothing if not dependable. Percy Harvin can be lethal in the return game.
This is the same beautiful team that took the NFL by storm last season, except for a few zits that have shown up (mainly offensive line and defensive wear and tear). Those zits wouldn’t be a big deal if the Packers weren’t so dangerous.
Predicted: 2nd NFC North
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