Of all the advancements the Vikings made from a franchise-worst 3-13 record in 2011 to the playoffs following the 2012 season, one of the most surprising omissions was a guy that the Vikings invested the most in between those two seasons – tight end John Carlson.
A Minnesota native making a triumphant return after signing a five-year, $25 million contract, Carlson's season effectively ended before it began. After being injured in the first days of training camp, Carlson never got on the same page with his new team and the new system. In the 14 games he played, he caught just eight passes for 49 yards.
When you consider that Carlson had a $2.9 million base salary and cashed in a $5 million signing bonus, he was paid $7.9 million – almost $1 million per reception and $161,000 per yard. Given the lack of bang for the buck, Carlson agreed to a reduced contract for 2013, dropping his base salary to $1.5 million.
In his case, it seemed like his training camp injury left him missing the team bus as it sped away and never being able to catch it. Asked if he thought 2013 was a clean slate, Carlson gave something a combo yes-no answer.
"I'm looking forward to getting the experience from last year behind me, but I'm not sure if I'm looking at it as a clean slate," Carlson said. "Every season in the NFL is like starting over, whether you're coming off a good year or a bad year. Last year was a big disappointment for me in many ways, but it's encouraging to have another opportunity this year to try to have the kind of season I was hoping to have and that the Vikings organization was expecting I would have when they signed me last year."
One of the reasons speculated that the Vikings signed Carlson when they already had Kyle Rudolph as a tight end bell cow was that the New England blueprint was in place. The Patriots found a way to have an elite passing game using two tight ends among their top three receivers. In a replication sport, Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave admitted that the Patriots way opened the eyes of offensive coordinators throughout the league about the potential of having two seam-stretching tight ends that can create mismatches and move the chains with ease.
Carlson was supposed to be part of that plan last year. In most games, he was on the field about 25 percent of the time on average. He wants to change that in 2013. While it is still far too early to gauge what his role will be, Carlson believes he can live up to what got the Vikings excited about him when he hit the free agent market 15 months ago.
"We're only three OTAs into this thing, so I don't exactly know what the plan will be for using Kyle and I," Carlson said. "We're in the work phase and the focus right now is to improve every day. By Week 1, we'll have a much better idea, but it's just too early on to know how the offense is going to operate. But, I'm excited about the potential opportunities we'll have."
Musgrave never got to fully implement Carlson into his offense after he went down three practices into training camp, but he vouched for his character and ability by saying a lot of players would have checked out in the same situation, but, as the Vikings made their stretch run, Carlson was as enthusiastic a team player as the coordinator could have asked for and he hasn't forgotten it.
"I look forward to having John being more productive because there are opportunities for our tights ends to make plays," Musgrave said. "I know as frustrated as John was, he's still a team-oriented person. It wasn't like he was down in the dumps or a distraction or a destructive factor to our team. He was excited about the run we made at the end of the year and did whatever we asked of him."
In a team with a youth movement, it doesn't help Carlson's case that he turned 29 last year. Hitting the age of 30 is a curse with the current Vikings, but Rick Spielman is the type that enjoys the new flavor. He is Baskin-Robbins' dream customer. He made Carlson one of his first investments as the shot-caller of the Vikings organization. Spielman is invested in Carlson's success, as are those who pay his check. The general manager vouched for Carlson and wants him to succeed. As Carlson sees it, he's not a 29-year-old, he's a second-year Viking.
Much like the second-year Vikings who are six or seven years his junior, big things are expected from guys like Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith … and Carlson. Just as those players are looking to see their second seasons as being a turning point in their careers and their bargaining power moving forward, Carlson shares that vision and sees 2013 as his own coming out party – at least as it pertains to Vikings fans who haven't grown accustomed to his name.
"This is only my second year with the team, so I'm part of that new group," Carlson said. "I'm still learning on the fly and getting to know the guys on the team. I feel like this year we're further ahead at this point in the offseason process than we were last year. That's encouraging. We're not where we want to be yet, but it's still early."
The Vikings are fully expecting Kalil and Smith to tear it up in 2013. Inside the organization, they're expecting the same from Carlson. For a fan base with hopes and expectations on a lot of players, if Carlson comes close to living up to Spielman's vision, he will be a happy accident that will annoy every team on the Vikings' 2013 schedule.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.