Matt Cassel (Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY)
In some cases, the emerging stars have another year of experience. In other cases, a free-agent piece was added. But the optimist could make the case that the Vikings are better at nearly every position than they were a year ago.
When it comes to success in the NFL, there is no replacement for “the replacements.”
Just about every NFL team has five to 10 elite players – those viewed by their peers as being among the best at their respective positions. The more of them you have, the more likely you are to succeed because, despite being a team game, players capable of making big individual plays can create the difference that wins games. How many times has Adrian Peterson taken a carry to the left, found it stacked up and reversed field to bust loose a 60-yard touchdown? How many opposition drives have been cut short because Jared Allen beat his man and got to the quarterback for a sack (or a strip-sack turnover)? There’s no questioning that elite players make big plays.
But when it comes to teams capable of winning championships, the talent on the second line of the depth chart can make as big an impact as those on the first line. The Vikings entered the 2012 season with hopes of showing enough improvement to contend for a playoff spot. As luck (and the lack of injuries) would have it, the Vikings made the playoffs and set the foundation for expectations in 2013.
As the Vikings prepare to head for training camp, they are markedly better at several positions and haven’t really taken any significant steps backward. Don’t take our word for it. Figure out the following positional breakdown for yourself and do the math.
Quarterback – A year ago, Christian Ponder was the unquestioned starter. The only question was who would be the primary backup. Joe Webb locked down the No. 2 job and held that post until he was called into emergency duty in the playoff loss to Green Bay. His performance was so pathetic that one of the first moves the Vikings made in the offseason was to sign Matt Cassel. As the Vikings head to Mankato, Cassel is now the No. 2 guy and Webb is being used at wide receiver. Cassel’s experience won’t be lost on the coaching staff, which could give the Vikings four QBs that could be used during the season – even though Webb is being used exclusively at wide receiver … for now. There’s no doubt that a veteran like Cassel has improved the depth of the position.
Running Back – The three primary running backs are all back – Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and Jerome Felton. The only difference is that there are no questions about A.P.’s health, which, in itself, is an upgrade.
Wide Receiver – This one may be subject to debate. Percy Harvin was a stud and a rare type of difference-maker that doesn’t come along that often. To replace Harvin, the Vikings have signed Greg Jennings as a free agent and drafted Cordarrelle Patterson, who has many of the same qualities that intrigued the Vikings with Harvin in 2009. With Jerome Simpson not facing a suspension as he did in 2012 and Jarius Wright with a year of experience, that “glass-half-full” crowd can argue that the Vikings have more depth at the position than they did in 2012 when the receiver corps was known as “Harvin & Friends.”
Tight End – A year ago, there were high hopes for Kyle Rudolph, but he had yet to establish him as an elite tight end. A year later, Rudolph is coming off a Pro Bowl, John Carlson can’t be any worse than he was in 2012 and Rhett Ellison has a valuable year of experience with more expected this time. The names are the same, but the realistic expectations are higher.
Offensive Line – Matt Kalil wasn’t a question mark at left tackle as a rookie, but he lived up to or exceeded all expectations. Phil Loadholt was entering the final season of his rookie contract last year. Now he’s back with a long-term deal and solidifies the right tackle position. Charlie Johnson proved to be a solid replacement for an aging, oft-injured (and now retired) Steve Hutchinson. John Sullivan played at a Pro Bowl level. Geoff Schwartz was brought in during the 2012 offseason to be the starting right guard, but injuries allowed Brandon Fusco to jump over him into the starting ranks. Depth is as thin as it was a year ago, so the hope is that the O-line stays healthy, but there will be competition for backup spots as intense as it has been in years, making this a minimal but perceptible upgrade. Combined with the locking down two bookend tackles for the next four years, it gives the Vikings a lot of reasons for optimism.
Defensive Line – Coming into training camp both seasons, the Vikings had a starting front four of Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion and key backups in Everson Griffen and Fred Evans. The difference between 2012 and 2013 is the addition of Sharrif Floyd, who is arguably the biggest difference-making DT in the 2013 draft. It’s going to be hard to keep him on the sideline, which can only make a veteran D-line better.
Linebacker – Widely viewed as the one position that wasn’t addressed in the draft or free agency, the Packers’ release of Desmond Bishop changes things considerably. If Erin Henderson is moved back to his natural OLB position along with Chad Greenway, many Vikings fans would be hard-pressed to say that Bishop isn’t an upgrade from Jasper Brinkley, who wasn’t re-signed after one year starting at middle linebacker. Backups Marvin Mitchell, Audie Cole and Larry Dean all have another year of experience under their belts. Add into that young talent in Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, even the harshest skeptics have to concede that the Vikings are at least as good if not better at linebacker than a year ago.
Cornerback – This is a debate that remains up in the air. Antoine Winfield was a proven, reliable veteran and seeing him in Seattle creates a hole. He was the smallest guy on the field most plays, but you don’t find many tougher. The Vikings have switched to what they hope will become a dominant tandem in Xavier Rhodes and Chris Cook. Rhodes is a rookie and Cook has missed more games (26) than he has played (22) in his first three seasons. Josh Robinson wasn’t viewed as the automatic No. 3 cornerback as a rookie. He is now. The preseason view in 2012 was the backup cornerbacks would include Chris Carr, Zach Bowman and Asher Allen. They have been replaced by players the Vikings thought were better a year later. The only difference is Winfield at the end of his career or Rhodes at the start of his. You make the call.
Safety – The Vikings had high hopes for Harrison Smith last year teaming up with Jamarca Sanford. A year later, Smith is viewed as a player with Pro Bowl potential and Mistral Raymond, Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo are all back to compete for roster spots. What was a team weakness heading into 2012 may be a strength in 2013.
Special Teams – From the group that played Jan. 1, 2012 only long snapper Cullen Loeffler remains. Kicker Blair Walsh was an unknown when he replaced Ryan Longwell last year. A year later, he’s coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and an NFL record by making 10 field goals of 50 yards or more. This time around, controversial activist/punter Chris Kluwe is gone and, for the second straight year, the Vikings have used a draft pick on a specialist in punter Jeff Locke. If he comes close to providing the punting game what Walsh did for the kicking game, the Vikings will be even more improved.
The Vikings aren’t a guarantee for anything this year and, given a brutal schedule, the Vegas smarts see them as about an eight-win team. Will they be right? Maybe, but one thing that is hard to deny is that a case can be made that the Vikings aren’t any worse at any position on the team than they were a year ago at this time and, in more cases than not, could be much better by the time the 2013 season ends.
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.