Whether it was Adrian Peterson's incredible season, getting a full year of immersion into the schemes with the coordinators, more stability at quarterback or a better defense, there were several reasons for the improvement the Minnesota Vikings made in 2012.
Another big one: An impressive rookie class that not only contributed but shined.
First-round picks Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith were only the second pair of rookies in franchise history to start every game, joining Dewayne Washington and Todd Steussie in 1994. Jarius Wright found a solid contributing role in the second half of the season when Percy Harvin was sidelined. Blair Walsh set the NFL record with 10 field goals of 50 yards or more. And then there were contributions from Josh Robinson and Rhett Ellison, as well as Robert Blanton and Audie Cole on special teams.
The depth of the rookie class of 2012 may be just as impressive as some of the individuals when considering Walsh was a sixth-round pick and made the Pro Bowl.
"Blair had an unbelievable season," said fellow Pro Bowler Jared Allen. "I'll be the first one to say, you get a rookie kicker and you're like ‘Ah, crap! Here we go … you let one of the best in the league go in (Ryan) Longwell and how is this guy going to fit? Is he going to choke the very first opportunity he has to make a pressure kick? And you know what? He was incredible."
Allen also was impressed with the difference Smith made in the secondary, and the defensive end wasn't the only veteran to say that. Cornerback Chris Cook saw the impact Smith made at safety.
"He's a playmaker, man, and he goes hard at all times. He sets the tone. Him and Jamarca (Sanford) in the back, they set the tone a lot of this year – coming down, hitting guys, showing a lot of emotion," Cook said. "I think they helped our communication a lot this year. I feel like our safeties were a big part of a lot of the success we had in the secondary."
Smith gained a reputation early as a big hitter, drawing a $21,000 fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit in the preseason, and then had a $15,750 fine for a horsecollar tackle in the regular season.
"It'll probably happen every now and then, but I don't think it's a problem," said Smith, who said he almost has to budget for those fines.
But Cook believes Smith's enforcing ways in the deep middle of the field set a tone for the defense.
"There were definitely times when guys were going across the middle, they would kind of short-arm balls," Cook said. "I feel like that's a compliment to Harrison and Jamarca and Mistral (Raymond), all of those guys coming down and hitting guys whenever they had the opportunity. When you have safeties coming down, hitting people, setting the tone, it makes a big difference when guys are scared to go across the middle and catch the ball."
Smith was also one of the biggest playmakers, getting three interceptions and returning two of them for touchdowns.
Along the line, lessons were learned. The safety said one of the most difficult lessons he learned as rookie was the work it took keeping his body right throughout the longer NFL season.
"I think I kept thinking I've got to get through the regular season, make sure my body's all right, rest. And that was hard," he said. "And when the playoffs came around, it was like, ‘Wow, we've got another possible however many games.' Just staying on top of your body and getting back and staying on top of your mind, mentally energize every week, is a lot harder than you think it will be."
In the end, Smith and most of the other rookies not only got through the season, many of them excelled and help set up greater hope for the future.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings' rookies earn some veteran praise
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