It would seem that an inordinate amount of attention in recent weeks and months has focused on the young talent on the 2012 Vikings roster. With the high amount of roster turnover that is taking place this season on the Vikings, all the focus would seem to be on players like Christian Ponder, Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Kyle Rudolph. But, if the Vikings are going to climb out of the cellar of the NFC North, it will be the veteran players that will ultimately make the difference in whether the 2012 Vikings will end up 4-12, 6-10, 8-8 or a playoff contender.
The young core of the Vikings will be the focus of the next several years, but the Vikings do have a group of veteran players that are the glue needed to hold the team together. They won't be getting as much ink during training camp, as the Vikings decide who will be the 20 to 25 new players on the roster. These are the veteran core that will need to produce in a big way. If they do, the Vikings could be closer to playoff contention than many currently think. If they don't, Vikings fans will once again be waiting the for season to end to start debating who the next blue-chip draft pick will be.
The Vikings are a franchise building for the future, but, in the present, these are the 12 players that will be the most critical to the Vikings' success of lack of it in 2012 – Viking Update's 12 in '12.
1. Adrian Peterson – There is no bigger question mark than when and if Peterson is going to be healthy enough to perform at a pre-injury level that made him the most feared running back in the NFL. He has been attacking his rehab efforts and continues to believe he will be ready by Week 1. If he is, the Vikings immediately become a much better, more balanced offense.
2. Jared Allen – Coming off a season in which he would have set the single-season sack record had Brett Favre not "done a solid" for Michael Strahan, Allen is likely to face more tight end/running back chips than at any point in his career. He dominated like few pass rushers ever have. If Allen can repeat that kind of performance, it will set the tone for an aggressive young defense searching for an identity.
3. John Sullivan – Armed with a five-year contract extension, Sullivan, entering just his fourth year as a starter, is the most-tenured member of the Vikings offensive line. After an injury-plagued 2010 season, he bounced back strong in 2011 and, as the player making the line calls, he will be as valuable as anyone on the offense line – even blue-chip left tackle Matt Kalil – while Ponder learns the game in 2012.
4. Chad Greenway – The linebacker corps of the Vikings is undergoing an overhaul and Greenway is clearly the leader of the group. Over the last two years, the Vikings have jettisoned starters E.J. Henderson and Ben Leber and Greenway needs to step up his game to a Pro Bowl level to prevent the back seven of the Vikings defense from being exploited. He has quietly become one of the better linebackers in the NFC but needs to bring his game to a higher level for the Vikings to have success this season.
5. Percy Harvin – Whether he's happy or not doesn't matter if he brings his full effort on the field. He is one of the game's top playmakers. His contract is becoming an issue because he has earned an extension (and the money that comes with it). If he uses this season to set the stage to leave the Vikings no option but to show him the money, a motivated Harvin could have a monster season.
6. Kevin Williams – Williams hasn't been the dominant pocket-collapsing force over the last couple of seasons that he was earlier in his career, but he showed signs of that late in the season. If he can return to his six-time Pro Bowl form this season, the Vikings defensive line could be one of the best units in the league. Without Pat Williams next to him, Big Kev has seen more double-teams than usual, but has held up despite lower-body injuries that have limited his explosion off the snap. If he is 100 percent, he could be the biggest difference-maker for a defense looking to improve at all three levels. Nothing makes a defense better in a hurry than a pass rush that forces the ball out of the quarterback's hand faster than he wants.
7. Antoine Winfield – With a secondary that is very young and inexperienced, Winfield is critical to the success of the group. He turned 35 last month and may be limited to playing almost exclusively in the slot on the inside of the hash marks, but that is Winfield's strength. Injuries have been an issue two of the last three seasons and Winfield needs to be healthy for the young secondary to reach its potential. He needs to be more than a "coach on the field," as Leslie Frazier called him during minicamp. If he does, the Vikings defense will be much more opportunistic and capable of making more big plays to change the tide of games.
8. John Carlson – The only big-money outside free agent signing, Carlson is expected to be the Vikings' answer to the two-TE juggernaut of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Bill Musgrave has a lot of calls in his playbook for tight ends and, considering the money the Vikings paid to get him away from Seattle (five years, $25 million), it would seem logical to assume he was brought to the Vikings more to catch passes than to block.
9. Jerome Simpson – He's going to miss the first three games of the season, but Simpson was signed by the Vikings to be what the team hoped Bernard Berrian would be. As we now know, the Berrian Experiment was an unqualified failure that was scrapped last season when he was cut in late October. Simpson has field-stretching ability, but it was clear he wasn't going to be the No. 1 downfield option in Cincinnati (that would be A.J. Green). With Harvin ideally playing in the slot and Michael Jenkins as a big possession receiver on the other side, Simpson needs to be the home run hitter Ponder will need to take the next step in his QB maturation.
10. Chris Cook – He's looking for personal and professional redemption after a tumultuous 2011 season that found him in jail for the first meeting with the Packers and suspended from the team when they met for the second time. He's only entering his third season, but he is penciled in to be a starter and, if you watch his matchup with Calvin Johnson in Week 3, you see flashes of what the Vikings believed he would be when they made him their first pick in the 2010 draft.
11. Brian Robison – After the season Allen put in last year, he is going to be almost constantly double-teamed and the focus of defensive coordinators throughout the league. When that happened earlier in his Vikings career, Ray Edwards stepped up and became the single-covered pass-rushing option. Robison needs to have a big season because, more times than not, he will be single-covered by right tackles and will have to make plays.
12. Charlie Johnson – Johnson continued a longstanding Vikings tradition – they had always gone one year after losing a franchise left tackle before drafting another one. Johnson filled that one-year void last year before the Vikings drafted Matt Kalil. While Johnson was far from dominant at left tackle, he has the potential to be an impressive mauling guard the Vikings need to replace Steve Hutchinson. If he fails at left guard, the Vikings as a team will suffer. He could ultimately be more important than where we have him currently ranked.
The big picture of the Vikings is that they are a franchise looking to rebuild on the fly and get back to the type of dominance they had in all three phases in 2009. 2011 was the first step in that process – the bottoming out of the franchise and the gutting of several key veteran players. Many analysts see the Vikings building the foundation that may not come to fruition until 2013 or 2014. But, if the team is to succeed in 2012, these 12 will be the key to make this year a year to remember or a year to forget.
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.
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