Sunday slant: Position worries and warts

The Vikings roster is improving, but there are still a few positions to keep the worry warriors in business. We examine the big question marks at each position.

Vikings fans can be a fickle lot. Perhaps it is the four Super Bowl losses, or, more recently, crushing blows in the NFC Championship Games following the 1998 and 2009 seasons that kept them out of the Super Bowl.

Whatever the reason, if they aren't worrying, they aren't caring.

With the halfway mark of the preseason reached, here is our position-by-position analysis of potential trip-ups to Vikings success in 2013.

QUARTERBACK – No doubt this is one of the top concerns of Vikings fans, for good reason. Christian Ponder hasn't done enough yet for anyone to say decisively that he is the franchise's answer to the position for years to come. He also hasn't been bad enough to pull the plug either. The playmakers surrounding him are in place, finally. He has an NFL-quality set of receivers, the league's MVP in the backfield, and a decent offensive line in front of him. No more excuses. Even Leslie Frazier said this is the year for Ponder to take the next step. That step is either up or off the cliff.

RUNNING BACK – Only an Adrian Peterson injury creates concerns. In 2011, backup Toby Gerhart had 109 rushes for 531 yards, a 4.9-yard average that was better than Peterson's 4.7-yard average. In 2012, however, Gerhart's opportunities and average tailed off. He rushed only 50 times for 169 yards, a 3.4-yard average, with Peterson leading the league with a 6-yard average. Vikings fans would cringe if the team lost Peterson for an extended time, which would leave Gerhart in position to make the most of the final year of his rookie contract and position himself better in free agency. As a team, however, the Vikings need to ride the Peterson Express.

WIDE RECEIVER – Last year's group was among the worst in the NFL, especially after the loss of Percy Harvin. Surprisingly, however, one of Ponder's best stretches was the final three games of the season without Harvin, when Ponder was above an 80 quarterback rating in each of those games and threw a combined four touchdowns and no interceptions. This year, Jerome Simpson is in better health, Greg Jennings is in purple and Cordarrelle Patterson is in the NFL. All of those things combine to give the Vikings at least an NFL average set of receivers. The issue is how quickly Ponder can sync with them. They can all stretch the field in different ways, and eventually Ponder has to do better than 31st in the league in completions over 20 yards.

TIGHT END – As long as the Hamburger Helper hands of Kyle Rudolph continue to offer an oversized target in the middle of the field to pluck down Ponder's passes, the position overall should be solid. But in order to really implement a two-tight end offense that was talked about so often last offseason after the free-agent signing of John Carlson, the Vikings will have to have Carlson dramatically improve his production. Eight catches meant the Vikings paid him $500,000 in cap money for every reception last year. Not surprisingly, they refinanced after that market drop and Carlson might need to be in the 30- to 40-catch range this year to continue with his home-state team. He sounds focused on burying 2012 deep in the past, but that fate is in his hands. Rhett Ellison is lurking in the background, so it's time for Carlson to live up to even the restructured contract.

OFFENSIVE LINE – The Vikings had all five starters intact for every game last year, the first time that happened since 2003, when Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie were the stars of the line. Brandon Fusco was the only starting offensive lineman that didn't play at least 99 percent of the snaps last year, so this group showed it is capable of staying healthy, paving Peterson's path and protecting Ponder. That last category might need to be put under the microscope after Friday night's performance, but the one sneaky concern would be how center John Sullivan holds up. He might be the toughest of the bunch with the variety of injuries he has played through. So far, he hasn't taken many snaps off in training camp, but keep an eye on how his legs hold up after anchoring in for 60 snaps a game week after week follwing offseason microfracture surgery.

DEFENSIVE LINE – With Sharrif Floyd in the shadows, keeping Kevin Williams healthy isn't quite the concern it has been in past years. Floyd likely will get about 20 to 25 snaps a game, which should help keep Williams fresher. And the defensive ends, with Jared Allen and Brian Robison healthy and Everson Griffen rotating often, aren't a concern either. If there is a question mark among the group, it is at nose tackle, where Letroy Guion played only 43 percent of the snaps, the only starter who played less than 70 percent of the time. Can Fred Evans unseat Guion? It doesn't appear that way yet, and maybe it doesn't matter for as much as the Vikings are in the nickel defense and they rotate their nose tackles out. But those noses will be a big factor in trying to keep the run defense respectable.

LINEBACKER – What if Desmond Bishop doesn't perform as a 4-3 outside linebacker as well as he did as a 3-4 inside linebacker with the Packers? Or what if his hamstring doesn't hold up after a year off? That would mean the Vikings are relying on Marvin Mitchell, or hoping that fourth-round pick Gerald Hodges can develop quickly. Before this preseason, those didn't seem like good options, but Mitchell seems to be playing instinctively (in the short sample size known as preseason). About those Erin Henderson to middle linebacker concerns? Those can probably be taken of the worry-wart table pretty soon.

DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD – This was and is still a chief concern. The loss of Antoine Winfield could be felt during the season. Josh Robinson looked physical enough in run support in Friday's loss, but there are still questions about rookie Xavier Rhodes, and A.J. Jefferson appeared timid in his tackling. Rhodes doesn't mind mixing it up, but the game looked like it was coming at him pretty fast in his preseason debut, and one of the issues to watch is a propensity to be too aggressive and then get beat on a double move. And, just so everyone remembers how quickly worries can dissipate, remember how much of a concern the safety position was last year? Harrison Smith quickly knocked that apprehension to the ground.

Last year, wide receiver, quarterback, offensive line, middle linebacker and safety were the big stressors. This year, the categories have changed, and in some instances lessened. It's another indication that the roster is improving, even if there are enough question marks to keep the worry warriors in business.


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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