The Minnesota Vikings raced forward with their rebuilding project last season by finishing 10-6 and reaching the playoffs ahead of expectations, a feel-good ride behind those 2,097 yards rushing by Adrian Peterson.
With Peterson in his prime and a bunch of recent high draft picks with the potential to be future cogs, there's a sturdy blueprint in place along with lingering concerns. Standout defensive end Jared Allen is in his 10th year in the league and the last in his current contract. Of the 22 starters, 10 are 28 or older.
"I'm hoping that they'll just think about that fact, that how important this moment is, that you can't be looking toward next year," coach Leslie Frazier said. "You can't be looking back at the past, but being able to seize this moment."
Peterson will again be the featured attraction, but here are five things to know about the Vikings beyond the league MVP award winner:
PONDER'S PROGRESS: Christian Ponder has to take several steps forward in his development this season for the Vikings to be in championship contention, but quarterbacks have often flourished in their third year. If he doesn't, the Vikings will have to consider starting all over at the game's most important position.
DOWN ON THE CORNER: With Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford in the division and Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Robert Griffin III among other standout passers on the schedule, the performance of the cornerbacks could prove to be critical for the Vikings.
The departure of Antoine Winfield, who was cut before his $7.25 million salary at age 36 kicked in, left a large void. His sure tackling and sage leadership won't be replaced. Success will hinge on the ability of Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes to keep opposing receivers from breaking loose in the secondary, produce some timely interceptions and pass breakups and, of course, stay healthy.
The last one on that list could be as tough to achieve as any. Cook, a second-round draft pick in 2010, missed 16 games to injuries over his first three years. Robinson, a third-round selection in 2012, and Rhodes, one of three first-round picks this year, each missed practice days with hamstring strains.
RIVALS RECRUITED: The modern history of the Vikings has included several chapters on former Packers who crossed the border to join their NFC North foes, most notably Brett Favre. That pipeline from Green Bay hasn't dried up yet, as evidenced by the arrival of wide receiver Greg Jennings and linebacker Desmond Bishop, both key contributors to the Super Bowl champion Packers of 2010-11 and their 15-1 record the following season.
Jennings was limited by an abdominal injury to a career-low 366 yards last year, and Bishop missed the whole season because of a torn hamstring. But even though they might be past their primes, they can still help the Vikings compete with their friends-turned-enemies.
Jennings will be Ponder's best target, a savvy route runner with sure hands and a knack for the end zone who's being asked to mentor raw first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson. Bishop missed training camp time due to a groin problem and has been behind Marvin Mitchell on the depth chart at the weak side spot, but the Vikings need a steady presence next to Erin Henderson, who has moved to the middle position for the first time.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE TANDEM: Kevin Williams is 12 years older than Sharrif Floyd, so it's clear who will be manning the under tackle position next year and beyond. For now, the plan is a time share, to limit the wear and tear on the six-time Pro Bowl pick Williams and ease in the rookie from Florida, the first of those three first-round picks.
Williams has declined in recent years, but the Vikings believed he was worth keeping, that fewer snaps and a fresher body can yield valuable contributions from Williams in what will likely be his last of 11 seasons with the team.
Health has already become a concern, however. Floyd had a minor operation to relieve pain in his left knee last week. He's expected to be ready for the opener at Detroit on Sept. 8, but Williams might not. Blindsided by a low block in the preseason, Williams has a hyperextended right knee and a significant bone bruise around the joint.
STADIUM SAGA: The Vikings secured funding approval last year from the state for a new stadium, and they're planning to open it for the 2016 season after playing two years at the University of Minnesota. The timetable has tightened, with the public agency in charge of it examining the personal finances of team owner Zygi Wilf and his family. The Wilf brothers committed fraud and contract breach with an apartment development, a New Jersey judge ruled recently, and they'll likely have to pay a hefty fine. Both sides have said repeatedly there's no danger to the stadium project.
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