(Sports Network) - Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson skewed a
lot of perceptions last season.
You're not supposed to succeed as a rookie quarterback in the NFL but those
three turned that kind of thinking on its head in 2012.
But, before you think there has been some sort of seismic shift in the
development of signal callers at the college level, understand Luck, RG3 and
Wilson are the exceptions that prove the rule, not the actual rule.
All you have to do is rewind back to 2011 and pay closer attention to the
struggles players like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder are
T.S. Eliot once said: "Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad
That seems to be the Minnesota Vikings' thinking when it comes to the
Sometime between January and July of this year Ponder evidently joined an
elite group of quarterbacks headlined by names like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady
and Peyton Manning.
Or at least that's how coach Leslie Frazier has treated the third-year pro
during the preseason thus far, giving Ponder just two offensive snaps in the
opener and a quarter in Week 2 despite subpar efforts in both games.
"I do feel established. I do feel like I belong here, I feel comfortable,"
Ponder said. "Knowing everybody, all my teammates, all the coaches,
knowing the area and everything, knowing how things work. I just know
that I need to continue to become a better football player and a better
It's a strange way to handle a player who has 26 NFL starts under his belt but
remains a mechanical mess who plays with little self confidence.
If anyone needs repetitions in this preseason it's Christian Ponder.
Ponder is in a group -- or at least he should be -- that includes Gabbert,
Locker and perhaps a rookie like Buffalo's E.J. Manuel; players that need
every single opportunity they can get.
Injury simply can't be a concern here. Remember, these days Joe Webb isn't the
backup in Minnesota any longer. Proven veteran Matt Cassel is and you can make
a strong argument that Cassel is better equipped right now to lead the Vikings
Cassel, the ex-Patriots and Chiefs pilot, is far from a star but can certainly
prey on defenses that pile eight or nine in the box to try to stop reigning
MVP Adrian Peterson and the Vikings vaunted running game.
That is what makes the organization's slavish devotion to Ponder so
Those who still believe in Ponder point to December when the Vikings made an
unlikely playoff run by winning four straight games without star wideout Percy
And to his credit Ponder did rebound from an awful midseason slump in which he
would often have trouble reaching the century mark in passing yards, an almost
unthinkable struggle in today's pass-heavy NFL.
To those watching closely, however, it was clear offensive coordinator Bill
Musgrave dialed everything back and asked Ponder to do little other than
manage the game as Peterson and a solid defense did all the heavy lifting.
Expect more of the same this season.
2012 RECORD: 10-6 (2nd, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to Green Bay in wild card round.
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Leslie Frazier (16-22 in three seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Musgrave (third season with Vikings)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Alan Williams (second season with Vikings)
KEY ADDITIONS: LB Desmond Bishop (from Packers), QB Matt Cassel (from
Chiefs), DE Lawrence Jackson (from Lions), WR Greg Jennings (from Packers), OL
Seth Olsen (from Colts)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Devin Aromashodu (not tendered, to Bears), LB Jasper
Brinkley (to Cardinals), WR Percy Harvin (traded to Seahawks), WR Michael
Jenkins (released), P Chris Kluwe (released, to Raiders), OL Geoff Schwartz
(to Chiefs), CB Antoine Winfield (released, to Seahawks)
QB: Ponder has always been able to verbalize on what he needs to improve on
but the fact remains he often regresses to what's natural to him, and his
default settings as a quarterback are just not conducive to solid play at the
Handling him with kid gloves and limiting important reps that could help break
some very bad habits is the polar opposite of what should be going on here. It
seems like Minnesota fans are in for another year of dialing back the passing
game as the year goes on and using Peterson as a crutch, a tough formula to
sustain in the NFL of 2013.
"My biggest thing is just to become a better football player," Ponder said.
"There are probably specifics that I'll work on but the general idea for
everyone, it's all the same, we want to be better."
Minnesota is better off behind Ponder after signing the veteran Cassel, who
started 47 regular season games and one playoff game for the Chiefs over
the past four seasons. In 2008, Cassel also took over the starting job for New
England after Tom Brady was injured during the season opener, leading the Pats
to a 10-5 mark as a starter in the final 15 games. Cassel is no star but he's
a competent guy who can take advantage of all the extra attention Peterson
The strong-armed McLeod Bethel-Thompson is the No. 3 but Webb, who has moved
to receiver full-time could also be in the mix as a versatile hybrid who could
help on special teams and serve as the signal caller in an emergency.
RB: The Vikings sport impressive depth and ability at the running back
position with Peterson and the unheralded Toby Gerhart. A.P. is coming off the
second-best single-season rushing year in NFL history with 2,097 yards and was
named the league's MVP. A frightening combination of power and speed, coupled
with a prodigious work ethic have turned Peterson into perhaps the best pure
football player in the world. He's a true home run hitter who can take it to
the house on any play and at the same time the best bell cow in the business,
a guy who can handle 30 touches and wear down the opposition.
Peterson is so good you don't think about or see much of Gerhart, the bruising
Stanford product who ran for 369 yards over the final five games of the 2011
season. Gerhart is more of a a move-the-chains type of back but he can also
wear down a defense with his punishing style of running.
The third back figures to be Matt Asiata, a versatile hybrid who can handle
snaps at fullback or tailback and is a solid special-teamer.
The starting fullback is Pro-Bowler Jerome Felton, a battering ram who turned
into the best lead-isolation blocker in football last season.
WR: The Vikings have re-made the wide receiver spot in an effort to help
Ponder. Gone is the uber-talented but troublesome Percy Harvin, who clearly
did not enjoy playing with the embattled quarterback.
Things worked out for Minnesota in the short-term at least as Harvin was
traded to Seattle for a first-round pick and he is now going to miss most of
the season after undergoing hip surgery. The Vikings replaced him by signing
veteran Greg Jennings from Green Bay, a true No. 1 receiver when healthy, and
drafting Cordarrelle Patterson, a stick-his-foot-in-the-ground, explosive type
who is raw but dangerous.
Harvin is probably one of the top 10 playmakers in all of football when right
but he isn't a polished receiver and Musgrave would have to manufacture
touches for him. Jennings, a two-time Pro Bowler, isn't as scary as Harvin but
he is one of this game's best pure route runners in the game and one of the
few receivers in football who can line up outside the numbers or in the slot
and be just as effective. His professionalism and consistency on the field are
expected to help Ponder immensely. That's the good, the bad is that Jennings
was limited to eight games and five starts in 2012 with groin/abdomen issue
and is now on the wrong side of 30.
"I'm looking for a new start, new fresh start, new faces and just a stepping-
stone to our stalking successes," Jennings said. "Like I said, it's a new
start and new look for myself as well as a new team, new environment and I'm
excited about the fresh start."
Jerome Simpson is slated to be the placeholder at split end until Patterson is
ready. The gifted Simpson has always had the size, speed and physical gifts to
stand out, but he's been inconsistent as a route runner, had off-the-field
issues and suffered through a back injury which robbed him of his explosion
Patterson, who was selected with the 29th overall pick out of Tennessee, was
right there with Tavon Austin as the biggest playmakers coming out of the 2013
draft. He's looked far more polished than expected in the preseason and
Vikings fans should be really excited about this guy.
"I expect to learn the whole playbook," Patterson said. "You can't do anything
if you don't know the plays. I'm learning from all the other guys, especially
Greg (Jennings). He's been a great mentor. He's helped me get along
pretty well so I know as long as I have someone like him on my side I'm
going to get all I need."
Second-year player Jarius Wright looks like he will be a solid contributor as
a slot receiver and Stephen Burton, a real difference-maker as a downfield
blocker, has been lauded as the most improved player on the roster. Minnesota
also needs to find a spot for the versatile Webb.
TE: The actual Pro Bowl game might not mean much to many but the Vikings feel
it helped Kyle Rudolph immensely. Rudolph, a player with amazing hands and
an imposing catching radius thanks to his 6-foot-6 frame, had a bit of a
breakout season in 2012 with nine touchdown receptions but Minnesota still
thought he had a way to go to reach his ceiling as a player. According to
those in the organization, a five-reception, 122-yard, one-TD performance
which garnered Rudolph Pro Bowl MVP honors buoyed the young tight end's
confidence and the Vikings are expecting a monster year from the Notre Dame
Fellow Fighting Irishman John Carlson remains the top backup after an injury-
plagued 2012 season. When healthy, Carlson knows how to separate and work a
zone but he hasn't been really productive since the 2009 season so there are
more than a few whispers about his future.
Second-year man Rhett Ellison is a core special-teamer and a real positive as
an h-back, filling the role Jim Kleinsasser used to handle with such
effectiveness. Ellison can move from the backfield to the line, enabling the
creative Musgrave to use a lot of different formations.
OL: The Vikings line is regarded as one of the NFL's best thanks to three
stalwarts: center John Sullivan and tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt.
The drafting of Kalil with the fourth overall pick last year solidified the
all-important left tackle position for the next decade and also enabled
Minnesota to slide the 2011 starter at that spot, Charlie Johnson, inside to
left guard. Kalil, a Southern California product, became the second highest
offensive lineman drafted in Vikings history behind tackle Ron Yary, the No. 1
overall pick in 1968 (also out of USC) who ended up in the Hall of Fame. It's
a little early to make reservations in Canton for Kalil, but he already has a
Pro Bowl under his belt and looks to be a difference-maker at the position.
Johnson, meanwhile, was miscast at left tackle and seems well-suited inside
but was just OK in 2012. That said, as he gets more comfortable, Johnson
projects as an above-average left guard thanks to his lower body strength and
Sullivan was the best center in football last season but didn't do much in the
offseason after undergoing knee surgery. A smart and instinctive player,
Sullivan handles all the line calls, mirrors well and excels on double-team
The right guard remains third-year man Brandon Fusco. The Vikings love Fusco's
natural strength and nasty disposition, but he plays out of control at times
and is caught leaning far too much. Experience could help but this is the one
position on the line you can question.
Loadholt, who got a big money extension in the offseason, is an absolute road-
grader in the running game and a solid pass protector although he will
struggle with undersized, speed rushers on occasion. Loadholt also needs to
play with more focus and clean up some pre-snap penalties.
Joe Berger figures to remain the key reserve inside but he is being pushed by
veteran Seth Olsen. Meanwhile, the team brought in late-round rookies Jeff
Baca and Travis Bond to push for spots. Reserve swing tackle will be
especially interesting with Kevin Murphy, Brandon Keith, Troy Kropog and Bond
all vying for the spot.
DL: The Vikings again expect to possess one of the game's best and deepest
defensive lines, with ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison serving as the
Allen remains one of the game's best pure pass rushers and is just a year
removed from a mind-blowing 22-sack performance. That number was cut in half
in 2012 as Allen played through injuries but he still started all 16 games and
always had to be accounted for. A well-rounded player who can also stop the
run and drop off into coverage in zone-blitz concepts, Allen is the poster
child for the cliched non-stop motor. He keeps himself in incredible shape and
succeeds by outworking his opponents. Some think the 31-year-old Allen is a
descending player and he will be entering a contract year so he has plenty of
motivation for 2013.
Opposite Allen at left end is the underrated Robison, an ascending player who
mirrors Allen's work ethic. In his second full season as a starter, Robison
actually played better than Allen despite struggling with elbow and shoulder
injuries, posting a career-best 8 1/2 sacks.
Three-technique tackle Kevin Williams was once one of the NFL's best interior
linemen but is slowing down and the Vikings will look to take some of the
workload off his plate, especially with first-round pick Sharrif Floyd on hand
to handle some repetitions. Williams isn't an All-Pro anymore but he can still
make things happens on occasion and figures to improve playing fewer snaps.
Nose tackle Letroy Guion is the weak-link of the line. A natural three-
technique, Guion doesn't have the bulk or strength to command a consistent
double-team and his backup, Fred Evans, has been the more consistent player.
Evans has upper-echelon quickness and a blinding first step, but is
also undersized and wears down if he plays too much.
Super-sub Everson Griffen can play inside or outside and could be a future
star as a pass rusher. Veteran Lawrence Jackson and Floyd, who was rated as a
top-five talent by some in the draft, also figure in. Floyd, in fact, projects
as a Richard Seymour-like factor playing the three-technique. Learning under
one of the best of this generation, Williams, also won't hurt.
"I don't think I have any challenges ahead of me," Floyd said. "I feel as
though I'm here to help the Vikings get better and play hard. That is all I'm
focusing on is playing hard and doing the best that I can, everything
else will take care of itself."
LB: Erin Henderson moves from the weakside to the middle this season to
captain the Vikings defense, something his brother E.J. did for years. A
natural, instinctive run defender the younger Henderson needs to prove he can
handle the coverage responsibilities in a Tampa-2 scheme.
Chad Greenway earned his second straight Pro Bowl berth last season and was
named the team's defensive MVP. Few linebackers are asked to do as much as
Greenway and he generally excels in all facets, although the former University
of Iowa star is at his best when he is using his athleticism to run and chase.
Former Packer Desmond Bishop, if healthy, figures to handle the weak side
although he was running behind special-teamer Marvin Mitchell for most of
camp. Bishop was an ascending player before a torn hamstring caused him to
miss the 2012 season and now a groin has hampered him early with the Vikings.
"You know at this point, playing football is the best fit for me," Bishop
said. "It's been a long time for me so I'm just anxious to get out there and
show what I can do."
Depth is promising but unproven. Mitchell is the only somewhat proven
commodity. Larry Dean and Tyrone McKenzie, a former third-round pick in New
England, are solid special-teamers and will be aiming to hold off a group
which includes second-year man Audie Cole and Penn State rookies Gerald Hodges
and Michael Mauti.
Mauti is especially intriguing. A third ACL tear in his final season in Happy
Valley sent him tumbling from a second- or third-round grade. The Vikings took
a flyer on Mauti in the seventh round and he is an instinctive, natural Mike
who could develop into a starter at the NFL level if he stays healthy.
DB: The Vikings boast the most talented defensive backfield they have had in
years even without veteran Antoine Winfield, who was released after an
excellent 2012 season.
The thought process on the 36-year-old Winfield seems to be "it's better to
give up on a player a year too early than a year too late." Chris Cook, the
team's best pure cover cornerback, is now the headliner at the position. A
long, lanky player, Cook has the physical skills to be a top-10 corner in the
NFL but has had trouble staying on the field due to injury issues as well as
legal problems. He did start a career-high 10 games as well as the wild card
game last season but he needs to be on the field for all 16 this time around.
The Vikings would like rookie Xavier Rhodes to step in as the other outside
corner. Rhodes was in the top 15 pick on most draft boards and is a long,
powerful corner, tailor-made for Minnesota's base Tampa-2 scheme.
"I just come here just to work hard and get better each day," Rhodes said.
"I'm not expecting to start or anything. I'm just coming here to get better
and help the team by any means necessary. I mean, corner, special teams
or anything, I'm just ready to help the team win."
Second-year man Josh Robinson has been starting outside in the preseason and
moving inside to the slot in nickel situations. The speedy Robinson was up and
down as a rookie and must show more consistency moving forward but the Vikings
are particularly high on him because he has high-end recovery speed and
carries himself with the swagger you see in elite defensive backs.
A.J. Jefferson figures to be as good as a dime back there is in football while
Brandon Burton, a fifth-round pick from 2011, remains a favorite of general
manager Rick Spielman, but has shown little to this point. Bobby Felder, a
former undrafted rookie free agent, has also played himself into the
The safety situation was really upgraded in 2012 with the addition of
Harrison Smith, along with the improvement shown by Jamarca Sanford. A smart
and savvy player, Smith is already the best safety Minnesota has had since
Darren Sharper left for New Orleans after the 2008 season.
The team wanted oft-injured third-year pro Mistral Raymond to win the other
safety spot in 2012 but Sanford overtook him on the field. A hard-hitter who
has improved in coverage through hard work Sanford was re-upped in the
offseason and figures to provide solid, if unspectacular play.
Raymond, an ex-corner in college at South Florida with decent ball
skills, special teams stalwart Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton, Smith's
college teammate at Notre Dame, provide the depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Last year it was Ryan Longwell. This year it was Chris Kluwe.
The Vikings chose field position over a consistent field goal threat in 2012
when they went with rookie Blair Walsh over the proven Longwell. In the end
they got both as Walsh and his monster leg had one of the best kicking seasons
in NFL history.
Walsh set an NFL record by making all 10 of his field goals from 50-plus yards
and tied another NFL record with three FGs of 50-plus in a game at St. Louis
en route to being named a first-team All-Pro. His ability to tilt the field
with imposing kickoffs was even more important, especially for one of the few
NFL teams left who play a field position game on a daily basis due to Ponder's
"You kind of wipe clean what you did last year, you learn from it and you
reflect on it in the offseason and you start new," Walsh said. "We haven't
proven anything so far this year, our team is 0-0 and we need to win games and
as long as we can help win games, that is what we are here for."
This year the Vikings are trying the big move at punter, dumping outspoken
veteran Kluwe for UCLA rookie Jeff Locke. The Vikings gave up a ton of big
returns during Kluwe's reign as the team's punter and some of them were due to
Kluwe's struggles in directional kicking and his frustrating habit of
outkicking his coverage down the middle of the field, giving big-time return
men multiple options. Locke has the monster leg and feathery touch to tilt the
field but he is an Aussie-style kicker so protection is something to keep an
In the return game, Patterson should prove to be an elite kickoff returner
from day one while cornerback Marcus Sherels will try to hold off Steven
Burton and Felder on punts. Sherels has the requisite speed, though he is
small and has a tough time breaking tackles. If he doesn't shine as a return
man, it will be hard for Sherels to make the final roster due to all the
improvements at cornerback.
Long snapper Cullen Loeffler remains one of the NFL's most consistent at the
position while Ellison, Dean and Sendejo figure to be some of the core guys
COACHING: Zygi Wilf got burned when he extended Brad Childress before he
needed to and perhaps that's why the Vikings owner hasn't committed long-term
to Leslie Frazier, a classy man who turned Minnesota from a three-win disaster
into a 10-victory playoff team in one season despite uneven quarterback play.
That said, Frazier is an old school guy in a league trending away from him.
Whether it's his antiquated Tampa-2 philosophy on defense or his 1970s
approach of leaning on the running game and field position, by all accounts
Frazier is either well behind the NFL curve or well out in front. This season
should tell you all you need to know in that regard.
Musgrave is a brilliant guy when it comes to preparation but often becomes
repetitive during games when it comes to play-calling. That could be due to
the limitations of his QB, however.
Defensive chief Alan Williams just carries out Frazier's plan although to his
credit is moving to less and less base cover-2.
THE SKINNY: Spielman has built a championship level club around Ponder.
Minnesota is loaded with the best running back in the sport, a terrific
offensive line, an emerging tight end in Rudolph as well as a much-improved
receiving corps thanks to the additions of Jennings and Patterson. On defense,
the Vikings have a deep line, solidified their linebacking group with the
addition of Bishop and alleviated the loss of Winfield by drafting Rhodes.
There is only one piece missing but it happens to be at the most important
position in the game and perhaps all of sport.
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