Let me apologize, dear readers, for the lack of activity at KAB of late. That's what some busy work periods and two weeks of holidays will do to a guy.
Anyway, we should be getting back to more regular posts now, starting with this missive. Enjoy.
Will 2012 be a rebuilding year for the Minnesota Vikings? You betcha'. The team is young and lacks star talent in a whole bunch of important areas. What's worse is that its divisional foes - Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago - all have playoff caliber rosters. So it's going to be tough for the Vikings to play anything close to .500 football with a young, untested roster in the tough NFC North.
However, that doesn't mean in can't happen, and the Vikes first nine games include winnable (on paper) matchups against the Jaguars, Colts, Titans, Washington, Bucs, Cardinals and Seahawks.
But more important than a weak schedule to a quick Vikings turnaround in 2012 will be the development of several young Viking players. If the squad can get improved play from even a handful of guys at certain positions, the squad could sport a much better record than the 3-13/4-12 predictions you're seeing from the preseason football magazines.
What follows is a look at some players who could help the Vikings immensely if they step up their play in 2012.
This is an obvious choice. Yet you can't ignore how important improved play from Ponder is going to be if 2012 is going to be less of a train wreck for the Vikings than most expect. Management has given him some better personnel to work with in his second year, and the physical tools are there. It's the mental part of the game where Ponder must improve the most. If he can make better decisions, make quicker reads, stop staring down his first throwing option, keep his cool when the pocket collapses and master the Vikings playbook, the offense will be miles ahead of where it was in 2011. And so, too, will the Minnesota Vikings.
I'm going to assume #1 draft pick Matt Kalil is going to be a massive upgrade over Charlie Johnson at left tackle for the Vikings this season. But can the 2012 Phil Loadholt be a massive upgrade over the 2011 Phil Loadholt? It's not that I think the Vikings starting right tackle was bad in 2011 – and those who watched his play closely (like ESPN 1500's Tom Pelissero) actually felt Loadholt played well, although he was inconsistent. But Loadholt can be better than he was in 2011 and the Vikings need him to be better. Yes, Big Phil's always going to struggle here and there with speed rushers. But that's common for 6'8, 340-pound right tackles. If he can smooth out his pass protection issues a bit and still keep his run blocking at a high level, the Vikings will have themselves a pretty good right tackle in 2012. That would be good news for Ponder and the Vikings offense. (It's also a contract year for Loadholt in 2012. Don't underestimate the power of that.)
Adrian Peterson is a question mark for the Vikings in 2012. When he comes back, his touches will be limited. And we don't know whether he'll be the same guy he was before his knee injury when the Vikings are ready to turn #28 loose. Either way, Gerhart has become a much more important asset to the Vikings. He's apparently gotten bigger this offseason, and he already was no fun to tackle. He showed late last season that if you give him a crease to run through he can do something with it. The Vikings need him to build on his strong play late in 2011, plus improve as a receiver and a pass blocker (remember, teams will blitz Ponder often and the tailback often has to pick up that blitzing opponent). If he does these things, the Vikings running game will be in good shape even if Peterson isn't (shudder!) the AD of old in 2012.
Simpson's importance to the Vikings has been documented here before. Basically he represents a guy who can actually line up on the outside, run deep patterns and make plays when he does it. That's an asset the Vikings haven't had since Sidney Rice's 2009 breakout season, and if Simpson can do this consistently, he'll be a huge help to Christian Ponder and will make the Vikings offense more dangerous and well-rounded. Caution is in order, however. His 50 catches last year tied for 69th overall in the NFL and his 725 receiving yards were the 52nd best total in the league. And last year was the first season Simpson's done much of anything (plus, he's suspended for the first three games of the upcoming season). Still, if Simpson can build on his 2011 totals, he could be a transformative player for the Vikings offense.
The Vikings played a 4-3 defense in 2011– we all know that. But in reality it was a 3-3 defense because the defensive tackle playing next to Kevin Williams did jack shit. Guion was part of the problem (the departed Remi Ayodele and Fred Evans were the others). They just were not up to replacing Big Pat Williams. Now the fifth-year pro is getting another crack at it. Guion will never be Pat Williams (neither will anybody else in the NFL), that's how good a run-stuffing tackle Big Pat was. But Guion can be something Williams never was – a pass rushing threat from the defensive tackle position. We saw flashes of Guion's ability late in 2010. He's quick and can be disruptive. But can he be that guy consistently? And is he big enough, strong enough and nasty enough to anchor against the run? If Guion answers those questions in the affirmative this season, the Vikings will have a helluva of a defensive line in 2012.
The Vikings aim to make Griffen a linebacker this season. It's a case of trying to find more playing time for a talented player, even if the idea has been panned elsewhere. Regardless of where Griffen lines up in 2012, he will get more snaps this season and if he does damage with them (to the opponents, I mean) the Vikings will add another effective pass rusher to their lineup. That would be problematic for opposing defensive coordinators, who already have their hands full scheming to stop Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Brian Robison. An improved Everson Griffen would make the Vikings pass rush harder to stop and it would make Allen, Robison, Williams or whomever is playing on the line when Griffen's out there more effective. And an improved Vikings pass rush – and it was good last year – that gives quarterbacks less time to throw the ball and forces them into poor throws when they do toss it up, will help the linebackers and secondary in pass coverage.
Chris Cook/Antoine Winfield/Chris Carr/Josh Robinson/Harrison Smith/Robert Blanton
I'm cheating here because I've identified more than one player that could help the Vikings by playing better this season. In fact, I've identified one unit – the secondary. But I've done that because there is no one player who can transform a secondary as bad as the Vikings was in 2011. It was a secondary that allowed Tim Tebow to post the following numbers: 10-15, 66.7 %, 202 yards, two passing touchdowns and a 149.3 QB rating. But that secondary finished the year starting Cedric Griffin and Asher Allen at corner, Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond at safety, and Benny Sapp as the nickel defensive back. Tebow saw better secondaries playing at Florida. This season the Vikings secondary will look vastly different. A healthy Winfield, and a Cook not wearing an orange jumpsuit, are big upgrades at corner for the Vikings. Carr was an effective player as recently as 2010, and Robinson is a rookie with great speed and great promise. Smith and Blanton will also push Raymond and Sanford at the safety positions, with Smith expected to start from day one. Overall, the Vikings have replaced last year's secondary with guys who are not last year's secondary. That's going to be a big improvement in itself. Add that to some of the players mentioned above upping their game, and the Vikings could be much better than experts expect in 2012.
So who do you think needs to step it up in 2012? Did I miss anybody? (Note: I would have included middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley on this list, but despite what he's said recently, I'm not convinced the guy will be healthy enough to make an impact in 2012.)