Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Read this! It's a clear-eyed take on the 2012 Minnesota Vikings

New York Times "Fifth Down" blogger Andy Benoit's team previews are always a treat to read.

The writing is superb. The observations are honest and insightful. And on Tuesday he had his 2012 preview of the Minnesota Vikings.

As you would expect, it's not a pretty critique. Benoit picks the Vikings to finish last in the division (don't tell that to owner Zygi Wilf, who thinks the team will win the NFC North title this season), noting that the quarterback is young and inexperienced, the secondary is a huge question mark and the wide receivers and offensive line are no hell either.

But why spoil it for you, just read the article. It will knock the optimism out of you, which I think might be a good thing during the first year of a rebuilding project.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Vikings training camp tweets of note

Back in the 1980s as a young kid growing up in small town Nova Scotia (is there any other kind?) on the East Coast of Canada,  keeping up with training camp developments of the Minnesota Vikings was difficult.

Unless our one daily newspaper, by chance, ran a short story about the Vikings or there was a clip on TV about the team, there was no way to keep up on how preparations for the new season were going. And unless you lived in Minnesota (or the Dakotas) – I'm sure it was the same for other Viking fans.

The Internet and social media have changed that. With every TV and print reporter who covers the Vikings sporting a Twitter handle and posting daily blogs, fans of the team can get updates on their favorite team no matter where they live – and they get it as it happens.

I've found monitoring the tweets of the reporters covering the Vikings training camp in Mankato can provide some interesting observations about the club and some of the 90 players vying for spots on the 2012 squad. And for those of you who don't follow Twitter, I've culled some of the more enlightening tweets from the more active ink stained wretches over the first few days of camp. (Please note: I won't be spelling out full names of the Vikings mentioned in these tweets, because if you're a Vikings fan, you know who these guys are.)  

Dan Wiederer – Star Tribune (Twitter handle: @StribDW) 

- Brinkley has looked a touch slow. Will be interesting to see him drop in coverage. 

- Still not sold that Childs is ready. And I think that's a big hope. Keeping an eye on his progress. Wright's quickness: wow.  

- Covered Cole some when he was at NC State. Love how he plays. Will have to use size, savvy to offset below avg. quickness.

 Arif Hasan – Daily Norseman (Twitter handle: @ArifHasanDN)

– Reggie Jones is playing a physical game against third strings. Seems to be working.

– Webb keeps the tip of the ball high, but still needs work on placement, footwork and read progression.

– Walsh is 8 for 9 from the 30. Enormous leg.

Jeremy Fowler – Pioneer Press (Twitter handle: @VikingsNow) 

– Chris Cook looks the part today. Made a few nice plays.

– Webb has a cannon when he steps into it. Fired one into Kerry Taylor, who was sandwiched by two defenders in two-on-two work.

– Ponder looked steady last week, but not sure he can get away w/all the same throws against padded D. Interested to see how he adjusts.

– Kalil with 1s, Harrison Smith with 2s. Simple – one first-round pick will have hold on starting job from beginning, one needs to earn it.

Tom Pelissero – ESPN 1500 (Twitter handle: @TomPelissero)

– Two bubble players who have seemed to be everywhere in camp: Reggie Jones and Manny Arceneaux.

– And there's Jared Allen's first touch-sack against Kalil in team. Kalil still faring better than Charlie Johnson last year.

– Trevor Guyton and Brandon Fusco showing well in one on ones.

– Jerome Simpson just destroyed Chris Cook on a go. Not a good matchup if Cook's not jamming. Jenkins beat him on an in too.

– McLeod Bethel-Thompson finally getting some team reps and just chucking darts. Dude has crazy arm strength.

– D'Aundre Reed just did what he always does in practice – speed rushing touch sack.

– For as big as Matt Kalil is, I'm struck by how small his calves are. A question among teams scouting him was lower body strength. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A very early assessment of Rick Spielman's job performance as Vikings general manager

I know the Vikings training camp started yesterday and that's everybody's focus, but I want to stray from that topic today and write about the team's general manager, Rick Spielman.

Spielman has been general manager for seven months. Before he was promoted to the position, the Vikings hadn't had a general manager in place since I don't know when (Mike Lynn, maybe? Help me out here Vikes fans).

The move was praised by the people who cover and follow the team, as the main criticism about how the Vikings operated in the past was that the club was a ship without an organizational rudder. There was no one with the ultimate authority to dictate personnel moves and the Vikings football strategy long-term. So making Spielman the man with that authority was considered an important move.

Of course, Spielman's work as general manager in 2004 with the Miami Dolphins has been widely panned, so there are doubts about whether he is the right guy for the job. And while the Vikings have yet to win or lose a football game in 2012, and the wisdom of Spielman's moves won't be revealed at least until the end of 2012, and in the case of some players, maybe another two or three years from now, I figured I'd assess his job performance anyway. I think we can make some calls on whether Spielman's work during free agency, the draft and post-draft has made sense.

Free agency
Spielman's strategy during free agency wasn't apparent until it was almost over. He made one significant signing – tight end John Carlson for five years and $25 million ($9.1 million guaranteed). But he didn't go after the big names (Vincent Jackson; Brandon Carr) who would have filled positions where the Vikings have the greatest need to improve.

Spielman was busy though. He resigned Fred Evans and Letroy Guion, then a host of other guys who didn't play for the Vikings last year to one year deals for not much money. Many of them – Jerome Simpson, Chris Carr, Geoff Schwartz and Jerome Felton – figure to play big roles for the Vikings in 2012. It's a strategy that could be a slice of genius by Spielman. He's signed young free agents who are still in their athletic primes and who could still be ascending talents, and he's signed them to cheap, low risk deals. These players will be hungry because they will be looking for lucrative, long term deals in 2013. And hungry athletes are often productive athletes in professional sports. If these guys outperform their contracts, they'll make the Vikings a better team and they will be better values than some of the high priced free agent talent other teams signed.

The flip side is these guys were cheap for a reason. Some of them are coming off injury plagued seasons. And none of them were superstars to begin with. They are cheaper than Vincent Jackson and Brandon Carr, but they are also likely going to help the Vikings less than Jackson or Carr would have. Maybe Spielman figures he'll spend Zygi Wilf's money in 2013 when there are better free agent prizes to be had and the Vikings are bit closer to contending for a playoff spot. In the long run, perhaps history will show it was the right thing to do. For now, I'm more underwhelmed than anything by what he did during free agency.

Grade: C-

The draft
This was an important draft for the Vikings, and it was important for Spielman as it was the first one he had complete control over without having to kowtow to the wishes of the head coach. While citing the usual caveats that you can't truly grade a draft until three of four years down the road, Spielman early round work was strong in April. But there were some mid- and late-round picks that seem dubious and make the grade lower than it could have been.

Trading down with Cleveland one spot, grabbing extra picks and still getting left tackle Matt Kalil was the kind of wheeling and dealing you like to see from your GM. Spielman then used the extra ammo to trade back into the first round to select safety Harrison Smith (I've written before that I don't think safety is an impact position, but the Vikings really do need at least one good one, so I can live with the move.) In the third round he grabbed a promising corner in Josh Robinson (get that hammy healthy, Josh) and picked up two wide receivers in the fourth (Jarius Wright and Greg Childs). The questionable moves include drafting tight end Rhett (Who?) Ellison in the fourth round, kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth - I don't like using draft picks to select kickers - and not addressing the club's weak depth at linebacker until the seventh round.

Yet if Vikings can plug Kalil in at left tackle for the next decade, Smith turns out to be at least a solid starting safety and Robinson's starting (and playing well) at cornerback this time next year, this will have been a very good draft for the Vikings. It will be even better if either Wright or Childs (preferably both) develop into bonafide receiving threats.

Grade: B  

Off the field stuff
One of the benefits of having a general manager is that it frees up the head coach to coach and leaves the explanations about personnel moves, organizational philosophy and any off the field controversies to someone else – the GM.

In this area, Spielman has been pretty effective so far. There's been no more episodes like when Mike Tice would talk to the press about the Vikings draft plans, freely chatting about who the team liked so the entire NFL knew what the team was going to do in April. During the offseason, Spielman was the media's point man when they wanted to talk about draft plans, or free agency or contract stuff. He was interviewed more this offseason about Viking issues than he had been in his previous six years as the Vikings vice-president of player personnel. Spielman didn't provide much detail when he commented, but he made it clear the Vikings did have a plan in place to get out of their rut and that it was based on making the team better over the long haul. There would be no quick fixes this time around.

That's a message that wasn't communicated to Viking fans in the past, particularly by coaches like Tice, Brad Childress and, now, Leslie Frazier, who don't often have the luxury to think long term. But I think it's a message the team's fanbase has bought into and understands. And it provides some comfort that even if 2012 isn't much better than 2011, the Vikings have a plan in place and better days are ahead.

Spielman also help up very well in dealing with his first off the field controversy as general manager when Percy Harvin had his OTA hissy fit in June. Again, Spielman didn't give the public much when he spoke publicly about the Harvin situation. But that was good. There was nothing to gain in providing any details on why Harvin was unhappy, etc. Spielman said nothing that could have angered Harvin or made the situation worse. He made it clear the Vikes weren't going to trade Harvin and that he was an important part of that team (which he is). He presented a calm, reasoned face to a bizarre situation. And, what do you know, Percy says things are all good now. Well done, Rick Spielman. Well done.   

Grade: A-

Thursday, July 26, 2012

National Friday League: Leslie Frazier gets to prove it

Leslie Frazier
IF Leslie Frazier is the coach of the Vikings in 2013, it will be because he earned the job.  And that should be a good feeling for Viking fans.

If Frazier is fired after 2012, I won't necessarily consider him a bad coach who deserve it (of course that depends on how they fail in 2012). Frazier took over as coach for a team that went all in to win now in 2010 and failed.  He had to deal with an aging, declining roster that needed to be largely replaced, during a lockout season.  And he actually kept the Vikings competitive on a week to week basis in 2011: despite a 3-13 record, they were actually competitive in 12 of their games (in addition to the three wins, they lost nine games by seven or fewer points). Some of those losses may have been a result of bad coaching decisions or poorly prepared players (though I think we all generally agree the Viking secondary had terrible personnel last season), but a lot of it comes down to bad luck. I'm not saying Frazier was a great or even good coach in 2011; I'm just saying his team--a team in rebuilding mode with a lot going against it because of things that happened before Frazier became head coach--played more competitively than you probably think. And the roster isn't transformed  the way it needs to be yet, so Frazier might still have a lousy team in 2012.

But if Frazier is able to keep his job after 2012, it will be because he is a hell of a coach. It will also be about personnel: that Christian Ponder takes major strides, that Matt Kalil is a stud, that the "fix the secondary through quantity rather than quality" approach worked, that enough pass catchers develop into pro quality receivers, that either Adrian Peterson or Toby Gerhart or both perform at RB. But it will also be because Frazier helped this team improve, he made good strategic decisions, he prepared a roster with more young players and new players at key positions, and he made things work for a team that mostly picked up cheap rather than big name free agents. If the Vikings get to, say, 9-7, it will be an impressive coaching job, and we can have confidence in him as the Viking coach.

But if he doesn't earn that job with his team's performance on the field, the team will be moving on. Zygi Wilf, with his new profitable stadium coming and a commitment to stay in the state, isn't going to go cheap at head coach. And we'll have a completely new approach to the team to think about. Either way, as a fan I can deal with that.

Fantasy Analysis: on hiatus
I had a pretty lengthy section written here with some pretty detailed fantasy analysis. I copied it all, and I'll post it sometime after August 11th. I realized I was saying too much: I've got two drafts coming up, and people in those leagues are readers. If I were a paid fantasy football analyst, I would have to say tough luck and post my analysis. I am not. So the in-depth fantasy analysis picks up in a few weeks.

Revolution in Exile
At some point I resign myself to the reality that most fantasy leagues will continue to use head-to-head format, and wonder why I should care, since I get to be in a league that doesn't and what do I care what you do? But if you're interested in revisiting why fantasy football should use something other than head-to-head competition, here is a manifesto (with links to earlier manifestos).

I do, though, hope that auctions continue to grow in popularity as opposed to snake drafts. Auction drafts are wildly more fun, exciting, and intense, and auction formats give you much more control and flexibility over your team. And with technological advancements like Skype, it is no longer a requirement to have all league members present for a draft. Most professional fantasy football commentary still focuses on snake formats, so as you listen you have to translate into your own terms (and there's not a clean translation between snake and auction, because of that flexibility), and that's annoying. So as auctions grow, there will be market pressure for commentators to cater more to us auction practitioners.

Kick Ass Links
The pass rush was critical to the Vikings' pass defense last year; without it, they were utterly awful (Football Outsiders).

I don't know that it was really a worry, but Matt Kalil signed (Vikings.com).

I'll be honest here (for once): I've completely written Adrian Peterson out of my fantasy football considerations. There will always be somebody willing to pay more or draft him earlier than I would draft somebody who will on week one be nine months recovered from a torn ACL. As a Viking fan I hope for the best; as a fantasy football junkie I'm not counting on it. And Toby Gerhart is ready to start (Roto Arcade).

I'll be honest again: is it worth our time to read any of the articles there will be about Christian Ponder before the season? Like this one? I think it is not. What will matter is watching Ponder play, in games, when the season starts. Nothing that happens between now and the real season will make me think much differently of Ponder's chances to be a successful pro QB (though I will watch those preseason games).

Umm...can the Vikings actually forbid independent media members from reporting on players being "admonished" (Star Tribune)? I suppose they can control future access to their team: no constitution guarantees a reporter be allowed in the Minnesota Viking locker room, after all. But something tells me if the friggin' Star Tribune reports on something the Vikings say they are not "allowed" to report on, the friggin' Star Tribune is going to be just fine.

Patrick Reusse gives his theory on why Daunte Culpepper collapsed (Star Tribune).

"The Greening of Professional Sports" (New York Times).

I started following Arian Foster when he announced he was vegan, and he's an interesting, funny fellow (Foster's Twitter).

ESPN's Fantasy Cheat Sheet is really helpful to print (ESPN). I don't really care how publications or websites rank players: I want them to organize information in clear, informative, useful ways. This cheat sheet is handy to cross off names during the draft (I don't know about you, but my league has stiff, stiff penalties for putting a player up for bids who has already been drafted).

Who is the best running back in the league? (Grantland).

Ladanian Tomlinson's fantasy legacy (Grantland).

Matthew Berry's 100 facts (ESPN).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Happy trails to ex-Viking Visanthe Shiancoe

It took some time, but Visanthe Shiancoe has found gainful employment in the NFL.

And he's found it with the New England Patriots, who have signed him to a one-year deal worth $1.2 million (he made $3.1 million in base salary last year). But for now he's only guaranteed $400,000. The rest will come in incentives.

At first blush this doesn't seem like a great place for Shiancoe to be. Patriot tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez caught 169 passes for a total of 2,896 yards and 26 touchdowns between them last season. How is Shiancoe – who started for five years in Minnesota – going to get any snaps playing with those two?

It's a good question. But one factor that probably influenced Shiancoe's decision to sign with New England was he didn't have many other options. So rather than stay unemployed, what's so bad about being the third-string tight end on last year's Super Bowl runner-up?

And the move might work out swimmingly for Shiancoe. Here are few reasons why:

  1. Tom Brady: The chance to catch passes from a guy who completed 65 per cent of his throws and tossed for over 5,200 yards last year should be good for anyone with two legs and a heartbeat.
  2. Aaron Hernandez is a tight end in name only:  Listed at 6'1 and 245 pounds, Hernandez doesn't do much blocking. He's more like a very large slot receiver. It's quite possible the Patriots could employ lots of looks with Hernandez, Gronkowski and Shiancoe on the field at the same time.
  3. The Patriots throw a lot: New England threw the ball 612 times in 2011. That doesn't figure to change in 2012 with Stevan Ridley likely the Pats #1 running option. So Tom Brady's going to chuck it, and if Shiancoe is playing at all, there will be opportunities for him to catch it.
  4. Matchups: Gronkowski, Hernandez, Wes Welker and Deion Branch are a formidable foursome for opposing defenses. It's to hard to cover them all, and Brady will throw to the guy that's open. If Shiancoe has anything left in the tank at 32 – and he should, he barely played his first four seasons with the Giants – he should prosper playing with players who will command much more attention than Michael Jenkins, Kyle Rudolph and Devin Aromashodu did last year for the Vikings.
Anyway, I see Shiancoe catching 35 passes for 400 yards and three touchdowns for New England in 2012. Maybe he can even pick up a Super Bowl ring and make up for the one that got away in 2009.

E.J. Henderson
As for other ex-Vikings on the unemployment line, a season-ending injury to Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu didn't get E.J. Henderson's phone ringing. The Falcons signed Mike Peterson to compete with Akeem Dent for the MLB spot instead. I really wonder if Henderson's career might be over. No one seems interested in him.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A new tight end corps for the Minnesota Vikings

One thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is the complete turnover at tight end on the Vikings’ roster. The Vikings’ tight ends really hadn’t changed much since Brad Childress signed Visanthe Shiancoe to pair with Jim Kleinsasser in 2007. After Kleinsasser’s retirement and the decision to let Shiancoe leave in free agency, the Purple will now be relying on new faces John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, and Kyle Rudolph to replace Kleinsasser and Shiancoe’s production and blocking.

It’s not too surprising that the Vikings would decide to retool their tight ends. Shiancoe’s production had fallen off and Kleinsasser was ready to retire. What’s interesting is the type of players that the Vikings have brought in to replace them. One of the bigger shifts in the past few years is emphasizing the pass catching abilities of the tight end over the ability to pass block—think Dallas Clark, Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham instead of Kleinsasser. Teams seem to be looking for tight ends that are big wide receivers that can run block, rather than small linemen with good hands. This isn’t a new trend, but its accelerated in the past years as teams have increased how often they use their tight ends as primary receivers (especially out of the slot) and have stopped using their tight ends as outlets that only release into a route after helping to pass protect.

Ellison is the replacement for Kleinsasser (as I said after the draft). And based on the way he was used in Seattle, it appears that Carlson is the replacement for Shiancoe (expected to both pass protect and occasionally be a primary receiver). Rudolph, however, brings in the new wrinkle of a tight end whose primary purpose is running routes. So while the Vikings are copying the rest of the league (as we all know, the NFL is a copycat league), they aren’t yet willing to let go of their old way of using tight ends. That’s probably why Ellison was considered such a reach in the 4th round while Kleinsasser went in the 2nd (or the Vikings still haven’t figured out how not to reach for players).

While it makes sense that the Vikings aren’t willing to give up on an extra pass protector while they are developing Christian Ponder, it doesn’t seem likely that Ellison and Carlson will be able to provide the value that Kleinsasser and Shiancoe did in pass protection.

Pro Football Focus looked at the best pass blocking tight ends over the past three years and, not surprisingly, Kleinsasser was the best at protecting his quarterback. What was surprising was that Shiancoe was ranked third. Both were great at protecting the quarterback. Neither were in the top 10 when it came to snaps in pass protection (though some of that might be due to their injury problems and Kleinsasser’s part-time role), but they still were kept in to pass block quite often. So while it seems likely that the Vikings will use Ellison and Carlson in the same roles, it’s not clear if it will be worth it for them to do so.

As a rookie, Ellison, will not be as good at pass blocking as the veteran Kleinsasser was. And not only is Carlson not a good pass blocker—he’s one of the worst over the past three years. What’s problematic about Carlson is that he doesn’t appear to be much of a receiver, either (although the same could be said for Shiancoe when he came over from the Giants). Regardless, he shouldn’t be used in the same role as Shiancoe because he can’t be trusted to protect Ponder, removing his value as a blocker/outlet. And without that, his value needs to be as a primary receiver and, unlike Rudolph, he doesn’t appear to have the ability to assume a Graham/Gronkowski/Clark type role.

Additionally, unless the Vikings come out in two tight ends – like the Patriots did quite often last year – any time Ellison or Carlson is on the field, Rudolph is not, depriving the Vikings (and Ponder) of a much needed receiving threat. Of course, it’s not unlikely that the Vikings will use a two tight end formation a lot this year, since their wide receiving corps isn’t exactly the deepest in the game.

The closer we get to training camp, and the season itself, the more interested I am to see how Vikings’ use their new tight ends. Basically, what I’m saying is—can it be September 9th yet?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

National Friday League: The New Team Team

The New Team Team
There was a time when I would avoid players who were joining a new team. I feared product of the system guys crashing. I didn't like that statistical analysis of past performance didn't help me make predictions on how they'd be used in their new team. But there have been too many examples of fantasy game breakers in their first seasons with a new team at every position. There is no reason to avoid players on new teams on principle (you can, of course, judge case by case. And always look out for the Alvin Harper Principle: a #2 or #3 WR on a really good offense signs a big contract to be a #1 WR on a bad offense).

So this week let's make a team out of players switching teams.*

QB: Peyton Manning  (also consider: Matt Flynn, David Garrard)

RB: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Michael Bush (also consider: not drafting a RB on a new team)

WR: Vincent Jackson, Brandon Marshall (also consider: Brandon Lloyd)

TE: Dallas Clark (also consider: Martellus Bennett, Jacob Tamme)

Analysis: This team sucks. The WRs are serviceable if you got great players at other positions, but with this team you wouldn't. I don't like BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Michael Bush is a backup (but one worth following, as he's a very good player and possible touchdown vulture). I don't like the TEs at all (though Bennett is a worthwhile sleeper: a big target going to a team that throws a lot). I like Manning, but he's the best fantasy player on this team, and you don't want that.

Well that wasn't much fun. But the point of doing these Theme Teams is to organize some of the types of fantasy prospects out there. This year's crop of players on new teams is weak--but that's not always the case. For the hell of it, here are some of the best fantasy performers in their first years with new teams.

QB: Brett Favre '09**, Drew Brees '06
RB: Marshall Faulk '99, Michael Turner '08, Priest Holmes '01
WR: Randy Moss '07, Terrell Owens '04

It's worth noting that a lot of these guys were huuuuge question marks going into what became great fantasy seasons. Favre might have been washed up. Brees might have had a lingering injury. Turner and Holmes were previously only backups. Randy Moss was coming off his worst season by far. So even if guys switching teams don't look like great prospects going into the season, these players are worth keeping your eye on. More often, it seems, players disappoint on new teams, but there are enough season-changing studs that you need to pay attention.

*I used Sports Illustrated's fantasy mag for its really clean list of fantasy-relevant offseason moves.
**My oldest son came into football consciousness in 2009, so his favorite football player is Brett Favre. He knows the #4. I don't know when another player will become his new favorite player.

Previous Theme Teams:
The Team Team
The Sophomore Studs
The Return from Injury Team

Well that's confidence!
Dan Wiederer at Star Tribune looks at five new players on the Vikings' offense and assesses their best case and worst case scenario. Wiederer's worst case scenario for Matt Kalil is that he "is a reliable standout."

Really? There's no chance Kalil will be a bust? His worst case scenario is "reliable standout," not "total disappointment," or "legendary bust"? These things can't happen? Well then.  I guess the Vikings made the right pick.

Kick Ass Links
A very detailed look at the Vikings' fantasy prospects for 2012 (Yahoo!).

The 1991 season (Football Outsiders).

Can Cam Newton do it again? (ESPN).

Vegas odds on Super Bowl winners: Vikes are 80 to 1 (Grantland).

Fans of Adrian Peterson and Ricky Rubio: medical advances have greatly improved players' chances of recovering from knee injuries (Star Tribune).

Adrian Peterson has his own side of the story (Star Tribune).

Fantasy prospects that aren't getting enough respect (Yahoo!).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

With RGIII signed, expect Matt Kalil to follow suit

I was happy to hear the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL college draft – Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III signed a contract Wednesday with the club. 

This made me happy because the Walls of Jericho have fallen. Before the RGIII deal, the first eight picks in April's draft were still unsigned, which includes Vikings first rounder (fourth overall) Matt Kalil. But with a top pick like Griffin locked up, a financial benchmark has been established and the players picked below him, their agents and club management now have a better idea what financial slot picks three through eight will fit into.

When I tweeted ESPN 1500 Vikings beat writer Tom Pelissero to ask him if the RGIII signing will accelerate Kalil's signing, he tweeted back this response: "People in the league think the logjam is broken."

Whew! While I don't think there was ever any threat Kalil would be a training camp holdout, it's still pretty important that Kalil not be a training camp holdout. Here's why.

The Vikings offensive line is going through a serious transition phase. The line will feature three new starters in 2012 with Kalil taking over at left tackle, Charlie Johnson moving from left tackle to left guard and Geoff Schwartz, Brandon Fusco and Joe Berger duking it out for the right guard spot.

Timing, familiarity and continuity are important for an offensive line. And that's going to be an issue for the Vikings with three new starters. It's going to take time (and reps) for that unit to get comfortable working with one another and executing the blocking schemes that will keep opposing pass rushers off Christian Ponder's back. (Ponder took a beating in his rookie season thanks to a Vikings O-line that was less than stellar in pass protection. That can't happen again.)

Kalil's been at all the OTAs and rookie camp stuff, so he's done the work he's had to do so far to get ready for 2012 season. But the heavy lifting really begins on July 26th when the Vikings start training camp and then move on to exhibition games in August in preparation for the new season.

The Vikings rebuilding effort would take a step back if its new-look offensive line's prize left tackle was missing time due to a contract holdup. If the club wants to give Kalil, Ponder and its entire offense the best chance to succeed in 2012, it needs to get Kalil signed over the next seven days so he's in Mankato bright and early on the 26th.

Today, Washington and RGIII may have helped the Vikings along that journey.

Can the Minnesota Vikings morph into ball hawks in 2012?

If you watched the Minnesota Vikings much in 2011 (I did, and it sucked), you don't need a reminder that the club wasn't very prolific when it came to intercepting passes.

But in case you did need a reminder, Viking Update's John Holler has this little ditty for you.

It's not a pretty picture and Holler's thesis is that the Vikings need to develop a ball hawking mentality among its secondary if the team wants to avoid another 3-13 debacle in 2012.

It's an interesting viewpoint, and you can't argue that the Vikings will be a better defense and a better team if they can up their paltry interception total of eight in 2011. But can this secondary do it?

That might be difficult. While the Vikings shook up their secondary, the talent that is on the roster now and set to play significant roles for the team do not have a track record that suggests Minnesota is going to suddenly morph into a gang of opportunistic thieves. So let's look at the players who will likely make up the 2012 Minnesota Vikings secondary to see what their body of work can tell us about the Vikes chances of intercepting a few more passes in 2012.

Chris Cook: The starting right cornerback has yet to intercept a pass in two NFL seasons (one caveat – he's only suited up for 12 of a possible 32 games during that period) and some writers are expecting a breakout season from him in 2012. But even at the University of Virginia, Cook was no interception machine. His best total was in his 2009 senior season when he picked off four passes. In his three other years with the U of V, he intercepted one pass per season.

Antoine Winfield: As great a player as #26 has been for the Vikes, he's never intercepted more than four passes in a season and hasn't picked off more than two since 2006. At 35 years of age, and with the Vikings trying to limit his snaps a bit, don't expect Winfield to reverse that trend.

Chris Carr: If healthy, Carr will play a lot. But again, his playing history doesn't suggest he's going to be a source of a lot of interceptions. He's had just six in seven NFL seasons.

Josh Robinson: The Vikings have high hopes for the third round pick (so do Viking fans). However, even as he was selected as a first-team all conference player at the University of Central Florida his last two years, he only intercepted two passes each season.  

Zack Bowman: In 2009, the ex-Bear picked off six passes in a starting role. But that seems like eons ago for Bowman, who lost his starting job in Chicago and was running with the third-stringers during the Viking OTAs this spring. Bowman might not even make the team. Even if he does, his role will be limited unless injuries hit the Vikings secondary hard.

Marcus Sherels: The University of Minnesota product was the Vikings main punt returner in 2011, and unless a number of corners drop dead this season, that's where Sherels figures to spend most of his time in 2012. As a dime back in the Vikings porous secondary last year, Sherels didn't intercept a pass - or come close to intercepting one, if memory serves. 

Harrison Smith: Everyone expects the Notre Dame product to be the starting free safety this fall. He did not, however, intercept a pass during his senior season at South Bend (although it's fair to point out he picked off SEVEN passes in his junior year.)

Mistral Raymond: It's hard to figure where Raymond fits right now. He ended 2011 starting at free safety, but that was based on necessity, not performance. Now he's listed as Smith's backup on the Vikings depth chart. And I've read he may win the strong safety job in training camp. Wherever he ends up, Raymond probably isn't going to turn into Ed Reed. He picked off one pass in 2011. He'll do well to equal that total in 2012.

Jamarca Sanford: And the Minnesota Vikings interception leader in 2011 was .... Jamarca Sanford? Yes, that's correct, and yet Sanford played so poorly last season he may not be able to keep his starting job this season. In fact, if he does keep his starting job, that's a sign the Vikings 2012 secondary might not be any better than the Vikings 2011 secondary. Starting or not starting, Sanford will be lucky to match his 2011 interception total.

Robert Blanton: The Notre Dame grad was consistent – if not spectacular – when it came to picking off opposing passes during his Fighting Irish career. He intercepted two passes in each of his four seasons at South Bend. A cornerback in college, the Vikings are turning Blanton into a safety and the talk is he could beat out Sanford and Raymond for the strong safety job. But would you bet on a rookie fifth round draft pick - playing the kind of "take-no-chances" philosophy the Vikings Cover Two defensive system asks of its safeties - picking off more than a pass or two next season? I wouldn't. 

Look at that list of players above and tell me the Vikings are going to reverse their interception fortunes in 2012. I believe the unit will be improved compared to the sorry crew Minnesota had to trot out for most games in 2011. But I don't think that improvement is going to translate into a lot of picks.The Vikings Cover Two system has something to do with that, as the goal seems to be to play zone, keep the play in front of you and tackle well rather than jump routes and take chances. However, the talent at the Vikings disposal also suggests the team will continue to drive its fans crazy with their inability to pick the pockets of opposing quarterbacks. I hope I'm wrong.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Some guys who could make 2012 more enjoyable for the Minnesota Vikings

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.

Christan Ponder
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.

Phil Loadholt
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.)

Toby Gerhart
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.

Jerome Simpson
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.    

Letroy Guion
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.

Everson Griffen
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.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

National Friday League: The Team Team

The Team Team
Have you ever wondered if you would benefit from devoting your draft to acquiring all the skill players on an elite NFL offense?  If you draft a quarterback, two or three wide receivers, a tight end, a running back, and a kicker from one offense, you're essentially getting all the fantasy points scored by an elite NFL offense.  Probably, you're not going to have two running backs from that team: you'll have to get another running back from another team.  Of course that only helps you, because you're hopefully adding another elite scorer that can add more to your score than a team's #2 RB.

So this week's theme team, "The Team Team," is devoted to acquiring all the star performers from one elite NFL offense.  In assembling a Team Team, we're not looking for the best offense in the league.  We're not even looking for the most productive fantasy offense in the league.  We're looking for a team with so much depth and breadth that you can fill in all your key starter positions.  In most cases, we'd look to another team for a #2 RB.  But this year there is one team where you might be able to fill out a full Team Team starting lineup and feel good about it.

The 2011 New Orleans Saints were #2 in scoring offense and #1 in yardage offense.  And they've got the depth and breadth to fill out a roster:

QB: Drew Brees

RB: Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram

WR: Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson

TE: Jimmy Graham

Analysis: I don't think this is a good idea, of course.  You're not maximizing your potential score by getting top scorers from a variety of teams.  You are setting yourself up for disaster if something bad happens to the team you've chosen (hell, you're setting yourself up for disaster if they have a bad week or two).  You'd be using a gimmick instead of building a championship team.

But look: it's expensive to draft a 300 touch, feature running back.  If you can get a timeshare backfield, you're probably getting it pretty affordably, and you can use your resources at other positions.  In this case, you might end up with the #1 fantasy QB and the #1 fantasy TE (that puts up WR numbers).  You'll also get all the pass catchers that benefit from the #1 fantasy QB, meaning you are doubling up your passing/receiving numbers from the #1 fantasy QB.  And you're getting any rushing yards and rushing touchdowns from the team.

The weakest position with this Team Team isn't even RB (both Sproles and Ingram are legitimate starting options this year): it's WR.  After Baby Colston, you're not getting superstar production.  If you're sticking with the Team Team hardcore, you're willing to go thin at WR knowing that over the course of the season your #2 and #3 receivers are going to get theirs spread out (assuming Devery Henderson picks up Robert Meachem's production, your #2/3 WRs can combine for 1,200-1,400 yards and 12-16 TDs), and you're getting a TE that is basically a WR.  That's not great--unless you're playing a deep league.

If you play in a 14 team league, you're probably choosing a lousy #2 RB and #2/#3 WR anyway.  In such a deeper league, the Team Team might actually be worth attempting.  In a league like that, I like to play it safe and get an elite QB (much more reliable, much less injury prone, a good first round pick) and then try get both parts of a timeshare RB.  You're playing thin competition: if you can cheaply get, say, Sproles and Ingram, that becomes a reasonable starting backfield.  And in a deeper league, you might be starting the likes of Lance Moore anyway.

So in a 14 team league, do you think you could win a title with this Team Team?

Previous Theme Teams
The Return from Injury Team
The Sophomore Studs Team

Kinky Fantasy League Rule: Team Kicker
(here's another summer gimmick: I'll share some realistic but kinky fantasy league rules for your consideration).

Nobody really likes having to draft a kicker in fantasy football; hell, I don't even like learning the kickers' names.  Every fantasy expert tells you to draft a kicker in the last round.  It's both important and really doesn't matter.

But here's a kinky fantasy league rule regarding kickers that I like: the Team Kicker rule.  Essentially, when you draft a (real) team's kicker, you have rights to every kicker on that team's roster and any kicker that team signs throughout the year.  You still have to pay attention to kickers, but you don't have to worry about kicker injuries or cuts (especially useful if your league limits free agent pickups).

To use a team kicker rule on a web league, the commissioner just needs to set the allowed roster on the website larger than the actual allowed roster of the league.  Then if a team has two kickers on its roster, or has signed another kicker while its starting kicker is injured, or whatever, you can stash the additional kicker on the roster without the additional kicker actually taking up a roster spot.  The "team kicker" is itself one roster spot, like a team defense.  You can monitor the rosters to make sure nobody is using the extra roster spots for other purposes yourself.  You can decide whether a) you still only allow one kicker in the starting lineup, or b) you allow two starting kicker spots, but only let a manager start multiple kickers from the same NFL team.

Arian Foster goes vegan
(NFL.com, Foster's Twitter Account, Mercy for Animals)

I think we're going to see stories about professional athletes trying a vegan diet a bit more regularly (well maybe not regularly regularly, but it's not uncommon in the websites I frequent), because veganism is becoming more mainstream (well not mainstream mainstream, but more known of and more accepted), and because professional athletes care greatly about the health of their bodies, a vegan diet can be extraordinarily healthful, and some athletes will at least want to try it.

Arian Foster is also a poet.  So he's got that going for him too.

(also, you would have to pay me $50 cash to listen to Hugh Douglas, Stephen A. Smith, and Skip Bayless discuss whether Foster's decision is a good idea).

Adrian Peterson
Is Adrian Peterson starting to concern you (City Pages, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Star Tribune, Sports Illustrated)?  I don't know.  In conflicts, there is a lot of subjectivity in how people respond or react to others: one party reacts without knowing the other party's intentions or motivations, and that reaction itself gets reacted to, and situations can escalate unnecessarily without either party feeling responsible.  There's also a lot of subjectivity in understanding what occurred and why, but those with the power tend to get to define objectively what occurred, even when they are subjective participants.  I don't know what happened, but I suspect a minor conflict got escalated when two parties weren't sure what the other was really up to.

Kick Ass Links
On making professional sports teams and their stadiums more environmentally friendly (Salon).

Chris Carr (Pioneer Press).

Kevin Love nominated to make the Olympic team (Timberwolves.com).

How did you enjoy the Darko era? (Pro Basketball Talk).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

National Friday League: Theme Teams Continue

Theme Team: The Sophomore Studs
This team is comprised entirely of second year players.

QB: Cam Newton   (also consider Andy Dalton)  

 RB: DeMarco MurrayMark Ingram   (also consider Roy HeluStevan Ridley )

 WR: A.J. Green, Julio Jones  (also consider Torrey SmithDenarius MooreTitus Young

 TE: Kyle Rudolph  (also consider Lance Kendricks)  

Analysis: I don’t think you could build this team in a snake draft: your first four picks would need to be Newton, Green, Jones, and Murray in some order, and I’m not sure you could get them all (or that you'd want to pass on other available players to do so). But you could definitely make this team in an auction league.

This is actually a good team at QB and WR. If your league gives more points for rushing TDs than passing TDs, Newton can be really valuable, and both A.J. Green and Julio Jones showed great production for rookies in ’11. They should be good picks: both have potential to become elite in their second years. Even if you need to start three WRs, you can find some good potential second year players (I only named a few). You can, obviously, do better at TE, but that’s not a major worry.

The big weakness of this team is at running back. Make no mistake about it: there will be sophomore running backs that break out in 2012. But based on their ’11 production and their situations, I don’t know who those running backs are going to be. After DeMarco Murray, no ’11 rookie running back really exploded with signs of potential. I am going with Ingram over Helu or Ridley: I don’t like any of their situations, but figure Ingram is the more talented (you could probably draft all three!). It is quite likely that some other sophomore RB, one that didn’t or barely played in ’11, will be a breakout player. Good luck guessing who.

You may find a lot of other potential second year players as well: this draft list (with ’11 production included) from pro-football-reference.com should be helpful.

So, can you win a fantasy league with this team?  It really depends on hitting on the right running backs, the WRs stepping up from words like "explosive," "exciting," or "potential" to "elite #1," and Cam Newton doing something approximately like what he did in 2011.

Previous Theme Teams: The Return from Injury Team

You can tell fantasy junkies by the finicky and specific critiques they offer of fantasy magazines.
I bought Sports Illustrated's fantasy magazine this year, and it is overall excellent (clean organization, profiles with three year stats including targets, detailed explanations/analysis, relevant coaching/player/rookie/roster change info, terrific team pages with red zone stats and opposing coach's comments on the team, auction values out of 100 so you can easily translate it to your own league's salary cap--something most fantasy mags screw up). That magazine and I are going to be spending a lot of time together. But it has one really serious flaw.

There is no position by position cheat sheet. A cheat sheet organized overall, with all players thrown into the mix, is not very helpful in any draft (unless you've really familiarized yourself with it, you don't always know where to look, and while any fantasy manager is going to have slightly different rankings from any fantasy magazine, different managers have wildly different ideas about the value of certain positions over others, so mixing QBs, RBs, WRs, and TEs into one big list is almost entirely worthless). But it is entirely worthless during an auction draft, when players aren't nominated for bidding in anything resembling a ranking of quality. With no positional cheat sheet, SI has just ensured that I need to create or print another list just to manage during a live draft (or page through the mag checking each positional ranking section, but a cheat sheet is supposed to simplify things by eliminating that need).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

To keep Kevin Williams or not keep Kevin Williams, that is the question

When one of your best players comes asking you about a contract extension, what do you do?

That's what Vikings general manager Rick Spielman is facing after six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams revealed he has approached the team about a contract extension.

I think Spielman has already made his decision here, which is why 2012 could be Williams' last year wearing a purple helmet with horns on the side of it.

This is one of the things that sucks about pro football. Williams has been a great player. He's also been a durable guy who has caused no problems off the field for the Vikings. He deserves to be treated fairly and with respect. You feel like the guy is owed a contract extension from the Vikings.

But in order for a football team to remain competitive, it can't pay guys for lifetime achievement. It has to constantly turn over its roster. It must replace aging players with younger (and hopefully, better) players so a franchise can be successful over the long haul.

This is why – I think – Spielman will part ways with Williams regardless of how well he plays in 2012. Williams will be 32 soon and even though he is still a good defensive tackle, rare is the NFL player who is on the wrong side of 30 and whose play is ascending.

Can Williams be an effective player for another two-to-three years? I think he can. But he will also be looking to get paid like an effective player. Spielman can probably put those dollars to better use elsewhere, and he also saw firsthand in 2011 what happens when a team hangs on too long to the memory of what it was instead of facing up to what it is.

My advice to Vikings fans is to enjoy every snap Williams plays for the Vikings in 2012. We won't be getting an encore from him in 2013.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Some kind words for Christian Ponder from Greg Cosell

As the 2011 NFL season ended, it was hard not to be a little disheartened with how Christian Ponder's rookie year evolved.

It's true that he was playing for a miserable team, with a crappy offensive line and no elite talent to throw to other than Percy Harvin. Still, the degree to which Ponder struggled as the games wore on was disconcerting – especially when two other rookie quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, had such strong freshman seasons.

But if you're looking for some hope that things will get better for Ponder, and the Vikings, check out this post by NFL Films' Greg Cosell where he assesses the play of Ponder and Dalton.

Cosell makes some important points in the blog.

First, he points out Ponder was hurt by not being made the Vikings starter at the start of training camp as Dalton was in Cincinnati. That cost Ponder a lot of time working with the first-team offense as he watched Donovan McNabb throw passes into the Metrodome turf. Ponder never recovered.

Cosell also gives Ponder props for his arm strength, something he says Dalton doesn't have. It's Cosell's view that Ponder can make throws that Dalton will never be able to make because he has superior arm strength. And that's a tool that is vitally important in today's NFL.

Finally, Cosell writes that Dalton was much better at anticipating his throws and better with his timing on throws than Ponder in 2011. But Cosell's view is that this is an area Ponder can (and will) get better at. He just needs the snaps for it to happen, and as he gains more experience he will lose his habit of throwing to his primary read all the time, which led to so many bad throws and bad interceptions during Ponder's rookie year.

Overall, Cosell's take is one that has to make you feel good if you're a Viking fan. There is little doubt Ponder's development will play a large role in how fast or slow the current rebuilding project will be. And in Cosell's view, Ponder has what it takes to be a very good quarterback in the NFL.

* I should add, however, that the personnel moves the Vikings have made this offseason will have a sizeable impact on Ponder's development in 2012.

If the offensive line can keep the passing pocket consistently clean, as it did in Ponder's starts against Carolina and Denver last year, Ponder has shown he can put up some nice numbers when that happens. That's a big if, though. The line will have three new starters and it's assumed the unit will be improved (could it get much worse?). Assumptions, however, can't block defensive ends or tackles and blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

The Vikings also need free agent signee Jerome Simpson and/or rookies Greg Childs and Jarius Wright to make the kind of plays at wide receiver that Bernard Berrian, Devin Aromashodu and Michael Jenkins could not make in 2011. Ponder needs a deep threat or two he can depend on playing outside,   

And last and somewhat least, the return of Adrian Peterson to full strength and Toby Gerhart continuing to prove 2011 wasn't a mirage can't hurt. The Vikings need to find balance on offense, an ability to both run and pass, so it's not all on Ponder's right arm play after play, game after game.