Friday, August 31, 2012

The Minnesota Vikings reveal their 53 man roster

It's official (until tomorrow when they pick up a bunch of guys put on waivers by other teams and have to release some of these poor suckers). The Minnesota Vikings have picked their 53 man roster for 2012.

I will try not to analyze this too much, as the names here are going to change somewhat over the next couple of days. But here are a few thoughts:

– The depth is razor thin at some positions. We're one significant Antoine Winfield injury away from having Brandon Burton as our starting left cornerback (cringe). Turnstile Pat Brown is Phil Loadholt's backup at right tackle, and there is no backup for rookie left tackle Matt Kalil? If you're a second-tier player on this roster, you're not feeling too comfortable right now.

– I think defensive end Nick Reed earned a roster spot. But the Vikings like D'Aundre Reed and Everson Griffen as backups and Jared Allen and Brian Robison will play a tonne. ESPN 1500's Tom Pelissero wrote that Nick Reed got caught in a numbers game at defensive end. I wouldn't say the Vikings are necessarily flush at defensive end, however. D'Aundre Reed is very much an unknown quantity, and Griffen is talented but can be streaky. He flashes sometimes and disappears at others.

– Keeping Matt Asiata was the right call. He can run, block and catch. Lex Hilliard looked like – in the words of ex-Viking Visanthe Shiancoe – "hot garbage" all preseason. If he had made the team over Asiata, I would question the evaluating skills of general manager Rick Spielman and the entire Vikings coaching staff.

– I don't think the Vikings will be able to stash Jordan Todman on the practise squad, not after the 76-yard touchdown run last night. Some running back needy team (Green Bay perhaps?) will see that tape and sign him.

– Chris Carr's release hurts. He earned that release, but it still hurts. Winfield and Chris Cook are solid corners who could be a very good tandem if they can stay healthy and play like they're capable of. Rookie Josh Robinson has also looked promising. But teams run lots of three and four receiver sets these days. I would feel better about the Vikings cornerback situation if another capable veteran was in the mix. Carr was supposed to be that guy. It turns out he wasn't. Are the Vikings comfortable rolling with either Burton, Zack Bowman or Marcus Sherels as the dime corner? (Update: it turns out they weren't; they've traded for Arizona cornerback A.J. Jefferson.)

–  The release of Sage Rosenfels leaves the Vikings with three developmental quarterbacks on the roster, which is unusual in the NFL. Rosenfels played well enough to make the team. But he's wasted on a rebuilding team. If Joe Webb is the backup to Christian Ponder, what is a 12-year veteran like Rosenfels learning in third QB role? And what are the Vikings gaining by putting him there? Rosenfels is who he is at this point in his career (which might be over now that the Vikings have cut him). If part of the plan in 2012 is to throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks, it makes much more sense to keep a big-armed, 24-year-old Bethel McLeod-Thompson around. He's a player who can actually improve.

– Players currently on the Vikings roster who might not be on roster come Labor Day: Brown, Stephen Burton, Larry Dean, Sherels, Bowman and maybe even Asiata.

– So after many months of waiting, the focus now turns to the home opener and the Jacksonville Jaquars, who, I noticed are favored to win by most of the experts on this well-known sports website.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

National Friday League: Away We'll Go

You probably don't read me for Realism (or, Optimism)
I saw what I wanted to see in the preseason.

I saw Christian Ponder attempt a lot of passes downfield. And I also saw him hitting his targets downfield. And that's what I most wanted to see.

It would be terrible for the Vikings to use Ponder as nothing but a dink and dunk quarterback for 2012. It won't help the team advance the ball down the field and score points, for certain. There would be a lot of punts, few points, and a lot of frustration. The Vikes have to throw the ball deep sometimes, and Christian Ponder has to be a quarterback capable of throwing the ball deep sometimes. Without those deep throws, the Vikings will constantly be trying to run and throw in a tight, compact field where defenders are sitting tight on the run and all the short stuff. The NFL rules favor passing, and if you don't try to exploit teams via the pass, you probably aren't a good NFL offense.

Even in the lackluster team performance in the preseason game against the Chargers, Ponder attempted several downfield passes and put the ball in his receivers' hands on most of them (they didn't always catch it). And throughout the preseason he's shown zip and depth on longer passes. It's still preseason: it doesn't mean everything.

Two things mean a great deal for the franchise this season: Christian Ponder's development and Christian Ponder's exposure. Development is improvement. Exposure is more a matter of showing what you are. Christian Ponder will show what he is this year.

Christian Ponder is his own player.
During the Vikings-Chargers preseason game, Paul Allen said something to the effect that it isn't fair to judge Christian Ponder until he's playing with Adrian Peterson (and the full first team, etc.). And this strikes me as very wrong.

Christian Ponder is a player. He is a quarterback, and he was a first-round pick. We can evaluate him and make judgments about his play and potential on his own merit. And we had better.  Ponder is a 24 year old quarterback: if he turns out to be a good quarterback, he's going to be on the team for 10 or more years. Adrian Peterson is a 27 year old running back: if the Vikings are extremely lucky, Peterson has five more years of superb performance in him before he starts to decline (it's more likely fewer). If the Vikings are right about Ponder, he'll be the team's quarterback long after Peterson is off the team -- and if he's not good enough to be the quarterback after that, they shouldn't have drafted him.

And if Christian Ponder is such a nonentity that he can't be fairly evaluated unless he plays with Peterson, or that he won't perform well without a great running back, that is itself a problem for the future. But it's not just long-term concern. Despite optimism, we don't know what kind of performer Peterson is going to be in 2012: it may be that Ponder will not be playing with an elite running back this season, and he will still have to perform.

True Sleepers
There are usually teams that were bad the year before that get some national buzz as "sleepers" in the offseason and the buzz sort of makes them not really sleepers but sort of a hot pick. The 2012 Vikings are not such a team. I haven't come across a national writer that thinks the Vikings will be good this year. I've come across several that think they'll be terrible. If the Vikings are actually somehow good this year (and I think 9-7 fighting for Wild Card counts), they will be a real true sleeper, somebody nobody really accounted for and most would find hard to understand.

Kick Ass Links
"The best fantasy football players since 1950" (Football Perspective).

Another look at the greatest QBs of all-time (Football Perspective).

The Vikings have a few of the type of contracts Bill Barnwell says teams should avoid (Grantland).

It's a long-term plan (1500 ESPN Twin Cities). And that is right -- but that's not great for Leslie Frazier. Remember when David Kahn (rightly) drafted Ricky Rubio and basically said, whatever, he's young, we don't care if we don't have him for two years? That's fine -- but it means you have to allow the team to suck, and suck it did, and the coach Kurt Rambis got fired while the team happily waited for Rubio.

I believe in you too, Sage! (Pioneer Press).

I've been on board for eliminating overtime in the regular season for a long time, and a big reason is I would love to see coaches forced into some of those decisions about ties (Grantland).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why I still (barely) care about the Vikings 4th preseason game

When the Minnesota Vikings face the Houston Texans Thursday night to cap off the preseason, there will be no Christian Ponder. Or Adrian Peterson. Or Matt Kalil. Or Jerome Simpson. Or Kevin Williams, and on and on I can go.

Basically we're going to be watching a bunch of guys who will likely never start in the NFL or play in the NFL. Despite that, I will still be taping this game (I won't be able to watch it live) and watching it.

Part of the reason for that is that is that I'm starved to watch guys wearing purple and yellow jerseys play football. But there are also a couple of things I'm legitimately interested in seeing.

1. Cornerback and safety performance: We saw this week how quickly depth can be eroded at a position. And because we're depending on a 35-year-old cornerback to play a lot of snaps in 2012, and because Chris Cook has had trouble staying on the field his first two seasons, and because Jamarca Sanford started at safety for the Vikings last year, I'm looking for some other defensive backs to show up Thursday night. Can any of the lesser known players – say a Reggie Jones or a Bobby Felder – play confident and not look like a deer in the headlights? (Basically how Mistral Raymond looked all last season). We also haven't seen what rookie safety Robert Blanton has to offer because he's been out with a bad hammy for a month.

2. Wide receiver performance:  The Vikings coaching staff wants to see the wide receivers who will play Thursday night make a play. I keep hoping either Stephen Burton or Emmanuel Arceneaux (but mostly Burton) will emerge. I'm losing hope. I think we know what Devin Aromashodu can do and it isn't much. Rookie Jarius Wright has shown me nothing thus far, which has been very disappointing. I expected a guy who's 5'10 or so and plays the slot to be a shifty, darting player. I haven't seen that from Wright at all. He doesn't really even look that quick. If he weren't a fourth round draft pick, he would have been part of the first round of cuts.

And that's about it when it comes to things I'm intrigued to see Thursday night. I'm not fixating on Joe Webb's performance. He's looked like the same guy he's always been to me. I'd like to see Matt Asiata make a convincing case to be kept as the team's third running back, but with Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart around, whoever that guy is won't play much. I've also got enough concerns about the first-team offensive line that I don't even care how the backups do.

For me, September 9th can't come soon enough.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Leslie Frazier - Mr. Average?

Chase Stuart - the creator of the Football Perspective blog - had an interesting post last month (that, sadly, I just noticed yesterday) examining whether New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan is as good a defensive guru as he thinks he is.

I find Ryan highly entertaining (for a football head coach, that is), so I was keen to read the piece. But it also had a Vikings tie-in because in assessing Ryan's defensive credentials, Stuart listed the results of eight separate defensive stats for head coaches with defensive backgrounds and defensive coordinators who are currently employed in the NFL. There were 43 coaches listed.

That includes Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, who was Minnesota's defensive coordinator from 2007 until Brad Childress was canned midway through the 2010 season. Frazier also served as the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator in 2003-2004.

So where does Frazier rank in the stats compiled by Stuart? Let's take a look. (Note: These numbers are all season averages.)
  1. Points per game allowed: 21.9 – 29th overall
  2. Total yards allowed: 5,142 – 11th overall
  3. First downs allowed: 288 – tied for 11th overall
  4. Net yards per attempt allowed: 6.2 – 22nd overall
  5. Adjusted net yards allowed: 6.11 – 33rd overall
  6. Yards per carry allowed: 3.63 – 6th overall
  7. Rushing yards allowed: 1,431 – 3rd overall
  8. Total rushing and passing touchdowns allowed: 32.8 – 16th overall
  9. Turnovers forced: 25.8 – 29th overall
Frazier's numbers run the gamut. He's got some very good numbers in the rushing stats, which stands to reason as he was coordinator of some historically good rushing defenses with Minnesota from 2007-2009. He's also got some middle-of-the-road numbers and some pretty unimpressive numbers. 

Frazier strikes me as a good man. And from all I've read, he's well-respected by his players. That's good. But as far as taking the players he has and molding them into an elite unit, my takeaway from these stats is that Frazier hasn't been able to do that consistently.

We've written before about how this is a make-or-break year for Frazier as the Vikings head coach. So can a guy who hasn't been able to get the defenses he's coached to perform at an elite level (and he's had some elite talent to work with: Jared Allen, Kevin and Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, E.J. Henderson) get a "better-than-we-expected" year out of a young team lacking in elite talent?

I don't have an answer to that one. But we'll start finding out on September 9.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Revisiting The Tarvaris Jackson Experience

Our old friend, former Vikings starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, looks to be changing addresses for the second time in two seasons with Seattle trading him to the Buffalo Bills, and it got me thinking about Jackson's impact on the Vikings.

Jackson was Brad Childress' pet project. Chilly selected TJack with the last pick in the second round of the 2006 NFL draft – 51st overall – with the goal of turning the Alabama State product into the Vikings quarterback of the future.

Chilly, who was given a great deal of credit for developing Donovan McNabb into an All-Pro during their time together with the Philadelphia Eagles, indicated he could do the same with Jackson, referring to TJack as a "piece of clay" that he would mould into the Vikings next great quarterback.

Problem was, Jackson never looked the part, showing poor pocket awareness, subpar passing accuracy and lacking touch on his intermediate-to-long throws. There were some bright moments here and there, but overall Jackson looked overmatched during the 2007-2008 seasons when he was essentially handed the Vikings starting quarterback gig (he did lose his job to Gus Frerotte for much of 2008, but won it back late that year with a flurry of uncharacteristic solid play). After a piss-poor performance during a 2008 home playoff loss to the Eagles (you can read PV's post-game column if you want to bring back bad memories), even Chilly realized his star pupil didn't have the chops to be a legit starting NFL quarterback.

With a talented team coming off a 10-6 record and an NFC North title, most league observers felt the Vikes were a good quarterback away from contending for a Super Bowl title in 2009. That led to trading with the Texans to get Sage Rosenfels to provide competition for Jackson. When neither guy blew Childress away during OTAs and the preseason, the Vikings wooed Brett Favre out of retirement. The Vikings fell one field goal short of making the Super Bowl for the first time since 1976 that season, but the move was still a short-term success. Perhaps it was too successful. Because the Vikings wooed Favre back a second time – knowing that there was no way TJack and Sage could take them as far in 2010 as Favre had in '09.

Of course, 2010 was an epic fail, and with Chilly fired midway through that season, and the rest of the Vikings brain thrust convinced TJack wasn't the answer at QB, they let him sign with the Seahawks and drafted Christan Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft.

I bring all this up because the selection of Jackson in 2006; coupled with Chilly's belief that TJack could be developed into a successful NFL starter; then his loss of faith in Jackson after 2008, which led to the two-year shotgun marriage with Favre; caused the Vikings to lose five years in the search for the next Fran Tarkenton. That reality doesn't make me hate Jackson (he tried his best while he was in Minnesota), it just shows how costly it is when a team makes a mistake in evaluating the quarterback position.

I hope Ponder doesn't turn out to be Rick Spielman's TJack.

* As an aside, Jackson – for all his faults – has been one of the better quarterbacks selected in the 2006 draft. Here is the list of QBs chosen that year:

1st round: Vince Young (Tennessee – 3rd overall); Matt Leinhart (Arizona – 10th overall); Jay Cutler (Denver – 11th overall)
2nd round: Kellen Clemens (Jets – 49th overall); Jackson (Minnesota – 51st overall)
3rd round: Charlie Whitehurst (San Diego – 81st overall); Brodie Croyle (Kansas City – 85th overall)
4th round: Brad Smith (Jets – 103rd overall)
5th round: Ingle Martin (Green Bay – 148th overall); Omar Jacobs (Pittsburgh – 164th overall)
6th round: Reggie McNeal (Cincinnati – 193rd overall); Bruce Gradkowski (Tampa Bay – 194th overall)
7th round: D.J. Shockley (Atlanta – 223rd overall)

Cutler's the only guy who has become an elite quarterback out of that bunch. Leinhart's been a bust. And Young, considering where he was selected, has to be considered one as well. In fact, Jackson may be the guy that gets Young released by the Bills. When Jackson and Young's careers are over, it's possible Jackson could end up being considered the second-best quarterback from the Class of 2006. Wow.      

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Why was Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier wearing that long face on Friday night?

If preseason games are meaningless – as some analysts say – there isn't much to fret about following Friday's 12-10 uglyfest that dropped the Minnesota Vikings to 1-2 in the exhibition games.

But the scowl the normally pokerfaced Leslie Frazier was wearing on the sideline during this game tells another tale. Here is what Frazier couldn't have been happy to see.

Christian Ponder regresses 
I think most of us (and by us, I mean Viking fans) were guardedly optimistic after watching the first-team offense look fairly competent in its first two exhibition games. Against the Chargers, the unit looked miles away from competent. 

This wasn't all on second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. However, it's hard not to get a little worried about the guy when in a game that's as close to "real" as you can get in the preseason, we saw some of the problems that plagued Ponder in his rookie year show up – like staring down wide receivers. And Ponder still hasn't shown the ability to take over a game with his throwing or to elevate the players around him like a franchise quarterback is supposed to.

One thing he must get better at is his movement in the pocket. From my seat on the couch, Ponder's problem is that he doesn't really move. Consistently against the Chargers, he'd drop back to pass, hit his spot and stay there as if his feet were nailed to the Metrodome turf. At least two of the five sacks he took could have been prevented if he had stepped up a stride or two in the pocket. Ponder recognizes this: he said as much in his sideline interview with Ben Leber during the game. So why can't he translate that knowledge to the field? Someone needs to hand him a DVD of Tom Brady in the pocket.

This year's wide receivers look a lot like last year's wide receivers
Ponder's life might be little easier if he had anyone he could count on to make a play among the Vikings wide receivers other than Percy Harvin. But with the Vikings choosing to not play Jerome Simpson Friday night, no one else stood out.

Michael Jenkins will catch a few passes every game because he's big, has good hands, and is a seasoned pro who knows how to run routes. He's just not a deep threat. Devin Aromashodu is just a guy. Ditto for Emmanuel Arceneaux. Rookie Jarius Wright hasn't shown anything so far. And where was Stephen Burton last night? Did he even play?

This is a long-winded way of saying that during Simpson's suspension, the Vikings will struggle to move the ball through the air because every WR besides Harvin will struggle to get open, create separation from opposing defensive backs and make plays. That's the way it was last year and I've seen little to make me believe it will be any different while Simpson is out (and it might not get much better when he's in. Simpson's a wild card in his own right).

The defense made Charlie Whitehurst look OK
I don't want to hear any praise for the Vikings defense because it only gave up six points while Charlie Whitehurst was playing QB for San Diego. The fact is it shouldn't have allowed any points with Whitehurst under center.

Make no mistake – Whitehurst is godawful. Check out his game logs from the previous two seasons with Seattle. He was run out of that town because of his poor play. Yet on the two series where the Chargers kicked field goals while he was in the game, the Vikings actually made Whitehurst look decent. So what happens when they face Matt Stafford in week three? Or even rookie Andrew Luck in week two? The performance was lackluster enough against a Chargers offense that was missing most of its starters that Vikings analyst (and company man) Pete Bercich repeatedly called out the unit for a lack of intensity, effort and overall poor play.

Blair Walsh misses from 45 yards
I know the rookie is still eight-for-10 or whatever in the preseason, but on that first field goal attempt, the ball was positioned right in the middle of the field. Walsh didn't miss by much, but he did miss and inside the Dome, with his leg, and on a team that might struggle to score points at times this year, that's a kick Walsh must make. I'm still worried he'll lose his confidence like he did at Georgia last year.

There was lots more that was wrong with the Vikings against San Diego, but the aforementioned four issues stuck out the most for me. What about you, dear readers?

Let's end on a happy note
It wasn't all bad though.

We saw good work from linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson. Brinkley's two sacks draw attention, but I thought he had a very good all around game. He was at the bottom of a lot of piles and was just a lot more active than he had been the previous two games. Henderson looked solid, occupying blockers that allowed teammates like Brinkley to make plays, and he was consistently in the backfield disrupting Charger running plays.  

Matt Asiata once again showed why he, not Lex Hilliard or Jordan Todman, should be the Vikings third running back when the season starts even if he's listed as a fullback. He hits the hole decisively, can pass block a little and catches the ball well out of the backfield. I don't even care that he fumbled at Chargers three yard line.

And reserve tight end Allen Reisner showed off his soft hands and run-after-the-catch skills by hauling in a team high four catches (for 47 yards). Maybe the Vikings should make him a wide receiver.

All the trimmings 
You've probably heard the Vikes didn't waste any time making their first 15 cuts. For a detailed analysis on what those cuts mean to the Minnesota offense and defense, I suggest reading this post by The Daily Norseman's (and KAB guest columnist) Arif Hasan.    

Thursday, August 23, 2012

National Friday League: the QBs we'll see

The Quarterbacks the Vikings will face this year
It is hard to look ahead at a team's schedule: who knows what state their December opponents will actually find themselves in when December comes? So let's look at the Vikings schedule in a different way: let's just consider what quarterbacks the Vikings will have to face. This is a fairly predictable--of course there are injuries and benchings, but those will generally mean an even easier quarterback to face than expected. I'll try to make a reasonable guess which QB we'll actually see line up against the purple (you can judge what situations might be different). So this year, the Vikings will face:

1. Blaine Gabbert
2. Andrew Luck
3. Alex Smith
4. Matthew Stafford
5. Jake Locker
6. Robert Griffin III
7. John Skelton
8. Josh Freeman
9. Matt Flynn
10. Matthew Stafford
11. Jay Cutler
12. Aaron Rodgers
13. Jay Cutler
14. Sam Bradford
15. Matt Schaub
16. Aaron Rodgers

When you look at the Vikes' schedule that way, does it seem more difficult or more manageable?

Outside of the Vikes' own division, they actually get to avoid most of the elite and/or scary QBs. There's no Brady, Brees, Rivers, or Romo, no Vick, no Newton, and neither Manning. No Matt Ryan, no Ben Roethlisberger. And the first nine weeks are really promising: there are bad QBs, young QBs in their first few starts, and QBs who have been up-and-down in their careers. Tell me you don't see at least eight QBs in the first nine games fully capable of pissing a game away.

Of course, there is the division. When I look at the schedule this way, I can see the Vikes with a winning record outside their own division (based on the schedule, where they avoid a lot of good QBs), but struggling to get one win in the division. The Vikings usually play the Lions tough home and away (they get to avoid the outdoors), and their losses to Detroit last year were reeealllly painful (an overtime loss where they blew a 20-0 halftime lead, and a road loss where, in the final seconds down by six, they had the ball at the Lions' one and fumbled on the final play). I also expect the Vikings to play the Bears strong at home, and quite often even when overmatched the Vikes play the Packers close at least once. But Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, and Aaron Rodgers twice each is brutal for a team that has struggled so mightily against the pass. Those will be games that Jared Allen and the pass rush must dictate for the Vikes to have a shot.

Fantasy Advice: It does not follow (or, don't go get Rashad Jennings)
1. Maurice Jones-Drew is awesome (this is mostly universally accepted).
2. The Jacksonville offense is terrible, except for MJD (this is universally accepted).
3. Rashad Jennings, MJD's backup, hasn't really shown much of anything (I guess his '10 numbers intrigue people.  They don't intrigue me: the '10 Jags weren't as atrocious on offense).


4. Why does it follow that if MJD is out, Jennings is a worthwhile fantasy player?  MJD is clearly not a product of the system: the Jaguar offense sucks.  And Jennings hasn't shown enough to think he has any major talent of his own.  Sure, opportunity and workload make him worth a roster spot if MJD is out, but I do not understand giving up anything substantial to get Jennings.  If Jennings is an average RB, he's going to be a below average fantasy producer on a terrible offense.

Kick Ass Links
Ever since Dr. Z's stroke robbed him of the ability to write about pro football (still wish you the best Z), I've been waiting for the essential football writer: somebody who cuts through hype and convention to give real insight about what's happening on the football field. I think Bill Barnwell might be a contender. At Grantland, Barnwell explores four key team stats that help predict future performance (Viking fans: Barnwell notes that in '11, "Minnesota [...] lost as many games by seven points or fewer as any team has since the advent of the 16-game season.").

Why punt so often? (The New Yorker). Chris Kluwe doesn't exactly cover himself in glory; I think Wiedeman is right that "Fans and other outsiders are almost always ahead of coaches and team executives when it comes to statistical revolutions in sports."

You can see a former NFL cheerleader on The Office (Yahoo!).

From last year, The Onion: "Insane Moron Draws Conclusion From NFL Preseason Game." This actually gave me pause, as I'm considering the depths of my fantasy rosters based partly on these preseason games.

If you try to write a fantasy column where you must cover a good and bad player on each team, I guess you end up giving advice like don't draft Jacoby Jones (you got it, David Sabino), and other such brainbusters (so don't draft Bernard Scott or Montario Hardesty? I'm on it!). (Sports Illustrated).

A reminder from Chase Stewart's excellent blog Football Perspective: "The Preseason is Meaningless."

The Viking Secondary, improving from last year (Access Vikings, 1500 ESPN Twin Cities).

Marcus Sherels, punt returner (Pioneer Press).

Throwing it down with Vikings Territory: The six questions edition

Every now and then at Kick Ass Blog, we like to collaborate with, and feature, other Viking bloggers – like The Daily Norseman's Arif Hasan . One blog we've had a habit of working with the past few months is Vikings Territory, a fine site run by Adam Warwas. Last week I got a brainwave and asked Adam if he wanted to contribute to a post where we both answered six Viking-centric questions based on what we've seen during the preseason. Warwas agreed and what follows is the fruit of our labor. What you read below is the first part of the post. For the second part, you'll have to go to Adam's site (the link can be found at the end of this post). 

1. Are you satisfied with the play of quarterback Christian Ponder so far? And what about backup Joe Webb?
Adam: Ponder has yet to show me that immeasurable trait I love to see in a quarterback: the ability to take over a game and carry his team on his shoulders. I’m not saying he doesn’t have it, but until I see it I will probably be a little more skeptical than the rest. Ponder looks way more comfortable this preseason than he did last year. With an improved offensive line, I expect to see improved quarterback play, and so far I would say that’s what I have seen. I am cautiously optimistic about our franchise quarterback at this point.
I love Webb as a change-of-pace quarterback, but would not want him starting for my organization. If I were in charge of the roster, I would be trying damn hard to upgrade the backup quarterback situation so that I could bump Webb to number three on the depth chart and only plan on using him in certain situations (i.e. the Blazer package). It makes me uncomfortable knowing that Joe Webb is our plan B.
Darren: Satisfied? No. Encouraged? Yes. I’ve seen a more patient quarterback so far and Ponder seems to understand the offense much better, which you’d hope would happen with an offseason to study and prepare. His arm strength and athleticism is not in question. One caveat: he hasn’t even played three quarters of preseason football, so it’s hard to get a good read on how much better he is this year, but he clearly looks better. Will he be good enough to turn what looks like a 4-12/5-11 team into borderline Wild Card team? I don’t think so. I think he still needs to refine the mental aspect of his game (reading defenses, etc.) and the Vikings need to get him more receiving weapons.
Webb looks like the same guy to me – a great running threat but a subpar passer. I don’t think he’ll ever look good as your standard, “drop back in the pocket and survey the field” type of quarterback. But I’m fine with him being the backup guy in 2012. This is a good year to let him focus solely on becoming an NFL quarterback because Minnesota isn’t expected to do much this season. If Webb shows improvement, he becomes a trading chip if nothing else, which will help the Vikings rebuilding effort in 2013. And behind Webb is Sage Rosenfels (I’m assuming he will beat out McLeod Bethel-Thompson for the #3 QB job), who has shown he can be a capable backup if Ponder gets hurt (again) and Webb stinks it up in his place.  
2. The Vikings secondary – same old, same old or looking like a much improved unit?
Adam: A little bit of both, I think. One safety position has been upgraded by leaps and bounds, in my assessment, by drafting Harrison Smith. The Vikings got a starting caliber safety out of the deal, but I can’t say I think they have someone of that level to play across from him. Whoever wins the battle to start across from Smith will, in my opinion, still be a liability.
At cornerback, however, I think we have seen a good enough overall play to consider this an improved unit. Whether or not we see the “same old, same old” will depend greatly on Antoine Winfield’s ability to stay off the injury report and Chris Cook’s ability to stay out of the police report. Speaking strictly about talent though… these guys assembled by Rick Spielman are capable of giving our division foes a run for their money.
Darren: I think it’s going to be much improved. I wasn’t a big fan of the Vikings trading up to get Smith – I thought they should have taken a wide receiver like Stephen Hill in the second round. But Smith is an impressive young guy. Smart. Tough. Confident. He already looks like he’ll be the Vikings best safety since Robert Griffith (one of my favorite all-time Vikings, by the way). I’m going to disagree a bit with Adam about the state of the strong safety spot. Head coach Leslie Frazier hasn’t named a starter there yet, but Mistral Raymond looked like a completely different player against Buffalo than he did against San Francisco. He was even willing to tackle. I think Minnesota has something in Raymond.
As long as Chris Cook, Antoine Winfield and Josh Robinson stay healthy for the entire season, the Vikings corners have the potential to be solid. I’m particularly interested to see how Robinson performs Friday night against Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Chris Carr hasn’t looked too good and Robinson played well against Buffalo. If Robinson has a strong game against a QB like Rivers, I’ll feel better that he’s a legit talent, not Marcus McCauley 2.0. Also, the fact the Vikings secondary is more talented and deeper than last year means the coaches should be able to mix up coverages more than they did in the past, and blitz effectively. 
3. Should Vikings fans be worried about the play of middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley yet?
Adam: No. Vikings fans should be worried about his durability, but Brinkley will be a fine player if given ample time to get his feet under him. Like many parts of this roster, he will experience some growing pains, but I think we will look at Brinkley as a serviceable option in the middle when the season is over.
My problem here is that Spielman had numerous options to get some big-time talent at middle linebacker during this last free agency period and passed. Brinkley will have to be even better than serviceable or else passing on guys like Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton, and Dan Connor could look like a huge mistake.
Darren: I read that Brinkley looked tentative against the Bills. But I didn’t think he played all that badly. However, he didn’t really flash, either. So I am a bit worried about him. He’s supposed to be a downhill thumper, yet I’m not seeing him doing a whole lot of thumping. Brinkley said this week he’s still getting his sea legs back. Here’s hoping he finds them sooner rather than later.

To read the rest of the Q & A, click on this link.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Showing some love for my man Audie Cole

Today, ESPN North blogger Kevin Seifert chose to highlight Vikings rookie linebacker Audie Cole in his "Rookie Buzz" series.

I've always loved the unheralded guys. And when your team's personnel staff unearths one, I feel good about that. It shows they know what they are doing.

I won't say it's easy to pick a good football player in the first round of the NFL draft because teams regularly blow it (Jamarcus Russell being a recent example). However, a GM's chances of picking a blue chip player is a lot better in round one than in round six or seven. When the management of your favorite football team can find players late in the draft or among undrafted free agents who can contribute, that's a sign of a front office that can evaluate talent.

So far Cole looks like he can contribute. Forget for a moment the two interceptions Cole made last Friday against the Bills. Instead, reflect on what Cole did prior to those passes being thrown. In the first interception, he dropped back into the deep middle portion of the field and snagged a high pass from the Bills Tyler Thigpen. Then Cole jumped a route and stepped in front of a Brad Smith pass for the second interception. When was the last time you saw a Viking linebacker – or corner for that matter – jump a route? I'm drawing blanks.

Seifert also notes that what Cole might lack in straight line speed for a linebacker, he's making up for it with smarts and effort. "When you look back at the two [interceptions] he managed Friday night, you see a player who anticipated throws from two veterans ... and didn't have much doubt about where he should go after he caught the ball," Seifert writes.

This spring when I got the National Football Post's Wes Bunting to chat about the Vikings draftees, he was pretty high on Cole, saying the N.C. State alum reminded him of Ben Leber.

If Cole has the kind of career Leber had, I'll be thrilled. So will the Vikings.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

It's a glorified scrimmage: part #2

PV wrote about the good and the bad from the Minnesota Vikings preseason win Friday night against the Buffalo Bills. Here is my take:

Like PV, I too, was encouraged by what I saw from the wide receivers in this game. I also liked the tight end's performances. Of note – there were several explosive plays made by Vikes WRs (in my definition, an explosive play is any catch that goes for 20 yards or more). I counted five such plays: Harvin (21 yard catch); Simpson (33 yard catch); Jenkins (35 yard catch); Burton (26 yard catch); Arceneaux (48 yard catch).

The plays came against a variety of competition, but in 2011 the Vikings rarely had any receiver (besides Harvin) that could make an explosive play – the kind that turn ho hum drives into points. Jerome Simpson looks the part so far. But the Vikings still need somebody else to emerge as a downfield threat. Burton, despite the fumble on his 26 yard catch, keeps intriguing me.

It is also refreshing to see Viking cornerbacks and safeties do more than simply watch opposing players catch passes in front of them (or behind them) and then attempt to tackle them. I saw a lot of people tweeting about Harrison Smith's blitz and pass deflection against the Bills, and fellow rookie Josh Robinson made a couple of nice plays on the ball. But how about Mistral Raymond? He made several plays against the Bills after a poor effort against the 49ers last week. The Vikings 2012 secondary is starting to look like a functional NFL unit.

Christian Ponder looked good. I will say though that the second-and-four play at the Bills four-yard line where he missed seeing a wide open Rhett Ellison and instead threw a bad corner fade to Kyle Rudolph is the kind of opportunity Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler or Matt Stafford would never miss. Other than that, a solid effort by Ponder.

Joe Webb continues to vex me. He threw some passes that were either behind his receivers or just plain bad. Then he'd throw a bullet on the money. And, of course, there is his scrambling ability. He's just a very inconsistent – yet very exciting – player. Still, I agree with the Vikings decision to go with him as the backup quarterback over Sage Rosenfels. You've got a team that's likely going 5-11/6-10 this season and Webb's shown he can win games even when he doesn't really know what he's doing back there. If they could coach him up and refine his game??? This is the year for experiments is what I'm saying.

Rookie left tackle Matt Kalil had some struggles, I think. He got beat on some speed rushes, which you wouldn't think would happen to a guy who is supposed to be so mobile. But I also saw a couple of plays where he locked on to his man and stayed locked on to him for the entire play. That is impressive. In the Bryant McKinnie era, when a pass rusher went wide on Big Mac, he often would just push the guy out wider and then stop moving his feet and watch. That was fine if the Vikings QB got rid of the ball quickly. But if the play got extended for whatever reason and the pass rusher showed some hustle, McKinnie's laziness often led to sacks. You won't see that from Kalil. He plays until the whistle is over.

Some other thoughts from Friday's scrimmage:   

– Last week I wrote that defensive end D'Aundre Reed didn't do much against the 49ers (even though I hadn't been able to watch the game). I also implied that maybe he was a guy who shines in practices but not in games. I take that back a bit. Reed showed great hustle when he played, got at least one QB pressure that I noticed and he did this even though the Vikings played him inside quite a bit, which isn't his normal position. I'll need to see more from Reed to be convinced he's a player, but I can see why the Vikings like him.

– Another Reed who stood out to me on Friday was defensive end Nick Reed. Granted, he did his damage playing against fellow scrubs from the Bills, but he generated consistent pressure from the outside all game. I think he's too small to stick with the Vikings. He might be a guy worth stashing on the practice squad though.

– Seventh round pick Trevor Guyton is a lot thicker than I imagined and he made a couple of plays against the Bills. I'm not sure what that means, but the Vikings have questions on the interior of their defensive line. Maybe Guyton is one of the answers.

– In his roundup of the Vikings-Bills game, Kevin Seifert asks whether rookie linebacker Audie Cole will make the Vikings. In limited playing time, Cole already has a sack and has intercepted two passes that he's run in for touchdowns. Yes, those two passes were thrown by Tyler Thigpen and Brad Smith, but I've watched a number of passes bounce off the hands of Vikings linebackers, corners and safeties in recent years. On a defense that lacked playmakers in 2011, how can Cole not make the team after what he's done?

–  I'm still waiting for rookie Jarius Wright to flash potential. So far, no dice.

– The fight for the third running back spot on the Vikings has been billed as a battle between Lex Hilliard and Jordan Todman. I think you've got to throw Matt Asiata into the mix. He's listed as a fullback, yet he ran with the burst of a running back against the Bills (seven carries for 43 yards). Todman can't get on the field because of a bum ankle, and Hilliard's done little with his touches so far. Asiata should be in the mix to make this team.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

It's a glorified scrimmage, but you would watch a televised scrimmage.

Vikings-Bills Yahoo! Box Score

Preseason games can give little pleasure on their own: they are all about the future. Performances in the preseason give us some things to be optimistic about, and some things that make us want to cover our eyes in terror.

Things to like

The defense disrupting passes
Both around the line of scrimmage and in the secondary, Viking defenders did a good job deflecting passes and making completions difficult. Harrison Smith had one really notable deflection on a blitz, but he wasn't the only defender who looked like a real playmaker. Josh Robinson made a nice play on a ball in the secondary.

The defense against the run
After the horror show against the 49ers, it seemed the Vikings did a much better job getting to ball carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage, and were effective tackling on outside runs. I'm actually thinking this might be another "for some reason the defense is good at home and atrocious on the road" years--which, if you just thought the defense was going to be atrocious altogether, is actually encouraging.

Christian Ponder
I want to see two things: accuracy on all passes, and the ability/willingness to take shots deep. Ponder showed both.

Jerome Simpson
Might the Vikings actually have two playmaking WRs that can do something once they get the ball? Is it possible?

Blair Walsh
It's best if you don't even really have to think about your team's kicker. If Walsh is a generally reliable field goal kicker (it looks promising) and gets good distance on his kickoffs (it looks promising), then the position has been dealt with cheaply and can be forgotten about by us, the fans.

Things to dislike

Pass Protection
It looked like the offensive line got confused by some really simple defensive movements, and Ponder was left running around or getting walloped. I'm hoping this isn't a talent issue but an experience issue: there are a lot of new players on the offensive line working together for the first time, and it will take some time and experience together to be effective at what is really the communal work of protecting the quarterback.

Joe Webb was made a QB in 2010
I don't see Webb ever becoming a competent professional passer, yet he is so talented running with the ball, sitting him at backup QB seems a waste. If he had stayed in development as a WR over the last two years, maybe right now we'd have a real talent at the position that could regularly help the offense (or even special teams). 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

National Friday League: Fantasy Problems

I love this time of year--the anticipation of the football season and then the season--so much.  I've already got plans of making a cake for Week One weekend.  It makes me wonder just what in the hell I'm doing February through April.  May through July makes sense, but I have no comprehension of February through April at this time of the year.

Anyway, how about a break from Adrian Peterson trying to rush back and Leslie Frazier trying to stop him, from fretting about how the first preseason game reminded us that, oh, yeah, the defense is really lousy, about Christian Ponder and everything else we've been thinking about the purple. How about PV's massive fantasy football post?

This week, I'll look at the problem at every fantasy position and explore how I choose to solve it.

The Tight End Problem
The Tight End Problem is simple: there is a massive discrepancy between the elite TEs and the bottom TEs, in my view more than at any position. The elite TEs put up elite numbers for wide receivers, and the bottom TEs put up unreliable numbers, to the point where it is a throwaway position with a few good weeks. There's no other position (excluding Kicker and Defense) where managers are willing to basically take a pass -- yet this very position also includes such elite players that it gives managers with them a massive advantage.

There are in my view five tiers of TEs.

1. Elite WRs (Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski)
By my calculation (fantasy points per game, excluding players who played less than half the season), if you threw all WRs and TEs into the same position, Rob Gronkowski would have been the #2 WR, Jimmy Graham the #6. And yet you get to start them at TE, and still start as many WRs as your league allows. That is a giant advantage.

2. Potential WRs (Antonio Gates, Aaron Hernandez)
If you can't get Graham or Gronkowski, you might try to find other, cheaper TEs that could put up WR numbers. Gates because he has done it before, and Hernandez because he is young, in an elite offense, and has been on the cusp of those numbers, seem the most likely.

3. Serviceable Guys (Vernon Davis, Jason Witten, Jermichael Finley)
These guys are competent: they'll get you some monster weeks, they'll get you some consistent yards, but you wouldn't be willing to replace a WR with any of them, and you don't really expect WR numbers from them.

4. Throwaways (Brandon Pettigrew, Dustin Keller, you know, just about everybody else)
These are guys that are going to get 600-800 yards and 4-6 TDs. Most weeks they will not matter to your fantasy team: on the weeks they get touchdowns, they will. You shouldn't devote any meaningful resources to these players: there will be plenty of guys who put up their kind of numbers.

5. Fliers (Kyle Rudolph, Jared Cook, Cobie Fleener, a few more)
These guys have never proven it yet, but could be serviceable guys, and will cost you very little.

So, how do you solve this problem? You either need to devote a lot of resources (high picks or a lot of auction money) on a TE that can put up elite WR numbers, or you basically get middling, uninspired, stolid production from a position you don't care about.

In my view, you should devote the resources to Graham or Gronkowski and, failing that, take your chance with Gates or Hernandez.

Consider the numbers that Graham and Gronkowski put up. Graham had 99-1,310-11, Gronkowski 90-1,327-17. Those numbers are very, very difficult to pass on in general, and extraordinarily difficult to pass on at a position where most fantasy managers are just going to muddle through.

You will have to pay a lot for Graham or Gronkowski, but consider them an extra starting WR. Probably, no matter what you do, your 2nd or 3rd WR is going to have better numbers than those throwaway TEs. If you have to pass on a good WR because you drafted Graham or Gronkowski, don't fret it: you will be able to get a cheap 2nd or 3rd WR that will put up better numbers than whatever TE you would get later. If you were going to be satisfied with, say, 700 yards and 6 TDs from a TE, why not go for a WR that should easily put up those numbers but has greater upside?

Wide receiver is a very deep position this year, and there is very little consensus about the wide receiver rankings: everybody has Calvin Johnson #1, and then everybody's #2-#10 is different, and then everybody's #11-#30 is different. If you're not getting Johnson, there's no WR that you can feel is really, really more valuable than other draftable WRs (well, you can, but it's personal preference). You'll find decent WRs. Why not use your resources at a position where there are only two (or potentially four) players that can put up numbers equivalent to a top wide receiver?

But if you're skeptical of this solution to the TE problem, you will probably be interested in Bill Barnwell's analysis of TEs at Grantland. I'll admit it gave me pause.

The Wide Receiver Problem
This is the year to sleep on the wide receiver position.

Last year, in standard fantasy scoring formats (1 point per 10 yards, 6 points per touchdown), Larry Fitzgerald outscored Stevie Johnson by 46.7 points, around 3 points per game played. Larry Fitzgerald's situation hasn't really changed since last year. Stevie Johnson's situation hasn't really changed since last year. Yahoo! currently has Fitzgerald ranked #11 overall, and Johnson #56 overall. At just their position, Yahoo! has Fitzgerald #2, Johnson at #24. Johnson had 75% of Fitzgerald's production last year, but his cost is way, way lower.

Sure, I'm picking one example for comparison. Sure, Fitzgerald is actually a better player and has way more potential. But the point is the highly regarded WRs aren't massively better than some lesser regarded WRs. Furthermore, top finishers at the WR position are often unexpected. You might have paid a lot for Fitzgerald last season, then watched Jordy Nelson and Victor Cruz -- players who were either undrafted or drafted cheaply as fliers -- outscore him. It happens. It happens at every position. But at a position as deep as wide receiver (and a position with two or more real-world starters per team), you can pass on spending big at WR. So what WRs should you target instead?

A lot of fantasy managers look for value: they target undervalued players who can exceed expectations (and thus exceed low draft position/cost). That’s fine, of course, but you don’t want to fill your roster entirely with solid value guys: you need stars to win your league. Of course even the most value-driven drafter is going to draft some stars (in a snake draft, anyway -- possibly not in an auction), but I like to find not just value players, but Potential Monsters. A Potential Monster is a player generally considered outside the top 20 at his position, but whom you can envision being top 5 at his position. There are a lot of players outside the top 20 WRs that represent good value (you can expect a good return on your investment), but I don't just want value, I want game-changers, fantasy performers who are so good they are swinging championships.

I'm looking at the WR rankings for three prominent fantasy sources (ESPN, Yahoo!, and Sports Illustrated -- but I'm using SI's Fantasy Football 2012 magazine, not the website). Here are some WRs that are outside the top 20 in all three rankings (and I'm not criticizing that -- it's justifiable), that I think represent Potential Monsters.

Stevie Johnson (ESPN #23, Yahoo! #24, SI #24)
Johnson's two year average is 1,038.5 yards and 8.5 touchdowns. He's on a team with good running backs, a decent quarterback, and virtually nobody else on the roster worth throwing a pass to. Let me ask you this: do you find it impossible to envision Johnson -- who averaged a little over 13 yards per reception each of the last two seasons -- catching 100 balls? And Johnson has already shown himself capable of a double-digit TD season. I just see a lot of potential here that most people are sleeping on.

Eric Decker (ESPN #26, Yahoo! #22, SI #27) 
Last year Decker started the first four games with 20 receptions, 270 yards, and 4 touchdowns. I think he was at the start of a breakout year (those of you that watched him play for the Golden Gophers know how good he is -- his play wasn't fluky). He finished the year trying to catch passes from a QB that completed 46.5% of his passes (the league completion percentage was 60.1%). Now he's going to catch passes from a QB that has a career completion percentage of 64.9% (who hasn't completed less than 66.3% since '07, and hasn't completed less than 65% since '01), good for 5th all-time. Last year Decker's team threw the ball just 429 times (last in the league), completing just 217 passes (last in the league). In his 13 years as a starter, his new QB averaged 554.6 attempts per season and 360 completions per season.

It is not hard at all to envision Decker's numbers, going, way, way, way up.

Torrey Smith (ESPN #30, Yahoo! #28, SI #26)
I learned a hard lesson last year: you don't want to depend on fantasy Joe Flacco in any way, shape or form. But Smith is a legitimate deep threat (16.8 yards per catch last season) on a team with other underneath pass catchers (Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin). Smith's rookie numbers aren't that far off from Mike Wallace's, and I can see a similar sophomore year for Smith: a lot of long catches and long touchdowns.

Those are three really cheap WRs that I like a lot. Of course there are other WRs generally considered outside the top ten that also have huge potential for a top three finish (I'm a big Dez Bryant fan, if you're curious). You can target those too. Overall I'm just saying this: don't invest big at the position, but where you do invest, try for Potential Monsters over solid production.

The Running Back Problem
The Running Back Problem is the same every year*: there is a cluster of 2-5 consensus top tier running backs, and every year, one of those RBs will be a bust (whether due to injury or plain disappointing performance). So do you target one of the cluster, spending heavy resources to do so, or do you try to find a cheaper RB (with more risk or less upside) instead, using draft resources at a safer position (like QB)?

This year the consensus top tier is the trio of Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy in some order. After that there are a bunch of RBs returning from injury, or that are higher injury risks, or that are holding out, or are coming off lousy years, or that lack the upside of those three. And I can't guess who among that trio will be the disappointment (but when we look back, it is a good guess that one of them will, and that next year's cluster will include at least one different player).

I think there is a solution here: draft Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Neither Rice nor McCoy have a backup with the talent, proven production, or upside of Tate, and neither plays on a team likely to lean heavily on a lesser backup. I'm theorizing that Arian Foster is the new Ladanian Tomlinson (fantasy football gold, the kind of single player that makes your team a contender), and on the chance that he gets injured, the team situation suggests Tate will be a quality starter. I think if you draft Foster and Tate, your floor is a starting RB with 1,400 yards and 10 TDs, and your ceiling is something unfathomable. Over the last two seasons (including playoffs), Foster has averaged 141.8 yards from scrimmage and 1.06 TDs per game. Foster is both capable of winning a rushing title (he's done it) and getting 600 yards receiving (he's done it twice). He is a monster as a rusher, receiver, and touchdown scorer, and he's got a legitimate NFL talent as his backup.

If you do a snake draft, you can only hope to get Foster (and will probably need to draft Tate early to ensure the handcuff). If you are in an auction draft, it's mostly in your control. In my recent auction ($300 cap with 0$ bids allowed), I paid $125 for Foster (happily) and went for Tate for $13 (happily). We'll see if it was the right move, but I feel pretty good.

*If you do a snake draft, the problem is unsolvable: if you don't have a top pick, you have no chance at the top running backs and have to decide when to draft other running backs that you think or hope will be elite. I'm thinking more in auction terms here (in a snake draft, if I don't get a top three pick, I'm looking at either a QB or Calvin Johnson with my first round pick, but I also like Matt Forte later).

The Quarterback Problem
The Quarterback Problem is a little like the Tight End Problem in that everybody starts just one, some people will devote prime resources (an early pick or a lot of auction money) for an elite one, some will spend a middle amount get get a serviceable QB, and some will spend very little on the position. The difference is that QB won't be a throwaway position for anybody: there will probably be 10 productive fantasy QBs, and if you get a lousy one you will be working (via free agency or trade) to get a good one.

If you are a manager that likes to spend big for a top three QB, you're probably making a safe, smart move. If you are a manager that likes to pass on QBs and get, say, the 9th or 10th best QB late, you're also probably making a safe, smart move (just don't wait too long: Joe Flacco lingers out there somewhere). Here are the two specific things I try to do.

1. Get a running quarterback (Cam Newton, Michael Vick)
If you are in a league that counts passing TDs as 3-4 points and rushing TDs as 6, you should really try for big-rushing QBs like Newton and Vick. And if you're in a league that counts a point per 10 yards rushing but only a point per 40-50 yards passing, you should really really target Newton or Vick. Those rushing numbers added to the passing numbers give a massive weekly advantage to the fantasy teams with these guys.

2. Get Peyton Manning
If you are in multiple leagues, every year there will be some player that you keep taking in draft after draft, not because you are in love with the guy, but just that it turns out you like the guy way more than anybody else does. Last year for me that was Percy Harvin. This year it is Manning. I'm pretty worried about him for all the familiar reasons, but I also see top three potential for all the familiar reasons. He keeps being there for the price I'm willing to pay. It's a riskier pick (a safer pick like Philip Rivers is probably cheaper), but not so expensive that you'd feel a terrible loss if you had to turn to a competent backup or free agent QB.

The Defense and Kicker Problem
The Defense and Kicker Problem is that you have to rely on a Defense and Kicker, and they will score a lot of points and probably swing league championships, but their numbers are so unpredictable and random you can barely do anything about it.

My advice? I say, pick a decent defense and a decent kicker you like, and just draft them year after year. I often take the Pittsburgh Steeler defense: they're perennially good, but rarely that hot defense that gets ranked too high because they got a lot of points on fumble recoveries and defensive/special teams touchdowns the year before. I often take the Bears Kicker (Robbie Gould, I guess, if I have to say his name) because he's a consistent scorer but the Bears are rarely such a famous offense that people are reaching on the kicker too early.

Don't pick mine because I named them: pick your own. But then just try to take them every year, plug them into your lineup, and don't worry about it. And if they're really good one year (awesome for you) so that they actually cost draft resources the next year and somebody else wants to pay too much for them in a draft, let them go.

Two more pieces of advice
After you've drafted a team, go follow all your players on Twitter. It is way more fun than you think it will be.

And if you're doing an auction draft, remember this critical thing:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Christian Ponder and the art of improvement

If you are a frequent visitor to The Daily Norseman website or the Vikings section of the Bleacher Report, a talented blogger by the name of Arif Hasan is pumping out loads of cool Vikings content on those sites. (Check out this novella, explaining the intricacies of the Tampa Two defence by Hasan.)

I decided it might be a good idea to ask Hasan if he'd write a guest post for Kick Ass Blog. I'm happy to report he agreed to do so. The subject of his guest post should interest every Vikings fan out there: what does quarterback Christian Ponder need to do this season to become an effective quarterback? What follows is Hasan's take on the matter.     

Vikings fans are well aware of the need for improvement at the most important position in the NFL — quarterback.

We've seen what our team can do with a fantastic quarterback, and how it struggles with mediocrity under center. The National Football League has evolved into a passing league, and any NFL offense will need a skilled quarterback in order to compete at a high level.

For Vikings fans, that means Christian Ponder, the presumed quarterback of the future. While Ponder showed signs of promise in 2011, his rookie season did not inspire confidence. He needs to improve in a big way if the Vikings are ever to compete and enter the playoffs with him as their starting quarterback.

Naturally, it is simple to say that a quarterback needs to get better by reducing interceptions, increasing completion percentages, and increasing touchdowns — all significant statistics in need of work for Ponder — but these don't present actionable items or resolve the nature of the problem.

Getting through reads quicker is a normal demand for any sophomore quarterback, so it's not really important to analyze that here. Suffice to say a full offseason of film work and soft installs should provide young quarterbacks with effective lessons in reading defenses, and will go a long way towards making sure Christian Ponder can start in the NFL.

Instead, Vikings fans should be looking at the specific problems that plague Ponder.

The first and most obvious problem for the cerebral leader is his play under pressure. The disparity between Ponder's passes with a steady pocket and his performance with collapsing protection is stark; his quarterback rating drops by nearly 50 points and his completion rate falls by 26 percent.

It's not just that the young quarterback doesn't trust  his offensive line, either. When pressured, he moves too early out of the pocket and can't generate torque by setting his feet. When he does step up into the pocket, he'll square his shoulders and put enough zip on the ball to get to the receivers, so Ponder simply needs to accept the pressure and throw through it. It's much easier said than done, but this single change could improve his overall performance by noticeable margins.

More than that, Christian Ponder does not often exploit the holes in blitzes. He isn't the greatest at throwing over defenders, but also isn't worryingly bad, either. He needs to accept that a defender will be in his passing lane on blitzes and trust the timing he has developed with receivers in order to exploit the risks that defenses take when they rush more than four men at him.

So Ponder's play under pressure is the most important area for development, and should help increase his overall completion percentage. However, the gap between his completion percentage (54.3) and the league average (60.5) is fairly large. Resolving how he performs under pressure will only be part of the way to making him an effective quarterback.

The second specific area that will create large gains for Ponder is ball placement. He's consistently had issues creating catchable balls for his receivers, and this has to do with where the ball goes in relation to the receiver's motion and body. Often, these balls will be thrown high or behind the receiver, limiting big play potential.

This is important not just because it increases yards after the catch (and therefore increases the yards per attempt), but because it also makes the football easier to catch for the receiver. Ponder needs to find ways to increase his yards per attempt (he ranked 30th in the league, below even Tim Tebow), and increasing his completion percentage is just a small part of the equation. Ponder also ranked 20th in yards per completion. If he can find ways to manufacture more yards, he'll be in a good spot.

Ball placement is a very important part of yards per completion, because poorly placed throws will force receivers to lose momentum in adjustment and leads to one or two "lost" yards on a completion on average. Receivers catching off their back shoulder or stuttering back on their slant cannot advance the ball to the best of their ability.

Beyond that, the catches are much less likely with poorly placed balls because of the difficulty of moving the entire body to adjust to the catch. It requires more energy and focus to twist the torso and cover the ball with the leading hand reaching across the body if the ball is thrown behind him.

Another problem with ball placement also deals with completions, but largely because of defensive back coverage. If the football is thrown in an awkward position, it is easier for the defensive player to knock it out of the hands of the receiver before he can secure it.

Finally, poor ball placement leads to interceptions. This is simple and intuitive, but it bears emphasizing. A ball in the wrong spot doesn't just lead to tipped passes, it leads to jumped routes from savvy defenders. A ball thrown ahead of a receiver entering a zone has a good chance of being picked off, while a ball thrown behind a receiver with lagging coverage does the same.

So, it's important to improve ball placement. It's not that hard to fix as an actionable item, and becomes second nature to quarterbacks once they accomplish the goal. But there are a few keys in fixing the problem, some of which cannot be taught.

The first key is that the quarterback has an excellent sense of distance. Nearly every quarterback in the NFL is a great judge of distance, but good quarterbacks can judge with precision — within several inches — of the distance between themselves and the receiver. Knowing that is important in determining how much power needs to go behind the throw not just to reach the receiver, but to reach the receiver at the appropriate height.

NFL players will work within a margin of inches, and a pass thrown between the chin and the armpits will be harder to catch than a pass above or below those points.

In addition to that, the passer needs to develop rhythm and timing in order to properly anticipate where a particular receiver will be when running a route. That comes with repetitions, but those aren't always enough: passers will need to figure out the lag that certain press coverages will cause. Because each receiver is different, the timing on these different receivers will require a different degree of speed and placement on thrown balls.

Work in the offseason should resolve most of these issues, but Ponder needs to pay particular attention during the season in film sessions on the likely lag and release times for his receivers as well as changes as a result of game speed. Making gains here will not only increase his general yards after the catch, which is average for the league, but also his completion percentage.

If Ponder improves his passing under pressure so that he completes half of his passes while the pocket is collapsing, his completion percentage jumps up to 58 percent. Marginal increases from ball placement and better form will likely increase his accuracy further; enough to well exceed the average for a quarterback. Given commensurate increases in yards after the catch (the standard deviation is half a yard), Ponder's yards per attempt should hit around 7.5, which is average for a quarterback in the league.

Coupled with those optimistic projections will be Ponder's inevitable (and necessary) growth in his ability to read defenses. Studying film, reading defenses, and developing a feel for the speed of the game will also bring positive changes to his play, and will most likely contribute to lower interception rates, higher completion percentages, and more yards per completion.

If Ponder only makes minor changes in these actionable areas, he'll improve in significant ways. This is the year that the Vikings' quarterback should see the most improvement, and if he doesn't develop some of these skills, he may never be able to. The history of sophomore quarterbacks is extensive, and it all points to substantial growth. If Ponder doesn't showcase that growth, the Vikings may as well move on.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Vikings end square peg/round hole experiment with Everson Griffen

Everson Griffen is a full-time defensive end once again.

This is the right move by the Vikings coaching staff. The decision to move the athletic Griffen to outside linebacker in a 4-3 defensive scheme always seemed like a bad fit. Griffen's a pass rusher, first and second, and forcing him to cover tight ends and running backs in the Vikings Cover Two never appeared to be a good use of his skills. A pass rushing linebacker in a 3-4 defense? Yes, I could see Griffen doing well there. But the Vikings – as fans know – don't play the 3-4.

The switch is not only good for Griffen, it's good for the Vikings defense. If the Vikings really want to limit the amount of snaps starting ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison play in 2012, why would they turn their best non-starting end into a linebacker?

I have a suspicion that Griffen's move back to defensive end might be a response to the play of D'Aundre Reed in the 49ers game. I wasn't able to watch the game (no feed in Winnipeg at the time), so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but Reed – who, if Viking practices were games, would be an All-Pro already – didn't do much with the playing time he got with the starters last Friday. That had to worry head coach Leslie Frazier and his staff. Now they have a more known commodity to turn to as the first defensive end off the bench when they need to give Allen or Robison a blow.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

National Friday League: Televised Football Substance

What can we learn from preseason (besides how tan players we last saw in January look now)?
There is so very, very little value in watching preseason games other than the moderate pleasure you get from watching your favorite team play in what is a glorified scrimmage (actually, I've been to training camp scrimmages: they are more fun). Hey, it's a nice way to enjoy yourself on an August evening--it's more interesting to watch than Big Brother, anyway (except for the fourth preseason game--I'd prefer Big Brother).

However, preseason games are 156% more interesting when your favorite team is developing a young quarterback to be an imminent or future starter. You want to see how Christian Ponder carries himself. You want to see what players he seems to be connecting with. You want to see how much zip he has on the ball, how quickly he is making readings and getting rid of the ball, how accurate he is, what kinds of decisions he's making.

But there are a handful of other things worth watching for. Notably, do particular defensive backs, and the secondary as a whole, look competent? I'm talking about basic "is there a defensive player visible on the TV screen" stuff here, whether the defensive backs are sticking by receivers and contesting throws. A rookie like Harrison Smith will, I presume, improve throughout the year, but a lot of the cornerbacks on the roster probably are what they are.

A telling year for Christian Ponder
Aaron Schatz at Football Outsiders looked at when quarterbacks make major improvements. The data shows that the biggest improvement comes between year one and year two: after that, improvement or decline is much smaller. Of course not all players will follow the same pattern, but this seems to suggest that what we see from Ponder this year will tell us a lot about what we will expect from Ponder in the future.

Adrian Peterson's Fantasy Value
An argument for picking Adrian Peterson early in fantasy drafts (ESPN). Once again, it is worth noting that the approach to even a specific player is different in an auction than a snake draft. In a snake draft, your pick comes up and you look at the available players and make assessments--you measure the risk and what you want. In an auction, you decide what players to target, and you adjust when you see how other managers are valuing players (low or high). There's a whole different way of thinking.

Next Week
It's fantasy football week for me: a draft this past Sunday and a draft this Saturday. That means next week I'll start with real honest-to-goodness fantasy football comments.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Feeling better about the Vikings wide receivers? Me neither

Yesterday, ESPN 1500's Judd Zulgad wrote a story that should be encouraging for Vikings fans worrying about the state of the club's wide receiving corps after it lost rookie wideout Greg Childs to a freak double patellar tendon injury.

With the team's receiving coach, George Stewart, laying down the quotes for Zulgad, Stewart seemed OK with starting the first three games at the "X" (known to laypeople as the split end) position with Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu and Emmanuel Arceneaux playing there (presumed starter Jerome Simpson is suspended for the first three games).

OK isn't how I'd describe it. With the Vikings having two very winnable games to start the season (home against Jags, away against the Colts), plus a home contest in game #3 against the extremely talented but extremely volatile Detroit Lions, the Vikes are going in with a receiving corps that looks a lot like the one they had last year.

Jenkins is a fine possession guy, but he isn't going to stretch defenses with his speed or make plays downfield - and that was assuming he'd come back healthy from last year's knee injury (he hasn't, lacking explosiveness in his cuts according to Vikes beat writers covering training camp.) Aromashodu and Arceneaux I discussed in yesterday's post. Stewart had nice things to say about them in Zulgad's story, but if the pair catch 40 passes between them, I'll be surprised. That's not the kind of production that will transform a Vikings passing game from pathetic to proficient.

A lot of fans are going to take the attitude that it doesn't really matter if the split end position is a weak link in 2012. It's a rebuilding year, after all, and this season is all about developing the young guys - especially second-year quarterback Christian Ponder - and seeing who can play and who can't.

I agree. But after watching the Vikes win nine games the past two seasons, a quick start would be a welcome change for me. I could get excited about watching the Vikings again and I'd have a sense of hope that the rebuilding plan is not only on schedule but maybe a bit ahead of schedule.

The Minnesota players could probably stand to feel the same kind of positive vibes that a 2-1 or (dare to dream!) a 3-0 start could bring. But with the same old wide receivers trotting out onto the field for those first three games, it makes it that much more difficult to accomplish.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Should Rick Spielman have opted to upgrade at safety or WR early in April's draft?

Did Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman err in selecting wide receiver Greg Childs in the fourth round, a player who was a clear injury risk?

Many Vikings fans are debating that as Childs went down Saturday night, tearing the patella tendons in both his knees. But for those moaning about the pick, ESPN 1500's Tom Pelissero writes that Childs is the kind of risk team's typically take in the fourth round of the NFL draft.

And while that's true, one can still question whether the Vikings should have waited until the fourth round to address a very weak wide receiving corps.

Remember that the Vikes traded away their second round draft pick in April's draft to Baltimore - 35th overall - to get back into the first round and draft safety Harrison Smith 29th overall.

Did the Vikings need a safety? Yes they did. But they also needed a big wide receiver who could get deep, use his size to win balls in the air and be a viable red zone threat - in other words, the kind of stuff Sidney Rice did in 2009.

As it happens, there were three wide receivers picked in the second round after the Vikings would have selected at #35 who fit that description (all of them profiled as potential Vikes targets pre-draft by our very own TBird): NFL combine workout warrior Stephen Hill (Jets - 43rd overall); the talented but allegedly lazy Alshon Jeffrey (Bears - 45th overall) and the skilled but raw Rueben Randle (Giants - 63rd overall). But by trading up and choosing Smith (also profiled pre-draft by TBird as a Vikings draft target), the Vikings made their choice - upgrading the safety position was more important than upgrading the wide receiving unit. Or they liked Smith more as a player than Hill, Jeffrey and Randle. We'll learn - to some degree - in 2012 how wise that choice was.

Opportunity knocks
The concern could be washed away if someone already on the Vikings roster steps up their game and becomes the player the team hoped Childs would be in 2012. The three candidates who stand to benefit from Childs being out for all of 2012 are Devin Aromashodu, Emmanuel Arceneaux and Stephen Burton.

Aromashodu we know pretty well. He had 26 catches for 468 yards and one TD catch last year - his best year ever. However, it took a lot of snaps for him to compile those paltry numbers, he doesn't separate well on routes and he's 28. It appears he is what he is at this point in his career. And what he is is a fourth or fifth receiver, not a guy you start.

Arceneaux is a mystery to me. I root for him because he got his pro start in the Canadian Football League, and he's had a strong training camp from what I've been reading, but I doubt he can become  a key contributor to the Vikings passing game in 2012 or perhaps ever.

Burton is the guy that intrigues me. He can run well and he's got very good size (listed at 6'1 and 224 pounds). He'd been looking good in OTAs (for what that is worth). And I liked what I saw in the one game he got on the field last year (two catches for 38 yards against Denver before hurting his knee). I'm interested to see what he can do in preseason.

It's also possible Spielman will bring in a veteran who is unemployed. Seahawks castoff Mike Williams is looking for work. So is the recently released Antonio Bryant. And Plaxico Burress needs a job. None of those guys fit the "we're going young" rebuilding strategy Spielman is using right now. I doubt you'll see those guys wearing purple and gold in 2012, and I'm more than OK with that.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Camp Thoughts

Some thoughts to take our minds off of Greg Childs tearing the patellar tendons in both of his knees:

  • New defensive coordinator Alan Williams is planning on limiting the snaps of the Vikings' defensive linemen by subbing them in and out hockey-line style. On one hand, this makes some sense--the defensive line is the key to the Vikings' pass defense and keeping them healthy and rested is of paramount importance. Additionally, the Vikings' defensive line is probably the deepest unit on the team, talent wise. And William's plan to sub the linemen in and out in units helps to lessen confusion and ensure that players are comfortable with each other. On the other hand, the Vikings' line seems to have done just fine last year without limiting players' snaps (something of an understatement, I think). The line shifts should help lessen confusion and allow for easier substitutions, which is important in an NFL that is playing more no huddle in an attempt to create mismatches by exploiting defenses that can't substitute its players, but it also forces star players like Jared Allen to the bench and will make it even harder to adapt the line's personnel to in game situations and formations because it would require a change in personnel and substitution patterns in game, something that is a lot more complicated when the play clock is ticking. Of course, the NFC North isn't a particularly fast division--the Lions are one of the fastest teams in the NFL, but the Bears are one of the slowest. The Packers, well, they vary from year to year, and there's no doubt that Aaron Rodgers can run a hurry up no-huddle offense to take advantage of the Vikings' substitutions (I'm already shuddering about Jared Allen being left off the field on a key third down). In the end, I agree with Jared Allen--it seems like a good idea in theory, but in practice, it seems unworkable and an attempt to fit the personnel to a scheme, rather than a scheme to the personnel.
  • Apparently Calvin Johnson is faster now than he was last year. Good for fantasy teams, I guess, but absolutely terrifying for the Vikings and their rebuilt secondary.
  • How about some cheery news? Kyle Rudolph seems poised for a breakout. Lots of buzz, and I really like the fact the Vikings' are planning on copying the Patriots' use of Gronkowski. Rudolph presents a huge target for Ponder, and one that almost no defender can match up with. And with Childs' injury adding to the list of pass catchers the Vikings' won't have, its crucial that Rudolph actually live up to the buzz. Ponder to Rudolph has a nice ring to it, I think--hopefully we'll get to hear announcers say it a lot.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Training camp injuries threaten Minnesota Vikings rebuilding effort

Well, these training camp injuries are really starting to sour my mood.

In the span of a couple of days, some potential important contributors to the 2012 Minnesota Vikings have gone down with serious injuries.

Geoff Schwartz looks like he will be out a month - at least - with a hernia. And rookie wideout Greg Childs has suffered what some are saying are injuries to both his knees that will put him on the shelf for 2012.

The Schwartz injury is not ideal, but at least the Vikings have options. Brandon Fusco was getting first team reps at right guard anyway and Joe Berger can fill in there as well.

Childs is another matter. Jerome Simpson is the Vikings de facto deep threat at wide receiver, but he's suspended for the first three games. Childs' height (he's 6'3), long arms, leaping ability and deceptive speed made him an intriguing option to serve in that role while Simpson is out. Plus, Simpson is only signed for one year and he could sign elsewhere in 2013 if he has a successful 2012. Childs, meanwhile, is under the Vikings control for the next four years and if he turns out to be good the Vikings have that goodness for four seasons (and at a cheap price). I wonder if this could even end Childs' pro career before it's started. Major injuries to both knees? I'm sure it's happened, but I've never heard of it. Just not a good week for the Vikings on the injury front.     

Hilliard vs. Todman
The Vikings coaching staff watches these guys everyday, so you have to give them the benefit of the doubt, still I furrow my brow when I read a guy is the favorite to win the number three running back job because he plays special teams well.

Overall, Lex Hilliard doesn't seem to do anything that wows you. But he's a veteran, he's been through the NFL wars, and he's a good special teams player. Jordan Todman - who is fighting Hilliard for the number three running back spot - has great speed, he's just not much of a special teams guy right now.

For a team that was as offensively challenged as the Vikings were in 2011, I'd prefer to give the player with the ability to make big plays a roster spot over a player who is just there. Todman seems like he has a little Darren Sproules in him, whereas Lex Hilliard is, well, Lex Hilliard.