Home > NFL, Roster Roundouts > Roster Roundouts: A Minnesota Vikings Camp Preview

Roster Roundouts: A Minnesota Vikings Camp Preview

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flickr.com/brett_gullborg

flickr.com/brett_gullborg

The Minnesota Vikings won the NFC North in 2008, winning 10 games for the first time since 2000, which happens to be the last full season of Denny Green’s tenure.  It took the Vikings 8 years to get back to the top, but it only took a quick glance at some underlying performance indicators to come up with more than a strong suggestion that this team is no different than it’s been the last 5 years.

Which isn’t to complain that they haven’t been willing to change stuff up in order to break through.  The Vikings, according to DVOA, have improved their team efficiency in every season since 2005, posting their best figure in the Childress era in 2008.  Clearly, the key factor was their defense, which progressed from a run-stop first unit to one of the best units against the pass last season.  Furthermore, the overall performance of the team defense correlated very strongly with it’s wins and losses from last season, with one critical exception that may have typified what the Vikings have become.

In week two of last year, the Vikings put the first five scores on the board, as the defense shut down Peyton Manning and the Colts offense for the better part of three quarters.  Part of this was about the struggles with the Colts offense: it would be another month before they hit their stride.  But it was a game the Colts needed to avoid a 0-2 start, and in the fourth quarter, Manning systematically broke down the coverage schemes of the Vikings as he brought the Colts back with two touchdowns to close the gap and a game winning field goal drive as time expired.  It was the signature performance of Peyton’s third MVP season, and he did it against one of the league’s best Red Zone defenses.  It was a game that was dominated by the Vikings defense, but their inability to force the Colts to kick even one field goal doomed them.

The situational defense and inconsistencies of the unit were the only thing that kept the Vikings defense from being mentioned in the same breath as the Colts and Ravens.  Clearly, the Jared Allen trade from Kansas City was not a waste.  The Vikings added a great player to their league-best defensive line, and it make them a complete defense.  Allen was the missing piece for these guys, and when they get LB E.J. Henderson back from injury, they should be a strong unit once again.

Unfortunately, this has been a trend with the Vikings.  Whenever they choose to address a weakness in the offseason, no matter how well the team plugs the weakness, another unit always springs a leak.  As the defense reached it’s maximum potential, the offense collapsed.  Last year, they drafted Adrian Peterson to help fix a broken offense, and while Peterson instantly sparked a weak unit in 2007, the Vikings won only 8 games because the defense was helpless against the pass.  Then they bring in Allen to address that, and it works, but Peterson failed to improve in his second year–not that you can really improve on that rookie performance, but holding onto the ball would be a good place to start–and combined with a lost year at the quarterback position, the Vikings did not make much long term progress as a team.

One other thing that came out of the Manning-led Colts comeback victory in the Metrodome is that Tavaris Jackson lost his job for a majority of the regular season after the offense put the ball in the end zone once in two games.  Frerotte wasn’t a disaster, but he offered the Vikings absolutely nothing of value in his performance, except 11 consecutive starts.  Then Tavaris Jackson, 3 good games, playoff loss, changes, Brett Favre, retirement…long story short, the Vikings are right back where they left their QB situation last year, with Sage Rosenfels (last seen choking away a certain win against the Colts) coming over to replace Frerotte.  He’ll fit in just fine.

Though the Vikings completely collapsed on special teams, no more obvious than when the Vikings allowed Reggie Bush to return two punts for touchdowns in a barn burner early season match-up which they would eventually win.  The coverage teams should be helped immensely by the outlawing of the return wedge this year, but in an attempt to revitalize both your offense and your special teams, what do you do?  The Vikings took a direct approach, and drafted Florida WR/KR/PR/RB Percy Harvin with their first round pick, opting to address OL with their second pick, adding massive Oklahoma OT Phil Loadholt.

The Vikings cannot afford to miss on this Harvin pick.  They didn’t have a first round pick last year, and they have only had one pick in the past five years that was as successful as planned: Peterson.  The Vikings have been built primarily through free agency.  These players are expected to be major contributors on the 2009 Vikings, but were not drafted by the team: QB Sage Rosenfels, RB Chester Taylor, WR Bernard Berrian, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, G Steve Hutchinson, DT Pat Williams, DE Jared Allen, LB Ben Leber, CB Antoine Winfield, CB Karl Paymah, and S Madieu Williams.  That’s 11 guys; by comparison, the Washington Redskins who have a well earned reputation to throw away their draft picks only have 10 FA pieces expected to contribute this season.  Clearly, most of these signings have been worth the money, but you can only build a team so far off the open market.  If the Vikings will ever take the next step, it’s going to be recent draft picks such as C John Sullivan, S Tyrell Johnson, CB Asher Allen, LB Chad Greenway, along with Loadholt, Harvin, Peterson, and Jackson who need to rise to the occasion.

Using the median performance test, the Vikings score even worse than average.  They very nearly lost to the winless Lions, twice.  They split against the Packers thanks to some late Adrian Peterson heroics, and they split against the Bears thanks to a dominating performance across the board in the Metrodome.  Problem was, the Vikings got lucky that they were able to rise to the occasion against the Bears, because they did not show any sort of ability to turn it “on” in other big games.  They eeked by the Giants second teamers in a game they needed to clinch the NFC North.

Ultimately, if I were to pick the Vikings to win their division, I would have to expect them to be an improved team over last year’s level of performance.  Such would be out of character for the Vikings in this decade.  You have to like their defense going forward, but Percy Harvin doesn’t do anything for me from the offensive perspective, so Adrian Peterson will be asked to improve behind a patchwork offensive right side, and the Vikings enter training camp without a starting quarterback, without longtime offensive leader Matt Birk, and with way too many offensive questions for comfort.  As good as they were last year, I’m not predicting an elite defensive effort from the Vikings, merely a top 10-12 type unit.  The overall product means a division title repeat is unlikely.

Vikings Camp, Mankato, MN

The Vikings are a very thin team and the back end of the roster will consist almost entirely of undrafted free agents.  We’ll keep this look at camp battles brief.

Quarterback: Tavaris Jackson vs. Sage Rosenfels

The only position battle that will garner any news, the Vikings have been trying to replace Jackson for 3 years now, and he enters his third straight year as the Vikings best quarterback on the roster, which is damning to all involved.  Jackson should win this.

Running back: Ian Johnson vs. Antone Smith

Two undrafted free agents are usually not worth handicapping, but Johnson became famous at Boise State two years ago for his heroics in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, and Smith is a highly publicized player out of Florida State.  The winner has a chance to be a roster mainstay, and a special teams maven for three or four years.

Defensive end: Otis Grigsby vs. Jayme Mitchell

Two lesser known players who finished each of the last two seasons for the Vikings, Mitchell was on IR last season, which opened up an end of the year roster spot for Grigsby.  He did alright, and now the Vikings will pick one of these two to make the team this year.

Cornerback: Marcus McCauley vs. Bennie Sapp

The one position on defense where the team is very deep is at corner, where last years nickelback, Sapp, is now a 5th corner and potential special teams gunner where the much younger McCauley held that role last year but has failed to pan out thus far.  McCauley should get another year to develop, but Sapp offers more value now, making this a legitimate decision.

Surprise Cuts?

  • FB Naufahu Taji
  • OL Ryan Cook
  • DT Jimmy Kennedy
  • LB Erin Henderson
  • CB Cedric Griffin
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