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Minnesota Vikings 2013 Season Preview

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Updated: 8/21/2013 2:16 pm

But, before you think there has been some sort of seismic shift in the development of signal callers at the college level, understand Luck, RG3 and Wilson are the exceptions that prove the rule, not the actual rule.

All you have to do is rewind back to 2011 and pay closer attention to the struggles players like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder are still enduring.

T.S. Eliot once said: "Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough."

That seems to be the Minnesota Vikings' thinking when it comes to the underwhelming Ponder.

Sometime between January and July of this year Ponder evidently joined an elite group of quarterbacks headlined by names like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Or at least that's how coach Leslie Frazier has treated the third-year pro during the preseason thus far, giving Ponder just two offensive snaps in the opener and a quarter in Week 2 despite subpar efforts in both games.

"I do feel established. I do feel like I belong here, I feel comfortable," Ponder said. "Knowing everybody, all my teammates, all the coaches, knowing the area and everything, knowing how things work. I just know that I need to continue to become a better football player and a better quarterback."

It's a strange way to handle a player who has 26 NFL starts under his belt but remains a mechanical mess who plays with little self confidence.

If anyone needs repetitions in this preseason it's Christian Ponder.

Ponder is in a group -- or at least he should be -- that includes Gabbert, Locker and perhaps a rookie like Buffalo's E.J. Manuel; players that need every single opportunity they can get.

Injury simply can't be a concern here. Remember, these days Joe Webb isn't the backup in Minnesota any longer. Proven veteran Matt Cassel is and you can make a strong argument that Cassel is better equipped right now to lead the Vikings anyway.

Cassel, the ex-Patriots and Chiefs pilot, is far from a star but can certainly prey on defenses that pile eight or nine in the box to try to stop reigning MVP Adrian Peterson and the Vikings vaunted running game.

That is what makes the organization's slavish devotion to Ponder so perplexing.

Those who still believe in Ponder point to December when the Vikings made an unlikely playoff run by winning four straight games without star wideout Percy Harvin.

And to his credit Ponder did rebound from an awful midseason slump in which he would often have trouble reaching the century mark in passing yards, an almost unthinkable struggle in today's pass-heavy NFL.

To those watching closely, however, it was clear offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave dialed everything back and asked Ponder to do little other than manage the game as Peterson and a solid defense did all the heavy lifting.

Expect more of the same this season.

2012 RECORD: 10-6 (2nd, NFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to Green Bay in wild card round.

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Leslie Frazier (16-22 in three seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Musgrave (third season with Vikings)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Alan Williams (second season with Vikings)

KEY ADDITIONS: LB Desmond Bishop (from Packers), QB Matt Cassel (from Chiefs), DE Lawrence Jackson (from Lions), WR Greg Jennings (from Packers), OL Seth Olsen (from Colts)

KEY DEPARTURES: WR Devin Aromashodu (not tendered, to Bears), LB Jasper Brinkley (to Cardinals), WR Percy Harvin (traded to Seahawks), WR Michael Jenkins (released), P Chris Kluwe (released, to Raiders), OL Geoff Schwartz (to Chiefs), CB Antoine Winfield (released, to Seahawks)

QB: Ponder has always been able to verbalize on what he needs to improve on but the fact remains he often regresses to what's natural to him, and his default settings as a quarterback are just not conducive to solid play at the NFL level.

Handling him with kid gloves and limiting important reps that could help break some very bad habits is the polar opposite of what should be going on here. It seems like Minnesota fans are in for another year of dialing back the passing game as the year goes on and using Peterson as a crutch, a tough formula to sustain in the NFL of 2013.

"My biggest thing is just to become a better football player," Ponder said. "There are probably specifics that I'll work on but the general idea for everyone, it's all the same, we want to be better."

Minnesota is better off behind Ponder after signing the veteran Cassel, who started 47 regular season games and one playoff game for the Chiefs over the past four seasons. In 2008, Cassel also took over the starting job for New England after Tom Brady was injured during the season opener, leading the Pats to a 10-5 mark as a starter in the final 15 games. Cassel is no star but he's a competent guy who can take advantage of all the extra attention Peterson generates.

The strong-armed McLeod Bethel-Thompson is the No. 3 but Webb, who has moved to receiver full-time could also be in the mix as a versatile hybrid who could help on special teams and serve as the signal caller in an emergency.

GRADE: C+

RB: The Vikings sport impressive depth and ability at the running back position with Peterson and the unheralded Toby Gerhart. A.P. is coming off the second-best single-season rushing year in NFL history with 2,097 yards and was named the league's MVP. A frightening combination of power and speed, coupled with a prodigious work ethic have turned Peterson into perhaps the best pure football player in the world. He's a true home run hitter who can take it to the house on any play and at the same time the best bell cow in the business, a guy who can handle 30 touches and wear down the opposition.

Peterson is so good you don't think about or see much of Gerhart, the bruising Stanford product who ran for 369 yards over the final five games of the 2011 season. Gerhart is more of a a move-the-chains type of back but he can also wear down a defense with his punishing style of running.

The third back figures to be Matt Asiata, a versatile hybrid who can handle snaps at fullback or tailback and is a solid special-teamer.

The starting fullback is Pro-Bowler Jerome Felton, a battering ram who turned into the best lead-isolation blocker in football last season.

GRADE: A+

WR: The Vikings have re-made the wide receiver spot in an effort to help Ponder. Gone is the uber-talented but troublesome Percy Harvin, who clearly did not enjoy playing with the embattled quarterback.

Things worked out for Minnesota in the short-term at least as Harvin was traded to Seattle for a first-round pick and he is now going to miss most of the season after undergoing hip surgery. The Vikings replaced him by signing veteran Greg Jennings from Green Bay, a true No. 1 receiver when healthy, and drafting Cordarrelle Patterson, a stick-his-foot-in-the-ground, explosive type who is raw but dangerous.

Harvin is probably one of the top 10 playmakers in all of football when right but he isn't a polished receiver and Musgrave would have to manufacture touches for him. Jennings, a two-time Pro Bowler, isn't as scary as Harvin but he is one of this game's best pure route runners in the game and one of the few receivers in football who can line up outside the numbers or in the slot and be just as effective. His professionalism and consistency on the field are expected to help Ponder immensely. That's the good, the bad is that Jennings was limited to eight games and five starts in 2012 with groin/abdomen issue and is now on the wrong side of 30.

"I'm looking for a new start, new fresh start, new faces and just a stepping- stone to our stalking successes," Jennings said. "Like I said, it's a new start and new look for myself as well as a new team, new environment and I'm excited about the fresh start."

Jerome Simpson is slated to be the placeholder at split end until Patterson is ready. The gifted Simpson has always had the size, speed and physical gifts to stand out, but he's been inconsistent as a route runner, had off-the-field issues and suffered through a back injury which robbed him of his explosion in 2012.

Patterson, who was selected with the 29th overall pick out of Tennessee, was right there with Tavon Austin as the biggest playmakers coming out of the 2013 draft. He's looked far more polished than expected in the preseason and Vikings fans should be really excited about this guy.

"I expect to learn the whole playbook," Patterson said. "You can't do anything if you don't know the plays. I'm learning from all the other guys, especially Greg (Jennings). He's been a great mentor. He's helped me get along pretty well so I know as long as I have someone like him on my side I'm going to get all I need."

Second-year player Jarius Wright looks like he will be a solid contributor as a slot receiver and Stephen Burton, a real difference-maker as a downfield blocker, has been lauded as the most improved player on the roster. Minnesota also needs to find a spot for the versatile Webb.

GRADE: B

TE: The actual Pro Bowl game might not mean much to many but the Vikings feel it helped Kyle Rudolph immensely. Rudolph, a player with amazing hands and an imposing catching radius thanks to his 6-foot-6 frame, had a bit of a breakout season in 2012 with nine touchdown receptions but Minnesota still thought he had a way to go to reach his ceiling as a player. According to those in the organization, a five-reception, 122-yard, one-TD performance which garnered Rudolph Pro Bowl MVP honors buoyed the young tight end's confidence and the Vikings are expecting a monster year from the Notre Dame product.

Fellow Fighting Irishman John Carlson remains the top backup after an injury- plagued 2012 season. When healthy, Carlson knows how to separate and work a zone but he hasn't been really productive since the 2009 season so there are more than a few whispers about his future.

Second-year man Rhett Ellison is a core special-teamer and a real positive as an h-back, filling the role Jim Kleinsasser used to handle with such effectiveness. Ellison can move from the backfield to the line, enabling the creative Musgrave to use a lot of different formations.

GRADE: B

OL: The Vikings line is regarded as one of the NFL's best thanks to three stalwarts: center John Sullivan and tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt.

The drafting of Kalil with the fourth overall pick last year solidified the all-important left tackle position for the next decade and also enabled Minnesota to slide the 2011 starter at that spot, Charlie Johnson, inside to left guard. Kalil, a Southern California product, became the second highest offensive lineman drafted in Vikings history behind tackle Ron Yary, the No. 1 overall pick in 1968 (also out of USC) who ended up in the Hall of Fame. It's a little early to make reservations in Canton for Kalil, but he already has a Pro Bowl under his belt and looks to be a difference-maker at the position.

Johnson, meanwhile, was miscast at left tackle and seems well-suited inside but was just OK in 2012. That said, as he gets more comfortable, Johnson projects as an above-average left guard thanks to his lower body strength and movement skills.

Sullivan was the best center in football last season but didn't do much in the offseason after undergoing knee surgery. A smart and instinctive player, Sullivan handles all the line calls, mirrors well and excels on double-team blocks.

The right guard remains third-year man Brandon Fusco. The Vikings love Fusco's natural strength and nasty disposition, but he plays out of control at times and is caught leaning far too much. Experience could help but this is the one position on the line you can question.

Loadholt, who got a big money extension in the offseason, is an absolute road- grader in the running game and a solid pass protector although he will struggle with undersized, speed rushers on occasion. Loadholt also needs to play with more focus and clean up some pre-snap penalties.

Joe Berger figures to remain the key reserve inside but he is being pushed by veteran Seth Olsen. Meanwhile, the team brought in late-round rookies Jeff Baca and Travis Bond to push for spots. Reserve swing tackle will be especially interesting with Kevin Murphy, Brandon Keith, Troy Kropog and Bond all vying for the spot.

GRADE: B+

DL: The Vikings again expect to possess one of the game's best and deepest defensive lines, with ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison serving as the cornerstones.

Allen remains one of the game's best pure pass rushers and is just a year removed from a mind-blowing 22-sack performance. That number was cut in half in 2012 as Allen played through injuries but he still started all 16 games and always had to be accounted for. A well-rounded player who can also stop the run and drop off into coverage in zone-blitz concepts, Allen is the poster child for the cliched non-stop motor. He keeps himself in incredible shape and succeeds by outworking his opponents. Some think the 31-year-old Allen is a descending player and he will be entering a contract year so he has plenty of motivation for 2013.

Opposite Allen at left end is the underrated Robison, an ascending player who mirrors Allen's work ethic. In his second full season as a starter, Robison actually played better than Allen despite struggling with elbow and shoulder injuries, posting a career-best 8 1/2 sacks.

Three-technique tackle Kevin Williams was once one of the NFL's best interior linemen but is slowing down and the Vikings will look to take some of the workload off his plate, especially with first-round pick Sharrif Floyd on hand to handle some repetitions. Williams isn't an All-Pro anymore but he can still make things happens on occasion and figures to improve playing fewer snaps.

Nose tackle Letroy Guion is the weak-link of the line. A natural three- technique, Guion doesn't have the bulk or strength to command a consistent double-team and his backup, Fred Evans, has been the more consistent player. Evans has upper-echelon quickness and a blinding first step, but is also undersized and wears down if he plays too much.

Super-sub Everson Griffen can play inside or outside and could be a future star as a pass rusher. Veteran Lawrence Jackson and Floyd, who was rated as a top-five talent by some in the draft, also figure in. Floyd, in fact, projects as a Richard Seymour-like factor playing the three-technique. Learning under one of the best of this generation, Williams, also won't hurt.

"I don't think I have any challenges ahead of me," Floyd said. "I feel as though I'm here to help the Vikings get better and play hard. That is all I'm focusing on is playing hard and doing the best that I can, everything else will take care of itself."

GRADE: B+

LB: Erin Henderson moves from the weakside to the middle this season to captain the Vikings defense, something his brother E.J. did for years. A natural, instinctive run defender the younger Henderson needs to prove he can handle the coverage responsibilities in a Tampa-2 scheme.

Chad Greenway earned his second straight Pro Bowl berth last season and was named the team's defensive MVP. Few linebackers are asked to do as much as Greenway and he generally excels in all facets, although the former University of Iowa star is at his best when he is using his athleticism to run and chase.

Former Packer Desmond Bishop, if healthy, figures to handle the weak side although he was running behind special-teamer Marvin Mitchell for most of camp. Bishop was an ascending player before a torn hamstring caused him to miss the 2012 season and now a groin has hampered him early with the Vikings.

"You know at this point, playing football is the best fit for me," Bishop said. "It's been a long time for me so I'm just anxious to get out there and show what I can do."

Depth is promising but unproven. Mitchell is the only somewhat proven commodity. Larry Dean and Tyrone McKenzie, a former third-round pick in New England, are solid special-teamers and will be aiming to hold off a group which includes second-year man Audie Cole and Penn State rookies Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.

Mauti is especially intriguing. A third ACL tear in his final season in Happy Valley sent him tumbling from a second- or third-round grade. The Vikings took a flyer on Mauti in the seventh round and he is an instinctive, natural Mike who could develop into a starter at the NFL level if he stays healthy.

GRADE: B-

DB: The Vikings boast the most talented defensive backfield they have had in years even without veteran Antoine Winfield, who was released after an excellent 2012 season.

The thought process on the 36-year-old Winfield seems to be "it's better to give up on a player a year too early than a year too late." Chris Cook, the team's best pure cover cornerback, is now the headliner at the position. A long, lanky player, Cook has the physical skills to be a top-10 corner in the NFL but has had trouble staying on the field due to injury issues as well as legal problems. He did start a career-high 10 games as well as the wild card game last season but he needs to be on the field for all 16 this time around.

The Vikings would like rookie Xavier Rhodes to step in as the other outside corner. Rhodes was in the top 15 pick on most draft boards and is a long, powerful corner, tailor-made for Minnesota's base Tampa-2 scheme.

"I just come here just to work hard and get better each day," Rhodes said. "I'm not expecting to start or anything. I'm just coming here to get better and help the team by any means necessary. I mean, corner, special teams or anything, I'm just ready to help the team win."

Second-year man Josh Robinson has been starting outside in the preseason and moving inside to the slot in nickel situations. The speedy Robinson was up and down as a rookie and must show more consistency moving forward but the Vikings are particularly high on him because he has high-end recovery speed and carries himself with the swagger you see in elite defensive backs.

A.J. Jefferson figures to be as good as a dime back there is in football while Brandon Burton, a fifth-round pick from 2011, remains a favorite of general manager Rick Spielman, but has shown little to this point. Bobby Felder, a former undrafted rookie free agent, has also played himself into the conversation.

The safety situation was really upgraded in 2012 with the addition of Harrison Smith, along with the improvement shown by Jamarca Sanford. A smart and savvy player, Smith is already the best safety Minnesota has had since Darren Sharper left for New Orleans after the 2008 season.

The team wanted oft-injured third-year pro Mistral Raymond to win the other safety spot in 2012 but Sanford overtook him on the field. A hard-hitter who has improved in coverage through hard work Sanford was re-upped in the offseason and figures to provide solid, if unspectacular play.

Raymond, an ex-corner in college at South Florida with decent ball skills, special teams stalwart Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton, Smith's college teammate at Notre Dame, provide the depth.

GRADE: B

SPECIAL TEAMS: Last year it was Ryan Longwell. This year it was Chris Kluwe.

The Vikings chose field position over a consistent field goal threat in 2012 when they went with rookie Blair Walsh over the proven Longwell. In the end they got both as Walsh and his monster leg had one of the best kicking seasons in NFL history.

Walsh set an NFL record by making all 10 of his field goals from 50-plus yards and tied another NFL record with three FGs of 50-plus in a game at St. Louis en route to being named a first-team All-Pro. His ability to tilt the field with imposing kickoffs was even more important, especially for one of the few NFL teams left who play a field position game on a daily basis due to Ponder's inefficiencies.

"You kind of wipe clean what you did last year, you learn from it and you reflect on it in the offseason and you start new," Walsh said. "We haven't proven anything so far this year, our team is 0-0 and we need to win games and as long as we can help win games, that is what we are here for."

This year the Vikings are trying the big move at punter, dumping outspoken veteran Kluwe for UCLA rookie Jeff Locke. The Vikings gave up a ton of big returns during Kluwe's reign as the team's punter and some of them were due to Kluwe's struggles in directional kicking and his frustrating habit of outkicking his coverage down the middle of the field, giving big-time return men multiple options. Locke has the monster leg and feathery touch to tilt the field but he is an Aussie-style kicker so protection is something to keep an eye on.

In the return game, Patterson should prove to be an elite kickoff returner from day one while cornerback Marcus Sherels will try to hold off Steven Burton and Felder on punts. Sherels has the requisite speed, though he is small and has a tough time breaking tackles. If he doesn't shine as a return man, it will be hard for Sherels to make the final roster due to all the improvements at cornerback.

Long snapper Cullen Loeffler remains one of the NFL's most consistent at the position while Ellison, Dean and Sendejo figure to be some of the core guys covering kicks.

GRADE: B+

COACHING: Zygi Wilf got burned when he extended Brad Childress before he needed to and perhaps that's why the Vikings owner hasn't committed long-term to Leslie Frazier, a classy man who turned Minnesota from a three-win disaster into a 10-victory playoff team in one season despite uneven quarterback play.

That said, Frazier is an old school guy in a league trending away from him. Whether it's his antiquated Tampa-2 philosophy on defense or his 1970s approach of leaning on the running game and field position, by all accounts Frazier is either well behind the NFL curve or well out in front. This season should tell you all you need to know in that regard.

Musgrave is a brilliant guy when it comes to preparation but often becomes repetitive during games when it comes to play-calling. That could be due to the limitations of his QB, however.

Defensive chief Alan Williams just carries out Frazier's plan although to his credit is moving to less and less base cover-2.

GRADE: B

THE SKINNY: Spielman has built a championship level club around Ponder.

Minnesota is loaded with the best running back in the sport, a terrific offensive line, an emerging tight end in Rudolph as well as a much-improved receiving corps thanks to the additions of Jennings and Patterson. On defense, the Vikings have a deep line, solidified their linebacking group with the addition of Bishop and alleviated the loss of Winfield by drafting Rhodes.

There is only one piece missing but it happens to be at the most important position in the game and perhaps all of sport.

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