The Minnesota Vikings took a major step forward in 2012, shocking most of the football world by earning a wild card birth after being picked to finish last by most of the NFL preseason publications.
They will look to take yet another step forward in 2013, and made some bold moves during the off season to get that done, in particular on the offensive side of the football to take some of the attention from opposing defenses off 2,000 yard running back Adrian Peterson.
Those moves include the signing of gifted wide receiver Greg Jennings from the division rival Green Bay Packers as well as moving up from the beginning of the second round into the back of the first round of the 2013 draft to snatch up the freakishly athletic receiver out of Tennessee Cordarrelle Patterson, who should get the opportunity to start opposite Jennings, and may also give a boost to the kickoff and punt return games as well. Many scouts believe Patterson could be a bigger strong version of departed wide receiver Percy Harvin, who was traded to Seattle prior to the draft. He's still quite raw though and will need to develop as an all around receiver before reaching that level of brilliance in Minnesota.
Just as the signing of Greg Jennings was a double whammy of sorts because it not only strengthened the Vikings, it also weakened the two time defending division champion Packers, the biggest acquisition of defense also comes from Titletown USA, Desmond Bishop, who the Vikings signed in mid June after he was surprisingly released by the Packers.
Bishop said a lot of the right things, but it's clear he will have a major chip on his shoulder to prove the Packers wrong in 2013. Part of the reason for his release was his slow recovery from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for all of the 2012 season, but Bishop should be ready to go once training camp begins in July. Bishop certainly believes he'll be fine, before being released by Green Bay, he not only predicted he would return at 100% he predicted an NFL defensive MVP award for himself in 2013. Certainly a lofty goal for a player who has yet to be named to his first Pro Bowl, but nonetheless you have to admire his confidence and ambition in returning from a hamstring injury he suffered in the drive of the first preseason game, that was serious enough to sideline for an entire NFL season. Bishops contribution is just one of many questions that need to be answered for the Vikings entering the 2013 season, here are the five most pressing queries for the Purple and White, with training camp less then a month away....
1. With the free agent acquisition of quarterback Matt Cassell, how much rope will head coach Leslie Frazier give incumbent starter Christian Ponder, and how soon will he turn to Cassell if Ponder doesn't show marked improvement as a passer in 2013?
In Cassell's last full season only three season's ago, Cassell had an outstanding season, throwing for 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in leading the Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC playoffs. He's only 31 years of age, has the arm and pocket presence to be a productive pocket passer and he's been well enough coached from his years at USC as well as behind Tom Brady in New England to be an effective game manager.
During that season in 2009 in which he led the Chiefs to the playoffs, he wasn't asked to carry the team with his arm, the offense centered around Jamaal Charles and the running game, Cassell did an outstanding job of not turning the football over, and making the defense pay on play action. Sound like a familiar role? There's no mistake about it, this offense is centered around Adrian Peterson and the running game, perhaps one of the last offenses in football of its kind.
Christian Ponder was drafted in the first round in 2011 to be the franchise quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, and he will be given every opportunity to succeed in that role, but you can make the argument that the Vikings are not only a playoff contender, they are a contender to make some serious noise when they get there ...with this team, with this offensive line, with this defense, and especially with this version of Adrian Peterson at running back. This window won't last forever, and if Christian Ponder is unable to make defenses fear his ability to push the ball down the field, if he's unable to make defenses fear him by making them pay for putting eight or nine in the box, Frazier HAS to turn to Cassell, he has to give this gifted team every chance he can to succeed, he cannot leave any stone unturned or he will lose his players, lose his team, lose his fan base and ultimately lose his job.
This is not to say Ponder is certain to fail, he definitely showed signs of growth in 2012. The Vikings have to realize however, that the team has to be bigger then the individual and even if the organization is committed to Ponder as the quarterback of the future, they have to be cognizant of who the quarterback of the present should be, and if it becomes clear in camp that the quarterback that gives them the best chance to win is Cassell and not Ponder, they need to make the move and they need to make it immediately, they owe it to the other 51 players on the roster to play the quarterback of the present, and worry about the quarterback of the future, in the future.
2. How long will it take for Ponder to develop the necessary chemistry with his practically brand new group of wide receivers including Greg Jennings, rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, and Joe Webb, who's making the transition to wide receiver after being Ponder's backup quarterback in 2012?
Hopefully for his sake not long, but with the inexperience amongst the receiving corps, look for Ponder to rely on second year tight end Kyle Rudolph in the early going when times get tough. But if the Vikings want to stretch the field to take the heat off Peterson, he will need to develop that chemistry with his speedsters on the outside sooner rather then later, or somebody else will.
3. How big of a contribution will the Vikings rookie class that includes three first round draft picks make in 2013? Will the influx of young, but inexperienced talent do more to help or hurt the Vikings cause in 2013?
Defensive tackle Shariff Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson will all be given the chance to start, and all three are more physically gifted then the players they are competing against. It will be up to the coaching staff to get these youngsters up to speed, and especially in the case of Floyd, get them motivated to get the very best out of all three of them as early as possible in 2013. Look for all three to at the very least be rotational players, if not starters on opening weekend.
4. Desmond Bishop? Will he prove the Packers right or wrong for releasing him prior to the start of training camp? What impact as the starting middle linebacker, will he have on the defense as a whole?
If he's fully healed, Bishop should make the defense as a whole better as he allows Erin Henderson to play a more natural role on the outside and he brings a veteran presence along with Chad Greenway and defensive end Jared Allen to the front seven. When he was healthy he was the best interior linebacker on the Packer roster, one has to wonder just what they saw, or what they heard from their doctors to make the drastic move of releasing him before camp even opened.
5. After his years in Green Bay playing with Brett Favre followed immediately by Aaron Rodgers, can Greg Jennings succeed without a future Hall of Famer throwing him the football, and is he the kind of receiver that can make Christian Ponder a better quarterback in 2013?
Brett Favre made a career out of making mediocre wide receivers look like starters, and average receivers look like All Pros. Was that the case with Jennings? Will Jennings turn out to be another Javon Walker, a receiver who thrived in the warm embrace of the outstanding quarterbacking in Titletown, only to fizzle out once he left town and was forced to try to succeed amongst mediocrity at the quarterback position.
Jennings is smart, savvy route runner, and as long as he stays healthy he should be a player who Ponder can count on to be where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there. The bigger question might be whether Jennings can make the ultra gifted rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson a better receiver. Jennings will be asked to take on a leadership role amongst the young receiving corps despite the fact that he's in his first year with the ball club.
If Patterson and the rest of the receiving group follows the lead of the veteran Jennings, both on the practice field and on game day, he could prove to be one of the most valuable players on the football team, not only on game day, but during the rest of the week as well.