By Christopher Gates, Daily Norseman
Everybody knows how the 2009 season ended for the Minnesota Vikings. Despite dominating the stat sheet against the New Orleans Saints, the Vikings eventually shot themselves in the foot enough times to blow off all of their toes, turning the ball over five times and still managing to lose in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champions.
The Vikings got themselves to a 12-4 record in 2009 and the second seed in the NFC playoffs behind the amazing renaissance of Brett Favre, who posted what might have been the best season of his career with 33 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. Many people don't think Favre can repeat that performance. . .of course, those same people largely thought he wasn't going to have the year he did in 2009, either. The Vikings have managed to convince Favre to come back for one more go around, and will be surrounding him with largely the same team that had such a great season in 2009.
The most significant departure from the Vikings this past season would have to be running back Chester Taylor, who served Minnesota quite well as the backup to Adrian Peterson for the last three seasons. Despite not getting many carries after toting the rock 303 times in 2006 and the Vikings' subsequent drafting of Peterson, Taylor always seemed to have a knack for making plays when called upon and converting third downs in big situations. Of the players that the Vikings lost this off-season, he will definitely be the toughest to replace, and it remains to be seen if the Vikings have a sufficient replacement on their roster.
The Vikings also lost versatile backup offensive lineman Artis Hicks to the Washington Redskins. While Hicks didn't get very many starts during his time in Minnesota, he was the primary backup at a couple of positions, including left tackle.
Just before press time for this article, the Vikings traded both quarterback Sage Rosenfels and return specialist Darius Reynaud to the New York Giants in exchange for draft picks. Sage was the odd man out in the Minnesota quarterback situation, despite largely outplaying Tarvaris Jackson during the pre-season. After the Vikings gave up a fourth-round pick to the Houston Texans before the 2009 draft and extended Rosenfels' contract, he was the only player on the Vikings' roster that didn't see the field in 2009. Reynaud is a potentially great return specialist, but he's had problems staying healthy, and had developed some problems with fumbling towards the end of his tenure with the Vikings.
The Vikings were unable to make a huge splash in free agency due to their status as one of the NFL's "final four" in 2009, but they managed to sign CB Lito Sheppard to help the secondary in the wake of the injury to CB Cedric Griffin. Sheppard had a bit of a down year with the Jets in 2009, but he's a savvy veteran that will be able to provide some help in the secondary until Griffin comes back.
In another move to shore up their secondary, the Vikings drafted Chris Cook out of Virginia with the second pick of Round Two. Cook is a big cornerback at 6'2" and 212 pounds, and was looking very impressive in the pre-season. However, a torn meniscus has him on the sidelines until, potentially, after the Vikings' bye in Week Four. The Vikings also drafted the bruising Toby Gerhart out of Stanford in Round Two, and he's had his moments this pre-season.
In the later rounds, the Vikings grabbed DE Everson Griffen, OL Chris DeGeare, and QB Joe Webb. Griffen will probably spend a lot of games inactive this year, but he was thought to be a first-round talent by many going into the draft. DeGeare looks like he's going to stick as one of the backup offensive linemen. And many Viking fans seem to be intrigued by Joe Webb. With the trade of Rosenfels, it appears he's Minnesota's third-string quarterback. He's a freakish athlete, and has made some incredibly exciting plays this pre-season.
With that said, he's incredibly raw, and is going to take some time to develop. However, since there's no way he would make it through waivers, the Vikings are keeping him on the roster as the third quarterback.
Yes, everyone knows what Brett Favre did last year. Over 4,000 passing yards, and 33 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He was able to take advantage of the talents of the Vikings' receiving corps, and led the team to the second-most points scored in the NFL. Sidney Rice became Brett's favorite target, going over 1,300 receiving yards and being named as a Pro Bowler. However, Rice will miss at least the first eight games of 2010 after having surgery on his hip, and so others will have to pick up the slack. Thankfully, the Vikings appear to have the personnel to do just that.
Rice's injury means that Bernard Berrian is going to be expected to step up his game. Berrian was signed by the Vikings as a free agent prior to the 2008 season, and had seen himself drop to third on the depth chart prior to Rice's injury. He has the talent to be a top-notch receiver, but needs to overcome inconsistency to make it there. Teams also have to account for 2009 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin, who has a unique skill set that makes him a threat from anywhere on the field at any time. If the Vikings can keep his migraine headaches under control, it gives the team another weapon.
The Vikings also made a sneaky trade this pre-season, sending nickel corner Benny Sapp to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for wide receiver Greg Camarillo. Camarillo is a very good route runner, and according to Football Outsiders, didn't drop a single pass that he was targeted for in 2009. He's the kind of guy that could, potentially, have a great season with Favre behind center. (Must. . .avoid. . .comparison. . .to. . .Wes. . .Welker.)
The Vikings also signed former Packer, Raider, and Bronco Javon Walker during camp, and any contribution Minnesota gets from him will be a bonus. And, of course, there's tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who has 18 touchdown catches over the past two seasons, more than any other tight end in the NFL.
Yes, the Vikings offense is incredibly talented. . .and I haven't even mentioned that Adrian Peterson fellow yet. Yes, Peterson's fumble issues are well-documented, but the word all year out of Minnesota is that he's been taking measures to prevent the same issue from rearing its head this year. Despite having a "down" season last year, he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns and still gained nearly 1,400 yards rushing, along with having the best pass catching season of his career. Peterson, in my slightly biased opinion, is still the best running back in football, and Viking fans hope he performs to that standard this year.
The Minnesota defense is among the NFL's best, and it all starts up front with the best front four in the league. Defensive end Jared Allen has had 14.5 sacks in each of his first two seasons with the Vikings, and demands constant double teams from opponents. He's also better than advertised against the run, as well.
He plays next to, arguably, the best defensive tackle duo in the NFL in Pat and Kevin Williams. Pat has been stuffing the run as well as anyone since he came to Minnesota, and Kevin is outstanding as both a run stopper and a pass rusher. Ray Edwards mans the other side, and after being a restricted free agent this past year, he's playing for a big money contract for 2011. If he can produce the way he did in 2009, where he notched 8.5 sacks, he should be able to earn that contract on the free agent market.
The Vikings' defensive line also boasts a lot of depth, as they regularly rotate in players like Jimmy Kennedy, Fred Evans, and Brian Robison with little to no drop-off in pressure or run stopping. This is truly a testament to defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and his ability to get the best out of every player under his charge. The Vikings are lucky to have him around.
In the linebacking corps, the big story is the return of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. After suffering a gruesome broken femur against the Arizona Cardinals last December, Henderson was expected to miss most, if not all, of 2010. Yet there he was, going through mini-camp drills and, eventually, taking the field for pre-season contests. Henderson's recovery is nothing short of miraculous, and many regard him as the silent leader of the Minnesota defense.
He will be flanked by Ben Leber and Chad Greenway. Greenway has gotten better each year he's been in the NFL, and Leber doesn't get a lot of recognition, but that's mostly because he's rarely out of position and seems to be in the right place at the right time. The Vikings also boast three capable backups at linebacker in Jasper Brinkley. . .who got valuable experience as Henderson's replacement last season. . .Heath Farwell, and E.J. Henderson's younger brother Erin.
The Vikings' secondary has been the one weak spot on the defense for a long time, and the Vikings have taken steps to shore it up. Along with drafting Chris Cook and acquiring Lito Sheppard, the Vikings finally welcome back a fully healthy Antoine Winfield, who injured his foot early in 2009 and had issues with it the entire season.
The safety play for the Vikings last year was nothing short of atrocious, yet the Vikings stuck with the same cast back there in Tyrell Johnson, Madieu Williams, Husain Abdullah, and Jamarca Sanford. Johnson and Williams are the starters for now, but Sanford showed some real talent last year, and could probably replace either of them at any time. If the Vikings are to finally get over the hump, the secondary is going to have to take advantage of what the front seven gives them and start making plays.
Kickers don't come any more consistent than Ryan Longwell. He's been largely automatic since signing with Minnesota, and there's no reason to think that anything about that will change this season. To try to help out with kickoffs, the Vikings brought in former University of Minnesota standout and Carolina Panther Rhys Lloyd to handle kickoffs. However, until the last pre-season game against Denver, Lloyd's kickoffs were really nothing special. At press time, it was quite unclear whether or not he was going to make the final roster.
After a nightmare season in 2008, punter Chris Kluwe finally got the message that, sometimes, it's okay to sacrifice distance on a punt for hang time and accuracy. As a result, the Vikings punt coverage unit was drastically improved in 2009, and can hopefully continue that solid trend this season.
The trade of Darius Reynaud to the New York Giants makes it unclear who is going to handle return duties for the Vikings. Minnesota had, of course, been using Percy Harvin on kickoff returns, but it's unclear whether they'll be putting him back there again this season. The various return duties have been handled this pre-season by Reynaud, cornerback Asher Allen, and running back Albert Young.
Brad Childress has been much maligned, for the most part, since becoming the Vikings' head coach in 2006, but the guy knows how to get the most out of his players. The Vikings have improved by two games every year Childress has been the head coach, and the input he's had into player acquisition decisions have helped to build a very solid roster from top to bottom. He's taken some ridicule. . .only some of it accurate and deserved. . .for his handling of the Favre situation, but he ultimately got what he wanted.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has a solid handle on the offense, even though he's not regarded as a terribly spectacular coach. The Vikings also have a couple of solid position coaches in receivers coach George Stewart and running back coach Eric Bieniemy.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has interviewed for seven different NFL head coaching jobs since becoming Minnesota's defensive coordinator, but hasn't been selected for any of them. Minnesota has benefitted greatly from this, as it has allowed them to have a consistent scheme for the past few years and not having to worry about a bunch of turnovers. Of course, as I mentioned before, having the best defensive line coach in the league in Karl Dunbar helps quite a bit.
The Vikings' schedule in 2010 is a tougher road than the one they travelled in 2009. However, this team is loaded with talent from top to bottom on both sides of the ball, and should be able to produce a season similar to last year. Even if Favre doesn't have the sort of year he had in 2009, everyone seems to have forgotten about Adrian Peterson. . .by the end of this season, that shouldn't be an issue any longer.
Minnesota's defense will ensure that they're competitive in every game they play, and they're still, in my opinion, the most talented team in the NFC North. The Vikings should win the dogfight with the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title, and be a favorite for a first-round playoff bye and the right to represent the NFC in their first Super Bowl in 35 years.