Most figured that the Minnesota Vikings wouldn't have another top-three pick in the NFL Draft, and that their 2011 season was just a down year. But few expected the Vikings to put together the turnaround they did last season, going from 3-13 in 2011 to 10-6 last year.
That 10-6 record was good enough for a playoff berth as a Wild Card team. They went 4-1 to start the season, then fell to 6-6, and pushed hard to make it into the playoffs in Week 17.
Much of their success can be pinned on running back Adrian Peterson, who carried the Minnesota offense and rushed for more than 2,000 yards less than a year after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee. Unfortunately, he couldn't do it all on his own. When starting quarterback Christian Ponder went down with an injury in a playoff-clinching Week 17 win against the Green Bay Packers, Joe Webb was forced to start in the playoffs. It did not end well.
So what needs to go right, what can't go wrong and what's the ultimate goal for the Vikings next season?
3 Steps To Success
1. Adrian Peterson needs to maintain his averages
Peterson believes that he can make it to 2,500 yards next season. If he does, he'd be the first player to sniff that single-season yardage mark. Expecting him to even break 2,000 yards for two straight seasons is a little much. What Peterson needs to do, though, is maintain his stellar per-carry averages. He can get away with dipping below 2012's 6.0 yards per carry (an NFL best), but if the Vikings are to be successful, he probably can't go too much lower.
2. Establish a top target for Christian Ponder
Ponder isn't among the top quarterbacks in the league, but he's not at the bottom, either. He still has a lot of room to grow, and the Vikings are clearly invested in him. They traded away Percy Harvin this offseason, but drafted Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round and signed free agent Greg Jennings. Ponder is being given every opportunity to succeed, but the Vikings absolutely need to do whatever they can do establish one of those players as his go-to guy. The best thing a shaky quarterback can have is a go-to guy.
3. Throw some passes downfield
The Vikings saw many an offensive drive stalled last season due to their short passing game. Only 7.5 percent of Ponder's pass attempts went deeper than 20 yards last season. That's the lowest mark in the NFL. Patterson is a deep threat, and Jennings can handle the deep ball, as well. Not throwing deep with Harvin on the team last year was a big mistake, and repeating those mistakes with the new receivers would be inexcusable. Is Ponder up to it?
3 Feats Toward Failure
1. Rookies coming along slow
The Vikings had three first-round picks this year, and all three will be expected to produce from the get-go. Minnesota invested heavily in this draft, and they're not interested in bringing these players along slowly. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Patterson will all have significant roles, but if any of these picks go south, the Vikings will take a big hit.
2. Abandoning the running game
Sure, the Vikings are adding talent for Ponder left and right, but the worst thing they can do is change their identity. They are a running team, and they are a running team because they have Adrian Peterson. It's easy to say that Peterson running the ball equates to wins … because it's true. The Vikings need Ponder to progress, but if Peterson isn't "the guy," then the Vikings are watching the playoffs from their living-room couches.
3. Sharrif Floyd isn't the real deal
Floyd was once projected to go within the top five picks in the draft, and he fell all the way to No. 23. Most feel the Vikings got an absolute steal. With Kevin Williams and Jared Allen getting up there in years and possibly being gone after next season, the Vikings would be in a bad spot if Floyd does not pan out. They need him on the interior of that line, and they need him now.
So what constitutes a "successful" season for the Vikings? Obviously, after making the playoffs last year, they'll need to repeat that performance. To do that, they'll have to do well against their division. The ultimate goal is always winning the Super Bowl, but there's still plenty that can go right for the Vikings to make next year a success regardless.
Minnesota has a bumper crop of fresh, young talent joining the team. These players may not all be amazing from the start, but good production from all of the new pieces would be a step forward for the Vikings. They've had the "aging roster" label for some time now, and production from the new guard would do a lot to set this team up for the future.