Xavier Rhodes (Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY)
The Vikings will rely on their stars to perform at a high level, but there are a number of pivotal players that will have to step up their game to keep the Vikings a playoff team. Here are five on offense, five on defense and one on special teams.
It would seem that the mid-summer lists just never end. From the top 100 players to the top 10 Super Bowl contenders to the franchise overrated/underrated lists to Mount Rushmores to preseason All-Pros, the lists go on and on and on and on.
In that spirit, hey kids, how about a list? Except this one actually might have some relevance in terms of application to the coming season. As a game, football is played 11-on-11 – whether your favorite team is on offense, defense or special teams.
As such, these are the 11 players on the Vikings that will be most critical to the success of the 2013 Vikings. It can be logically assumed that players like Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil, John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Kevin Williams, Harrison Smith and Blair Walsh will do their jobs at the level expected of them. These are the 11 players whose success or failure will have the biggest impact on whether the Vikings return to the playoffs or take a step backward. In their hands lie the 2013 season of the Vikings.
For the purposes of fairness and balance, the 11 players are distributed in five offensive, five defensive and one special teams player. If this subset of the 53-man roster comes through anywhere close to team expectations, are you ready for some more January football?
1. Christian Ponder – This may come from the Department of Redundancy Department, but no player will be under the microscope as much as Ponder. The Vikings aren’t expecting Peyton Manning. They want consistency. When the Vikings start winning because of Ponder, not despite him, the franchise can stare down Green Bay eyeball to eyeball and have Mills Lane bark out, “Let’s get it on!”
2. Greg Jennings – He goes against everything the Rick Spielman-era Vikings have been about. They don’t sign big-money outside talent in free agency. Players tend to fall in their laps. They also have purged the roster of players over 30. Jennings was signed at market value and turns 30 before he plays a regular season game in front of his new home crowd. He is expected to be the leader the Vikings felt Percy Harvin wouldn’t be. The bar on his production is very high. Anything less than 70 catches, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns will be viewed as a failure to fans given his $9 million per-season average salary. His importance is as much at Winter Park as it is at Mall of America Field. He is an extension of the coaching staff as well as a go-to No. 1 receiver. You can’t underestimate his value to the offense.
3. Cordarrelle Patterson – It could be argued that he could end up being at the top of this list if he provides the Vikings with the post-Harvin electrical charge that would make Nikola Tesla envious. He has the “it factor.” In receivers of his caliber, it shows up. Unfortunately, it typically shows itself in the third season of their careers – not the rookie season. If he brings back a couple of long kick returns and catches 40 passes for 700 yards, he will be viewed as a success. If he exceeds those numbers, he is a crown jewel. If he replicates the type of impact Randy Moss and Harvin made as offensive rookies of the year, he could be the biggest reason the Vikings exceed expectations.
4. Charlie Johnson – When you play in between two Pro Bowl-caliber players, defensive coordinators target you as the weak link and bring the heat to prove their point. If Johnson is stalwart in handling his five yards of real estate, the left side of the O-line could be as dominant as any in the NFL … and Peterson might just get his 2,500 yards.
5. John Carlson – NFL teams are notorious for micromanaging game film. They know what Kyle Rudolph can do. This year he is going to face a ton of triangulation of defensive attention that teams have used to deter passes to guys like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates – linebackers, safeties and nickel cornerbacks giving the impression of coverage. Unless the Vikings have another offensive threat at the position, Rudolph will be blanketed. If he can live up to the expectations the organization envisioned when he signed a big free agent contract in 2012, Ponder has a new weapon at his disposal.
1. Desmond Bishop – In an ideal world, he becomes a better middle linebacker than the Vikings have had since the E.J. Henderson pre-injury level. In that case, Erin Henderson goes back to his previous position at outside linebacker and, for the time being, the linebacker carousel stops and doesn’t take on new riders for yet another season.
2. Sharrif Floyd – The early game plan for Floyd is to groom him to take over for Kevin Williams next year. The extent to which he sees the field – whether alongside Williams or replacing him – will go a long way to determining the team success. He will only see increased playing time by earning it.
3. Xavier Rhodes – You could replace his name with Chris Cook because, in their own ways, they are identical in terms of team success. Rhodes is the rare first-round corner in Vikings history. He was drafted for two reasons – Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. It’s a time-honored tradition that fans can look up by seeing what the Packers, Bears and Lions did in the draft and free agency from 1999-2004 to deal with Randy Moss. Rhodes is envisioned as a shutdown corner. The shine is off of Cook’s rose, but, in a contract year, if he comes up big, the Vikings could have a pair of big, athletic corners moving forward. Rhodes is slotted as the No. 1 guy and needs to produce.
4. Josh Robinson – Slot cornerbacks have often been dismissed as those too small to be on the outside. But with the proliferation of passing in the current NFL, the role of the nickel corner can’t be overemphasized. Seattle got better because it hired Antoine Winfield to play a role. If Robinson can step up and handle that role, the Vikings will have their secondary nearly locked down.
5. Brian Robison – He spent most of 2012 injured, but playing through the pain. If he is 100 percent and can provide the pass rush opposite Allen, the Vikings’ defensive front could be a strong suit of the team.
1. Jeff Locke – Blair Walsh was in this position last year and went to the Pro Bowl. The Vikings claim they got rid of Chris Kluwe because he wasn’t a dominant punter. The numbers back up that claim. If Locke keeps his mouth shut and gets hang time on 50-yard punts, he could be a secret weapon much like Walsh was a year ago.
The Vikings fully expect to be led by guys like Peterson, Allen and Greenway, but it will be these 11 players that will hold the key to whether Vikings are playing in January or not.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.