Some NFL players make an impact their first year in the league; some players need time to develop their skills before they are ready to make noise in the NFL landscape. Every year there are breakout players who elevate their game to the next level and become household names to millions of NFL fans across the country. Here are a few Vikings' players that could make that ascension in 2011.
Jaymar Johnson (WR)
Explosive receiver and return man. Has a knack for getting behind defenders. Impressed in Texas vs. The Nation practices (as well as the game) with crisp routes and the ability to snatch the ball with his hands. Quick into and out of his cuts. Good hands. Well-built and very strong pound for pound. Tough. Makes good adjustments to the ball and can track it over his shoulder. Good sideline awareness. Adjusts well to the low ball and can make some diving catches. Is quick off the line. Darting runner after the catch. Shows some quickness to make the first defender miss and shows good competitive speed to pull away when he gets a lane. Will block downfield. Good attitude and work ethic. Coachable. Can return both punts and kickoffs. Versatile; was used in a variety of roles in college and seems to pick things up quickly.
Jaymar Johnson is a speedy receiver standing 6' and weighing in at 187 pounds. He attended college at Jackson State and was drafted by the Vikings in the 6th round of the 2008 NFL draft. Johnson spent his rookie season on the Vikings' practice squad. Determined to make the active roster in 2009, Johnson put on 17 pounds of muscle during the offseason. He also spent some time training with Arizona Cardinals' receiver Larry Fitzgerald and teammate Sidney Rice under the observation of former Viking, Cris Carter. Carter, who had an illustrious career for the Vikings, was impressed by the youngster.
"You could tell that he went to a school that didn't have a sophisticated passing attack," Carter said of Johnson. "But he has phenomenal quickness and speed. Phenomenal. And his hands are better than you would think, from a guy that fast. He could start for the Vikings."
Buried on the depth chart, Johnson was active for only six games of the 2009 season, finishing they year with one reception. 2010 was supposed to be Johnson's breakout year, but he broke his thumb during the preseason and was placed on injured reserve. Now this summer, with the lockout dragging on, Johnson is back training with Larry Fitzgerald, trying to stay prepared for when the NFL is back in business.
Maybe this year will be Johnson's year to become a major contributor. Assuming the Vikings re-sign Rice, I think that Bernard Berrian, who has been mostly disappointing after signing a $42 million deal with Minnesota in 2008, could be released, opening the door for Johnson to compete for a significant role on the Vikings offense. If the Vikings decide to give Berrian a chance for redemption this season, Johnson could still push for playing time. He has been putting in the work. Will this be the year it finally pays off?
Letroy Guion (DT)
Good athlete. Has a big frame and can get even bigger. Has a thick lower body with very long arms to neutralize blockers when he uses proper technique. Plays hard and competes. Has a quick first step off the ball. Can be disruptive and penetrate gaps. Moves well down the line and can close on the ball. Decent bull rusher. Shows some short-area burst and closing speed. Willing to work and will put in the time in the weight room.
Letroy Guion, who stands 6' 4" and weighs just over 300 pounds, is a fourth year defensive tackle for the Vikings. He left Florida State after his junior year. He was only 20 years old when the Vikings drafted him in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL draft. Three years later and Guion seems poised to step into a bigger role. He has taken advantage of the opportunity to practice and study with veteran pro bowl players Kevin Williams and Pat Williams.
"Every year is the year for me to make that push to get on the field," Guion said. "It's just that I'm growing as a player and getting better. I'm learning from Pat and Kevin and all the other guys. Over the years it's just building up."
With both Kevin and Pat Williams facing a four game suspension, Guion may be starting at defensive tackle on opening day. Over his first three years with the Vikings, Guion has played a limited number of snaps behind the Williams duo, but showed flashes of his potential when he got an opportunity. According to the Startribune, he has earned the nickname "Little Ticket" after making several moves in practice that remind his teammates of some of the moves utilized by the "Big Ticket", Kevin Williams, who has been a distruptive force on the Vikings defensive line for the last eight years. Guion has been patiently working and learning the ropes, hoping to become as feared and well-respected as his mentors. Could this season be his time to shine?
Phil Loadholt (OT)
A mountain of a man. Massive frame and thick, muscular developed upper body. Has long arms, good ballast and large, powerful hands. Exceptional size with extremely long arms. Potentially dominant drive blocker. Can simply engulf and swallow defenders when he gets his hands into them. Intimidating at times. Above-average lateral quickness. Hustles to block downfield. Runs adequately, can execute short-area pulls and cut-block effectively. Good anchor strength. Adequate initial quickness, but has long legs, a deep kick-slide first step and the long arms to ride pass rushers wide. Can wall off and protect. Strong hand punch. Can absorb a bull rush. Surprisingly limber and athletic for his size. Bends his knees surprisingly well for a player of his height. Flashes nastiness and will flat-out bury defenders when he wants. Both physically and mentally tough. Competitive football player, but controlled and likable off the field. Works hard and will respond to hard coaching. Considered a good kid, class act, likable, polite, compliant with a business-like approach and great work ethic. A leader.
Phil Loadholt is a monster offensive tackle standing 6' 8" and weighing around 340 pounds. He attended the University of Oklahoma and was drafted by the Vikings in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft. Since joining the Vikings, Loadholt has started 31 of a possible 32 regular season games. He has dealt with his share of injuries over the last two years. He tore the labrum in his right shoulder during his rookie season. He wasn't able to have surgery on his soulder until after the 2009 season, rendering him unable to lift weights until right before training camp. Unable to fully prepare how he normally would, Loadholt struggled at times last season. Maybe it was partly because he was coming off an injury, or maybe it was a case of the "sophomore slump". Whatever the problem was, Loadholt is looking forward to entering the year healthy, with a full offseason of preparation.
"I really couldn't do too much going into the offseason," Loadholt said. "I did a little bit [of weight training] during the summer but my strength wasn't where it needed to be at the beginning of the year. Probably about midseason I felt it was getting more stable and things like that."(Startribune 2011)
Loadholt will enter training camp as the starting right tackle. It is possible that he could be pushed by rookie DeMarcus Love, but Loadholt is out to prove his value. He is known for his work ethic and should enter training camp 100% healthy. He has had inconsistency issues over his first two years, but if he can stay healthy, he could become a major force to be reckoned with on the Vikings offensive line. The Vikings have a new quarterback in Christian Ponder and a new offensive line coach in Jeff Davidson. Will this be the year that Loadholt blossoms into a pro bowl offensive tackle?
Chris Cook (DB)
Terrific pure athlete. Prototype size, well-built cornerback with terrific upside. Brings a physical style of coverage, shows fluid hips and transitions well in coverage. Tall and long-bodied player with long arms and top leaping ability, making him able match up in the red zone with bigger receivers. Competes for the football up high. Reads receivers and breaks quickly on the ball. He's shown good hands and makes plays on the ball and can return an interception. Good timed speed to run step-for-step with receivers in coverage. Not afraid to come up on run support and willing to hit. Plays with confidence.
Chris Cook, who played college football for the Virginia Cavaliers, was drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. Cook has great size for a defensive back, standing 6' 2" tall and weighing around 212 pounds. He is an outstanding athlete, but dealt with injuries throughout his rookie year, playing through meniscus tears in both his right and left knee. With Antoine Winfield aging and Cedric Griffin coming off back to back ACL tears, Cook figures to be on the field more often in 2011.
"In my mind, I would have been rookie of the year, defensive rookie of the year with 10 interceptions," Cook said. 'It didn't go that way. Hopefully, when I get back, whenever I get back, I will perform at a high level."
Cook could compete for a starting job in 2011. And there is always a chance, given his size and range, that Cook could be converted to safety. Wherever Cook plays, it will be good to have a bigger guy playing in the defensive backfield, especially considering the size of some receivers in the NFL today. Cook has his work cut out for him, but if he can stay on the field, he could make a difference. Last year during preseason, Cook showed flashes of his playmaking ability; he definitely has all the tools needed to succeed at his position. Will Cook become a big time playmaker in 2011?
Erin Henderson (LB)
Erin has all the tools to become just as good or even better than his older brother. Erin is a tremendously talented player who can play inside or outside. He has great size, and good speed and agility. He's a physical defender who tackles anything that moves. He has great instincts and flies to the ball.
Erin Henderson was signed by the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He stands 6' 4" tall weighing right around 245 pounds. Like his brother, Erin attended the University of Maryland. In his rookie season he appeared in 10 games, playing mostly special teams. The following year he had an opportunity to spend more time on the field after his brother, E.J. Henderson, broke his femur and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. However, Erin tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and was forced to watch from the sidelines until after the Vikings' first playoff game. Henderson, who could be fighting for a starting spot in 2011, denied using performance enhancing drugs back in 2009.
"We believe, in my camp, something mixed or something happened in that process that caused me to have a positive reaction," Henderson told Sean Jensen of the Pioneer Press.
(Pioneer Press 2009)
Regardless of whether or not Henderson used illegal substances to gain a competitive advantage, he has changed his lifestyle and is ready to become a professional. In an interview on Scout.com, Erin's brother E.J. had some words to share.
"I don't think he liked how the past couple of years went as far as his playing career. I think that's what his angle is this offseason - to get there and be one of the best linebackers in this league."
He has spent the last three seasons learning from the veteran core of linebackers on the Vikings team, including his brother, Ben Leber, and Chad Greenway. Leber, who is going to be a free agent this year, will more than likely not be back with the team. That would open a spot for Erin Henderson to compete for the starting gig. Also keep in mind that the Vikings have a new linebacker's coach, Mike Singletary. Do you think Singletary be able to push young Erin Henderson to realize his full potential?
Husain Abdullah (S)
High character, mature young man who is married with a son. Works hard and takes the game seriously. Disciplined and plays within the framework of the defensive scheme. Nice size and ball skills. Plays downhill on run support
Husain Abdullah, younger brother of Arizona Cardinal's safety Hamza Abdullah, was also an undrafted free agent signed by the Vikings in 2008. He played college football for the Washington State Cougars. Abdullah, who was a surprise starter for the Vikings in 2010, has showed glimpses of promise. He was not outstanding during his first year as a starter, but he was able to gain valuable experience while on the field.
"I'm able to anticipate a little bit more, trying to slow everything down. When you first get out there, everything seems like it's moving a million miles per hour. After you study and start to get a feel for it a little bit, it slows down a little bit," Abdullah said.
Abdullah, a devout Muslim, fasts for 30 days every year during Ramadan. So for a month during training camp, Abdullah is unable to eat or drink during daylight hours. It has been difficult, but he seems to have figured out how to make it work. According to the Startribune, Abdullah noticed a dip in his productivity during the 2009 training camp, while he was fasting. In 2010, he performed much better after working with the team nutritionist on his diet for the fast. He ended up earning the starting strong safety spot over last year's starter, Tyrell Johnson.
This season, Abdullah may be facing an even more prominent role on the Vikings' defense. There is some speculation that Madieu Williams, who signed a big contract that he has not lived up to, could be released. If Williams did get cut, Abdullah might slide into the free safety spot while Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford compete for the starting strong safety position. At 6' tall and 205 pounds, Abdullah has nice size and good ball skills, but does he have what it takes to be a dominant safety in the NFL?
Brian Robison (DE)
Possessing outstanding size/speed numbers, Robison is an immensely talented athlete and an improving football player. Needs to fully translate his natural abilities onto the field, yet offers a good degree of upside potential.
Brian Robison was drafted by the Vikings in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft. Robison, who is 6' 3" tall and 267 pounds, played his college ball for the Texas Longhorns. He is freakishly athletic for size size. At the 2007 NFL Combine he posted a 40 yard dash time of 4.68 seconds and a vertical leap of 40.5 inches. His 10 yard split time, which is in most cases more important than the 40 yard dash, was 1.49 seconds. To gauge how fast that is, compare it to Adrian Peterson's time of 1.53 seconds or Percy Harvin's time of 1.47 seconds. His athleticism is great, but it's his competitive streak and motivational drive that set him apart.
"I've been in the weight room every day since I was 13, religiously," Robison said. "I always want to outdo the person beside me, so I've always worked to be better than the next person."
Robison has only started seven games over his four year career with the Vikings, with five of those starts coming in 2007 as an injury replacement. Robison has performed admirably when on the field, but he has mainly been used as a situational player. With questions surrounding Ray Edwards and his future with the team, Robison will get a chance to become the starting defensive end opposite Jared Allen. The knock on Robison seems to be his run defense, but he has tremendous work ethic and desire to keep improving. The team and coaching staff obviously have faith in him. In March, the Vikings signed Robison to a new three year contract worth $14 million with $6.5 million guaranteed. But can he handle the load of being an every down player in the NFL?
Toby Gerhart (RB)
Quick, nifty, instinctive inside runner with terrific vision and pick. Flows into open lanes naturally and follows his blockers superbly. Patient runner. Consistently slips arm tackles and drives for additional yardage after initial contact. Excellent balance, leg drive and determination. Fights for extra yardage, but protects the ball nicely in doing so. Deceptively fast and runs so hard that he's very field fast. Effective goal-line runner. Has a nose for the endzone. Willing and capable blocker who's highly intelligent, has played in a pro-style offense and will not be a liability on the blitz pickup. Understands the nuances of the game and the strategy of various blitz packages. Good hands and a productive pass receiver. Tremendous competitor who's been extremely productive. Outstanding character.
Toby Gerhart, who was drafted by the Vikings in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, led the nation in rushing his senior year at Stanford, totaling 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns. He is a well-rounded individual with a strong work ethic. His rookie season with the Vikings, he carried the ball just 81 times for 322 yards. After coming out of the gate slow, Gerhart began building up momentum in the second half of the season. Some people will argue that Gerhart should be converted to a fullback, but he disagrees.
"I'm just a running back who tries to do what he can to win games and score touchdowns, but people have their opinions, and it's kind of frustrating," Gerhart said. "People say, ‘He's slow,' or ‘He's not going to be able to break tackles at the next level.' In college I went up against players like [USC's] Brian Cushing(notes) and Clay Matthews(notes) - guys who ended up making the Pro Bowl [as NFL rookies] - and I ran through their tackles. It's too bad people look at you all weird because of a stereotype."
Gerhart, who is behind Adrian Peterson on the depth chart, will likely have a larger role in the offense after a year spent adjusting the the game speed of the NFL. Adrian Peterson is going to get his touches, but the Vikings should have plenty carries to go around with a rookie quarterback running the show. After a somewhat disappointing rookie year, Gerhart's numbers should improve in 2011. The question is, how much will he improve? Only six teams in NFL history have had two running backs reach the 1,000 yard milestone:
- 1972 Dolphins - Larry Csonka & Mercury Morris
- 1976 Steelers - Franco Harris & Rocky Bleier
- 1985 Browns - Kevin Mack & Earnest Byner
- 2006 Falcons - Michael Vick & Warrick Dunn (Okay, so Vick's not a running back)
- 2008 Giants - Brandon Jacobs & Derrick Ward
- 2009 Panthers - DeAngelo Williams & Jonathan Stewart
Could Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart be next on this list?