If the Vikings are going to climb out of the mess that was 9 wins in two seasons, there are some players that are going to have to step up and have stellar years. We expect guys like Adrian Peterson, who I think will have a good year in spite of his knee injury, Jared Allen, Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield (please stay healthy) to be their standard top of the line performers.
But there are several players, on both sides of the ball, that need to have a great season if the Vikings are going to compete. Some are well known players in well known positions, some are not so well known players with some big shoes to fill, and some are not so well known in positions we don't think of until it matters.
Let's look at these guys, after the jump.
Christian Ponder, QB: In the modern NFL, a successful quarterback is important. In the NFC North it's imperative. I would argue three of the top 10 QB's in the league reside here, and two of the top 5 or 6. Christian Ponder must step up his game if the Vikings are going to contend for the playoffs. The Lions, Packers, and Bears are all going to field strong teams, and Ponder will have to show improvement over last year. This isn't to say last season was a bust, not at all. I think he did some very good things as a rookie, and with the benefit of OTA's, mini-camps, and a normal training camp, I expect him to cut down on a lot of the mental mistakes that plagued him as a rookie.
Percy Harvin, WR: Yes, I mentioned Harvin above, but it needs to be emphasized here. Harvin had kind of a breakout year last year. One of the few bright spots of the offense was Bill Musgrave's varying usage of Harvin as a receiver on the outside, on the inside, and as a running back. At times it was mystifying not seeing Harvin on the field in the red zone, and I think this is the year that could determine whether or not Harvin will be a bona fide star and Vikings go-to playmaker, or a glorified Antwaan Randle-El. Harvin has the potential to be the best WR in the NFL--he runs solid routes, has great hands, and is a truckload to bring down. It's time for him to show it.
Greg Childs and/or Jarius Wright: It will be tough for Harvin to be that superstar-type player without a complementing guy on the other side of the field, though. Michael Jenkins (Go Bucks!) is a good possession receiver, but he's not a guy you necessarily have to game plan for if you're an opposing defensive coordinator. He'll get you yards and catches, but he's not going to hurt you like Harvin can. Enter Wright and/or Childs. One of these guys, if not both, needs to develop into a weapon that the offense can deploy to create another mismatch on the field. Harvin can be schemed for right now because there's nothing on the other side of the field you have to consistently worry about. I want another Moss/CC tandem that we had in the late 90's and early aughts--it didn't matter what you tried, one of those guys was going to hurt you.
Toby Gerhart, RB: There will be a lot of pressure on Gerhart early in the season. Even if Adrian Peterson is on the roster for week one...and what's the current betting line on that, anyway...Gerhart will definitely see an increased share of the workload. Gerhart isn't going to get to the perimeter like Peterson can, but he can cause some serious damage if he has room to run on the inside, as we saw in the Redskins game last year. I actually think he's as good as a receiver out of the backfield as AP is, as long as the passes are somewhat intermediate, say 10 yards or so downfield. Peterson can take a flare and make magic happen, Gerhart can take a short or intermediate route at about the 10 yard point and go north or south with great haste. They're not the same back, but TG can be very effective. And he'll have to be for an extended period.
The Right Side Of The Offensive Line: I really like what the Vikings did in the off season for the offensive line, and I am expecting good things to translate on the field. Free agent Geoff Schwartz will compete for the right guard slot, and somebody, be it Phil Loadholt or not, needs to step up and play consistently at the RT position. The Vikings offense will only go as far as the offensive line will block for them, and the right side has been an anchor for several years. It's time for that to end.
Whoever Replaces Pat Williams: Maybe it's just me, but I'm not too fired up about either Letroy Guion or Fred Evans. I think they're okay in spurts, but they just aren't that run-stopping force that Pat Williams was. Which makes me wonder if this might leave an opening for Christian Ballard. Ballard is an undersized guy compared to Phat Pat...but who isn't? Ballard showed flashes of 'pretty good'-ness last year, and hopefully he will be able to improve on that.
Jasper Brinkley: I really liked what I saw in the limited snaps Jasper Brinkley has shown us, and if healthy, he'll be an important piece to the Vikings defense. How he plays, and how he calls and adjusts the defense pre snap will determine, to a large part, how successful that side of the ball will be. He's going to be asked to replace E.J. Henderson, and that's asking a lot. I think he's up to the task.
Chris Cook: 2012 will be the Chris Cook Rehabilitation Tour. He was the best defensive back in the Vikings secondary last year until he was accused of going all Ike Turner on his girlfriend and he was essentially put on double secret probation by the team. But he's back, and with Antoine Winfield, free agent Chris Carr and rookie CB Josh Robinson, the Vikes might be in business. But Cook has to continue his development and stay out of trouble if the secondary is going to be anything but a dumpster fire.
The Blair Walsh Project, Copyright Chris Gates: In some ways, Walsh will be under more pressure than any other player entering Mankato. The Vikings cut popular veteran Ryan Longwell and gave the job to Walsh without any competition at all. Longwell was one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, and Walsh has big shoes to fill. He has a strong leg, but had accuracy issues at Georgia last year. If he can clean that up and consistently put kickoffs through the end zone, fans will be fine with the move. But if the Vikes go 0-2 thanks to 2 missed FG's at the end of the game? Yeah, not going to be pretty.
So who are the guys you think need to step up for the team to be successful this year?