OK, we've seen the final cuts to get the Vikings roster down to the maximum 53, and although there will likely be some changes in the coming days, let's have a look at where we stand compared to the 2012 roster.
QB: Improved. Christian Ponder with his first full year of experience under his belt, and a better set of receivers to throw to, will likely be improved over the 2012 edition. How much remains to be seen, but improved nevertheless. Also, the addition of Matt Cassel is a definite upgrade over Joe Webb as backup QB.
RB/FB: Unchanged. But outstanding. Even with Felton out for 3 games, Ellison should fill in nicely at FB. Not sure AP will have another 2,000 yard season, but I expect he'll remain at the top of the RB heap in rushing yards.
Offensive Line: Unchanged. But clearly the best in the division. While we've seen some lapses in Kalil and Loadholt in the preseason, that is unlikely to be a theme in the regular season. John Sullivan continues to be a strong anchor and leader for the offensive line, and there is even some hope that Brandon Fusco is improving at RG. Having all five starters back helps the cohesiveness and chemistry of the group. The addition of Jeff Baca also is an improvement in offensive line depth. Hopefully we will see more in the days to come.
TE: Unchanged. Kyle Rudolph may be improved over the 2012 edition, having gained confidence after a strong year and pro-bowl MVP nod, and John Carlson may also be better than the injured one in 2012, but for now we'll stay with unchanged, but top tier, for the Vikings in 2013.
WR: Improved. This is the most improved position group on the team, despite the loss of Percy Harvin. While Jarius Wright may not be Percy Harvin as a slot receiver, many are looking at Wright to have a breakout year in 2013. In any case, looking at the outside receivers, Greg Jennings, a healthy Jerome Simpson and a big-play-maker in Cordarrelle Patterson make a dramatic improvement over Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashadu, both now out of the league. Even Joe Webb, as a situation receiver, is an improvement.
Defensive Line: Improved. While NT still remains a weak link in the defensive line, a healthier Jared Allen and Brian Robison rotating with an improved Everson Griffin, and Kevin Williams rotating with Sharrif Floyd makes for a much stronger defensive line. Taking reps from the older players with very capable guys like Floyd and Griffin will allow for better play from the vets when they're on the field. Perhaps we'll see a new addition at NT in the coming days as well. In any case, I look for improved performance from 3 of the 4 defensive line positions this year.
Linebacker: Improved. While I think there are question marks about just how well Erin Henderson will do at MLB and (probably) Desmond Bishop at WLB, I think both players represent upgrades over last year's starters in those positions. Jasper Brinkley was clearly a weak-link, and early indications are that Erin Henderson may be a better MLB than he was a WLB last year. In any case, I think Henderson represents an improvement over Brinkley. At WLB, Bishop will be a question mark in terms of health/durability, but so long as he remains healthy, his aggressiveness and instincts, particularly as a blitzer, will be an improvement over Henderson last year in that role. Additionally, depth has improved considerably. Marvin Mitchell has clearly done well in camp, and the addition of Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges provide starting-level talent that just needs some more experience to challenge the top of the depth chart.
CB: Unchanged. Clearly there are gains and losses here. The loss of Antoine Winfield, who would have started as nickel CB this year, but played a lot outside last year, is a major loss. However, the addition of Xavier Rhodes is a significant one too. I expect Rhodes to show the same level of competence at CB as Harrison Smith showed at S last year as a rookie. He represents an upgrade over AJ Jefferson and Josh Robinson, who combined started 13 games last year. However, Robinson will replace Winfield at nickel-back, and clearly has a lot to learn there- but he does have the measurables to be successful- and having a year under his belt won't hurt either. I like AJ Jefferson as a depth player, Sherels not at all. But then again I didn't like him last year either in that role. Overall I say unchanged, but in reality I think the Vikings start the year weaker at CB, owing to Rhodes' and Robinson's inexperience, but end the year stronger than last year as those two improve.
S: Improved. While both Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford return as starting safeties from last year, I expect both players to be improved over their 2012 editions. Harrison Smith is on some lists as a break-out player this year, given his strong performance as a rookie, and I tend to agree with that assessment. He does a lot of things well already and the added experience this year will see further improvement in his game. Jamarca Sanford has also shown a lot of improvement during pre-season. He too could show significant improvement over last year based on everything I"ve heard from the Vikings coaching staff. Together, these two may be one of the best safety tandems in the league this year. We'll see. In terms of depth players, Andrew Sendejo has had a good camp and looks to be improved. Blandon and Raymond I'm not so sure about. I would not be surprised to see more INTs and forced fumbles from the safety position this year, which will be a big plus for the defense overall.
I'm going to grade the whole unit as unchanged over last year, although there have been many changes in personnel. Here's a more detailed break-down:
FGs/PATs: Weaker. I expect Blair Walsh to have another great year, but the change of holder from Kluwe to Locke could bring a few missed FGs early on than otherwise would have been the case. Regardless, it's pretty hard for Walsh to improve on his FG performance of a year ago. It may not have been AP/MVP historic, but it didn't leave a lot of room for improvement either.
Kick Return: Unchanged. Percy Harvin was the best kick returner in the league last year, and he's gone. But Cordarrelle Patterson is showing he has the talent to be the best as well. I give some credit here to Mike Priefer as well. He is an excellent special teams coach and often times big kick returns are not just due to the talent of the KR, but also the excellent work of the blocking unit creating the holes and seams for the KR to exploit.
Punt Return: Unchanged. I'm guessing at this point that Sherels will be the punt returner, just as he was last year. Given the continuity, and that Sherels is unlikely to have changed much, I don't see a reason for change here.
Punt/Kick coverage: Unchanged. Again, given a certain amount of continuity, particularly Mike Priefer as coach, I don't expect much difference here.
Overall, the only position I see regression over last year is nickel/slot CB, given the loss of Antoine Winfield. (and I still have some hope he'll come back despite his retirement announcement).
I see marginal improvement at just about every position group on offense and defense, with the exception of offensive line and TE (about the same) and WR where I expect significant improvement. So what does this mean overall? Here's my take, assuming no significant injuries over last year:
Run Offense: Still one of the best in the NFL. Probably top 5. Best RB and FB in the league combined with a very solid run blocking offensive line make it so.
Pass Offense: Middle of the pack. Probably #14 - #20. Average (but improved) QB combined with a much improved and top-half of the league receiver corps combine for an average passing offense- but a big improvement over 2012's ranking near the bottom of the league.
Overall Offense: #16 last year, the improved passing game combined with still strong run game should boost the overall offense very close to the top 10, maybe crack it.
Run Defense: Top 10, perhaps top 5 in the league. Improvements in defensive line and linebacker group should improve on the Vikings #11 ranking last year.
Pass Defense: Top half. Improvements in DBs (except nickel/slot CB) and defensive line should result in solid improvement in pass defense. The base defense will match-up better than last year, and the increased use of man/press coverage based on better able CBs, and fresher defensive line, will help reduce passing efficiency in opposing QBs, likely result in more sacks and turnovers. Combined, this will likely lift the Vikings pass defense from #24 last year to mid-teens this year.
Overall Defense: Overall defense was also #16 last year. Improvements in pass coverage, combined with a solid run defense should see this unit make the top 10 overall.
Special Teams: Still very solid, likely top 5 again in 2013. I expect both Blair Walsh and Jeff Locke to be among the top specialists at their positions. Cordarrelle Patterson should be a very good replacement for a very good Percy Harvin as kick returner, while the coverage units should be about the same.
Net Turnovers: an important statistic that can make average teams better (2012 Chicago Bears come to mind) or worse (2012 Detroit Lions come to mind) when it comes to win/loss records. The Lions were #3 in the league in total yards on offense last year. The Bears were #28. And yet the Bears finished 10-6 and the Lions 4-12 because their net turnover rankings were nearly the exact opposite.
Minnesota finished last year with -1 net turnovers, or #17 overall. This year, I expect better personnel, somewhat more aggressive scheme, and emphasis on generating turnovers by the coaching staff will increase the Vikings over last year into the top half, near the top 10.
Overall, we're seeing the Vikings develop into a more complete team, even as there are question marks at QB, and a few other positions in the roster. This should be reflected in double-digit wins again this year, as a more balanced offense and improved defense make the Vikings a more formidable opponent than they were last year.