This week’s opposing view comes from Minneapolis Star Tribune NFL writer Mark Craig. Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20-plus years, including the Browns from 1991-95, the Vikings, and the NFL since 2003.
Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors since 2008. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
1. Is defensive tackle Kevin Williams going to play and how would his absence change the way the Vikings call their defense?
He was ruled out Friday. The Vikings were hopeful that he’d play, but that was more wishful thinking than reality right from the start. Williams’ right knee was buckled badly on that completely unnecessary cut block by 49ers backup guard Joe Looney in the third quarter of the third preseason game. Williams got lucky when no ligament damage was found, but it was a bad bone bruise and strain. And that’s a 33-year-old knee we’re talking about. The Vikings have some options.
First, they’ll give more reps to rookie first-round draft pick Sharrif Floyd. Floyd also is coming off a knee injury, but it was only minor. He should be fine physically, but he’ll have a limited role because he missed three weeks and three preseason games with the knee. Nose tackle Letroy Guion, a former backup to Williams at the three-technique, will play some at the three-technique while backup nose tackle Fred Evans comes in. Fred is a quality backup.
Another option that will be easy to turn to because of Detroit’s style of play is the nickel package that moves No. 3 defensive end Everson Griffen inside to tackle. Griffen is the best athlete on the defense. He can play either end, linebacker or tackle. He’s also one of the team’s better special teamers because he’s 6-3, 273 pounds and runs a 4.6.
2. Is this a make-or-break season for quarterback Christian Ponder?
Yes. Ponder has proven he can be the complementary quarterback the Vikings need alongside Adrian Peterson. He just hasn’t proven that he can be that guy consistently. A year ago, he started well, lapsed into a long funk during the middle portion of the season and then finished very well during a 4-0 December. The two regular-season Packers games a year ago illustrate what the Vikings are dealing with when it comes to inconsistency at the QB position.
In early December, the Vikings went to Green Bay and were outplaying the Packers. But Ponder was terrible. He couldn’t complete a ball to a wide receiver until the closing minutes. He threw two horrendous interceptions that cost the Vikings a couple of touchdowns. After the game, he sat slumped in the locker room an especially long time as the Vikings fell to 6-6 in a game that Peterson ran for 210 yards. But four weeks later, with the Vikings needing to beat the Packers in the regular-season finale, Ponder withstood not only that pressure, but tangible pressure from the Packers’ pass rush. And despite injuring his elbow on a delayed blitz in the second quarter – and injury that would keep him from playing in the wild-card at Green Bay a week later – Ponder had his best game as a pro. He had three touchdown passes, a career-high 120.2 passer rating and no turnovers. With Aaron Rodgers playing extremely well, Ponder worked hand in hand with Peterson to put points on the board twice with the game tied in the fourth quarter. Ponder just needs to do that consistently.
If he can’t, he’ll lose his job to Matt Cassel eventually and the Vikings will have to look for another young QB.
3. Has receiver Greg Jennings been everything he was advertised to be?
That’s to be determined. An offense built around Peterson really couldn’t show anything in the preseason because Peterson played only two snaps and didn’t touch the ball. Jennings looks to be in great shape, hasn’t had any injury issues of note and he’s good working with the younger receivers and corners. But we won’t know if he’s still the Greg Jennings we all knew from Green Bay until the Vikings start playing games that count. It will be interesting to watch because the Vikings went against General Manager Rick Spielman’s core philosophy in free agency when they gave a huge contract to an older player (Jennings turns 30 later this month) with a recent injury history (11 missed games the past two years because of knee and core muscle injuries).
4. Has a No. 2 receiver emerged as a viable option?
The Vikings are still looking for the No. 1 receiver to emerge. They think it will be Jennings, obviously. But we can’t assume that because of what I said above, and the fact Jennings is going from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay to Ponder in Minnesota. As far as who will emerge at No. 2, the possibilities are Jerome Simpson, who was a big disappointment in his Vikings debut season a year ago; rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, who is a big, fast receiver with great after-the-catch ability; and Jarius Wright, a second-year player who’s built like a slot guy but is sneaky fast and can get behind the defense. Simpson dropped a lot of balls last year. He also missed three games because of a suspension and was ineffective for most of the year because of a back injury. He seems to have the bounce back in his legs, but he’s a question mark. Patterson will be outstanding in time, but right now, he’s still very raw. Wright might surprise a lot of people and slide into that No. 2-type role this season. But all of that is to be determined.
5. Where did the Vikings improve the most this offseason? Where are there still some concerns?
I’ll say receiver, although it will hurt the offense not having Percy Harvin. Peterson may have gone on to win league MVP, but it was Harvin who was the early front-runner before he injured his ankle in Week 9 and disappeared for the rest of the season. Harvin is a great talent, but when it he made it perfectly clear that he could no longer co-exist with the Vikings, Spielman made an outstanding deal with the Seahawks. The Vikings got a first-round pick as part of the deal. That pick became cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who will play a lot in the nickel on Sunday. The trade also gave Spielman enough ammo on draft day to trade back into the first round and take Patterson.
The Vikings had targeted Patterson early in the draft process, but knew he might not be NFL-ready. That’s when they pulled the trigger and gave Jennings the big contract. So, yeah, losing Harvin was tough, although not as tough right now since he’s had the hip surgery and will be out for most or all of this season.
But adding the veteran Jennings and a young potential superstar in Patterson really adds to the receiving corps. Concerns include linebackers not named Chad Greenway, the top three corners being unproven, a rookie punter/holder and an offensive line that is pretty good but was horrible this preseason. Erin Henderson, who was a somewhat undisciplined starting weak-side backer the past two years, shifts into the middle this year. Marvin Mitchell, a six-year pro with three starts, takes over at the weak side, although he’s being pushed by former Packer Desmond Bishop. Bishop would have the job by now if he hadn’t missed a week of practices and the preseason opener because of a groin injury. Jeff Locke, a fifth-round draft pick, replaces Chris Kluwe, the best punter in franchise history and the holder during then-rookie Blair Walsh’s All-Pro season a year ago. Locke has a big leg and has held before in college, but he struggled with consistency in both areas during the preseason.