EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings have accomplished their goal of getting younger with 40 of the 53 players on the active roster heading into the first full week of the regular season being under the age of 27.
Minnesota has undergone a major roster transition with a youth movement in mind as general manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier pieced together the 53-man active roster this weekend. There were cases of veterans, namely quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Chris Carr and safety Eric Frampton, released for younger players with potential to help the Vikings in the future.
The 40 players 27 and younger account for 75.5 percent of the roster going into Monday’s practice, the first of a normal regular-season week in preparation for next Sunday’s opener at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Only two players on offense — Michael Jenkins and Joe Berger — are 30 or older. Three key players — Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield — are the only players on defense 30 or older. Now what will Minnesota do with its youth?
With the start of the season a week away, some areas will be under heavy scrutiny and others seem to be in perfect order. A look at the Vikings’ top three concerns and certainties: CONCERNS 1. An unproven secondary: Quite simply, no group on the roster has undergone more changes in the past two seasons than the secondary. And with the changes comes a lot of inexperience. The pressure will be on all of the young players while competing in the NFC North, perhaps the most pass heavy division in the league. Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield is back and is the only certainty among the defensive backs. He’s a leader and has 13 seasons under his belt. Coaches have talked about limiting his snaps and he’ll play inside in the nickel defense and he probably can’t stand up one-on-one against the top tall, speedy receivers anymore.
Chris Cook is the player Minnesota hopes can match up with the likes of Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Green Bay’s playmakers such as Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson. Cook has the size and ability to be a cover corner. Though he’s entering his third year in the league, Cook has played only played 12 games. Behind those two is a lot more youth and inexperience. The Vikings traded for A.J. Jefferson. He’s entering his third year in the league and was a full-time player for the first time in Arizona last year. Rookie Josh Robinson and second-year player Brandon Burton have potential, but are unproven. Minnesota probably would prefer not to use Marcus Sherels on defense. The second-year player likely made the team solely for his return ability. The Vikings have more potential here than last year, and if Robinson is over his concussion, health isn’t a problem. Inexperience is the concern.
2. Is Christian Ponder the franchise quarterback? Minnesota will go as Ponder goes this season. No player is more important to the team’s success, even considering the team has stars and former Pro Bowl players Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway, and Winfield. The Vikings put their trust in Ponder, announcing him as the unquestioned starter at quarterback at the end of last season and giving him a full offseason to grow in the role.
The team drafted him No. 12 overall last year to be the long-term answer at quarterback. Even though he was forced into the starting role earlier than hoped, he has shown growth in his second year in the league and second year working with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson. Ponder has shown more confidence and understanding of the offense. Now the question becomes if he can continue his effectiveness in the regular season and remain consistent.
Ponder has a strong enough arm, good mobility, and is smart. He gets along well with his teammates and has embraced his role as a leader and the franchise quarterback.
Minnesota has also tried to surround him with more receiving options, bringing in Jerome Simpson to start alongside Harvin, and adding John Carlson to go with Kyle Rudolph in two tight-end sets. The team also drafted speedy receiver Jarius Wright in the fourth round. Now it’s up to Ponder to get the most out of his talent and his teammates.
3. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh: The Vikings have put a lot on the leg of Walsh too, releasing well-liked veteran Ryan Longwell. Swapping Longwell for Walsh is another step in the youth movement. Walsh was drafted in the sixth round, armed with a strong leg to help on kickoffs, but has been inconsistent on field goals. He was only 21 for 35 on field-goal attempts in his senior season at Georgia.
Coordinator Mike Priefer believes Walsh was too quick to the ball in college and worked this offseason to slow him down. Walsh took well to the teaching, but working with long snapper Cullen Loeffler and holder Chris Kluwe, he has missed field goals in three straight preseason games. He finished the preseason 8 for 11. Priefer and the Vikings have been very pleased with his kickoffs, leading to touchbacks or returns that struggle to reach the 20-yard line. He needs to be more consistent to show the draft choice and release of Longwell wasn’t a wasted rearrangement.
1. A standout defensive line: Last year’s strength is still this year’s strong spot. There are few, if any, defensive lines that can match Minnesota’s combination of Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion and Brian Robison. Allen is coming off a 22-sack season where he finished second in the defensive player of the year voting. He remains in top physical shape and should be one of the top pass rushers in the league even if he doesn’t approach the single-season sack record like he did last year. Williams is a six-time Pro Bowler whose strong end to last season signaled that he can still be an effective player in the middle. Robison was a full-time starter for the first time last season and was effective against the run and added eight sacks proving he deserves the starting spot. Robison could even be better in his second year as a starter.
Guion is the weak link, but he’s been prepped for a starting role and has continued his development in his four seasons with the Vikings. Guion and backup Fred Evans ended up playing bigger-than-expected roles last season when free-agent signee Remi Ayodele flopped. Evans is back and the two should at least be as productive as the fourth member of the line was last year. In the nickel defense, Everson Griffen resumes his role as an inside pass rusher.
2. An elite playmaker in Harvin: Harvin is multi-talented, and Minnesota employed him in several different ways last year. And Harvin’s usage and big plays really went up when running back Adrian Peterson was out for several games with ankle and then knee injuries. The versatile Harvin finished with a career-high 87 catches for 967 yards and six receiving touchdowns. He added 52 carries for 345 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a 32.5-yard average on kick returns and scored one touchdown.
With speed, agility and the ability to change directions quickly, he’s a threat from anywhere on the field. Minnesota will start him outside, in the slot or in the backfield making it difficult for defenses to match up with Harvin. With Harvin seemingly getting even better every season and Peterson’s planned return, the Vikings could have to big-time talents on offense. 3. One of the league’s best running games: Peterson will be back, at some point. He’s been practicing since returning from major knee surgery and began taking contact in practice this week. Frazier has called him a game-day decision for next week’s opener. He’ll be eased back, but Minnesota has a capable second option in backup Toby Gerhart. The two will likely split carries, even after Peterson returns to full-go.
Gerhart was a second-round pick for a reason. The Vikings believe in him and he’s shown to be a very capable back when given a full-time role. The two offer contrasting styles. For all his power, Peterson also has unmatched moves and speed. Gerhart is a powerful runner, who can grind out yards and also has receiving ability. With the two at full strength, Minnesota has as strong of a running game as there is in the league and will rely on Peterson and Gerhart, meaning Peterson won’t have to win games by himself.