In 2012, the Minnesota Vikings matched the best single-season turnaround in franchise history and now it's time to start thinking about the moves that take it one step further and makes them Super Bowl contenders.
The Vikings won seven more games this season than last, finishing 10-6 and earning a playoff berth. Even though their postseason abruptly ended with their 24-10 loss to the Packers in Green Bay, it was far better than another last-place finish in the NFC North.
The turnaround was fueled by an exceptional crop of rookies and the determination of Adrian Peterson to not simply return to pre-injury form, but surpass it with a record-breaking year.
Their rookie class included starters Matt Kalil at left tackle on offense and safety Harrison Smith on defense. Kicker Blair Walsh finished with the second highest scoring total in Vikings history, and cornerback Josh Robinson and wide receiver Jarius Wright made significant contributions as the season wore on.
Peterson not only had the best season in his six-year career, but he had the second-most rushing yards in NFL history, leading the league with 2,097 yards for a 131.1 average per game, culminating in a 199-yard performance against the Packers Week 17.
Next year, the expectations for head coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman will be even higher. A division title, a first-round bye in the playoffs and an appearance in the Super Bowl are no longer out of the question.
For that to come to fruition, Spielman will need to have another draft like last season, when he yielded eight players on the active roster. But he will also must add talent, depth and experience to improve the fourth-youngest roster in the NFL.
Here are five players available to the Vikings that they must add to take the next step:
Fullback Jerome Felton. Without Felton leading the way, Peterson might not have challenged for the single-season rushing record.
He was so effective at fullback, he was named to the Pro Bowl. The Vikings will continue to rely on the successful running of AP, there's no reason to break up this backfield dynamic duo. Tom Pelissero of ESPN1500 thinks the Vikings should be able to retain his services for a reasonable contract. According to Spotrac.com the average salary cap hit for the top four fullbacks in 2012 was $3.3 million.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington. This season, the Vikings were much improved at cornerback. However it was another season that Chris Cook was unable to play all 16 games and Antoine Winfield is not as effective in his 14th year.
In need of depth, the Vikings would be wise to sign Arrington. He's started 40 of 48 games over the last three seasons for the New England Patriots and, in 2011, led the NFL with seven interceptions. This season he finished fourth on the Patriots with 74 tackles in 12 starts.
The 26-year-old was paid $1.85 million in base salary this season, with a cap hit of $2.15 million.
Linebacker Jasper Brinkley. The Vikings will need to make some tough decisions at linebacker. The problem is the there isn't a whole lot available in the free agent market for linebackers. For Minnesota, both Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson are free agents. One good strategy would be to continue along the current path and re-sign both.
The Vikings need to re-sign Brinkley. In his first full year as a starter, he finished fourth on the team with 97 tackles, with a cap hit of only $611,500. Give him another year with first-year defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings. The big-name free agent most often being thrown around is Dwayne Bowe from Kansas City. The problem is Bowe will be looking for a huge payday after making $9.5 million in 2012.
Jennings, who has the same birthday as Bowe, (September 21) is only one year older and has been as effective as Bowe. He missed eight games this season due to a tear in his abdominal wall that required surgery. Over his first six seasons he averaged 65 receptions for 1,028 yards and eight touchdowns.
Compare that to Bowe who has averaged 69 receptions for 955 yards and six touchdowns in his six-year career. Of course Jennings has had some slightly better quarterbacks throwing him the ball. After making $7.3 million this season, it will cost the Vikings at least that much with a multi-year contract to lure Jennings to Minnesota.
Left guard Andy Levitre. Charlie Johnson had a better year in 2012 at guard than he did at left tackle in 2011, but he might do even better moving to the right side of the line. He could take over for Brandon Fusco and Geoff Schwartz, who took turns trying to shore up the right side.
A great replacement for Johnson would be Levitre. Buffalo's second-round draft pick from Oregon State in 2009, he has started every game for the Bills since his rookie season.
The Vikings got their franchise left tackle in Kalil, now they need to make that side of the line the best in the NFL. B/R featured columnist, Dan Van Wie ranks Levitre as the 38th best free agent in football, and the top free-agent guard on the market.
According to a tweet by Jerry Sullivan, Levitre is looking forward to checking out the free agent market.
The last year his contract cost the Bills only $965,000 and it will take considerably more than that to sign the four-year veteran, but the chance to block for the best running back in the NFL might help to lure him to Minnesota. Lining up the 26-year-old Levitre next to Kalil would give the Vikings a solid left side of the line for quite a few years.
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