Minnesota Vikings: Midseason Report Cards for Each Positional Unit
After finishing the 2012 season with a 10-6 record and a playoff berth, the expectations for the Minnesota Vikings in 2013 were pretty high.
They lost a key veteran in cornerback Antoine Winfield, but they still had Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and Harrison Smith to pace an improved defense.
Even with an improved roster, however, something didn't feel right. They Vikings had a tough schedule, and another 10-6 season seemed like a stretch—even my preseason prediction of a 9-7 record now seems absurd.
As the Vikings currently sit with a 1-6 record, they are one of the worst teams in the NFL.
Here are the midseason grades for each positional unit—don't expect many passing grades.
The season opened with head coach Leslie Frazier insisting that Christian Ponder was the starting quarterback, despite the signing of veteran Matt Cassel.
Then after three games and an 0-3 record, Ponder was replaced by Cassel due to an injury. The timing was perfect for Cassel, who led the Vikings to their only win of the season.
Things took a complete about-face when the Vikings signed Josh Freeman, who was released by Tampa Bay after opening the season 0-3.
Before Sunday night's game against the Packers, the Vikings' quarterbacks have been horrid—all of them. Collectively, they have completed only 57.2 percent of their passes, and their passer rating of 68.0 is 30th in the league.
The Minnesota Vikings' running game starts and ends with Adrian Peterson. Sure, Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata and Jerome Felton are on the roster, but combined, they have accounted for only 7.1 percent of the touches.
Peterson has carried the ball 98.3 percent of the time. Even though he comes off the field on most third downs, he has accounted for 92.9 percent of the team's total touches.
Usually, that would be a very good thing, but this season, it has not been enough. After leading the NFL with an average of 131.1 yards per game in 2012, Peterson is only averaging 85.2 yards per game—a 35 percent drop in production.
That drops the Vikings to 19th in the NFL in terms of rushing. It's the lowest ranking for the Vikings since 2005, when they finished with the No. 27 rushing offense in the NFL.
The bar has been raised high in Minnesota with Peterson leading the way. Right now, however, the Vikings are able to walk underneath it without stooping.
Ranked 24th in the NFL in passing, a lot of the ineptitude falls to the quarterback position. Still, the wide receiver position was supposedly upgraded this offseason, despite the loss of Percy Harvin.
The Minnesota Vikings' biggest free-agent signing this offseason was wide receiver Greg Jennings, but he is only averaging 4.0 receptions per game for the Vikings as their second-leading receiver. That is his lowest average since his rookie season with the Packers in 2006.
Jerome Simpson, the Vikings' leading receiver, is having a much better season than last year. After six games this season, he has as many catches as last year. The problem though is that heading into the Packers' game, he still has not caught a touchdown pass as a Viking.
The team also used one of their three first-round picks to select Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson last April. Last year, he led the Volunteers with 1,086 total yards from scrimmage and averaged 5.9 touches per game. So far this season, his best game has seen him total four touches—three receptions and one run—and that was against the Giants last week. Before the Packers' game, he was only averaging 18.2 yards per game on offense.
Despite the addition of Jennings and Patterson, no one has been able to take the place of Harvin.
If not for the poor play of the quarterbacks and the poor play selection of the offensive coordinator, this grade could be a lot higher.
The good news is that tight end Kyle Rudolph, who led the team with nine touchdown receptions last season, is leading the Vikings in that category again this season. The bad news is that he only has two of them through six games.
This was supposed to be a breakout season for Rudolph. Coming into the league in the same draft as Christian Ponder, it once looked like the two were going to be a great combination for the Vikings for years to come.
Rudolph is quietly having the best season in his short career. However, he is averaging four receptions and 37.8 yards per game. That's the right direction, but he needs to contribute more.
John Carlson came to the Vikings after missing the entire 2010 season. In two years with the Seahawks, he averaged 46 receptions per season. But in 20 games with the Vikings, he has only 14 catches.
The failure of the Vikings is not the fault of the tight ends.
The offensive line was supposed to be one of the strengths of the team. Last season, they started the same five players for all 16 games after drafting Matt Kalil in the first round to man the left tackle position for the better part of the next decade.
John Sullivan was developing into one of the best centers in the NFL last season, too. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was the top center in the NFL in 2012.
Like most areas of the team, the offensive line has not played as well as last season. They have yielded one-half sack more per game this season than last. They have also not done as good of job run-blocking.
As a result, the rushing offense that was second in the NFL last season, has dropped to No. 19.
Heading into the 2013 season, three of the four starting defensive linemen were in the last year of their contract. One would have expected a greater sense of urgency from these guys as they auditioned for their next contract.
Only nose tackle Letroy Guion was under contract with the Vikings beyond 2013—that was until earlier this month, when Brian Robison signed a four-year $28 million contract extension.
The Vikings second-leading sack producer the past two seasons, Robison has only one sack in six games this year. He does, however, have the Vikings' only defensive touchdown on the season.
Six-time Pro Bowler, Kevin Williams restructured his contract before the season, signing a one-year deal worth $5 million. The Vikings must have known what they were doing. After missing the season opener, Williams has averaged only one tackle per game and is on pace for the worst season in his 11-year career.
Figuring that this is Williams' last year with the Vikings, they used their top draft pick to get his replacement. Sharrif Floyd was regarded by many as the top defensive tackle in the draft and a top-15 pick. That means the Vikings were very fortunate that he was available when they selected at No. 19.
So far this season, he's done well while splitting time with Williams. Floyd has 1.5 sacks and has batted down a couple of passes at the line of scrimmage. However, he has not dominated like a team's top pick is expected to.
The heart and soul of the defensive line is Jared Allen. Since joining the Vikings in 2008, Allen has led the team with an average of 15 sacks per season. That number is bloated by his 22.0 sacks in 2011, though, and this seaosn, he is on pace for 12 sacks. Against the Giants, he had one of the most impressive sacks of the year when he drove the offensive lineman into Eli Manning, reached around the tackle and grabbing Manning's jersey.
Last year, the Vikings' top backup, Everson Griffen, finished with eight sacks. This season, he only has one through six games. That is not exactly the kind of performance that will have NFL teams bidding for his services.
In 2012, the defensive line averaged 2.2 sacks per game. This season, that number has dropped by almost one full sack to 1.3 per game. The less pressure on opposing quarterbacks has not helped the defensive backfield any.
Linebacker Chad Greenway has been the leading tackler for the Vikings since 2008. That string appears to be in jeopardy, however, as fellow linebacker Erin Henderson was leading the team in this category through six games. Henderson had 55 tackles to Greenway's 53 tackles heading into Sunday night.
Both Greenway and Henderson started the season strong, leading the team with two interceptions each. The lack of a pass rush from the defensive line has forced defensive coordinator Alan Williams to blitz more often, and the result is that Henderson has the second most sacks on the team.
The weak spot on the unit has been at weakside linebacker. Career backup and special teams player, Marvin Mitchell, opened the season as the starter. Desmond Bishop, who missed last season with a torn hamstring, was signed as a free agent to potentially start due to his experience. Just as he unseated Mitchell, though, he suffered a season-ending knee injury himself.
With the weakness of the secondary, the Vikings spend a lot of time with an extra defensive back on the field, and thus only two linebackers. It helps to minimize the weakness, but it is not nearly enough.
Two-thirds of the unit playing well on a team with a losing record does not increase the grade at all.
If the Minnesota Vikings could have predicted how much the team would miss Antoine Winfield, they would have gladly paid his $7 million salary and kept him on the roster.
This unit has been the weakest part of the entire team.
Chris Cook, who still has yet to play an entire season after missing the game against the Steelers, was supposed to be the Vikings' top corner. At the beginning of the season, he indicated that he wanted to cover the opponent's top receiver, via Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com, but that has not worked out very well for him.
This is Cook's fourth NFL season, and he has yet to intercept a pass.
In fact, none of the team's cornerbacks have an interception after six games. Against the Giants, Marcus Sherels had the chance for the first one when he dropped a ball that hit him in the chest. That alone pretty much epitomizes the season for the defensive backfield.
As a rookie last season, Josh Robinson had two interceptions in spot duty for the Vikings. This season, he is one of the top tacklers on the team as opposing quarterbacks continue to throw his way. For some reason, the Vikings moved him inside to replace Winfield as the slot corner—a position he had never played before. So far, the move has been a failure.
Xavier Rhodes, one of the Vikings three first-round draft picks, has shown some signs of the talent he possesses, but he is still on a steep learning curve.
One of the strengths of the defense last season—mostly due to the addition of then-rookie Harrison Smith—this unit has struggled through its share of injuries that has limited their effectiveness this season.
Smith suffered a turf toe injury against Carolina that has landed him on the injured reserve/designated for return list. One of the top tacklers before his injury, a lot was expected of the second-year player. Like the rest of the defensive backfield, Smith has yet to intercept a pass after leading the team with three last season.
Jamarca Sanford returned to start along side Smith this season after winning the job over Mistral Raymond. Sanford has been steady but unimpressive.
Speaking of unimpressive, that would be Raymond. After starting five games in 2011, he was named the starting safety last season. After three starts, an ankle injury put him on the sidelines and also down a notch on the depth chart.
He has not been able to play like he did in 2011 and has only been active for two of the team's first six games. Undrafted free agent Andrew Sendejo has moved up to replace Smith in the starting lineup.
There just have not been any big plays coming from the safeties this season that have shifted the momentum in a game.
It was bound to happen: after making all 12 of his field goal attempt from greater than 50 yards in his career, Blair Walsh finally missed one this season. Battling a hamstring injury to his left leg, his 53-yard attempt against the Giants fell just short.
On the season, Walsh has converted nine of his 11 field goals. This is a drop in his production after making 35-of-38 field goals last season. With the offense continually having to play catch up, there have been fewer attempts for Walsh, who finished with 141 points last season—the No. 2 single-season scoring total in franchise history.
Walsh has done a good job on kickoffs, with 14-of-26 resulting in a touchback.
Rookie punter Jeff Locke, has done a very good job punting—the problem is that he has been used too often.
Locke is averaging five punts per game, the most since 2010 when Chris Kluwe punted 83 times, resulting in an average of 5.2 punts per game.
Locke's average per punt is 46.1 yards, the best since 2008, when Kluwe averaged 47.6 yards on 73 punts. He's also handled the kickoff duty with Walsh nursing his hamstring.
On the return side of special teams, both Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels have scored a touchdown. Patterson continued the streak of kickoff returns for a touchdown with a 105-yard return against the Bears in Week 2 and again with a 109-yard return against the Packers in Week 8.
The Vikings have had at least one kickoff return for a touchdown in each of the last five years. Patterson leads the NFL with a 39-yard average on 18 kickoff returns.
Sherels was the lone bright spot against the Giants, when he returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown. It his the second touchdown in three years as the Vikings' punt returner.
He was also one of the not-so-bright-spots when he fumbled a punt return that gave the Giants the ball inside the 10-yard line in that same game. Still, he was third in the NFL, heading into Sunday's game against the Packers with a 15.9-yard average on punt returns.
The miss by Walsh and the fumble by Sherels keeps this grade from being higher.
The Minnesota Vikings' roster is not that much different from last season. The significant departures include wide receivers Percy Harvin, Devin Aromashodu and Michael Jenkins on offense and cornerback Antoine Winfield and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley on defense.
They back-filled some of these positions through free agency with the signing of wide receiver Greg Jennings and linebacker Desmond Bishop.
They added three first-round draft picks in defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
Somehow this team has regressed to the point where they might not win as many games as they did in 2011, when they went 3-13.
At the beginning of the season, the Vikings were averaging 28 points per game on offense, yet giving up over 30 on defense, and the focus was on quarterback.
Frazier seems to be very hesitant to make some changes—like playing the rookies more—yet he has a revolving door at quarterback. This was a team that was able to win 10 games with Christian Ponder in 2012. Ponder has taken a step back, though, and Adrian Peterson has not played nearly as good as last season.
The offense has been very predictable as well, and the defense is terrible.
And this all falls squarely on the shoulders of Frazier.
He needs to start coaching like a man whose back is against the wall. Even if he can turn things around during the second half of the year, it may be too late.