Tuesday, July 24, 2012

First Glance: NFC North Preview

The 2011 NFL season provided us with nothing short of an action-packed season.  Following the lengthy lockout and speculation that the on-field product would suffer from lost practice time, teams promptly took the field and put on a show week in and week out.  The year culminated with a Super Bowl XLII rematch that ended with the Giants once again defeating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.  The NFC North certainly offered its share of fireworks and high-quality output.  The Packers set out to defend their Super Bowl XLV crown and put up a repeat performance.  Their season commenced with that entertaining Thursday night showdown at Lambeau Field against the New Orleans Saints.  There was the rematch between the Packers and Bears, following the NFC Championship game earlier that year.  The Bears were looking to prove that 2010 wasn’t a fluke and continue to be a top contender in the conference.  Until Jay Cutler went down with a thumb injury late in the season, they were on track to do just that.  There was the storyline about Donovan McNabb and whether he would be able to bring the Vikings back into the conversation as division contenders.  And it seemed that every week brought something newsworthy out of Detroit via the Lions, led by tumultuous Head Coach Jim Schwartz.  They made their first playoff appearance in 12 seasons. 
With only a few days before training camps begin, let’s take a look at each NFC North squad and some of the questions heading into their 2012 season.

Green Bay Packers (15-2) NFC North Division Champion

Training Camp:  St. Norbert College, De Pere, WI on July 25

     (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

It goes without saying that the Green Bay Packers 2011 season ended disappointingly and abruptly at Lambeau Field after a Divisional round loss to the New York Giants.  A heavily favored Packer team was simply outplayed and made too many mistakes to overcome and advance to another conference championship game.  Many theories arose as to how a team that found a way to win week after week in the regular season was beaten so handily at home.  The popular and likeliest reason was that the team’s defensive unit was exposed for the weaknesses that had plagued them at times during the regular season.  They ranked 32nd, or dead least, in total defense last season.  This stat is simply based on total yards surrendered which does not always tell the whole story.  Despite giving up big chunks of yards, the defense remained opportunistic and finished the year +24 in takeaways and led the NFL in interceptions with 31.  Only San Francisco had a better give/take ratio at +28.  That gritty style of play surely helped keep the Pack in a position to win games that otherwise seemed out of reach.  The ability of Packer defensive backs to take the ball away coupled with a lackluster pass rush caused Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers to use a lot of defensive sets that had 5+ pass defenders on the field.  But as they say, “You live by the sword, you die by the sword”.  At one point in the playoff game vs. the Giants, Clay Matthews was seen rushing off the left side.  He was one of 2 whose responsibility on the play was to chase the passer.  The defense was in nickel coverage.  With only 2 pass rushers to account for, Matthews was triple teamed and never sniffed Eli Manning who had plenty of time to set up and wait for one of his wide receivers to get open.  He completed on the play for long yardage.  The pressure on the passer that had been so prevalent in 2010 just was not there in 2011 and it ended up a big factor to an early exit in the postseason.   The loss of Nick Collins in the defensive backfield along with the backs having to hold coverage on receives longer than usual was another glaring defect.  This offseason, it was clear that Ted Thompson recognized this drop off in production from their defensive unit and used 6 of his 8 picks in the 2012 draft to address the need areas.  Starting with the pass rush, Thompson selected Nick Perry, DE, USC.  Perry played defensive end at USC but the Pack plan to use him opposite Clay Matthews as an OLB.  There has also been talk that they will move Matthews to the right side in order to get the bulkier Perry in position to provide run support as most teams tend to rush to their right more often.  It remains to be seen if Perry will win a starting role but this will certainly be one of the big story lines heading into training camp.  So far and through OTA’s, Perry could be seen nearly attached at the hip to Matthews, soaking up as much as he could to prepare to make an impact right away in 2012.  Jerel Worthy (DE, Michigan State) and Mike Daniels (DT, Iowa) were brought in to bolster a defensive line that will likely see a few incumbents depart and that lacked enough depth to keep starters fresh last season.  Added to the defensive backfield were Casey Hayward (CB, Vanderbilt) and Jerron McMillian (S, Maine).  The defense-heavy draft clearly indicates a sense of urgency on the team’s part to correct what went wrong in 2011 and take a step back towards a conference championship and another Super Bowl title.  McMillian’s selection conjured up memories of a safety that was little-known who the Packers drafted in 2005 from Bethune Cookman, another smaller school.  Nick Collins went on to forge a solid career as a starting safety and played a large role in the success of the Super Bowl championship team in 2010.  The team is hoping McMillian can develop into a similar type player and become one of the hidden gems of the 2012 draft.  Inside linebacker proved to be another area where some questions emerged after the final play of the 2011 season.  Current starters AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop both suffered injuries that caused them to miss time this past season.  Filling in for them were Robert Francois and DJ Smith, who both proved effective and contributed to the Pack’s success in the regular season.  The Pack added Terrell Manning in the 2012 draft and will have their eyes on this position throughout the preseason.  It would be no surprise to see Hawk and Bishop maintain their starting positions but will certainly be pushed throughout camp to raise their level of play.  Hawk continues to receive some criticism for what some perceive to be lackluster play last season and as a 5th overall pick in the 2006 draft.  Theories have emerged as to his responsibilities on the field and as the defensive signal caller in the huddle.  While not flashy, Hawk has proven to be a stable and steady force who rarely misses time.  He will surely be ready to quiet these whisperings when camp opens.

One thing that is not a question mark for this Packer team is who their play-makers will be on the offensive side of the ball.   Aaron Rodgers comes off an MVP season in which he threw for over 4,600 yards, 45 touchdowns and a record passer rating of 122.5 (Peyton Manning, 121.1 in 2004).  He shows no signs of holding back and will likely continue to add to those lofty passing numbers this season.  His arsenal remains largely unchanged heading into training camp with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley and James Jones set to return.   Added to the fray in camp will be Tori Gurley, who has spent the past 2 seasons on the team’s practice squad.  Gurley received an offer last year to join the Vikings’ active roster but declined that opportunity in order to bide his time for a chance to crack the Green & Gold’s roster in 2012.  His performance during last year’s training camp and throughout the season has many talking about not if he will be on this year’s roster but how.  Let’s not forget about Diondre Borel and Shaky Smithson who also had standout training camps last season.  Head Coach Mike McCarthy will have the fortunate problem of deciding which of these stellar performers will line up each week to haul in Rodgers’ offerings.  Finley re-signed with the Packers this offseason, inking a 2 year, $15 million deal.  His return last season from a knee injury in 2010 produced mixed results.  He hauled in 55 catches and 8 touchdowns during the regular season, highlighted by a TD game at Chicago in week 3.  On the flip side, Finley struggled to haul in some of those Rodgers passes as he posted 14 drops, many at crucial points in games.  It’s always hard to point to one play that may have led to a loss, but it goes without saying, a dropped ball is always costly to a team’s success on the NFL gridiron.  Finley will need to rebound in 2012 to prove that he is an elite Tight End in the NFL and have his named mentioned with Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis as tops at his craft.  James Starks, John Kuhn and Brandon Saine return at the running back position along with 2011 3rd round draft pick Alex Green who had his rookie season cut short with a torn ACL and slightly torn MCL October 23rd at Minnesota.  He stated late last year that his rehab was ahead of schedule and he is optimistic for a full recovery and return in 2012.  With a pass-heavy offense, it is unclear how the running back position will unfold as training camp goes on so this will be one area to watch.  And despite the level of talent at the skill positions, the offense’s full potential cannot be reached without solid play from the offensive line.  Last year, this unit suffered several setbacks.  Injuries to long-time stalwart Chad Clifton, Bryan Bulaga and 2011 first round pick Derek Sherrod left the offensive line shuffling for answers to keep Rodgers on his feet and effective.  Marshall Newhouse filled in at left tackle and was effective enough to help the team win 15 games, but visibly struggled at times with his consistency.  Derek Sherrod appears to be on track to be ready to compete with Newhouse for the starting left tackle position when training camp opens later this week.  The Packers also drafted Andrew Datko (OT, Florida State) with their 7th pick in the 2012 draft, the first offensive player the Packers selected.  He performed well in OTA’s and is expected to make a strong case to crack the 53-man roster.  The Packers raised a few eyebrows when they took a rare dive into free agency and acquired long-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, to replace the departed Scott Wells.  Saturday brings his many years of savvy to Titletown and is expected to start at center when the Packers open the 2012 season.  Add in TJ Lang at left guard, Josh Sitton at right guard and Bulaga’s return at right tackle and the Pack appear poised to improve and return to the same form that netted them a championship in 2010.

Last but not least is the coaching staff.  Head Coach Mike McCarthy returns as head man along with largely the same staff from 2011.  The key departure was former Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin who took the Head Coaching position with the Miami Dolphins.  Tom Clements replaces Philbin as Offensive Coordinator of the Packers with Ben Macadoo assuming Clements’ old role as Quarterbacks Coach.  Dom Capers returns as Defensive Coordinator with his staff highlighted by Assistant Head Coach and Inside Linebacker’s coach Winston Moss and Outside Linebacker’s coach Kevin Greene.  Shawn Slocum returns as Special Teams Coach.  McCarthy’s unit takes a no-nonsense approach to preparing for each game and are only one year removed from coaching in a Super Bowl and this year’s Pro Bowl.  This is especially true in the case of Aaron Rodgers and Coach McCarthy.  They have developed a strong rapport over the past 6 seasons.  The big question will be how the staff gets the players motivated and ready to get back to glory after a disappointing end to 2011.

Detroit Lions (10-6) NFC Wild Card

Training Camp:  Lions Training Facility, Allen Park, MI on July 26

     (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

The Lions enter the 2012 season having faced a busy offseason.  Unfortunately most of that has been for the wrong reasons.  A few stats to sum up the team’s offseason:  5 of their current or former players have combined for 7 arrests this year.  No other NFL team has more than 3 total.  In fact, the Lions account for 20% of the NFL’s total arrest count during that same span.  3 of the team’s 2011 draft picks were arrested for drug/alcohol related issues.  2nd round pick Mikel Leshoure was arrested for marijuana possession and suspended 2 games.  He missed all of the 2011 season due to injury and has yet to don the Lions uniform.  1st round pick Nick Fairley was cited for marijuana possession as well as DUI and certainly will face sanctions.  Offensive tackle Johnny Culbreath was also cited for marijuana possession.  Another, DB Aaron Berry, was arrested twice this offseason for weapons possession and DUI offenses.  He was just released on July 23rd.  Then there was the Titus Young incident at OTA’s this past May where he sucker-punched safety Delmas Young and was banned from participating in team activities.  Throw in last year’s infamous Ndamukong Suh “stomp” incident on Thanksgiving Day versus the Packers and Head Coach Jim Schwartz’s run in with San Francisco Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and one can safely question this team’s use of good judgment.  What is most disappointing about all of these issues is the fact that they come on the heels of one of the best seasons the Lions have had in over a decade.  The team won 9 games in 2011 and made their first playoff appearance since 1999, facing the New Orleans Saints.  They were not able to overcome the hot hand of Drew Brees & Co. and were bounced in the Wild Card round, but they showed that they are a force and have the talent to contend in years to come.  Quarterback Matt Stafford put together his most complete season since entering the league in 2009, starting all 16 regular season games and amassing over 5,000 passing yards.  He threw 41 touchdown passes.  His durability was under fire entering last year after appearing in only 3 games in 2010 and missing 6 games in 2009, his rookie campaign.  Stafford put together one of the best seasons by a quarterback in Lions history and is the unquestioned leader of the team.  Wide receiver Calvin Johnson had his best season as a Lion and one of the best in all the NFL, hauling in 96 passes for over 1,600 yards and 16 touchdown catches.  Johnson earned All-Pro honors.  This duo expects to be back in action in 2012 and Johnson remains a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.  Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew return as top targets in the Lions passing game as well as Ryan Broyles (WR, Oklahoma) who was added in round 2 of this year’s draft.  At running back remain 2 big question marks as last year’s starter Jahvid Best is still not fully cleared to return to full action after suffering another concussion early in the 2011 sesaon.  Mikel Leshoure’s journey to his first pro game was derailed by the previously mentioned drug possession charge and 2 game suspension.  A respectable running game was key to opening up opportunities for Stafford and this could be an area of concern as they work to get their starters back.  The Lions took Riley Reiff (OT, Iowa) with their first pick in this year’s draft and traded for Seattle OG Rob Sims to further solidify an already-solid offensive line and keep Stafford protected for years to come.  Having struggled defensively at times in 2011, the Lions took a similar approach to this year’s draft as their divisional foes, the Green Bay Packers.  6 of their 8 draft picks were defensive players, clearly making an effort to shore up a defensive unit that ranked 23rd in total defense last year.  In a division that features 2 marquis quarterbacks, a solid defensive backfield and pass rush are key to contending.  Delmas Young leads the defensive backfield and is the team’s top pass defender.  With Aaron Berry’s release, cornerback thins out and will be a position to watch in Detroit as their training camp unfolds.  The Lions will be looking for some of their younger guys to emerge as starters and take on the daunting task of covering some of the top passing attacks in the North in the Packers and Bears.  At defensive line, much will be expected of third year star Ndamukong Suh and long-time veteran DE Kyle Van den Bosch.  With DT Nick Fairley likely to face disciplinary action and Cliff Avril’s likely training camp holdout after not agreeing to a long-term deal with the team, Suh and Van den Bosch will start the season as the anchors to disrupting the passing attack of NFC North foes in 2012.  The team certainly has its hands full and will have to wait on what Commissioner Roger Goodell will hand down in terms of missed time for several of the team’s key players.

On the coaching front, the team returns Head Coach Jim Schwartz who has established himself as a colorful character on the Detroit sideline.  He has faced criticism, mostly warranted, for his hot temper and seemingly loose grip on the Lions’ locker room (see this past offseason).  Probably the most notable incident was last year following a loss to the San Francisco 49ers when, during the post game handshake, Schwartz perceived a pat on the back by the equally animated 9ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh as a show of poor sportsmanship.  Schwartz chased Harbaugh down as he left the field and gave him an earful about his take on the exchange.  Some would say this showed a lack of discipline and this appeared to carry over to the team.  In the playoff loss to the Saints, the Lions were penalized 11 times for 109 yards.  Last season, they were flagged 119 times for 982 yards, good for 5th most in the NFL (Redskins, Cardinals, Packers, Raiders) so clearly there is some room for improvement in that area and that largely starts with the coaching staff and holding players accountable for their actions.  The most memorable (or forgettable if you’re a Lions fan) gaffe last year came on Thanksgiving Day when Ndamukong Suh was ejected from the game early in the 2nd half after he intentionally stomped on the arm of Packer guard Evan Dietrich-Smith following a play.  Suh’s lack of remorse after this play was further evidence that the Lions are in need of an attitude adjustment if they want to take the next step.  Schwartz seemingly picked up where he left off last season when he addressed a reporter’s question about whether the Lions would follow suit of some of their divisional rivals in taking time out for team outings.  He tossed a subtle barb at the Packers who had  recently taken some time out of their practice schedule to bond over some skeet shooting.  Schwartz indicated that his team had no time for such activities and were hard at work to prepare for the upcoming season.  One thing is certain:  the Lions have a lot of work to do in preparing for the 2012 season as they enter this year with more questions than answers.  The Lions open camp this Thursday.

Chicago Bears (8-8)

Training Camp:  Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, IL on July 25

     (Scott Boehm/Getty Images North America)

The Chicago Bears seemed to be on a roll and set to push the Packers for the North Division Crown as the 2011 season unfolded.  They were 6-3 heading into a matchup against the San Diego Chargers at Solider Field when their fortunes turned.  Bears QB Jay Cutler suffered an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand in that contest.  The Bears went on to win that game, but lost 5 of their last 6 and finished with an 8-8 record.  They missed the post season just one year removed from a division championship and having hosted the NFC Conference Championship game.  During the downslide, the Bears were forced to turn to rookie Caleb Haine at quarterback.  He struggled and by season’s end, the Bears had turned to journeyman QB Josh McCown, who at the time was coaching high school football and out of the NFL.  Needless to say it was a disappointing season filled with unfortunate setbacks after their strong run in 2010. 

The Bears enter 2012 with some new faces on offense and some of their stalwarts returning on defense.  The Bears got busy early on in their offseason, as they have in past years, acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall in a trade with the Miami Dolphins for a pair of 3rd round picks.  Marshall had previously teamed with Jay Cutler when both were with the Denver Broncos from 2006 - 2008.  Marshall is a 3-time Pro Bowl wide receiver and 2009 All Pro selection.  If the Bears want to catch up to their foes to the North, the Green Bay Packers, the acquisition of Marshall is a step in the right direction.  In 2 games versus the Pack, Marshall has amassed 13 catches and over 200 yards receiving.  He was a critical piece to helping his former team, the Miami Dolphins, to victory over the Packers in October of 2010 at Lambeau Field.  Marshall brings speed and a big frame, something the Bears have lacked for the past several seasons.  The team used their 2nd round draft pick to add wideout Alshon Jeffery (WR, South Carolina) giving Jay Cutler 2 deep threats at wideout to work with.  This was an important area for the Bears to address as the return of Johnny Knox remains a question and as of last month, it is seeming more and more that he will start this season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.  The team also signed free agent running back Michael Bush, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, to a 4 year, $14 million deal.  Bush was brought in to pair with current Bear RB Matt Forte, who recently signed a long-term extension with the team and avoided a possible training camp holdout.  This will help the Bears keep a balanced attack and could keep some good opportunities for Forte as a receiver, where he caught 52 passes for 3 TD’s last year before he was lost to injury.  One would be remiss if they didn’t consider the threat that is the Bears kick return game which has featured return man Devin Hester for the past 6 seasons.  Despite the acquisition of Eric Weems in free agency (Atlanta Falcons), the Bears maintain that Hester is still their #1 return guy and both will handle kickoff duties this season.  Not to be forgotten is a fairly offensive line which will get 2011 top pick Gabe Carimi back at right tackle.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears recognize that some of their stars are aging and they addressed this in this year’s draft.  4 of their 6 picks were on the defensive side of the ball, led by 1st round selection Shea McClellin (DE, Boise State).  McClellin is expected to give the Bears another pass-rushing threat on the edge opposite Julius Peppers.  There are some questions about whether the rookie was battle tested enough at Boise State but he did have the 2nd best 40 time (4.63) of any DE at the combine.  The Bears also bolstered their secondary, adding draft selections Brandon Hardin (S, Oregon St), Isaiah Frey (CB, Nevada) and Greg McCoy (CB, TCU).  They will join the likes of current starters Charles “Peanut” Tillman, Tim Jennings and Major Wright.  Like the Lions and Packers, the Bears realize the need to keep up with the heavy passing attacks that lurk in the NFC North.  The Bears will return savvy veterans Julius Peppers, Tillman, Lance Briggs and long-time captain Brian Urlacher to their defensive unit.  Despite the added years, the quartet has defied the effects of time and have continued to play at a high level.  Urlacher, Briggs and Tillman were all named to this past Pro Bowl.  All  are expected to start this year and be big contributors to a defense that ranked 17th overall and 5th versus the run in 2011.  Urlacher will be ready when the Bears open training camp after suffering MCL and PCL injuries to his knee in week 17 of last season’s win at Minnesota.  There has been some talk about his future in Chicago and whether he might consider playing elsewhere if he is not offered a new deal.  He hasn’t stated his official position on the matter but it will be an interesting story to follow.  It seems surreal just putting the thought of him playing in another uniform on paper but (and as Packer fans know) anything can happen in today’s NFL. 

On the coaching side, Lovie Smith returns for his 9th season as Head Coach.  Former Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz resigned at season’s end citing philosophical differences with Smith.  Also departed was QB Coach Shane Day who was replaced by Jeremy Bates.  Bates previously served as Offensive Coordinator in Seattle under Pete Carroll.  Bates had also previously worked with both Cutler and Marshall in Denver as an Assistant Coach under Mike Shanahan.  The staff remains largely intact and will have the tall task of getting all of the new pieces to gel and get this team back on track after a setback in 2011.  Overall, the Bears appear poised to surprise some who have already seemingly awarded another division title to the reigning champion Packers.  With Detroit’s woes, it’s very conceivable that if not a division winner, the Bears could push for a Wild Card spot before all is said and done in 2012.  The health of their vets will be the big key to success.

Minnesota Vikings (3-13)

Training Camp:  Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN on July 27

     (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

December 24th, 2011.  Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson had vowed to play for the sake of his fantasy owners.  The Vikings were suffering one of their worst seasons and had won only 2 games to that point.  There was no postseason coming up and it was very common for top players to sit out meaningless games at the end of the season and risk injury.  Peterson suited up and played that day against a Washington Redskins team who had won only 5 games all year.  This game was more about pride (or realistically, draft position) than anything else.  Vikings fans had seen their team, just 2 years removed from being a single play from a Super Bowl appearance, fall all the way to the bottom of just about every stat category kept.  Following a hard-fought NFC championship loss to the eventual champion Saints, the Vikes hopes were dashed in 2010 when QB Brett Favre was unable to repeat the magic he had in 2009.  He was eventually injured and forced to miss his first start and game in 18 seasons.  Shortly after that, the Metrodome rooftop collapsed under heavy snowfall.  When it rains (or snows), it pours, as they say.  Little did anyone know this would be an omen not only for 2010, but also for the following season.  Favre retired and the Vikes enlisted the services of Donovan McNabb at QB.  McNabb promptly proved ineffective and gave way to rookie Christian Ponder.  Ponder injected some youth and excitement into the team, but his inexperience was too much to overcome and the team was able to muster just 2 wins leading to that Christmas Eve game.  Back to that contest when Ponder handed off to Peterson on a routine dive left.  Peterson was upended by a defender and fell to the ground, writhing in pain.  It was a torn ACL and he had to be carried off the field.  Up to that point, all Viking fans had was hope for the future and now even that was in jeopardy.  On the very next play, Christian Ponder was sacked and forced to leave the game as well.  Fortunately that grip on the #2 overall pick seemed all but certain at that point.  The Vikings went on to win that game and were able to work a trade with those same Redskins for the #2 overall pick in this year’s draft that netted them some additional picks. 

As the Vikings are in rebuilding mode and will likely rely on many of their rookies to contribute in 2012, let’s start our focus on this year’s draft and rookie class.  Overall, the team made some very wise selections and appear poised to improve on the past 2 seasons and get back into contention in the North.  The Vikes clearly had their eye on specific programs as they drafted 3 sets of players from the same school.  Despite moving down in round 1, they were still able to select Matt Kalil (OT, USC) with the 5th overall selection and hopefully solidify the left side of the offensive line for the next 10 years or so.  Following the success of his Dad, Frank Kalil (NFL’s Buffalo Bills and USFL’s Arizona Wranglers and Houston Gamblers) and brother, Ryan Kalil (All-Pro OT for Carolina Panthers), he comes in with high expectations to be an every-down contributor to this year’s team.  They were also able to maneuver back into the 1st round after a draft-day trade with the Baltimore Ravens.  With that 2nd pick, they selected safety Harrison Smith from Notre Dame, 1 of 2 Fighting Irish selected by the Vikes in the draft.  Smith’s draft stock improved with some stellar postseason workouts coupled with his high football IQ.  There were several projections that had Green Bay possibly moving up to select Smith in order to replace the recently departed Nick Collins.  If there was any truth to that, the Vikes spoiled those intentions and now will have Smith defending their foes in Green & Gold for years to come.  In a zone-heavy defense, Smith has the tools to be very effective.  With safety one of the weakest positions on Minnesota’s roster, look for him to push hard for a starting spot.  Another DB taken was 3rd round pick Josh Robinson (CB, Central Florida).  He started 3 seasons in college and the book on him is short: prototypical CB, good ball skills and athletic.  With Antoine Winfield aging, this is a smart pick by the Vikings, at least on paper.  Robinson should get some reps at the nickel back and be ready to step in, if he develops well, late in the season or next year.  Next up is Jarius Wright (WR, Arkansas).  He is a smaller WR with good speed (4.4, 40).  His value could jump as a return man in the NFL.  He is seemingly some good insurance in the slot should Percy Harvin miss time (migraines) or bolt when his rookie deal is up.  This is another solid choice by the Vikes.  4th round selection and Kalil teammate Rhett Ellison (FB/TE, USC) was a value choice.  He is a Jim Kliensasser-type with hard work ethic.  A lunchpail, grind it out guy who can offer some added protection in the backfield as a block and sure-handed check down when needed.  He’s a bit small as a TE so likely spends more time out of the backfield.  Next up was Greg Childs (WR, Arkansas).  Childs is a tall, bulky wideout who struggled in 2011 trying to bounce back from a patella tendon tear the year prior.  The Vikes are hoping he can return to form before he was injured.  Robert Blanton (CB, Notre Dame) was a field mate of Smith’s at ND.  Originally projected to be a 3rd round pick, he fell to the Vikes in the 5th and they likely took him as best player on the board at 139th overall.  He lacks some athleticism so will need to learn some savvy to be an every down player at the next level.  Possible nickel back.  The Vikes needed a replacement for Ryan Longwell who they did not re-sign after the 2011 season.  They selected Blair Walsh (K, Georgia) who was known for his strong leg and decent accuracy.  As the market on PK is virtually dry at the moment, Walsh is seemingly penciled in at the Vikes’ K of the future.  Audie Cole (LB, North Carolina State) is a stout LB with run-stopping ability.  He plays best near the line of scrimmage and could be groomed to take over when EJ Henderson moves on.  Lastly is Trevor Guyton (DE, Cal).  He is your average DE coming out in round 7.  He is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type player who isn’t very flashy and doesn’t appear to be an every-down guy.  He could provide some depth on the line and be a situational pass rusher.

The nucleus of Ponder, Peterson, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and Percy Harvin all return to try and better the 3-13 mark they posted in 2011.  Allen nearly set the NFL single-season sack record last year (Michael Strahan, 22.5) and did set a new Minnesota Viking franchise mark of 22.  He has stated that he remains motivated to break the all-time mark and has been working out hard in anticipation of this upcoming season.   Peterson, the team’s lone player voted to this year’s Pro Bowl, looks to return from his ACL injury and will need to contribute this year, as the Vikes do not seemingly have the depth around him to sustain a run without his production.  Harvin heads into his 3rd season amid rumors that he recently requested to be traded.  It was later proclaimed (via his Twitter account) that he and management had a “misunderstanding” and weren’t on the same page.  Harvin has battled migraine issues in the past that have caused him to miss games in both of his first 2 seasons.  He is currently the team’s best WR and they will also be looking to get some production from Michael Jenkins and Wright in the passing game.  Leslie Frazier enters his 2nd year as full-time Head Coach.  While it’s understandable that a turnaround will take some time in Minnesota, Frazier is likely to be the subject of Head Coaching watchdogs this season.  An improvement should be all but certain given the talent that this team has and with a full offseason to continue to gel.  It may take a near .500 performance for Frazier to stay off the chopping block.  That could require a little bit of good fortune and fast healing.  The Vikings open camp this Friday.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

Jason Perone (@WSB_Jason)

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