And like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, over the past few seasons the Minnesota Vikings have resurrected themselves from the fiery hell that Daunte Culpepper left them in to become the front runner of the NFC North Division. Granted, the NFC North is on the soft side with Green Bay being the only other team capable of giving them any sort of resistance, all the while the Detroit Lions continue to build and the Chicago Bears remain in a state of flux and uncertainty. The Vikings have drafted well, most notably Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, and have found ways to attract wily veterans that have bought into their system. While the Brett Favre Saga, Episode IV: An Old New Hope, remains the primary topic that Brad Childress will be faced with this off season, he has quietly assembled a well-rounded team that is primed for another run deep into the playoffs, but will it all end the same tragic disappointment as last year? So, what do the 2010 Vikings have in store for us?
The focus of the 2009 Minnesota Vikings defense was asserting their dominance at the line of scrimmage, is there any reason why that should change in 2010? Absolutely not! Why make any changes when what you've got is just oh so sweet. Instead of dipping into the free agent market, or going after unproven draft picks, the Vikings simply made sure that they kept their core intact and do their best to simply build around that nucleus. Much of their season depends upon that core providing the same amount of pressure intensity that stems primarily from one man … the man with the mullet … the man hailing from the Culinary Academy? Yes, that man, Jared Allen. Allen is the key to their success, because he is hands down the emotional leader on the defensive side of the ball, but more than that he is a ridiculous speed rusher with a wicked knack for hitting the quarterback. He alone provided the Vikings with 14.5 sacks for 98 yards lost and 5 forced fumbles in 2009. The Vikings talented defensive line doesn’t stop there, because, while you have to deal with Allen on one end, you still have to account for the two Williams’, Kevin and Pat, clogging the middle and the still-developing Ray Edwards on the opposite end. With the Williams' cramming 627 lbs of pure manhood in the middle of the field offensive coordinators are left with the conundrum of where exactly they are supposed to run the ball. The speed of Allen and Edwards on the outside only compounds the issue, because they both have the speed and savvy to hedge running backs inside and let the big boys go to work, which is further illustrated by the fact that they ranked 2nd in the league against the rush giving up a measly 87.1 yds/g, trailing only the Jets.
The biggest question mark this off-season for the Vikings was, and continues to be, their secondary. One would figure that since the defensive line stuffs the run and rushes the quarterback so effectively that the secondary would consistently be scavenging rushed, errant, passes with relative ease, but that wasn’t the case. In 2009, the Vikes secondary was ranked 19th overall against the pass and 26th in interceptions, with a mere 11 total and only 7 by the secondary. Even more embarrassing was allowing Drew Brees to throw for 310 yards, 3 touchdowns and a 106.5 QB rating in the NFC Championship. If the Vikings plan on making a run at the Super Bowl this year, this is where the improvement needs to come from. Fortunately they’ve begun to really address the issue hitting the free agent market and adding veteran corner Lito Sheppard to their squad, which helps a bit, but still leaves a lot of youth and uncertainty out there. In the past I would say that the Vikings have themselves in an ideal situation, because they have an excess of youth in their secondary, with seven players in their rotation with 5 years or less of NFL experience, and a lot of guys who came out of college with big "upside," but at what point do they get tired of waiting for that to pay off? This year has the potential to reap those benefits and I think Brad Childress realizes this, hence the signing of Sheppard, which adds another veteran presence alongside Antoine Winfield and Madieu Williams. Childress is hoping they can provide the leadership that was lacking last season, with Winfield missing six games due to injury, and help speed up the maturation process of their young guns, Asher Allen, Jamarca Sanford, and Husain Abdullah.
Be aware that I am writing this under the guise that Brett Favre will be returning as we all know he will. Statistically speaking, there is no reason for Favre to retire right now. His stat line from 2009 reads like this: 4,202 yds, 33 TDs, 68.4% Completions, a QB rating of 107.3, and only 7 interceptions. That line would make most quarterbacks in the league envious, especially Tavaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels, who will once again be passed over and forced to wait in the wings to takeover the reins of the Vikings offense. I still can’t put my finger on whether Favre's performance last season was a statistical anomaly or he simply figured out that his notorious "gunslinger" approach was just not cutting it anymore. Either way, whatever he was doing in Brad Childress' system worked, and when he comes back it will continue to work, as long as he plays within his means, and by “means” I’m talking about playing the short game, getting the ball to his explosive playmakers - Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin - and letting them do the work for him. If Favre can contain himself, he can still do great things with the ball and will put up solid numbers. When in doubt, he can simply hand the ball off to arguably the best all-around back in the game.
While much of the focus this off-season will be focused on Favre's pseudo indecision, it is all the weapons around him that truly make the Vikings offense as potent as it is. We all know what Adrian Peterson can do, and he is an absolute beast with the ball in his hands, when he keeps it in his hands. He makes any quarterbacks job simple, you hand him the ball, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. He will demand his touches and he will get them. They simply cannot afford not to because he makes their whole scheme work. Although AP may not have had as productive a season in terms of yards as he did the year before, 1,760 yds in 2008 and 1,383 yds in 2009, he still found a way to make it into the end zone 18 times. That shows that the coaching staff has the confidence in him to get it done at the goal line and assert his dominance. The biggest knocks on him has been his inability to hold onto the ball in key situations, a la Ricky Williams’ early career, and his inability to stay healthy. While Peterson has always been the feature back of the Vikings, there has always been a failsafe in place in case he does get hurt in Chester Taylor, but that is no more after Taylor was signed by the Bears this spring, leaving Peterson as the only quality back in their rotation. This loss could potentially harm the Vikings because they now lose depth at the position and they also lose the dynamic element that Taylor provided out of the backfield as both a rusher and receiver. The Vikings somewhat addressed the issue of depth in the draft when they took Toby Gerhart in the second round at 51st overall. Gerhart has repeatedly asserted to the media that he is a running back, not a fullback, he has been saying it so much that he is starting to sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop (“It’s not a toomah”), but he remains untested at this level and a huge question mark going into training camp.
When Peterson isn't running the ball, his mere presence still influences most aspects of the Vikings offense. By simply standing in the backfield he forces the opposition to pack the box on every down and make linebackers stay compact and at home on every play. By drawing the attention of the linebackers and forcing the line to keep their pass rush relatively conservative, it leaves a lot of space open on the outside for swing passes, wide receiver screens, and one on one coverage down the field. This is why the Vikings had so much success throwing the ball last season and allowed for their receivers Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice to have breakout years. While Harvin is used as the primary target on quick slants and screen passes because of his speed and agility off the line, ranked sixth in the league averaging 5.86 YAC, Rice has provides the Vikings with a franchise-type talent who has great hands that can attack down the field, with five 100+ yd receiving games and 8 TDs a year ago. Best of all, both of the aforementioned players are only 21 and 23 years old and are only get better as their careers progress.
What does this all mean? It means the Minnesota Vikings are going to be a statistical powerhouse again this year. With an unrelenting front four on defense, who only seem to get better as the years go by, they will continue to put up gaudy sack numbers, especially since most offenses they play will continue to try to take advantage of their weak, but improving, secondary. Look for Minnesota to lead the league in sacks reaching somewhere around 46 to 50, unless Jared Allen starts hitting the smelling salts a little extra hard this season, then he could hit 25 on his own. The secondary could still struggle a little bit, but not to the degree they did last year, with 13-15 INTs. Having Favre back in the lineup again will be a great thing for the Vikings, but I really can‘t see him hitting the same numbers as last season. His health remains to be a big question mark, and with that in mind, look for Childress to put the offensive load square on the shoulders of Adrian Peterson (look for 1,800 yds and 22 TDs in 2010), boosting his fantasy draft stock even more, as if he needs it. I am tending to lean more and more towards last season being a fluke of sorts for Favre, but there won't be an epic collapse in 2010, with him hitting his end zone targets around 25 times, totaling up 3.300-3,500 yds with Harvin and Rice as his primary targets, and hitting the opposition for 12-14 INTs.