Tuesday, September 2, 2008

2008 Minnesota Vikings preview

With one of the busiest offseasons in recent memory, the Vikings have a lot of people talking about their potential for 2008. With several football pundits predicting the Vikings to make the playoffs, win the division, and, in at least one case, to win it all, expectations are high. Soon, it will be time to leave the paper team of the offseason behind and see if the real team can live up to the overwhelming hype. The Vikings have as good a shot as just about anyone in the NFC of making it to the big game in February, if they can play to their strengths and overcome their few weaknesses.

Like last year, I'll be posting a position-by-position breakdown of the team, along with my predicted stats for each significant player. And, whenever the Vikings' season ends (hopefully very, very late), I'll do a recap to see how far off I was (last year: not bad). Yes, I know that predicting exact yardage totals and the like are very silly, but I think I'm allowed one silly predictive post like this a year.

Tarvaris Jackson: 2,700 passing yards, 16 TDs, 15 Int., 400 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs

The one weakness most people are focusing on for the 2008 Vikings is at quarterback, where third-year man Tarvaris Jackson gets one more shot to prove that he can lead his team. Skeptics abound, and with good reason; at times in 2007, Jackson looked to be playing way out of his league and, despite a month of good showings in November, the team finished the season with two losses and wound up out of the playoff picture.

Among his backers are those who point out the team went 8-4 with him as the starting quarterback, even though his efforts were largely irrelevant in the face of Adrian Peterson rushing for 296 yards or the defense forcing a handful of turnovers. And, despite the dearest wishes of Vikings fans, there simply is no reason why a second-year quarterback must automatically improve in his third year. I'd say he has about an equal chance of falling apart as he does of putting up a great season.

To its credit, the team did what it could to help out its young quarterback, signing wide receiver Bernard Berrian away from the Chicago Bears in the offseason. The offensive line is solid, even if Bryant McKinnie won't play until October, and ditching Troy Williamson should be good for at least a few more completions a season. Truthfully, with all the help he's got, Jackson probably should improve in 2008, but it's not a guarantee. And he'll still have to stay healthy, which is some concern; he was taken out of two games in 2007 with injuries and missed four starts and didn't appear in the final two preseason games after suffering a knee injury against Baltimore.

As such, my prediction here is rather middle-of-the-road, if not quietly optimistic. Assuming 240/400 completions/attempts (60%) season, it computes out to a 77.9 passer rating -- adequate, but not overly impressive. While I will agree that he looked good at times last year, there were also far too many instances of his throwing a ball into coverage and, during the second Chicago game, just lobbing it up into the air while being sacked, an easy interception for the defense. Every quarterback (not just the Jets' quarterback, as the media would like you to believe) has a desire to complete every pass and make every play; but all of them have to realize when it's just not possible. If Jackson can learn that and provide just enough of a threat through the passing game so that teams can't key 100% on the run, the Vikings playoff run could be deep, indeed.

With Brooks Bollinger gone, the backup plan is the aging Gus Frerotte and rookie John David Booty. Considering Jackson's injury history, it's likely that at least Frerotte will see some time at the position this year, but Vikings fans hope it will be minimal. The team went with Booty over Brooks Bollinger as the #3 QB and, if Jackson stumbles, he could be the long-term solution at the position...just hopefully not in 2008.

Position Grade: C+

Running back:
Adrian Peterson: 1,400 rushing yards, 350 receiving yards, 14 TDs
Chester Taylor: 500 rushing yards, 150 receiving yards, 4 TDs

The numbers above might seem a bit low for most Adrian Peterson predictions, but I'm trying to keep in mind both his potential for injury and his poor showing in the latter part of last season. Also, keep in mind that Peterson rushed for over 500 yards in two of his games last year...while it would be nice, predicting two 200+ yard games for a back in a season is something I just can't do. And I'd rather be wrong in the low direction than wrong in the high direction.

Nonetheless, the team will continue to rely on its running game in 2008, and the two-headed Peterson/Taylor monster should be in full force, running wild in opposing defensive backfields. Taylor, however, will turn 29 in September, and while he's only had one season as a full-time starter (2006), he's getting to be of the age where backs can decline precipitously.

But if he falters, at least we've got Maurice Hicks to back him up, right? I'll get into this more when we get down to the "Special Teams" part of things, but releasing Mewelde Moore and signing Hicks was a questionable move at best. Hopefully, Hicks won't see the field except in a few blowout games.

Position grade: A

Wide Receiver/Tight End:
Bernard Berrian: 65 catches, 1,050 yards, 7 TDs
Sidney Rice: 45 catches, 650 yards, 3 TDs
Bobby Wade: 25 catches, 325 yards, 2 TDs
Visanthe Shiancoe: 20 catches, 250 yards, 1 TD

After employing the likes of Travis Taylor, Bobby Wade, and Nate Burleson as #1 receivers the past few years (or "A.R." meaning "After Randy"), the Vikings finally went out and got themselves a #1 receiver in Bernard Berrian -- or so they hope. In a somewhat controversial move, the team signed Berrian away from division rival Chicago for 6 years and a potential $42 million. All this for a guy who doesn't even have a 1,000 yard season as a pro and might not this year, either.

You could certainly blame Berrian's flashes-of-brilliance-but-not-consistently-good-numbers career on his quarterbacking partners during his time in Chicago. Moving to Minnesota, however, won't greatly improve that situation and, with the running game as it is, the team won't likely rely on Berrian as the lynchpin to its offense. Some have said that he has poor hands, but that's likely untrue. At the very least, he's a threat, and him running downfield should help open up lanes for the running game. And if he can occasionally haul in a deep ball from Jackson, all the better.

Sidney Rice looks to be an up-and-coming...well, maybe not star, but at least solid #2 wide receiver. His opportunities will be limited in the Vikings' offense, though. Now the #3 receiver, Bobby Wade could do some good things working out of the slot. Robert Ferguson is old and nursing a calf injury, while second-year man Aundrae Allison is best suited for kick-return duties. Overall, it's not a great bunch, but they don't have to be.

Position grade: B-

Offensive line:

The line performed way above expectations last year, helping the team to a league-high 5.3 yards per rush attempt and allowing Tarvaris Jackson to be sacked a fairly average 6.1% of the time. The loss of Bryant McKinnie for the first four games will be noticed, but hopefully not too much. The real question is, can the line continue to open up holes for the running game like it did in 2007 and keep Tarvaris Jackson upright enough to allow him to mature as a passer?

I'll say tentatively, "yes." While I think the unit will come down some -- another reason for my fairly conservative Adrian Peterson rushing total -- I think Matt Birk, at 32, still has enough in the tank for one more good season, Steve Hutchinson will continue his solid play, and the right side of Anthony Herrera and Ryan Cook deserve at least some of the credit for last year's good line play -- after all, the team couldn't run to the left every down. Artis Hicks should do a decent job of holding down the fort until McKinnie's return.

Position Grade: A-

Defensive Line:

I've been drooling over writing this entry since April, when the team acquired Jared Allen from the Chiefs while I was sitting in a Vegas casino. That had to be some sort of omen, right? While I'm even more loathe to give predictions about defensive statistics than I am about offensive statistics, I'm going to guess that Allen will have somewhere around a dozen sacks for the year, which is probably about in line for what a player of his age and history should have.

However, his presence should lead to more opportunities for the rest of the defensive line to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. It wouldn't suprise me in the least to see Kevin Williams get back to double-digit sacks for the first time since 2004, and opposite end Ray Edwards could also approach double digits (though he won't be anywhere near Michael Strahan's record). Only Pat Williams shouldn't be a factor in what could be the league's best pass rush, but he doesn't have to be. At 35 (soon to be 36) years of age and 317 (hee) pounds, his concern should be on staying fresh and healthy throughout the season, because for all the talent they have on the first string, the Vikings lack quality depth along the line.

Brian Robison is virtually interchangable with Edwards at the end spot, but the team essentially lost three defensive linemen in the offseason: Erasmus James (Washington), Spencer Johnson (Buffalo), and Kenichi Udeze (leukemia), leaving Otis Grigsby, Ellis Wyms, and Fred Evans as the team's primary backups along the line. That's not a greatly comforting thought, but if this unit can stay healthy, it could evoke memories of the Purple People Eaters of old.

Position Grade: A


A steadily improving unit, the Vikings' linebacking corps looks to be at its best in years. EJ Henderson mans the middle and logged 119 tackles a year ago. Ben Leber and former first-rounder Chad Greenway play the edges, allowing the unit to return all three of its starters from a year ago. Greenway in particular, played very well last year, ranging all around the field and picking off two balls, including one returned for a touchdown. The defensive line is elite, but this unit isn't too far behind.

As with the line, though, the linebackers lack depth. Backup and special teamer Heath Farwell was lost in the preseason and the team cut last year's sixth-round pick, Rufus Alexander. Of the team's three backups, only Vinny Ciurciu has had any significant playing time, and most of that coming on special teams. David Herron and Erin Henderson, EJ's brother, will need to step up if their number is called.

Position Grade: A-

Defensive Backs:

Here's the only defensive unit that would not rate as "very good" in anyone's book, though the Vikings' seeming weakness against the pass in recent years is largely attributable to teams being unwilling to run on them. An improved pass rush should help, as should the addition of safety Madieu Williams, lured away from the Bengals in free agency. Williams will miss the first part of the season with a neck injury, however. As a result, the team's top draft pick from 2008, second-rounder Tyrell Johnson, will step into his place. If nothing else, it'll be a good chance for the team to see what Johnson's got and get some idea as to whether he can replace Darren Sharper when his contract expires at the end of the season.

Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin man the corner positions; Winfield needs to stay healthy and Griffin needs to step up his play so as not to be pressured for the starting job by Marcus McCauley, who'll be the team's primary nickel back. Unlike the other defensive positions, this unit has decent depth, though the loss of Michael Boulware for the season takes away a potential contributor. Overall, it will probably be the same situation as in previous years, in that teams reluctant to run on the Vikings will go to the pass more and more, and, even with the improved pass rush from Jared Allen and the rest of the line, there are times when the Vikings defensive backfield will get torched -- but hey, at least it won't be by Brett Favre any more!

Position Grade: B

Special Teams:

Ryan Longwell returns for his third year in purple, and Vikings fans have little to complain about regarding his performance. Of his four misses in 2007, three came from beyond 50 yards, and he hasn't missed a kick from 40 yards or closer since joining the team. A little more distance on kickoffs would be nice, but I think most fans are happy with the total package.

And then there's the man, the myth, the legend, the Guitar Hero, Chris Kluwe. Appearing to be fully recovered from the sprained ankle he suffered near the end of the 2005 season, Kluwe averaged a career-best 44.7 yards per punt in 2007, while downing 42% of his punts inside the opponents' 20, third-best in the league. His contributions will be even more evident in 2008 -- after all, who wants to try and drive 90 yards against this defense?

That brings us to the return game. Despite a mediocre 22.9 yards per kick return and no touchdowns for his career, the Vikings somehow thought Maurice Hicks would be a good choice as the team's kickoff-return specialist, despite having Aundrae Allison, who averaged 28.7 on returns including a touchdown, in his rookie season. Allison's currently penciled into the punt-return slot, despite never having returned one in his pro career. Perhaps the Vikings should swap those two positions, letting Allison return kicks and letting Hicks, with his running back moves, take a shot at returning punts? Better yet, let's beg the Steelers to give us back Mewelde Moore.

Position Grade: B


Last year, I said the Vikings were "a team split right down the middle -- plus defense, minus offense." Astoundingly, the team looks to have improved both sides of the ball in the offseason, and my assessment last year didn't take Adrian Peterson's rise to stardom into account. The niggling problem of aging players is always a concern -- nobody expects a good player to actually decline, though they always do -- but the team is generally young enough, except in a few spots, that age shouldn't be a major concern.

This year, I'd say that the team possesses an average, maybe slightly above average offense. And the defense. Remember 1993? When Jim McMahon and Roger Craig started the season as the team's quarterback and running back? When John Randle and Chris Doleman and Jack Del Rio were all playing for the defense? Back then, I remember being more interested in watching the defense play than the offense because having the defense on the field, I thought, gave us a better chance to score. That team rated first in the league in yards allowed that season and snuck into the playoffs despite a 17th-ranked offense.

I think this year's Vikings have a much better offense than the 1993 version, but the defense might be so much better as to make the defense:offense ratio similar to the 1993 team. I know, I know, it's still all "on paper," but this defense has the potential to be the league's best unit in 2008, and that can make for a lot of fun viewing. Sure, I'll still like to watch Adrian Peterson (and I'll still cringe every time T-Jack drops back), but the real fun will be in watching Jared Allen harass opposing QBs and EJ Henderson take down running backs. The offense should be good enough to win a few games, but this is the rare team that will look to its defense to dominate and put games out of reach. I'm not quite ready to jump on Dr. Z's bandwagon and I'm notoriously pessimistic, but this team should go far -- maybe even as far as a team can go.

My Prediction: 11-5, 1st in the NFC North

Position Grade:

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