COMMENTARY | There's little doubt that the Indianapolis Colts were the surprise team of the 2012 NFL season. Chuck Pagano's squad went from two wins in 2011 to 11 victories and a playoff berth a year ago.
But let's not forget the quantum leap that the Minnesota Vikings made last season. One year after finishing 3-13 (tied for the most losses in a season in franchise history), the Purple Gang won 10 games and grabbed a wild-card invitation.
Is Leslie Frazier's club capable of bigger and better things? Well, we're now on to 2013. And here we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the Minnesota Vikings:
QB Christian Ponder: Minnesota's much-maligned quarterback enters his third NFL season looking for a little more consistency in 2013. While the former first-rounder did throw more touchdown passes (18) than interceptions last season, all 12 of those interceptions came in the final 12 games of the season. Is Ponder on the hot seat in the Twin Cities? The Vikings did add free-agent quarterback Matt Cassel this offseason, and could the former Kansas City Chiefs signal-caller could put Ponder on the bench?
RB Adrian Peterson: Stating the obvious here, especially when you rush for the second-most yards in a season (2,097) in NFL history. Peterson's 2012 performance was made even more impressive considering he had suffered a severe knee injury in Week 16 of 2011. Last season's league MVP hopes to become the first player in league annals to rush for 2,000-plus yards in consecutive seasons. That would be quite the accomplishment, considering no player has managed the feat twice much less in back-to-back seasons. But don't bet against AP.
WR Cordarrelle Patterson: Along with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Patterson was the third of three first-round picks by the Purple Gang in April. It marked the first time since 2001 (St. Louis Rams) that a team selected three players in the first round. But Patterson might be the one of the trio that needs to make the most immediate impact, especially when it comes to punt and kickoff returns. Frazier's club looks to make up for the departure of all-purpose wideout Percy Harvin, who returned five kickoffs for scores in four seasons with the Vikings.
DE Jared Allen: One year after totaling a league-high 22.0 sacks in 2011, the star defender got to opposing quarterbacks "only" a dozen times last season. In five seasons (80 games) with the Vikings, Allen has totaled an impressive 74.0 sacks and been in double digits in that department in each of those years. With the relentless Allen leading the charge, the Purple Gang has totaled an impressive 94 sacks over the last two seasons. The five-time Pro Bowler enters his 10th NFL season and shows no signs of slowing down.
FS Harrison Smith: The former Notre Dame standout was the second of the team's two first-round draft choices in 2012, and the Vikings surprised some with his somewhat early selection. However, Smith finished second on team and tackles and returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns, capping off a solid rookie campaign. But there's still plenty of work to be done on the defensive side of the ball as Minnesota allowed 38 offensive touchdowns, including 28 scores though the air in 2012.
So what can we expect from the Vikings in 2013? Can the team follow up last season's surprising playoff appearance with a division title? And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season? Frazier's squad opened some eyes last season, but can this club prove it wasn't a one-hit wonder?
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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- Leslie Frazier