Shutdown Countdown: The Minnesota Vikings are unlikely to return to the playoffs

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

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At this time last year, the Vikings were coming off a forgettable 2011 season that featured three wins and ended with their best player, running back Adrian Peterson, suffering a devastating left knee injury. Few expected Peterson to be ready in time for the 2012 season, but he defied the odds and was in the starting lineup in Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. On the second offensive play of the Vikings' 2012 season, Peterson gained four yards. Peterson would go on to have one of the most spectacular single-season performances in NFL history, rushing for 2,097 yards, coming up nine yards (or an orange peanut) short of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.

Peterson defying expectations about his own recovery was the driving force behind the Vikings defying expectations about their 2012 season. Based on preseason predictions, an 8-8 season for the Vikings would have been remarkable. Instead, the Vikings won 10 games, including their last four, and most of that was due to Peterson, who was the Vikings' offense in 2012 as Percy Harvin went down with a season-ending ankle injury in November and veteran receivers Michael Jenkins and Jerome Simpson were non-factors in his place.

Of course, the 2012 season would end with a forgettable, 24-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Quarterback Christian Ponder's triceps swelled on him in the days leading up to that playoff game, forcing the team to start Joe Webb at quarterback. To no one's surprise, Webb struggled (and has since been moved to wide receiver), the Vikings fell behind by two touchdowns in the first half and the Packers limited Peterson to 48 yards on 12 carries.

The Vikings have improved the quarterback depth by signing Matt Cassel and, with the exception of Harvin, who was traded to the Seattle Seahawks, most of the cast from 2012 returns in 2013. However, the schedule is much harder and fans should not expect another 2,000-yard season from Peterson, which makes a return trip to the playoffs unlikely in 2013.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Trading wide receiver Percy Harvin and letting cornerback Antoine Winfield walk away in free agency (both landed with the Seahawks) hurts, but the Vikings were aggressive in their approach to replacing both players. The Vikings used the first-round pick they got for Harvin to replace Winfield, selecting 6-foot-1, 210-pound Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes. To replace Harvin, the Vikings had signed former Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings to a five-year, $45 million contract and traded four picks to the New England Patriots to move back into the first-round to select Tennessee wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson. Minnesota's own first-round pick (No. 23) was used on Sharrif Floyd, who was the No. 5 player in the "Shutdown 50".

Aside from the pursuit of Jennings, the Vikings were quiet, but smart in free agency. The top two priorities were retaining right tackle Phil Loadholt, who signed a four-year, $25 million extension with $7 million in guarantees on the first day of the 2013 league year. On runs off right tackle, the Vikings averaged 7.66 yards, which ranked No. 1 in the league, and were No. 2 with an 8.8-yard average on runs off right end. A few days later, the Vikings re-signed fullback Jerome Felton to a three-year, $7.5 million contract with $2.5 million in guarantees. Felton earned a Pro Bowl nod and was a second-team All-Pro selection after leading the way for Adrian Peterson's 2,000-yard, MVP season. Retaining two key pieces to Peterson's success demonstrates that the Vikings' front office understand that he's the key to their success.

Best offseason acquisition:: The Vikings' pass defense ranked 24th last season and were 30th in interception rate. Of the team's 10 interceptions, only five came from the cornerback position. Three of those were by Winfield, who was the only Vikings cornerback to play in over 60 percent of the defensive snaps last season. The Vikings needed to upgrade the cornerback position this offseason, which they accomplished by using a first-round pick on Rhodes, a tall, physical corner who had eight interceptions during his 44-game career with the Seminoles. Those are not huge numbers, but it's hard to pick up interceptions when opponents know better than to throw in your direction. Like all rookie corners, Rhodes will be tested by NFL quarterbacks, but he has the size and play-making ability to answer those challenges.

Biggest hole on the roster: : Tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt and center John Sullivan comprise an excellent framework for a solid offensive line. The guard position, currently occupied by Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco, is a weakness that has been masked by Peterson's brilliance. According to the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac, which was released on Monday, Johnson and Fusco each had 22 "blown blocks" in 2012, which had them tied for the sixth-most blown blocks among interior offensive linemen. Late-round picks Jeff Baca and Travis Bond were added in 2013, but there isn't much depth behind Johnson and Fusco on the current roster.

Position in flux: : A few years ago, the "Williams Wall" of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams were the toughest tandem of defensive tackles to run against in the NFL. Pat Williams has retired and Kevin Williams' tenure with the Vikings is nearing an end. In fact, Williams might have been released this offseason had he not restructured his contract by taking a $2 million pay cut in exchange for the opportunity to be an unrestricted free agent in 2014. With the Vikings selecting Floyd in the first-round, the interior of the Vikings' defensive line is undergoing a major shift.

Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: : In the 2010 NFL draft, USC defensive end Everson Griffen was projected by some outlets to go as highly as the first-round. That would not be the case, however, and Griffen was available to the Vikings with the second pick in the fourth-round. Griffen dressed for 11 games as a rookie, but had little impact, appearing in just 65 plays on defense. In 2011, Griffen picked up four sacks in 25.5 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps before breaking out a bit last year. In 16 games, including his first NFL start, Griffen played in over 53 percent of the defensive snaps and had eight sacks and returned his first career interception 29 yards for a touchdown. Griffen could push Brian Robison for the full-time starting job in 2013.

Stat fact: Over the final ten games of the 2012 regular season, Peterson ran for 1,598 yards, 15 fewer yards than the 1,613 yards that Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris gained over the course of the full season. Morris was second behind Peterson in rushing yards last season.

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Peterson is able to come close to matching his amazing performance from 2012, Ponder takes his game to the next level with the help of new targets Jennings and Patterson, and the Vikings' pass defense improves enough to return to the playoffs.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: The wear and tear of last season takes its toll on Peterson, which increases the pressure on Ponder and the defense. Neither are able to pick up the slack and the Vikings fall victim to a second-place schedule road games against legitimate playoff contenders Seattle, Green Bay, Baltimore and Cincinnati in the second half of the season.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Peterson is coming off an MVP season, but the Vikings need to get more from Ponder, who is entering a "make or break" seasons. The No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft had a decent season, completing 62.1 percent of his attempts for 2,935 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. According to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, Ponder was near the bottom third of starting quarterbacks in passing DYAR and DVOA, which measures a quarterback's value (DYAR) and value per play (DVOA). Ponder ranked 31st among regular starting quarterbacks with 6.08 yards per attempt in 2012, a mark that needs to improve by at least a full yard this season.

The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams

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