NFL

2010 NFL Team Preview: Minnesota Vikings

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 12-4, 5-1
Division finish: 1st NFC North
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 2nd, 5th, 8th, 13th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 10th, 6th, 19th, 2nd

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2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Adrian Peterson, 1,383 yards, 18 TD; Chester Taylor, 338 yards, 1 TD
Passing: Brett Favre; 4,202 yards, 33 TD, 7 INT
Receiving: Sidney Rice; 1,312 yards, 8 TD; Percy Harvin, 790 yards, 6 TD; Bernard Berrian, 618 yards, 4 TD; Visanthe Shiancoe, 566 yards, 11 TD
Tackles: Chad Greenway, 80 total tackles; Cedric Griffin, 65 total tackles; E.J. Henderson, 63 total tackles
Sacks: Jared Allen, 14.5 sacks; Ray Edwards, 8.5 sacks
Interceptions: Cedric Griffin, 4 INT, 0 touchdowns; Chad Greenway, 3 INT, 0 TDs

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2010 Season Outlook

Schedule
(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 9 at New Orleans: Brett Favre will be back, and this game will be a rematch of the NFC Championship game that the Saints won in overtime. While the Saints have to contend with the loss of defensive end Charles Grant, they signed three ends in free agency with the hopes that one steps up to fill Grant's shoes. Aside from that, not much has changed with these two teams, mainly due to the “final four” rules of the uncapped year that prevent the participants in the conference championship games from signing other teams' free agents until they lose one of their free agents to another team. With some of the defensive losses the Saints have suffered in the offseason, this matchup is more favorable for the Vikings.

October 11 at New York Jets: The Jets entered the offseason intent on rebuilding, adding Santonio Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Jason Taylor to their roster that had gone to the AFC Championship game last year. This team will be tough to beat, especially if their offseason additions do mesh well with the team. This will be a hard-fought game, with both teams equally capable of airing it out or running the ball down opponents' throats. While the Jets' defensive backfield has more speed, this advantage will likely be negated by the Vikings' better quarterback play. This matchup appears too close to call ahead of time. This will be a big win for whoever leaves the field victorious.

December 12 vs New York Giants: Although the Vikings demolished the Giants last year, the victory's lopsidedness had to do with the fact that safety Kenny Phillips was on injured reserve, as well as the Giants' injury list that week that included three defensive linemen, two running backs, two receivers, the quarterback, two offensive linemen, and two cornerbacks. While some of those players did suit up, they were still far from playing at their best, and it showed. This year, with the Giants fully healed, they should look to make up for their embarrassing loss to the Vikings, and this should be yet another highly physical game.

Key Losses

Chester Taylor, RB

Key Returning Players

Brett Favre, QB; Adrian Peterson, RB; Percy Harvin, WR/KR; E.J. Henderson, LB; Jasper Brinkley, LB; Kevin Williams, DT; Pat Williams, DT

Key Draft Picks

Chris Cook, CB; Toby Gerhart, RB

Key Free Agent Signings

Lito Sheppard, CB; Ryan Moats, RB

Offensive Overview

The positive side to sports media's unhealthy LeBron James obsession this summer is that ESPN had less airtime to spend stirring up the annual debate over whether Brett Favre will come back for another season. As training camp approaches, FavreWatch (my least favorite part of football) will commence again until he arrives at the end of camp, and nobody should be the least bit surprised when it happens. Retiring this close to training camp would irreparably damage Favre's legacy and ruin the positive note he left it on with his stellar season last year, and he's aware of that. For this reason, Favre will be back, and he will play well thanks to his phenomenal supporting cast. The versatile Percy Harvin is elusive after the catch and can be a major problem for defenses if he gets the ball in space. Also, the Vikings' occasional uses of reverses to Harvin last year added an outside element to their physical run game, making it even more effective than it already was. Receiver Sidney Rice had an incredible 2009 campaign, his physical style of play keeps him from letting a jam affect his route, and his chemistry with Favre last year was simply amazing to watch. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is another favorite outlet of Favre's, especially in short-yardage and red zone situations. Because of the solid cast around him, Favre has been able to take fewer chances than he has been known for, and the Vikings' passing offense clicked wonderfully last year.

Running back Adrian Peterson is an incredible runner, but he has some work to do to truly become a complete back. Vikings' coaches chose often to pull Peterson on third downs and insert Chester Taylor, because they were more comfortable with Taylor's pass-blocking, route-running, and receiving skills than they were with Peterson's. This is incredibly disturbing, because it is unprecedented for a team to take their top running back, especially one who runs as well as Peterson, out of the game on third down, the most crucial down of all. On top of that, fumbles and durability are a bit of a concern. As far as durability goes, it is possible that Peterson is already on his way downhill, despite entering only his fourth year, because of the Vikings' over-reliance on Peterson in his first two years. The decision to draft Toby Gerhart in the second round suggests that the Vikings realize they cannot continue to overwork Peterson, especially now that Chester Taylor has left for Chicago. One of the reasons why Peterson frequently took a beating was that his offensive line was better in pass-protection than in run-blocking. Particularly, center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt were liabilities in the running game.

While Peterson had no problem breaking tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and the line's weaknesses in run-blocking have done nothing to limit the Vikings' run game, the hits will accumulate and take their toll on Peterson, which is why Gerhart should be called on early and often to spell him. Route-running from the running back position seems to be a concern, as evidenced by Shiancoe's comments to the Minnesota Star-Tribune when he pushed for the Vikings to sign Brian Westbrook, saying “his (Westbrook's) route-running would definitely help our offense.” Until he can improve his receiving, route-running, and pass-blocking, Adrian Peterson will always be a one-trick pony. However, he does his one trick so much better than most other running backs who've played the game, that it doesn't hurt the Vikings' offense. That being said, his one-dimensionality is the reason why he comes up short in the debate over whether he's better than Chris Johnson.

In pass-protection, the Vikings were tied for 15th-best in sacks allowed, with 34 sacks. While this could be better, it isn't as bad as pundits made it sound after Brett Favre took a beating in the NFC Championship game. Backup offensive lineman Artis Hicks signed with the Redskins in the offseason, so depth on the line is a minor concern. All in all, though, this offense should be even better than it was last year now that the same 11 starters are playing together for another year.

Defensive Overview

The core of the Vikings' defense is their defensive line, arguably the best 4-3 line in the league. Defensive end Ray Edwards is a force to be reckoned with, and lining up on the opposite side of the line is Jared Allen, an end so disruptive that Sports Illustrated's Kerry J. Byrne referred to him as the NFL's biggest non-QB impact player. Anchoring the line in the middle is the formidable Williams Wall, Pat and Kevin Williams (no relation). One issue that has had Vikings fans worried is the Starcaps case, where five NFL players, including the two Williamses, were found to have failed a drug test after a batch of Starcaps, a diet supplement, was tainted with bumetanide, a banned diuretic. The Williamses are currently appealing their suspensions, claiming the NFL violated Minnesota workplace laws that require laboratories to provide drug-test results to employers within three days of obtaining their results, and employers to provide those results to employees within three days of receiving them. If they do serve their suspensions, they will miss the first four games of the season, and it would drastically hurt the team if the Vikings played the Saints, Dolphins, and Jets without their starting defensive tackles. However, with the Minnesota Court of Appeals' rejection of the NFL's request to expedite the case, it appears unlikely that the Williams Wall will miss any time due to suspension in 2010.

At linebacker, the Vikings are set for the season, especially once middle linebacker E.J. Henderson comes back from rehabilitating the broken femur that ended his 2009 season. Backup Jasper Brinkley played well in his stead, and will start for him until he's fully recovered. Weakside linebacker Ben Leber isn't the best in pass coverage, but is an excellent blitzer and does well in wrapping up run plays. Strongside 'backer Chad Greenway is a great player as well, with a knack for getting to the ball and making plays.

The Vikings lacked speed at the cornerback position last year, which was one of their only weaknesses. To remedy that, they signed Lito Sheppard, the first NFL player to return two interceptions for over 100 yards in a career (both times against the Cowboys, incidentally). While Sheppard struggled with the Jets, he has been a very good cornerback throughout his career, and will be expected to start as both of the Vikings' cornerbacks from last year are banged-up, with Cedric Griffin rehabilitating a torn ACL from the NFC Championship Game, and 33-year-old Antoine Winfield being a durability concern after missing six games with a broken foot last year. Additionally, the Vikings drafted cornerback Chris Cook, who ran a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash, from Virginia to help augment their depth at corner. If necessary, he may even start from time to time if an injury situation requires it. At safety, Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams get a bad rap because they're not really playmakers, but this is more so due to coordinator Leslie Frazier's Tampa-2 defensive system than any deficiencies on the part of Williams and Johnson, who are more than good enough to help the Vikings win.

Just like the offense, the defense has all of its starters returning. It also has new players to help ameliorate the team's one weakness. This team will be nearly impossible to run against, and more difficult to pass against than it was last year.

Special Teams Overview

The Vikings' kickoff coverage wasn't shabby last year with the 15th-best average yards allowed per kick return(22.6), despite kicking for the sixth lowest average kickoff distance (63.6) Similarly, they played solidly in punt coverage, averaging the 13th-best punt distance and the 12th-lowest average yards allowed per return. The Vikings' kick and punt return games were highly effective this year, with Percy Harvin returning two kicks for touchdowns with an average of 27.5 yards per kick return, and the speedy Darius Reynaud maintaining a high average of 10.3 yards per punt return.

Kicker Ryan Longwell was machine-like in his accuracy, hitting 26 of 28 field goal attempts. Entering his fourteenth season, he probably has a few years of playing at this level left in the tank. As a whole, the special teams unit plays well and will do a good job of helping the Vikings get good field position.

Head Coach: Brad Childress

Childress has only had one losing season in his four as a head coach, and his team's record has gotten better each year. While Childress has taken some heat in the press for ceding some authority to Brett Favre, most of that stemmed from rumors manufactured by the media to create the illusion of tension and suggest that the Vikings were headed for an early playoff collapse. Criticism for his decision to let Favre skip training camp for two years isn't warranted, though criticism of his disingenuous way of explaining it is warranted. Both this year and last year, we all knew that Favre was coming to play for the Vikings, so for Childress to say he's waiting for Favre to make up his mind is dishonest. It would be refreshing to hear him say “Look, he's Brett Favre. I know he's coming back, but I couldn't care less if he comes to training camp or not.” The thing is, that's just not Childress's style. He seems to be more of a quiet, close-to-the vest kind of coach, and that works well for him. Instead of offering comments for the media to chew on, he keeps things in-house. For example, Visanthe Shiancoe and the Saints' Darren Sharper exchanged some playful banter via Twitter that turned rather ugly, and appeared to be heading out of control. When asked what he thought of it, Childress simply said “somewhere we will reel it in,” and left it at that. Childress appears to be a quiet leader, but one who has his troops prepared to rally for a big 2010 season.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Sidney Rice, WR; Pat Williams, DT; Chad Greenway, LB; Ben Leber, LB

Season Prediction

1st NFC North

Although the “Final Four” rule of the uncapped offseason prevented the Vikings from making any big moves, they didn't have to. They retained every single starter on offense and defense, which is virtually unheard of in today's free-agency environment. It will be a huge advantage, as a team's on-field chemistry is an underrated but incredibly important factor in winning football games. The Vikings should have no problem winning the NFC North for the third year in a row, and they could very well go to the Super Bowl. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

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