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Five Vikings Poised For Breakout Seasons

Posted by Mike Wobschall on April 22, 2013 – 5:57 am

Every NFL team has star players who are relied upon year-in and year-out to perform at a premium level. But on a year-in and year-out basis, successful NFL teams also have players who take huge steps in their development to push their team to the next level.

That is what you call a breakout season, and if the Vikings are to follow up last season’s success with another playoff-caliber campaign, they will need breakout seasons from several players. So with the offseason program launching today, what better time to identify candidates for breakout seasons in 2013.

DT Christian Ballard
Career games played/started: 32/2
2012 Role: Reserve DT, part of regular rotation
2013 Outlook: A reserve player as a rookie in 2011, Ballard became part of the rotation in 2012 and saw his production increase – he even registered his first career sack. In 2013, though, Ballard has an opportunity to take an even larger leap than he did from 2011 to 2012. Perhaps Ballard’s best trait is his versatility, as he can line up at DE or DT and he’s also been a special teams contributor for Mike Priefer’s group. It won’t be a surprise to see the Vikings address the DT position in the draft, but it also won’t be a surprise to see Ballard perform at a level that will make it hard for that rookie DT to walk into a starting spot.

RG Brandon Fusco
Career games played/started: 19/16
2012 Role: Starter/split time with Geoff Schwartz
2013 Outlook: A 6th-round pick in the 2011 draft, Fusco came to the Vikings from Division II school Slippery Rock and over a year earned a starting role blocking for the best RB in the NFL. The reason Fusco was able to overcome the small-school stigma and crack the starting lineup in his second season is because of his toughness and determination. Those are the same traits he’s going to need in 2013 to prevent this year’s version of Brandon Fusco (whoever that may be) from supplanting him in the lineup. We talk a lot about unknown commodities coming out of college and becoming house-hold names in the NFL – Fusco has the work ethic and desire to be another example of this.

S Mistral Raymond
Career games played/started: 20/8
2012 Role: Opened season as starter, injured, rotated with Jamarca Sanford
2013 Outlook: The Vikings are poised to once again hold a robust competition for a starting safety spot next to Harrison Smith. In 2012, Raymond won this competition over Sanford and rookie Robert Blanton, but an injury early in the season derailed his season for a bit. Fortunately, Raymond returned to action in 2012 but not as the full-time starter. The same cast of characters will return in 2013 to battle for a starting spot, and there may even be more names added to the mix once the NFL draft begins later this week. As a 6th-round pick who has battled and defeated personal and professional adversity before, expect Raymond to shine this offseason and training camp.

CB Josh Robinson
Career games played/started: 16/6
2012 Role: Rotational CB
2013 Outlook: After making all the dances and starting 6 of them as a rookie and intercepting 2 passes along the way, Robinson, a 3rd-round pick, turned out to be one of the draft’s better value selections for the Vikings. His performance in 2012 will likely land him in a starting position on the depth chart to begin the offseason program. But his development is not done. There are still improvements Robinson can make to his game, and there will also be plenty of competition added to the position before the team heads to Mankato for training camp this summer.

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WR Jarius Wright
Career games played/started: 7/1
2012 Role: Inactive until Week 10, regular contributor over final half of the season
2013 Outlook: The diminutive Arkansas product showed flashes of potential in training camp and the preseason last year, but a high ankle sprain limited him in the first half of the regular season. Wright hit his stride at just the right time, though, as an ankle injury to Percy Harvin opened the door for him to step in. Wright finished the season with 22 receptions for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns, and now he’s poised to earn a spot in the starting lineup and continue in 2013 where he left off in 2012 as a versatile receiver who can play inside or outside but who excels from the slot.


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(Re)Making The Grade: Looking Back At 2012 Draft

Posted by Mike Wobschall on February 8, 2013 – 7:12 am

We will talk a lot about the 2013 NFL Draft on vikings.com and the vikings.com Blog over the next 2.5 months. But right now, let’s take a look back at how the Vikings fared in the 2012 NFL Draft.

The impetus behind this idea is a piece put together by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr. Immediately following each year’s draft, he applies a grade to each team’s effort by reconciling the selections made by each team against that team’s draft positions and specific roster needs. Anyone who does this will tell you there’s a high degree of error involved because it’s typically a 3-year process before you can complete the evaluation of a draft-class. But in order to be fair and to hold himself accountable, Kiper has decided to revisit his post-draft grades for each team and hand out new grades based on how the draft picks and teams fared during the 2012 season.

The Vikings efforts in the 2012 NFL Draft were applauded immediately after, as they came out of the event with a pair of 1st-round picks at positions of need and also peppered the roster with 8 other selections after that. Kiper gave the Vikings a post-draft grade of a “B” and said the following: “The Vikings did pretty well. They got the left tackle they coveted in Matt Kalil, and they moved up to get a safety. Both Kalil and Harrison Smith, their two first-round picks, should be starting in Week 1. Josh Robinson adds speed, if not a lot of polish, at corner, and has the chance to develop into a good player.”

A pretty spot-on post-draft evaluation. Kalil and Smith both started all 16 games this season, and Robinson indeed has the look of a developing player after playing in all 16 games and starting 6 in his rookie season. Plus, he was 3rd on the team with 2 INTs and 7th on the team with 61 tackles.

In revisiting the draft and handing out new grades, though, Kiper has increased that grade by changing it to an A-. Kalil, Robinson and Smith fulfilled his expectations, and then others, most notably Blair Walsh, add significant contributions to cause Kiper to upgrade his evaluation. Here’s what he provided as new commentary:

“Kalil not only started 16 games at left tackle, played well at a significant position and if his run-blocking catches up with his pass-blocking, he’ll become among the league’s best. Smith became exactly what the Vikings had hoped, started all 16 games at free safety and should be there for years to come. The instincts he showed at Notre Dame were on display, and he’ll continue to get better. Robinson is raw, but could ultimately take over for Antoine Winfield. And don’t overlook one of the steals of the draft. Blair Walsh was taken at No. 175 overall, and was the best kicker in the league in 2012. A year later, a pretty good draft looks even better.”

And that’s not even to mention WR Jarius Wright coming on in the second half of the season, Rhett Ellison well on the way to providing the offense with gritty blocking and sneaky-good production in the passing game, and late-round picks Robert Blanton and Audie Cole poised to take on increased roles after serving on special teams from time-to-time in 2012. Including the injured Greg Childs, 9 of the Vikings 10 draft picks from last year are still on the team.

The news gets better from here, too. The Vikings are currently slated to have 8 draft picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which provides GM Rick Spielman and Co. with plenty of ammunition and opportunity to add even more young talent to an already young and talented roster that will continue to get better.

 


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Harvin Listed As Doubtful; Jarius Wright Will Be Active Sunday

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 23, 2012 – 1:06 pm

Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier met briefly with reporters after practice on Friday and provided an update on the probability of WR Percy Harvin returning from his ankle injury in time for this Sunday’s game in Chicago. The chances are not good that Harvin will play, as Frazier said his star WR will be listed as doubtful on the week’s final injury report.

Harvin injured his ankle against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9 and has been rehabbing and recovering since. The ankle has improved, but he’s yet to be able to participate in a practice since the injury. Harvin’s final status for the game likely won’t be declared until 90 minutes prior to kickoff, which is when teams are required to submit their list of inactive players.

Regardless of what happens with Harvin, Frazier did say that WR Jarius Wright will be active. The rookie 4th-rounder played in his first NFL regular season game two weeks ago against Detroit with Harvin sidelined. Wright responded with 3 receptions for 65 yards and 1 TD. He’ll have another chance to contribute in Chicago this weekend.

Frazier said Wright does not figure to fill in for Harvin in the kickoff return role. Marcus Sherels, AJ Jefferson and Josh Robinson (in that order) are listed as backups to Harvin in the kickoff return role.


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Jarius Wright Up For Pepsi Max NFL Rookie Of The Week Honors

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 13, 2012 – 9:49 am

It didn’t take long for Jarius Wright to make an impact in his first career regular season game. And it didn’t take long for Wright to gain recognition for it, either.

Wright caught 3 passes for 65 yards and 1 TD in Sunday’s win over Detroit, and for that effort he’s been named a finalist for Pepsi Max NFL Rookie of the Week honors. Joining Wright as finalists this week are Rams P Johnny Hekker, Tampa Bay CB Leonard Johnson, Colts QB Andrew Luck and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.

Fans can vote for Wright by going to NFL.com/rookies beginning now through Friday at 2:00 p.m. CT to determine the Pepsi Max NFL Rookie of the Week. The winner will be announced Friday on NFL Total Access on NFL Network and on NFL.com.


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Vikings 2012 Draft Class Looking Even Better After Wright’s Debut

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 12, 2012 – 7:44 am

Football fans know it can be foolish to cast final judgment on a draft class too early. Just 10 games into the season, it’s clearly far too early to grade each NFL team’s performance in the 2012 NFL Draft. But it’s also clear that just 10 games into the season, the Vikings got a lot of things right last April.

On Sunday, it became even clearer. Matt Kalil continues to hold down the left side of the offensive line, Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson have helped the secondary improve, Blair Walsh set a team record for touchbacks and is now 23 of 24 on FGs, and Robert Blanton, Rhett Ellison and Audie Cole continue to contribute on special teams and in other phases of the game. But now there’s a new contributor.

Jarius Wright, a receiver the Vikings drafted in the 4th round (118th overall) last April, made his regular season debut on Sunday and hit the ground running with 3 receptions for 65 yards and 1 TD. On the Vikings fifth offensive play, Wright dashed through the Detroit Lions secondary and QB Christian Ponder threw a shoulder fake to the left before lofting a pass toward Wright down the middle of the field. Wright hauled in the pass while falling to the ground and was tackled at the 1. Just moments later, Ponder found Wright in the end zone for a 3-yard TD to give the Vikings an early 7-0 and to give Wright his first NFL score.

Let’s keep things in perspective: it was one game and Wright had just one catch after hauling in two during the first series. But let’s also enjoy this moment, because Wright infused excitement and athleticism into a passing game that was missing its most explosive component – Percy Harvin.

The Vikings 2012 draft class has looked good all season. But after Wright’s debut on Sunday, it looks even better.


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Bring Out The Brooms! Vikings Win 34-24, Sweep Lions

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 11, 2012 – 4:10 pm

After a two-game losing streak fanned the flames of a hot 5-2 start, the Vikings reignited their season on Sunday at Mall of America Field with a fiery 34-24 victory over the Detroit Lions that featured a bounce-back performance from QB Christian Ponder, another dominating performance from RB Adrian Peterson and timely ferocity from the defense.

Before a blow-by-blow recap of how the Vikings won, here’s a quick summary of the stand-out performers…

– Peterson continues to display why he’s the best RB in the NFL. Coming off 3 consecutive 100-yard games, Peterson ran through the Lions as well. He rushed for 171 yards and 1 TD on 27 carries, including a game-breaking and victory-clinching 61-yard dash in the 4th quarter. The Vikings are now 27-12 when Peterson carries the ball 20+ times. Peterson has 1,128 yards on the season, which averages out to 112.8 yards per game and puts him on pace for a career-high 1,804 yards. Not bad for a guy coming off knee surgery.

– Ponder critics were out in full force the past three weeks, but they’ll have to take a couple weeks off after Sunday’s outing. Ponder was 24 of 32 on the afternoon, throwing for 221 yards and 2 TDs with 0 INTs for a passer rating of 114.2. He took just 1 sack on the day and pulled the ball down to run 7 times, gaining 15 yards. Ponder hit 10 different receivers on the day (including himself) and leaned heavily on TE Kyle Rudolph (7 receptions, 64 yards, 1 TD).

– LB Chad Greenway is the NFL’s leading tackler. He was up to his usual tricks again on Sunday, but he put a stamp on this week’s performance by grabbing a 1st-quarter INT. His big play led to a Blair Walsh FG and a 10-0 Vikings lead.

– S Jamarca Sanford has stepped up big time for the Vikings this season. He forced yet another fumble on a Calvin Johnson reception. He has 5 forced fumbles on the season. Antoine Winfield recovered the fumble, which set up yet another Walsh FG.

– We should mention Walsh here because he had a fantastic day. Walsh was 4 for 4 on FGs, connecting from 48, 23 (twice) and 33 yards. He also blasted 6 touchbacks and now is the Vikings single-season record holder in that category. P Chris Kluwe was also a standout performer on the afternoon, flipping field position with ease and often times pinning Detroit deep in their own territory.

Fans left the game talking about Peterson and Ponder, but in the early stages it was rookie receiver Jarius Wright who created a buzz. Active for his first regular season game with fellow receiver Percy Harvin sidelined due to an ankle injury, Wright got the party going early by dashing through the heart of the Lions defense on his team’s fifth play from scrimmage and hauling in a 54-yard reception from Ponder that set the Vikings up with a 1st and goal from the 1. Just two plays later, Ponder went back to Wright to cap the drive with a 3-yard TD to give the Vikings an early 7-0 lead.

The Vikings took a 13-3 lead into the locker room at halftime, and then extended that lead to 16-3 early in the 2nd half when Blair Walsh hit his 3rd FG of the game, that one from 23 yards out. The Lions responded immediately with a quick 4-play, 81 drive that culminated in a 16-yard TD reception by TE Brandon Pettigrew. Ponder and Co. showed resiliency, though, and answered the Pettigrew score with a TD pass to their starting TE – Kyle Rudolph. Ponder found his buddy for a 20-yard score and Peterson bulled his way into the end zone for the 2-point conversion, giving the Vikings a 24-10 lead early in the 4th quarter.

QB Matthew Stafford and the Lions would not go away, though. Explosive plays and Vikings penalties put the Lions on the Vikings goal line in just 6 plays, and Stafford found WR Titus Young for the TD to pull his team to within 7 points midway through the 4th quarter. The Vikings went 3-and-out on their next drive, but the defense responded by forcing a Lions punt as well.

That set the stage for Peterson to dagger Detroit. He exploded through the Lions defensive front for 19 yards on 1st down, and then dazzled the home crowd on his next carry with a 61-yard exclamation point, giving the Vikings a 31-17 lead. Johnson fumbled on the Lions first play after the Peterson TD and Walsh tacked on another FG to move the Vikings lead to 34-17. The Lions found Johnson for a late TD, but it was too little, too late for the Lions.

The Vikings came away with the victory, giving them a series sweep of their division rivals and moving them to a perfect 2-0 within the NFC North. The win snapped their 2-game losing streak and sends them into their bye with optimism, as a grueling 6-game stretch awaits them. The Vikings will come out of their bye week with consecutive road games against the Bears and Packers, and then will host the Bears on December 9 before hitting the road for consecutive games once again (at St. Louis and at Houston). The Vikings will conclude their regular season schedule with border rival Green Bay on December 30.


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Welcome To The NFL, Jarius Wright

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 11, 2012 – 1:35 pm

The highly-anticipated regular season debut for Jarius Wright couldn’t have started much better.

Wright, active in his first NFL game on Sunday with Percy Harvin sidelined due to an ankle injury, hauled in a 54-yard pass from QB Christian Ponder on the Vikings fifth offensive play of the game. The Ponder-to-Wright connection got the Vikings to the Detroit 1, but a penaly on the next play backed them up to the 6. Two plays later, Ponder went back to Wright and the rookie hauled in a pass for the TD, the first of his career.

That sequence of events gave the Vikings an early 7-0 lead, and they now lead 13-3 at halftime. Wright is the Vikings leading receiver with 3 receptions for 65 yards and the score, while Ponder has been efficient on the day going 13 of 18 for 102 yards with the TD to Wright and no INTs for a passer rating of 104.4.


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WR Status Check: Percy Harvin (Ankle) And Calvin Johnson (Knee)

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 9, 2012 – 7:58 am

Earlier this week we listed the 7 Vikings-Lions storylines we’d be following this week, so with Friday upon us and kickoff just two days away, let’s check in on the #1 storyline: Harvin’s Ankle, Megatron’s Knee. Percy Harvin leads the NFL in receptions with 62 and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson is arguable the NFL’s best player at the position. But neither has practiced this week due to injuries, and it will have a profound impact on Sunday’s game.

Of the two receivers, Johnson stands the best chance to play. He’s dealing with a knee injury that kept him out of practice all of last week. The time away from practice didn’t seem to bother the All-Pro, as he came down with 7 receptions for 129 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Johnson has been held out of practice this week, too, but the smart money is on him playing. And if he’s playing, he’s dangerous.

There’s been another element added to this mix of late, though. According to a report from Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Johnson told reporters on Thursday that he’s dealing with nerve damage that is making it harder for him to grip the football. Johnson pointed to a pair of hits from the Lions Week 4 game against the Vikings that is causing the issue.

As for Harvin, he has not been ruled out but he did call himself a “longshot” to play. Harvin suffered an ankle injury last week in Seattle, but was able to finish the game. Harvin spoke with reporters earlier in the week while leaning on crutches, causing many to speculate that the NFL’s leading receiver will be unavailable for Sunday’s game.

I’m not in the business of speculating whether or not a guy will play despite an injury. The Vikings have a bye following this Sunday’s game, so keeping Harvin out of this week’s game would essentially give him nearly three full weeks between his injury and the next ball game. But Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said after practice on Thursday that if Harvin is healthy enough to play, he’ll play. Also keep in mind that Harvin is as tough a player as there is, so if there’s even the slightest bit of chance he can play, Harvin will be angling to get out there.

If he plays, that’s great news for the Vikings. If he doesn’t play, the Vikings will have about 11 touches to distribute to other players. Harvin has 100 touches through 9 games this season, which averages out to 11.1 touches per game. In this week’s Wobcast – where Cris Carter is featured as the guest – I pointed to three players who could see a few more touches if Harvin doesn’t play: WR Jarius Wright and TEs John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph.

Harvin also has a role on special teams as the Vikings kickoff returner, and Vikings Head Coach Mike Priefer said a number of guys could step into that role if Harvin is unable to play. Marcus Sherels, the Vikings starting punt returner, can do it, as can Wright, WR Stephen Burton and CBs A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robinson.


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From The Ground Up: Vikings Offense Paced By Ground Attack

Posted by Mike Wobschall on September 14, 2012 – 6:42 am

It’s no secret. The NFL is a passing league. In 2011, only 3 teams (Denver, Houston, San Francisco) ran the ball more frequently than they passed it, and nearly 33% of NFL teams threw the ball in excess of 60% of the time. Also in 2011, 3 NFL QBs (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford) threw for 5,000+ yards and 3 had (Brees, Stafford, Aaron Rodgers) 40+ TD passes.

While it’s no question the preferred method of moving the ball in the NFL is through the air, there are still teams and coaches who place a tremendous value on running the ball. The Vikings and Head Coach Leslie Frazier fall into that category. And it’s for good reason. Since 2007 when the Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson and hired Frazier as defensive coordinator, the Vikings have been the NFL’s best rushing team. They rank first over that span in total rushing yards (11,272), per-carry average (4.7), rushing TDs (92) and runs of 10+ yards (333).

“It’s big for our team,” Frazier said of the running game. “In a League where passing the football has become first for so many teams, we’ve taken a little bit different approach and featuring a guy who we think is the best running back in pro football in Adrian Peterson and because of that, it takes a lot of pressure off our young quarterback as well as our passing game.”

The Vikings understand the importance of being able to move the ball through the air, too. That’s why they signed free agents such as TE John Carlson and Jerome Simpson, and that’s why they used draft picks on the likes of LT Matt Kalil and a pair of WRs in the 4th round (Jarius Wright, Greg Childs). The development of young QB Christian Ponder was priority A for the Vikings this past offseason, and everyone at Winter Park knows Ponder’s progress will be key to future success. Frazier’s contention, though, is that the presence of a productive running game will ease the pressure on Ponder because opponents are forced to figure out a way to contain Peterson and Gerhart before they think about defending the Vikings passing attack.

“Having a guy like the guy that we do have makes us very unique from an offensive standpoint,” Frazier explained, “but it helps us to achieve our goals as a football team, having a good running game and establishing the run for us to run our offense and really win the way we want to win.”

As he’s explained, Frazier wants the Vikings running game to set the tone and allow Ponder and Co. to operate with more freedom. Additionally, being able to run the ball well can shorten a game for a team when it has the lead. But Frazier also explained that his desire to run the ball well is not about being a conservative team that looks to shorten the game and win close contests. Frazier sees the Vikings running game as one with explosion and scoring capability.

“For us, that’s exactly the approach we take but we also believe that we can also get explosive plays through the running game because of who we have at the halfback position,” Frazier said. “It’s not just ground and pound. We have a guy who can break the 20-yard run, the 60-yard run. Most people have to get that throwing the football down the field, and we want to be able to do the same. That’s one of the reasons we made the offseason acquisition of Jerome (Simpson) and try to feature Percy the way we do. But being able to have a balanced attack and still feature our run game is who we are.”

Side Note
Peterson and Gerhart get most of the credit for the Vikings productive running attack. On Sunday in the season opener, though, another member of the backfield was key to the Vikings ground game – FB Jerome Felton. Both Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave mentioned how well Felton played in his first regular season game as a Viking.

Said Frazier: “He played extremely well and that was a lot of snaps for him. There wasn’t one time a season ago we had that many snaps with our fullback on the field and a lot of it had to do with the way he played and what’s happening when he is on the field. It was really encouraging for all of us to see him dominate the way he did. There may be more opportunities for him as we go forward.”

Said Musgrave: “Jerome Felton played really well. He was a presence out there. He was also a presence on the sideline in terms of being the leader. He suggested a couple of amendments to our game plan during the game and we took them to heart and they really paved the way for good runs there in the second half.”


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Vikings List 8 On Initial Injury Report, All Practice

Posted by Mike Wobschall on September 12, 2012 – 2:56 pm

The Vikings listed 8 players on their initial Week 2 injury report, and all of them participated in practice on Wednesday.

Listed as full participants in practice are RB Adrian Peterson (knee) and CB Josh Robinson (hip). Those who were limited in practice were: CB Chris Cook (biceps), LB Marvin Mitchell (ankle), S Andrew Sendejo (ankle), C John Sullivan (ankle), WR Jarius Wright (ankle) and TE Rhett Ellison (ankle).

The Colts listed 6 players on their report. LB Pat Angerer (foot), LB Dwight Freeney (ankle), and G Joe Reitz (knee) did not participate in practice. OT Winston Justice (head) was limited and WR Austin Collie (head) and WR T.Y. Hilton (shoulder) were full participants.


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