Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
25 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
Last year's Vikings were as close to being a one-man show as any professional football team could possibly be. That needs to change. As great as Adrian Peterson is, he can’t carry a franchise on his back. Not if the objective is to reach a Super Bowl, anyway. The development of Christian Ponder is critical, though that development can’t occur without drastic improvements at wide receiver. Minnesota had to so obviously protect Ponder last season -– using almost only run-oriented formations and defined-read concepts such as play-action and rollouts –- because when Percy Harvin went down, there were zero receivers capable of beating man coverage. Harvin has since been traded; the hope is Greg Jennings can fill his void.
QB: Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel
RB: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Jerome Felton (FB)
Ponder must get firmer in the pocket, both mentally and physically. Part of pocket firmness is playing with more consistent drop-back and throwing mechanics. It might not be a bad idea for coordinator Bill Musgrave to build some read-option into this system. That, along with the usual bootlegs and rollouts, would be a way to take full advantage of Ponder’s mobility. Peterson may not have another 2,000-yard season, but there’s no reason to think he won’t still be a punishing workhorse if he stays healthy. He has improved drastically at operating out of two-man backfields, which is something he didn’t have the patience for early in his career.
WR: Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs, Stephen Burton; Lost: Percy Harvin, Michael Jenkins
TE: Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison
Jennings is a tough cover, but injuries have kept him under 1,000 yards the past two years. He can be a legit No. 1, but he doesn’t possess the unique multidimensional variables that Harvin offered. Simpson is, at best, a ho-hum No. 2 receiver. He doesn’t begin to have enough polish as a route runner, and profiles better as a No. 3. Wright has decent wheels, but remains raw. The rest of the receiving corps is unknown, as Childs has not set foot on an NFL field and Burton has made a minimal impact through two seasons. Neither will play much because the Vikings build a lot of their short-area passing game around the soft-handed Rudolph. They’ll predominantly throw from base formations; on that note, it would make sense to use more two-tight end looks this season in hopes of getting Carlson more involved. Then again, maybe it won't matter since Carlson didn't stand out at all last season.
LT: Matt Kalil LG: Charlie Johnson C: John Sullivan RG: Brandon Fusco RT: Phil Loadholt
Backups: Joe Berger, DeMarcus Love; Lost: Geoff Schwartz
All signs so far point to Kalil living up to his high draft status. Loadholt has improved enough in recent years to take advantage of his outstanding size. (Most of the time, anyway.) Inside, Sullivan does a good job stabilizing this line amidst the mediocrity that surrounds him at guard. Johnson is serviceable enough, but Fusco has been a difficult project for the Vikings coaching staff. His lack of natural strength (or an ability to apply it, anyway) has been an underlying issue.
This defense benefits from spending a lot of time in familiar zone concepts. Their backbone is the Tampa-2, though as last season progressed, Leslie Frazier and coordinator Alan Williams sprinkled in more single-high looks and selective blitzes. There isn’t quite enough talent here on the back end to play those looks more regularly, especially with a big hole -- for now -- at middle linebacker. However, there is enough talent on the front end for this defense to still succeed with the fairly vanilla Tampa-2 looks.
DE: Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, D'Aundre Reed
DT: Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, Fred Evans, Christian Ballard
The extra attention Allen draws (and sometimes manages to defeat) makes life easier on everyone. The quick, sinewy Robison, in particular, does a great job capitalizing on one-on-one matchups against overwhelmed right tackles. Still, he could soon lose some of his base defensive end snaps to Griffen, as it’s getting harder and harder to keep the unbelievably athletic fourth-year pro off the field. (Though it helps that Griffen can play both inside and outside, and can find his way on to the field in nickel situations thanks to that.) At tackle, Williams still holds down the fort effectively, though this will almost certainly be his last year in the Twin Cities. Guion has obvious talent but, as is also the case with Evans, he must exhibit it on a more regular basis. Ballard is developing into a fine interior nickel pass rusher.
OLB: Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson
ILB: Tyrone McKenzie, Audie Cole, Marvin Mitchell; Lost: Jasper Brinkley
Greenway is a complete three-down player. He moves well, diagnoses shrewdly, and seems to have a strong memory for what the offense is doing -- which leads to an inordinate number of anticipation plays later in games. Henderson would do a lot for his career if he could become a dynamic nickel player. He was solid in this sense last season; he must learn to be spectacular. Otherwise, he’ll always be considered replaceable. In the middle, McKenzie is currently slated to start, but expect that to change. The 27-year-old is a former third-round pick who tore his ACL in the summer of his rookie season and has since spent his career on the fringes of depth charts.
CB: Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, Brandon Burton, A.J. Jefferson; Lost: Antoine Winfield
S: Harrison Smith, Mistral Raymond, Robert Blanton, Jamarca Sanford
Cook and Robinson are both great athletes who are still a tad callow. Callowness tends to show a bit more in zone-playing corners. (In man, corners usually just have to react to their receiver, which means they can rely mostly on their athleticism. In zone, they must read the quarterback and the field, thus relying on their eyes to react.) Slot corner is a major concern. The best bet is probably to slide Robinson inside and hope that the lanky Jefferson can hold up on the outside. A better bet would be to find a stronger corner in the draft.
The organization is excited about the quick development of Smith at safety. Improved awareness led to significantly improved range during the course of his rookie season. He’s a very good space tackler. The question is whether Raymond can continue to be an adequate running mate. If he can’t will the Vikings give Blanton a look? Sanford has proven to be too mistake-prone.
K: Blair Walsh; P: Chris Kluwe
Walsh's Pro Bowl selection ignored the positive effects of kicking indoors, but he still had a strong rookie year. When his numbers fall in 2014, remember to look up at Vikings games and notice that you are seeing actual sky. Kluwe is a decent punter and a better talk show guest.
(Ed. Note: My mistake. The Vikings aren't moving outdoors until 2014. That's my screw-up, not Andy's. So Walsh gets another year of kickass raw numbers. -- Aaron Schatz)
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