Vikings have tough road to playoffs; rookie contibutions are key

Published 2:28 am Thursday, July 25, 2013

Column: Notes from Nashville, by Andrew Dyrdal

The Minnesota Vikings reported to training camp today, and I’m sure many people from around the area will head over to Mankato tomorrow afternoon for the team’s first open practice (remember, no autographs until Monday, though, so leave you’re Adrian Peterson poster at home).

It will be an exciting summer with added expectations after the team finished a surprising 10-6 last season and snuck into the playoffs. The Vikings have added plenty of young talent with three first-round draft picks. However, they lost major pieces too, with Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield — coming off arguably his best season — both headed to Seattle.

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Here are some of my predictions for the Vikings’ 2013-14 season:

• Peterson will post back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons. AP, the offensive line and fullback Jerome Felton were so tuned in late last season, that anytime Peterson didn’t rush for 200 yards in a game it felt like a letdown. I think that chemistry will carry over to next season like a well-oiled machine, but if Peterson reaches 2,000 yards again, it won’t necessarily be a good sign. Quarterback Christian Ponder must make serious strides in the passing game to balance the offense and relieve the reliance on AP.

• Cordarrelle Patterson won’t be a major factor on offense. More than any new player, I am excited to watch Patterson in purple and gold this season. I expect him to return kickoffs and challenge Rochester John Marshall graduate Marcus Sherels for the punt returning spot, but I don’t see him catching a ton of passes from Ponder. I hope Bill Musgrave finds creative ways to get the ball in Patterson’s hands, such as lining him up in the backfield, but I believe he’ll be fourth on the depth chart at receiver behind Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright, until he improves as a route runner.

• Xavier Rhodes will have the biggest impact of the rookie class. In the pass-heavy NFC North, I believe Rhodes will see plenty of time lining up against some of the top receivers in the league. The Vikings’ depth at cornerback still remains a question, though, with the team leaning on Chris Cook — who is yet to record an interception in three seasons — and second-year player Josh Robinson. I hope to see Rhodes take cues from last season’s rookie standout Harrison Barnes as a hard-hitting enforcer in the secondary.

• Ponder won’t be great but good enough. I don’t see Ponder ever becoming an elite NFL quarterback. I’m not sure he’ll ever crack the top 15. But with a historically good running back, great offensive line and strong defense, he won’t need to be to give the Vikings a chance to win the division. I don’t think teams can win a Super Bowl without a great quarterback, so the Vikings are nowhere near contenders for a ring, but I think Ponder will use his strong skill set, which includes arm strength and athleticism, and build off his solid finish to last season. Expect 22 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and 3,200 passing yards.

• I am a huge Vikings fan and eternal optimist, but realistically I don’t see the Vikings making the playoffs this year. The NFC has incredible depth and 12 teams that have a legitimate shot at the postseason, including Minnesota. Cracking the top six may prove too difficult. With Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and Washington as near-locks, the Vikings will have to beat out teams like Chicago, the Giants, Dallas and New Orleans for the final spot. I predict a 9-7 finish.

Andrew Dyrdal’s column appears in the Tribune each Thursday.