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The Sports Xchange, Published July 17 2013

Ponder's development is focus of Vikings camp

Adrian Peterson, fresh off a near-record 2,098-yard season, wants to obliterate Eric Dickerson's NFL mark with 2,500 more this year. The Vikings hope that doesn't happen. Or at least isn't necessary.

The reigning league MVP is the greatest running back of his generation, if not more. But a second straight 2,000-yard season likely would mean that quarterback Christian Ponder and last year's 31st-ranked passing game are still virtually useless anchors hanging around Peterson's thick neck.

So the focus in training camp shouldn't be on Peterson, but rather on the wildly inconsistent Ponder and a revamped receiving corps that must come together quickly if the Vikings are to achieve the necessary balance needed to match or improve on last year's 10-6 record and wild-card playoff berth.

It won't be easy. Gone is Percy Harvin, the electric playmaking receiver-returner, traded to Seattle when his relationship with the team dissolved beyond repair. Harvin was an early MVP front-runner last season before an ankle injury ended his season after nine games, but the Vikings did make a playoff push that included a 4-0 finish with Harvin long gone from the lineup.

Training camp and the preseason will provide a better indication as to whether former Packer Greg Jennings and raw rookie Cordarrelle Patterson have what it takes to make fans forget about Harvin. Jennings is a savvy route-runner with experience and deceptive speed, but he also turns 30 this season and has struggled with injuries the past two seasons. Patterson is a freakish athlete with tremendous potential, but may need a year to learn all the intricacies of the NFL game.

Defensively, the Vikings head into camp looking for more plays in the back seven. The kind of plays that should match the tremendous front-four pass rush the Vikings have had in recent years.

The linebackers have question marks across the board. Even strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway, the team's leading tackler the last five years, is coming off minor knee surgery that sidelined him in minicamp. Meanwhile, the secondary has a lot of promise, but also is without Antoine Winfield, its best player and veteran leader, for the first time in a decade.

Look for former Packer Desmond Bishop to beat out or even start camp at middle linebacker ahead of Erin Henderson. Henderson spent the offseason in the middle, but should end up back on the weak side since Bishop was signed after the team had plenty of opportunities to evaluate Henderson as a middle linebacker in OTAs and minicamp. Also look for rookie Xavier Rhodes, the 25th overall draft pick this year, to step in at Winfield's old spot on the left side. Second-year pro Josh Robinson ran with the first team during the offseason, but Rhodes' talent will win out in camp. Robinson, however, is the front-runner for the nickel slot position that Winfield played in passing situations.

On special teams, the Vikings took a chance by choosing to discard outspoken veteran punter Chris Kluwe in favor of fifth-round draft pick Jeff Locke. Of course, this comes a year after they took an even bigger chance by cutting veteran kicker Ryan Longwell in favor of sixth-round draft pick Blair Walsh.

Walsh came into camp with a ton of confidence a year ago. He went from a horrendous senior season at Georgia to earning All-Pro honors during a record-setting rookie season.

Whether Locke or any other player can step up like that in 2013 will start coming into focus soon enough when the Vikings report to camp on July 25.

On the hot seat: Quarterback Christian Ponder.

Everyone involved with the Vikings - including new backup quarterback Matt Cassel - is saying the right thing about Ponder being the starting quarterback. But the reality is Ponder's grip on the starting job has never been looser. For the first time since Ponder joined the team, there is a legitimate backup to turn to if/when Ponder sinks into one of those prolonged slumps of his. General manager Rick Spielman likes to say it takes him three years to evaluate a draft pick. Well, this is Year 3 for Ponder. And so far, the 12th overall pick from 2011 hasn't done enough to seize indisputable claim to being the team's long-term answer at quarterback. With Adrian Peterson in his prime, the Vikings can't afford another inconsistent season from Ponder.

As great as Peterson was a year ago, the Vikings still barely made the playoffs. When Ponder slumped, the team skidded to 6-6 through 12 games. When Ponder finally snapped out of it, the Vikings went 4-0 and clinched a playoff spot with a win over the visiting Packers in the regular-season finale. A throwing-arm injury kept Ponder out of the wild-card game at Green Bay a week later. Backup Joe Webb came in and was awful in a lopsided loss. Now, Webb is a receiver and Cassel has been summoned to give the Vikings their first legitimate Plan B since Ponder arrived.

Cause for concern: As historically great as Peterson is, the Vikings aren't going deep into the playoffs - assuming they can even get back to the postseason -- unless quarterback Christian Ponder finally proves he's a bonafide NFL starting quarterback. That's cause for concern No. 1 for those who aren't sipping the Purple kool-aid. Ponder's wildly inconsistent two-year start can be illustrated by last year's series against Green Bay. On Dec. 2 at Green Bay, Ponder posted a 41.9 passer rating and threw two ill-advised interceptions that crushed the Vikings' chances of stealing a winnable game. Twenty-eight days later, Ponder posted a career-high 120.2 passer rating with three touchdowns and no picks in a playoff-clinching win over the Packers at home. At this point, no one is quite sure which Ponder the Vikings will be getting each week.

Breakthrough star: Among this year's three first-round draft picks, cornerback Xavier Rhodes will make the biggest impact as a rookie. He'll start from Day 1 and has the size, skill and attitude to handle it when the rest of the pass-crazy NFC North challenges him early and often this fall. Rhodes showed strong physicality and instincts during OTAs and minicamps.

Position battles: No. 2 receiver -- Cordarrelle Patterson vs. Jerome Simpson. The general feeling is Patterson is raw and will need a year to develop his route running and understanding of the more complicated NFL. But he's also a physically gifted first-round pick. One that the Vikings swapped four picks to move up for. Simpson, meanwhile, was a huge disappointment in his first season with the Vikings a year ago. A three-game suspension, a lingering back injury and some embarrassing drops rendered him virtually useless in an offense that was starving for a receiver to step up. The notion that Patterson will be a No. 3 receiver could be shot early on if Patterson showcases his elite talent and Simpson struggles.

Left cornerback -- Josh Robinson vs. Xavier Rhodes. Robinson, last year's third-round draft pick, heads into training camp as the starter. But that won't last long. Rhodes, the 25th overall pick this year, has better size and overall skills. He's expected to be the opening-day starter, but he'll have to earn it. Robinson, one of the fastest players in the league, should still see considerable playing time if he adjusts to a new role as a slot corner.

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NFL Team Report - Minnesota Vikings - NOTES, QUOTES

--Quarterback Christian Ponder is heading into his third NFL season. Well, sort of, says offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

"This is really his second orthodox offseason," said Musgrave, referring to the NFL lockout that wiped out Ponder's offseason before his rookie year. "He didn't have one initially after he was drafted. There are much fewer unknowns for him at this stage even than there were a year ago. He knows more of what to expect and lets himself go a little bit and not be so guarded.

"His decision making, we're assessing every day with all these competitive periods (in OTAs and minicamp). It's been good."

--Flying under the radar - so far, at least - is the fact the Vikings' starting center has missed an entire offseason of preparation because of microfracture knee surgery. The Vikings say it's nothing serious. At least not serious enough to keep John Sullivan sidelined in training camp.

"Hopefully, there are no setbacks between now and then," coach Leslie Frazier said. "Then when we get (to training camp) we will plug him in right away. Unless they tell us there are some restrictions, we plan on plugging him in and going full speed ahead. From what I've been told there should not be any restrictions."

That's good news for the Vikings. They have a solid backup in Joe Berger, but Sullivan has built himself into one of the best centers in the NFC.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Less thinking, more reacting." - Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, when asked what rookie first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson needs to do to get better as an NFL receiver.

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NFL Team Report - Minnesota Vikings - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Christian Ponder. Backups - Matt Cassel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Vandenberg.

Among those who haven't already written Ponder off, most are still scratching their heads trying to define the real Christian Ponder. Is he the guy who blew the Packers game at Lambeau Field? You know, the guy who threw two ridiculously ill-advised and game-crushing interceptions in a winnable game that ended with the Vikings losing for the fourth time in five games. Or can he be the guy who came back four weeks later and had the best game of his career as the Vikings beat the visiting Packers to clinch a playoff spot on the final week of the regular season? With Peterson ripping through the Packers' run defense, Ponder showed he can be a strong complement when he tied a career high with three touchdowns, set a career high with a 120.2 passer rating and threw no interceptions. If Ponder can't be the latter on a more consistent basis, look for the Vikings to turn to Cassel. Cassel was a quality backup in New England, but he's also started more than 70 games and made a Pro Bowl in Kansas City.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Adrian Peterson, FB Jerome Felton. Backups - Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Bradley Randle, Jerodis Williams, FB Rhett Ellison, FB Zach Line.

Peterson is the best running back in the league, if not the best player. To put any kind of limits on him is ridiculous. He proved that last year when he had a season for the ages less than nine months after blowing out his left knee on what was a gruesome injury. Felton was a journeyman until settling in as a Pro-Bowl fullback in front of Peterson a year ago. They worked well together, which is saying a lot because Peterson normally prefers single-back formations. Gerhart is one of the best - and freshest - backups in the league. The little-used big back has one more year as Peterson's backup before he'll leave for an opportunity to start elsewhere. Ellison had a surprisingly strong rookie season in 2012. He's a tight end/fullback hybrid who fills a role similar to the one former Viking Jim Kleinsasser filled for many seasons.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Kyle Rudolph. Backups - John Carlson, Colin Anderson, Chase Ford.

If the wide receivers step up and Ponder connects on some deep balls, Rudolph will have the best season of an already strong NFL career. Last year's Pro-Bowl MVP is a large target (6-6, 259) with a tremendous catching radius, soft hands and enough speed. A favorite target of Ponder's since the two joined the league in 2011, Rudolph had nine touchdown catches a year ago. Rudolph would be even more productive if the Vikings had some semblance of a downfield passing attack. Too many times, defenses have been able to gang up on Rudolph, knowing exactly where the ball was going. Carlson, last year's prized free-agent signing, hopes to rebound from an awful 2012 season. He started out injured and never caught up. If he can stay healthy - a big if -- the Vikings could have one of the league's better pass-catching tight end duos.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson. Backups - Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Joe Webb, Stephen Burton, Adam Thielen, Chris Summers, Rodney Smith, Greg Childs, Erik Highsmith, LaMark Brown.

Jennings says he isn't old, even though he turns 30 on Sept. 21. He says he's still got a lot left in the tank, even though he's missed 11 games because of knee and core muscle injuries the past two seasons. The Vikings banked on Jennings being exactly what they needed after Percy Harvin forced his trade to Seattle. Did the Vikings violate their own cardinal rule and overpay an older, injury-prone free agent? Or did they make the right gamble at the right time? Even if Jennings steps up, it won't be enough to carry the passing game. Simpson is being given a second chance after a disappointing first season in Minnesota. He came with high expectations from Cincinnati, but a three-game suspension was followed by a leg/back injury and a season that basically was invisible. Wright was a pleasant surprise after spending the first nine games as a game-day inactive. He has potential, but the biggest wild card in this equation is Patterson. The Vikings are being careful not to load him up with heavy expectations. They say he's a raw talent who will need time to develop. But, c'mon. The reality is the Vikings traded four picks to move back into the first round so they could take Patterson. In today's NFL, teams are going to want some quick return on an investment like that.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups - C-G Joe Berger, G Jeff Baca, G Seth Olsen, G Travis Bond, G Tyler Holmes, T Brandon Keith, G Troy Kropog, T DeMarcus Love, T Kevin Murphy, C Camden Wentz.

The Vikings started the same five players in all 17 games a year ago. Kalil lived up to his billing as a future star left tackle, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie fourth overall draft pick. Sullivan is one of the best centers in the NFC and should have earned his first Pro Bowl nod. He's coming off microfracture surgery on his knee, but all indications are he'll be ready for the start of training camp, if not the preseason. Loadholt is still inconsistent, but he's getting better. The Vikings showed their belief in him when they gave him a mega deal that blocked him from signing with the Bears this offseason. The guards have the inside track on starting again this season, but it's not a given. Johnson and Fusco will be pushed by a number of new young guards, including Olsen, Baca, Bond and Holmes. Fusco struggled to hold onto his job as a first-year starter a year ago. He finally showed confidence at the end of the season, but will need to keep getting better.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - RDE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, NT Letroy Guion, LDE Brian Robison. Backups - DT Christian Ballard, NT Fred Evans, DT Sharrif Floyd, DE Everson Griffen, RDE Lawrence Jackson, DT Chase Baker, DT Everett Dawkins, DE Marquis Jackson, LDE George Johnson, RDE D'Aundre Reed, DT Anthony McCloud, DE Collins Ukwu.

Allen has 34 sacks the past two seasons - including a franchise-record 22 in 2011 - and is in the last year of his contract. With a number of younger defensive ends behind him, he's likely playing for a high-paid spot on another team in 2014. That's OK with the Vikings since Allen, one of their best players, will be extra motivated to wreak havoc on quarterbacks named Rodgers, Cutler and Stafford. Robison continues to be a steady presence on the other side, but will be pushed again by Griffen. Griffen is the team's most versatile athlete. He can play either end position, linebacker and tackle. Heck, he can even play gunner on the punt team. Williams, one of the better defensive tackles in team history (and that's saying something in Minnesota), will start in what probably will be his final season. But he'll also share considerable time with Floyd, the 23rd overall draft pick this year. Floyd, the first defensive lineman selected in the first round by the Vikings since Williams in 2003, is stout against the run and can penetrate inside gaps to get to the quarterback. The Vikings plan to keep Floyd at under tackle, but if he and Williams are both playing well, look for Floyd to get some of Guion's playing time at nose tackle. Guion is a former under tackle who was moved to the nose last summer.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - MLB Desmond Bishop, WLB Erin Henderson, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups - MLB Audie Cole, SLB Larry Dean, WLB Gerald Hodges, MLB Michael Mauti, MLB Tyrone McKenzie, WLB Marvin Mitchell, MLB Nathan Williams.

One of the only free agents the Vikings didn't re-sign this offseason was starting middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley. Big deal. Brinkley was such a one-dimensional player - a downhill run-stopper who was of little use in the Tampa 2 coverage schemes - the Vikings figured anything they came up with would be as good as what Brinkley gave them last season. When the draft came and went without the Vikings filling their immediate need at middle linebacker, Henderson was moved into the middle. Henderson is a career overachiever and a former undrafted player with an underdog mentality. But even he admits he makes too many mistakes because he's trying to do too much. Playing outside the scheme is a huge no-no in a Tampa 2-based scheme. Although Henderson declared himself the starter in the middle - his preferred position -- Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was lukewarm at best in his endorsement of Henderson as the solution at MLB.

Henderson likely lost any shot of starting in the middle when the Vikings made a late move to sign Bishop. The former Packer missed last season with a hamstring injury, but was an impact player in Green Bay's 3-4 scheme in 2011. Henderson should start on the weak side, while Greenway, a steady player who gets better each season, will anchor the strong side. There is little depth behind the starters, but Penn State rookies Hodges and Mauti could develop into starters down the road.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Xavier Rhodes, RCB Chris Cook, SS Jamarca Sanford, FS Harrison Smith. Backups - S Robert Blanton, S Mistral Raymond, CB A.J. Jefferson, LCB Josh Robinson, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Brandon Burton, CB Bobby Felder, CB Jacob Lacey, CB Greg McCoy, S Brandan Bishop, S Darius Eubanks.

Smith is a superstar free safety in the making. The 2012 first-round pick proved he has the instincts, coverage skills and nastiness to be a force on the back end of the team's defense for years to come. Losing Antoine Winfield hurts. He was the team's best defensive back, best tackler and among its best leaders for nine seasons. The Vikings thought they could release him and turn around and sign him to a cheaper deal. That plan fell apart when Seattle stepped in with a similar offer and Winfield, feeling slighted, picked the Seahawks instead. Winfield also is 36 years old, so it's not like continued success was a given. Losing Winfield led to the Vikings picking Rhodes in the first round. Rhodes is a big corner who has tremendous potential and should start immediately.

Robinson, last year's third-round draft pick, is one of the fastest players in the league. One area to watch in training camp is how well Robinson adjusts to playing over the slot in the nickel. He's never done it before, but the Vikings need someone to handle that role now that Winfield isn't here. Winfield was one of the best slot corners in the league. If Robinson can't get the job done, Lacey could get the nod. Lacey was signed off the street because he has experience in this defense. At strong safety, Sanford will once again have to fend off Raymond and Blanton. Sanford, the former seventh-round draft pick and ultimate overachiever, is a bulldog competitor and a locker-room favorite. He's not the most gifted player, but his attitude and work ethic are everything general manager Rick Spielman looks for in a player.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Blair Walsh, P Jeff Locke, LS Cullen Loeffler, PR Marcus Sherels, KOR Cordarrelle Patterson.

Most people assume the Vikings drafted Locke and released Chris Kluwe simply because Kluwe was an outspoken -- and relentless -- advocate for many issues including the controversial stance in favor of gay-marriage rights. The Vikings vehemently deny that that's the case. It's true that special teams coach Mike Priefer had grown tired of Kluwe's act. He made that perfectly clear when asked last season about Kluwe's public campaigning for former Raiders punter Ray Guy's selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Priefer also deserves the benefit of the doubt in this case. A year ago, he spotted something in Walsh that convinced the Vikings to get rid of longtime veteran Ryan Longwell, one of the league's more consistent kickers. The critics of that move were silenced when Walsh used Priefer's tips to turn a horrific senior season at Georgia into an All-Pro season as a rookie. Walsh missed only three field goals all season while setting an NFL record by making 10 of 10 attempts from 50 yards and beyond.

Kluwe is the best punter in team history, but 2012 was one of his more inconsistent. There were some uncharacteristic shanks while the Vikings finished 14th in net punting. For the Vikings' run-oriented attack to work, favorable field position is a must. Priefer thinks Locke will be an improvement over Kluwe. At this point, we'll defer to the only guy who thought Walsh would be an improvement over Longwell. Patterson has the potential to be as explosive at returning kicks as Harvin was during his four seasons in Minnesota. Sherels isn't explosive at punt returner, but he fields the ball with unflappable poise and sure hands. The Vikings have been trying to replace him for a couple seasons now, but they haven't been able to trust anyone the way they trust Sherels. Loeffler heads into his 10th season as one of the best long snappers in the league. Locke is expected to be the holder.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYERS: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED

--LB Gerald Hodges (4/120): $2,580,108/4 yrs, $420,108 SB.

--P Jeff Locke (5/155): $2,344,192/4 yrs, $184,192 SB.

--G Jeff Baca (6/196): $2,256,600/4 yrs, $96,600.

--LB Michael Mauti (7/213): $2,222,728/4 yrs, $62,728 SB.

--G Travis Bond (7/214): $2,222,448/4 yrs, $62,448 SB.

--DT Everett Dawkins (7/229): $2,210,352/4 yrs, $50,352.

DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED

--DT Sharrif Floyd (1/23).

--CB Xavier Rhodes (1/25).

--WR Cordarrelle Patterson (1/29).

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--C Joe Berger: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--FB Jerome Felton: UFA; $7.5M/3 yrs.

--LB Erin Henderson: UFA; $4M/2 yrs.

--CB A.J. Jefferson: RFA tendered at $1.323M with no compensation); $1.323M/1 yr.

--T/G Troy Kropog: ERFA; terms unknown.

--T Phil Loadholt: UFA; $25M/4 yrs, $7M SB.

--LB Marvin Mitchell: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--S Jamarca Sanford: UFA; $5M/2 yrs, $500,000 SB/$500,000 RB.

--S Andrew Sendejo: ERFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--CB/PR Marcus Sherels: ERFA; terms unknown.

--WR Jerome Simpson: UFA; $2.1M/1 yr, $500,000 SB.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--LB Desmond Bishop: FA Packers; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--QB Matt Cassel: FA Chiefs; $3.7M/1 yr, $4M option for 2014.

--DE Lawrence Jackson: UFA Lions; terms unknown.

--WR Greg Jennings: UFA Packers; $45M/5 yrs, $10M SB/$17.8M guaranteed.

--CB Jacob Lacey: UFA Lions; terms unknown.

--G Seth Olsen: Not tendered as RFA by Colts; terms unknown.

PLAYERS LOST

--WR Devin Aromashodu: Not tendered as UFA/Bears; terms unknown.

--LB Jasper Brinkley: UFA Cardinals; $3.5M/2 yrs, $400,000 SB.

--WR Percy Harvin (traded Seahawks).

--WR Michael Jenkins (released).

--P Chris Kluwe (released).

--G Geoff Schwartz: UFA Chiefs; $630,000/1 yr.

--CB Antoine Winfield (released).