Sunday, July 11, 2010

Up to the Challenge?

Your Minnesota Vikings, arguably the most talented team in the NFL, led the league with eight Pro Bowl selections last season. Yet their 2010 hopes could hinge on an unheralded trio of former draft day leftovers. In a typical NFL draft, coma-inducing amounts of buffalo wings and Budweisers leave fans floored by the end of round one (Insert your favorite JaMarcus Russell joke here). But while visions of Adrian and Percy dance in our heads, Vikings architect Rick Spielman is going back for seconds in NYC. It's there, sifting through the remnants of the blue chip buffet line, that he's recently uncovered the likes of Jasper Brinkley, John Sullivan, and Jamarca Sanford. This season, Spielman's draft day scraps will be heavily relied upon, as the aging Vikings scramble for a Super Bowl before their window of opportunity closes.

Mission: Fill the shoes of defensive captain, emotional leader, and mentor, E.J. Henderson. Henderson continues to rehab the gruesome leg injury that ended his 2009 season, and is not expected to be ready for the start of the 2010 season.
Profile: When the burly Brinkley continued to slide in the 2009 draft, the Vikings traded up eight spots to pluck the South Carolina Gamecock. A special teams standout in his rookie year, Brinkley was thrust into the starting lineup when Henderson's leg turned to jello in a Week 13 loss at Arizona (click here at your own risk). Instead of adding a veteran free agent, such as Derrick Brooks, the Vikings rolled with Brinkley for the final six games of the season. Initially, Brinkley played like a rookie 5th-rounder, as his positioning and pass defense were suspect. But he was stout against the run, and the Vikings were able to hide him in many passing situations by leaving Ben Leber on the field to cover the deep middle. The hard-hitting rookie steadily improved with each start, and had a very solid postseason. In retrospect, the team's defensive Yds/Game and Pts/Game were actually slightly better in Brinkley's six starts (276, 18.8) than Henderson's twelve (311.5, 19.4). His overall 2009 performance was admirable, considering the difficulty of the situation and the speed at which he adapted. Brinkley apparently made a strong impression with the coaching staff as well, and continued to garner positive buzz throughout OTA's this May. By not making any significant moves to address the position in the draft or free agency, Spielman & Co. appear content in letting Brinkley hold down the fort until Henderson returns. It's not unrealistic to think that he could be the long term replacement for the aging vet, who's coming off his second consecutive season-ending injury. To get a hammer like Brinkley in the 5th round was a steal, and the Vikings will be counting on his continued improvement in the early stages of 2010.

Mission: Be the most improved player on the team next season.
Profile: Matt Birk's departure cost the Vikings a Super Bowl ring. There, I said it. If nothing else, the Ivy Leaguer could have counted to eleven (Damn you, Tahi). When Birk left for Baltimore before last season, Sullivan, a second-year pro, was elevated to the top of the depth chart. He experienced the hand of Favre for all 18 games in 2009. The former 6th-rounder was just O.K. in his impossible assignment of filling Birk's shoes. Outside of a few infamous (late) hits on Favre, the pass protection was very solid last season. However, the run-blocking took a noticeable step backwards without Birk. The line was out of sync, constantly beat at the point of attack, and Adrian Peterson was often hit before he even had the opportunity to fumble. Sullivan's brightest moment came in the Divisional Playoff Game against Dallas, where he neutralized dominant Nose Tackle Jay Ratliff. The coaching staff has been in Sullivan's corner every step of the way. They made no known attempt to trade up and draft standout Florida Center, Maurkice Pouncey, in April's draft. Veteran Kevin Mawae is still a free agent, but his name can't even crack Charley Walter's column. The Vikings seem confident that the line will gel with Sullivan in the middle again in 2010. They also hope that, like Birk, they've found a franchise Center in the 6th round.

Mission: Push Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams for a starting Safety spot.
Profile: The Vikings couldn't be more pleased with their 2009 7th-rounder out of Ole Miss. The hard-hitting rookie immediately established himself as a special teams stud, and the primary backup to SS Tyrell Johnson and FS Madieu Williams. By the end of the season, he was stealing reps from the former second rounder, Johnson. After being spotted for the first time in the NFC title game, many seem to think Johnson is on the verge of a big season. There's still no word on Madieu Williams, who's been missing since February of 2008. Needless to say, both Safety positions are wide open, and Sanford's tenacity is a breath of fresh air. He's a bit undersized at 5'10", but he plays much bigger than either Johnson or Williams. Again, in what's become a recurring theme of this article, the Vikings ignored one of their supposed weaknesses this offseason. They passed on USC super-freak Taylor Mays in the draft, and then on established veteran O.J. Atogwe in free agency. Keep an eye out for Sanford in the preseason; I have a feeling he's going to make some noise.

In the coming weeks, the Brett Favre circus will take center stage. It will be easy to forget about guys like Brinkley, Sullivan, and Sanford. And that's fine; they're used to it. Just remember that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Are they up to the challenge?

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