Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Trailing Clouds of Playoff Heaven (Part Two): When Young Talent Comes Through

To read Pacifist Viking's take on a glorious 37-34 win over the Green Bay Packers, click here.

Youth is the lifeblood of NFL franchises. If a team isn't constantly acquiring young talent and developing them into players who can get it done on Sundays, the team you cheer for lustily every week during the season isn't going to be very good.

So one of the most encouraging things from the victory over Green Bay was that several of the Vikings young players played significant roles in that victory. This bodes well for Minnesota's immediate and long-term future. This is not an aging team with one shot to get it right, ala the 2009 Minnesota Vikings. It's a team that looks like it's on the rise. And if the five players I'm going to highlight below continue to play like they did in Sunday's win, the Vikes should be regular participants in the NFL's annual playoff dance. They might even be regular Super Bowl contenders.

Blair Walsh
When was the last time you worried about the rookie placekicker making a field goal? The season opener against the Jaguars, when he lined up to kick a 55-yarder on the final play of the game to tie it, was the last time I felt uneasy. After that game I never doubted Walsh would make a field goal regardless of the distance or the situation. And he made another three in the win over the Packers. Walsh has turned into an incredible weapon for the Vikings - not just because he's capable of making 60-plus yard field goals but with his kickoffs that either can't be returned because they land in the stands or because the hangtime he puts on them allows his coverage team to smother returners before they get to the 20 yard line. At 22 years of age, maybe he won't ever have a better than he's had this year. However, if he comes close to equaling his 2012 season consistently every year  he's with the Vikings, this club is at placekicker for a long time.

Everson Griffen
I've often wondered what Griffen could do with 50-60 snaps per game. I'm getting a pretty good idea based on how he's played the last three games. His three sacks against the Packers probably don't do justice to the impact he had in this game. He consistently beat Packers right tackle Don Barclay with speed and power moves as the Vikings defensive line put the kind of pressure on Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers that they needed to on a day when the secondary and linebackers weren't at their best. Griffen has a reputation as being a bit of a wildcard personality who can cause problems for himself off the field. On the field, Griffen has really blossomed this year into a player the Vikings can trust to make plays. And he's only 25. He can get better - not a good prospect for opposing quarterbacks, but a great prospect for Minnesota's defense.

Jarius Wright
The fourth-round draft pick is the Vikings most dangerous receiver right now. That's not a huge compliment when his competition is Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, Jerome Simpson and Stephen Burton, plus Percy Harvin isn't playing anymore. But this is just the start for Wright. He managed 22 catches or 310 yards and two touchdowns in seven games. Prorate that over 16 games and you get 50 catches for 708 yards and four TDs. That compares pretty favorably to the other rookie WRs who made an impact in 2012 - guys like Justin Blackmon, T.Y. Hilton, Josh Gordon and Kendall Wright. The Vikings Wright still needs to improve his consistency catching the ball, and assuming Harvin is back with the team, the coaches have to figure out how to use  two similar players on the field at the same time. The good news is that Wright has the quickness the Vikings passing game needs and he's shown he can get open deep. Minnesota needs more talent at the WR spot, but they've got a building a solid block for its passing game in Wright.

Kyle Rudolph
Rudolph didn't have a great game against Green Bay catching the ball (two catches for 20 yards). Still, the pass interference call he drew on Packers safety Jerrod McMillian late in the 3rd quarter to set up a Vikings touchdown demonstrates the problem Rudolph will be presenting to opposing safeties and linebackers for the next decade. He's too tall, his arms are too long and his hands are too big for the people asked to cover him. Rudolph doubled his production from 2011 in catches and yardage and tripled his TD catches and he was pretty much the only threat the Vikings had in the passing game in the red zone. He's never going to be a player who will outrun guys. He doesn't have to, though.

Christian Ponder
A few weeks ago I wrote this about Ponder. Two good games at two critical junctures hasn't changed my tune about Ponder - totally. Credit where credit is due, however. Ponder had his best game of the year against the Packers. For the second week in a row he looked confident, was more accurate than usual with his passing, he showed improved presence in the pocket (probably his biggest weakness as a QB) and overall made sound decisions when called upon. Ponder probably won't ever be a top 10 QB in the league - I don't think so based on what I've seen. But I'm a Vikings rube. I don't get paid to assess football talent. And because I'm a rube, I'm impatient. I overemphasize Ponder's every mistake. I may be guilty of underappreciating any progress he makes. He has shown he can play well enough to be an asset not a liability. What he has not shown in two years is that he can be that player every week. But if he can do that, if he can be that player consistently, Vikings fans will be happy he's wearing purple.

6 comments:

  1. I love it when a team has a lot of young talent. It's more fun to fall in love with a player when you know they've got more than a couple years left in their career.

    If Minnesota can draft as well as it has recently over the next couple of years, they can be in the playoff hunt for several consecutive years. That's so encouraging for fans of a team that had a heart breaking conference championship loss followed by two losing seasons and a stadium debacle.

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  2. Loving all of these young guys this season, such a turnaround from being one of the oldest teams in the league. Blair Walsh = weapon is spot on. Almost automatic from 60 on in and when is the last time you feared a returner? Griffen is an absolute beast, happy to see him play more. I even have to show Ponder some love, grudgingly, after a very impressive game. He still is not accurate enough for me but he's making enough plays to win games. Now he returns to the scene of his biggest failure. He has gotten better as the games have mattered more so we shall see if he can keep it up.

    Don't we have a young CB we can use instead of Sherels? Anybody? Blanton was a corner moved to safety, right? Somebody on the practice squad? Sherels is a solid returner, but he got picked on almost every play he was on the field. I know if there was someone better they would probably be playing. But I don't care who you put out there they could not do any worse than he did that last game. Please let Antoine be healthy.

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    1. I like Sherels - you can see his football mentality by the way he returns kicks - but he's no match for a passing attack like Green Bay's. I'm not sure who else they've got. I'm reading that Winfield will start Saturday's game as the nickel guy, but he'll have to have quite a club and some hefty pain killers to make it through the game. My suspicion is that he'll have to sit at some point. The Vikes' best hope is to have a 3 score lead before that happens.

      Come on, pass rush! Come on, turnovers! Come on, clock-eating drives!

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  3. Boys:

    But all hopes of forming a consistent winner in Minny still hinges on Ponder becoming a good QB. Not great, just good. I am not yet convinced he can do it.

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  4. Lots of receiving talent would help eventually. when a QB just has to get it close, his confidence grows and he throws with his instinct rather than overthinking it.

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  5. I don't think anyone is convinced he can do it, but with the recent uptick there is at least a glimmer of hope. Four weeks ago I gave him a zero percent chance of being even an average QB next year. Now I could see a decent chance of him being average, with a small shot of actually being good. Real NFL WR's would definitely help.

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