Here is a close look at the Minnesota Vikings as they head into their season opener against the Detroit Lions Sunday, 1 p.m. ET.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Christian Ponder. Backups - Matt Cassel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
Ponder has shown he can be the guy to complement RB Adrian Peterson in a run-oriented, ball-control offense, but not consistently. So the Vikings wanted a better Plan B in case of injury or prolonged ineffectiveness. Cassel didn't have a great preseason, but he has experience and would be a much better option than Joe Webb was a year ago. The Vikings won't have a quick hook on Ponder, but he knows the hook will come quicker than it would have without Cassel behind him.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Adrian Peterson; FB Rhett Ellison. Backups - RB Toby Gerhart, RB Matt Asiata; FB Zach Line. Suspended - FB Jerome Felton.
Peterson, the reigning league MVP, is the best running back in the league today, coming off one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history, 2,097 yards rushing -- eight yards short of tying the single season record -- coming off ACL surgery. Felton made the Pro Bowl a year ago as Peterson's lead blocker, but he is suspended three games for substance abuse violation (DUI). Ellison, a second-year TE/H-back/FB hybrid, will fill in while Felton is out. Line, an undrafted rookie from SMU, could step in if needed.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Kyle Rudolph. Backups - John Carlson, Ellison.
Rudolph is a big target with an even bigger catching radius and one of Ponder's favorite targets. Carlson is healthy after a preseason knee injury and an early-season concussion rendered him basically useless as a pass-catcher last year. The Vikings have more two tight-end formations that they'll use this season.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson. Backups - Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Joe Webb.
Going against their own historic trend, the Vikings pursued and bagged Jennings, a 30-year old free agent, for up to $47.5 million over five years. Jennings missed 11 games the past two seasons because of knee and core muscle injuries. Simpson is coming off a dismal season that included a three-game suspension. Wright is a promising second-year player who plays in the slot and can get deep. Patterson is the most physically gifted receiver on the roster, but he is raw. Webb made the team after being switched to receiver from tight end.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups - T J'Marcus Webb, C Joe Berger, G Jeff Baca.
This same five started all 17 games a year ago. They got the job done well enough to win 10 games, spring A. P. for all those yards and make the playoffs. But their 2013 preseason was not good, however. Maybe the presence of A. P. -- who didn't carry in preseason -- and game plans will help. Kalil struggled in pass protection. Webb was claimed off waivers from the Bears after final cuts and although he had issues in Chicago is seen as a durable 25-year-old with 44 career starts. Baca is a rookie sixth-round pick who is still raw. Berger is capable of starting either guard spot as well as center.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LE Jared Allen, UT Kevin Williams, NT Letroy Guion, LE Brian Robison. Backups - E Everson Griffen, LE George Johnson, NT Fred Evans, NT Chase Baker, UT Sharrif Floyd.
Allen is in a contract year and he's finally healthy again after having offseason shoulder and knee surgeries. He had 12 sacks a year ago while playing basically without his left arm. Robison is coming off a career-high 8 1/2 sacks. Williams probably won't start the regular season because of a severely strained right knee. Look for Guion to slide to his spot and Evans to move in at NT. Evans has come a long way and could start for a number of teams as could Griffen, who is one of the most versatile, athletic defenders in the league. Floyd, the rookie first-round pick, will see significant playing time, but had some preseason injury issues.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Marvin Mitchell, MLB Erin Henderson, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups - SLB Larry Dean, MLB Audie Cole, MLB Michael Mauti, WLB Desmond Bishop, WLB Gerald Hodges.
Other than Greenway, who has led the team in tackles the past five years, this unit is filled with questions. Does Henderson have the discipline to play within the scheme? Is Mitchell good enough to start in the NFL or did he win the job by default when Bishop injured his groin early in camp? Bishop, the former Packer who missed all of last season because of a torn hamstring, should unseat Mitchell. The Vikings were impressed by Penn State rookies Mauti and Hodges, who may be future starters.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Josh Robinson, RCB Chris Cook, FS Harrison Smith, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups - LCB Xavier Rhodes, LCB Marcus Sherels, RCB A.J. Jefferson, SS Mistral Raymond, SS Robert Blanton, FS Andrew Sendejo.
The Vikings head into the NFC North with Cook, Robinson and Rhodes as their top three corners. Cook missed more games (26) than he's played (22) in three seasons. Injuries and legal issues kept Cook from fulfilling his potential. Robinson is a speedy second-year player, but he's still raw. Rhodes was slowed early in camp by a hamstring injury. At safety, Smith had a strong rookie season and is a star in the making. Sanford is a career overachiever who is a hard hitter.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters - K Blair Walsh, P Jeff Locke, H Locke, PR Marcus Sherels, KR Cordarrelle Patterson, LS Cullen Loeffler.
Walsh's rookie season might have been the best in NFL history. He made 35 of 38 field goal attempts, including an NFL-record 10 without a miss of 50 yards or more. Locke is a kid with a big leg, drafted in the fifth round to replace Chris Kluwe. Sherels isn't explosive, but he's one of the more dependable returners in the league. The rookie Patterson, meanwhile, is extremely explosive.
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- Adrian Peterson
- Minnesota Vikings
- Matt Cassel
- Christian Ponder
- Joe Webb
- Rhett Ellison
- Jerome Felton
- Greg Jennings