Originally Published: September 1, 2013

Christian PonderAP Photo/Genevieve RossJOHN CLAYTON QB RANKING (22): Christian Ponder increased his completion percentage from 54.3 percent his rookie year to 62.1 percent last season.

Experts' Picks (Consensus: third)

Intelligence Report

Five things you need to know about the Vikings:

1. They're behind Christian Ponder, for now: When the Vikings signed Matt Cassel, they were consistent in saying the former Pro Bowler had come to back up Ponder, not challenge him for the job. But if Ponder gets off to a slow start -- particularly against a grueling early schedule -- it will be interesting to see how long they stick with Ponder. Benching him would be tantamount to admitting they made a mistake when they took him 12th overall in 2011, and plenty of people, from coach Leslie Frazier to general manager Rick Spielman, have a lot riding on Ponder's success. The quarterback theoretically has the tools around him to get the job done: a solid offensive line, a deeper group of receivers than he had last year and Adrian Peterson in the backfield. Now he has to justify the organization's faith in him.

2. Moving on from Antoine: For the first time in nearly a decade, the Vikings won't have Antoine Winfield in their defensive backfield. They released the 36-year-old in March rather than bringing him back for a 15th season at $7.25 million, and in doing so, they put their faith in a young secondary with much to prove. Chris Cook, the top cornerback, has yet to play more than 10 games in a season. Rookie Xavier Rhodes has promise, but the slot corner position -- where second-year man Josh Robinson takes over for Winfield -- could be where the Vikings are taking the biggest gamble. Few played the slot better than Winfield, and without him, the Vikings will have to hope their young corners can replace him.

3. Last ride for the D-line? The Vikings' defensive line has been one of the most consistent -- and most formidable -- parts of the team for years. But the players who have made that happen could be on their way out. Jared Allen's contract is up after this season, as are the deals for defensive end Brian Robison and defensive tackle Kevin Williams. Everson Griffen, also a free agent after this season, could be one of the pass-rushers the Vikings try to keep. The 25-year-old had eight sacks last season in a part-time role, and the Vikings love his versatility. He can play at both left and right end and will move inside to rush from the tackle position on third down.

4. A new No. 84 in town: Cordarrelle Patterson said he knew exactly what he was doing when he picked No. 84 -- Randy Moss' old number in Minnesota. The Vikings have high hopes for the rookie receiver, so much so that they traded three picks to move back into the first round and select him in this year's draft. But as a multidimensional talent, Patterson might have more in common with Percy Harvin than with Moss. The Vikings plan to use him as a kick returner and possibly a punt returner in addition to lining him up at split end.

5. 'All Day' doesn't have all day: Peterson turned 28 this spring, and as much as the relentlessly positive running back would point to his recovery from knee surgery last season as evidence he can defy the odds, he's not going to be an MVP-caliber runner forever. Although the Vikings have one of the youngest rosters in the league, plenty of factors are motivating them to win now, such as Allen's impending free agency and Frazier's uncertain future, but mostly the reality that Peterson's time is probably short. Coming off a surprising 10-6 season and a wild-card berth, the Vikings are eager to take the next step and maximize Peterson's talent. If they run out of patience with Ponder, it could be because they want to win with Peterson while he's still at his best.

-- Ben Goessling, ESPN.com

Inside The Numbers

Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards last season -- nine short of the NFL record -- and took home MVP honors. Although Peterson may be the NFL's most valuable player, Christian Ponder could be the key to the Vikings' success in 2013.

The Vikings' pass offense was conservative last season. Ponder's average pass traveled 6.4 yards downfield, the shortest rate for any qualified quarterback. By comparison, Andrew Luck and Jay Cutler each passed more than 10 yards downfield on average.

Percy Harvin was a big part of the Vikings' short passing game, as no wide receiver had more receptions at or behind the line of scrimmage (34), despite his missing seven games. The Vikings traded Harvin in the offseason but acquired two wide receivers who can stretch the field: former Packer Greg Jennings and first-round draft choice Cordarrelle Patterson.

With those two lining up wide for Minnesota this season, Ponder may be asked to throw deep more often. But can he? Ponder posted a league-low 19.4 completion percentage on passes more than 20 yards downfield last season (league average was 34.3 percent), going 6-of-31 on those passes.

In addition, Ponder failed to throw a touchdown on passes more than 20 yards downfield. Since the start of 2008, he is the only quarterback to attempt 30 such passes and not throw a touchdown in a single season.

If Ponder can't improve his downfield passing, it might not matter how many yards Peterson racks up on the ground.

-- ESPN Stats & Information


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