Pelissero: Scouts see Vikings as improved, but not up to North test
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings know how their schedule sets up.
They know how important it is to win Sunday's opener against Jacksonville and their Week 2 game at Indianapolis, considering what lies beyond.
"It's impossibly important," linebacker Chad Greenway said this week. "We have to look at it like it's got to happen."
Win those two games, and one of the NFL's youngest teams will have gained confidence and shucked the shackles of two seasons in which they won nine games combined.
Lose those two games, and matchups with two playoff teams from last season -- home against San Francisco, then at Detroit -- in Weeks 3 and 4 could send them hurtling towards another 0-4 start and all the disarray that comes with it.
"I have no idea what things will be like in Week 7, Week 8, Week 5, Week 4," coach Leslie Frazier said. "What's most important right now is getting off to a good start in Week 1, and that's the approach we're taking."
That's all the Vikings can do, at a time they're the afterthought in one of the NFL's toughest divisions.
Three personnel men for other NFL teams who saw the Vikings in the preseason broke down the NFC North this week in interviews with 1500ESPN.com, and all three predicted the same order of finish.
Two-time defending champion Green Bay remains the prohibitive favorite, on the strength of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a multitude of weapons that can cover up for a defense that improved up front through the draft but still has questions on the back end.
Detroit comes in second, thanks to Matthew Stafford's development at quarterback, Calvin Johnson's game-breaking talent at receiver and a pass rush that can take some pressure off their own shaky secondary.
Chicago remains a wild-card contender as well, with receiver Brandon Marshall the most impactful addition, although there are significant concerns about the Bears' offensive line and the decline of 30-something linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
The Vikings were the unanimous pick to finish last for a third straight year -- as much because of their inexperience while general manager Rick Spielman rebuilds the roster as the depth of a division in which they've lost 11 consecutive games.
"I don't know that there's a lot of holes that keep them fourth out of four," an NFC personnel man said. "I just think the other teams are better right now. I think Minnesota's definitely improved.
"They're going to be better at safety. They're going to be better at corner. Their offensive line's going to be better. Their quarterback's going to be better. Tight ends will be better."
But will all that translate to a significant jump in the win column after last season's 3-13 debacle?
The scouts pegged the Vikings anywhere from five to eight victories this time, with a favorable schedule including the NFC West and AFC South divisions on their side.
"I really wasn't impressed with them," an AFC executive said. "Just kind of looking at depth of talent and matchup situations -- they're better at left tackle now, certainly are. They just need to get their running back healthy, because they're going to need him."
The addition of top draft pick Matt Kalil went a long way towards solidifying the offensive line, which scuffled last season with Charlie Johnson miscast at left tackle and guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera in steep decline.
Nothing is more vital than the ascent of quarterback Christian Ponder, whose skill set scouts like if he stays healthy. The Vikings signed tight end John Carlson as a complement to Kyle Rudolph and still have one of the game's dynamic space players in Percy Harvin.
But scouts question the Vikings' balance of speed on the perimeter even after Jerome Simpson's three-game suspension ends. That could be exacerbated if halfback Adrian Peterson isn't himself following left knee reconstruction, since Toby Gerhart isn't a threat going side to side.
"When you're thinking about it through the eyes of a coordinator, really, what do you need to stop in the Vikings offense?" the AFC executive said. "You want to win on first down. You want to stop the run and you want to take away the explosive plays of Percy Harvin.
"At that stage, is it going to be more of a possessional offense, and are they going to have trouble scoring if you take away the big plays of one player? Then you can kind of go one-on-one across the board in other places."
On defense, the Vikings have one of the NFL's best end combinations (Jared Allen and Brian Robison) and two other declining Pro Bowl players (undertackle Kevin Williams and cornerback Antoine Winfield) who remain more than serviceable.
But they have new starters at nose tackle (Letroy Guion) and middle linebacker (Jasper Brinkley) and will rely heavily on four players (cornerbacks Chris Cook and Josh Robinson and safeties Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond) in the secondary who have 13 NFL starts between them.
"I'm kind of assuming those guys are going to be better," the NFC personnel man said. "Cook's back. The safety (Smith)'s in there. Even Raymond starting ahead of (Jamarca Sanford) I think will help. But those guys haven't gone out and done it other than the preseason."
They'll have time to iron things out before they begin division play on Sept. 30 against the Lions. The Vikings don't see Chicago or Green Bay until late November, playing four of their last six games against those two teams.
Every game starting on Sunday counts the same, though, and youth won't be an excuse.
"It's a tough division, top to bottom," another NFC scout said. "And I don't want to slight (the Vikings), because I really like how they've drafted lately, especially the last couple years."
Sixteen of the Vikings' 20 draft picks from those two years are on the 53-man roster, with two more on injured reserve. The tiebreaker in several surprise moves on cutdown day was younger players' age and upside.
The 53-man roster includes 40 players ages 27 and under, 17 who have played in fewer than seven NFL games and five first-time starters on offense or defense.
"There are a lot of guys that we feel have the ability," Spielman said. "Now it's just a matter of them learning what the NFL is about, learning the speed of the game, being patient and growing through some of the mistakes as they learn.
"But you see our football team maturing as well, where we were at the beginning of training camp and where some of these guys are now and where they'll be eight weeks from now and where they'll be hopefully 16 weeks from now and even off into the future years."
Owner Zygi Wilf signed off on the rebuilding plan before promoting Spielman to general manager in January.
That didn't stop Wilf from telling reporters at training camp he expects to win the division this year -- and delivering a similarly pointed message to players after Thursday's practice about the team's first season opener at home since 2007.
"First and foremost, (Wilf) said how proud he is of us and what we represent," Gerhart said. "But then he also made clear that there's a sense of urgency, that this is a must-win game. It's our home opener. This is the most important game in the eight years that he's been here, and it's the most important game of our careers. ...
"He believes in us. He knows we are more than what people are giving us credit for and Sunday's the first step in realizing our goal and our dream of winning the NFC North and becoming world champions."
No matter how far-fetched those goals may seem, the Vikings know their hope for achieving them could be dashed if they enter Sunday's game as a 4½-point favorite and fall flat.
They had too many of those letdowns last season, when they blew halftime leads in their first three games and lost nine times by seven points or fewer.
"We're not in this to build," Allen said. "We're in this to win right now."
The guess here is they go 6-10.
Lose the first two, and it could be worse. Win the first two, and -- well, at least things could be interesting into December for the first time since 2009.
"The biggest thing is you can't come in here to work every day and don't think you have a chance to win the division, or don't think you have a chance to win the NFC, don't think you have a chance to win the Super Bowl," Greenway said.
"If you're doing that, there's no point in being here and working as hard as we work. We have a young team. We know that. But there's been young teams that have gone a long ways in this league and surprised a lot of people. So, we know we're capable of it. It's just about going out there and doing it.
"Last year, we just didn't finish any games. How many of those games, if you win those close games at the end -- it's a completely different season. Even if you're getting to .500, completely different outlook on our organization. It's going to be about getting off to a good start."