Pelissero: Vikings 'got our hands full' as they embrace major overhaul
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The rhetoric has shifted in recent weeks.
Gone are the denials of the Minnesota Vikings as a team in rebuilding mode. In their place are words about a foundation that is missing pieces to complete construction.
Asked on Thursday how many pieces that is, Leslie Frazier came as close as he has in 12 months as head coach to acknowledging the Vikings are in the midst of a major overhaul.
"We'll have to sit down and just dissect everything we're doing and how we're doing it and really begin to prepare for 2012," Frazier said. "That means the combine, the Senior Bowl, the draft, all of those things, because that's going to determine whether we take that step next year where we're not in a position we are right now.
"There's a lot we have to get done this offseason to catch up with the teams in our division. We've got our hands full. As much as I want us to move forward, we have a lot of work ahead of us. And I understand that. But I truly believe with the people we have in our organization, we'll close the gap. And this offseason is critical."
Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears is the Vikings' final chance to avoid going winless in division play for the first time in the franchise's 51-year history. They'll either match a franchise-worst record of 3-13 or finish on a two-game win streak at 4-12, which on some level is worse for a team that will lean heavily on the draft to revamp the roster.
The Vikings went from the NFL's third-oldest team in 2010 to No. 15 this season and by the start of 2012 could be the league's youngest. But that depends in part on how far Frazier is willing to let the youth movement go as he enters the second year of a three-year contract that probably will be addressed one way or another after next season.
"There has to be a philosophical marriage from ownership on down, through the general manager to the head coach," a personnel director from another NFL team said. "They all have to be working as one and ultimately be on the same plan here, because I think you can accomplish it all if everyone's communicating and working towards the same goal."
If it were up to vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman and others on the scouting side, the Vikings probably would have blown everything up a year ago. Frazier wasn't on board with that plan, though, and his equal voice in personnel matters yielded a trade for veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb that reiterated a message the team could be competitive in 2011.
Instead, the losses have mounted and the process has unfolded more gradually. The Vikings moved on from a handful of older players (Brett Favre, Pat Williams, Ben Leber, Jimmy Kennedy, Madieu Williams) before camp, a few more (Bryant McKinnie, Jeff Dugan, Heath Farwell) by cutdown day and two others (McNabb, Bernard Berrian) once it became apparent they had nothing left to contribute.
Jimmy Kleinsasser is retiring. Visanthe Shiancoe and E.J. Henderson may depart in free agency. Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera and Cedric Griffin all are candidates for release. The likes of Antoine Winfield or Kevin Williams could be on the table in trade talks if the Vikings can get value in return.
"We'll sit down Monday and Tuesday after the ballgame and just go through everything," Frazier said. "Everything."
That includes exit interviews with players, evaluation of a coaching staff that almost certainly will be tweaked -- specifically on defense -- and meetings with an ownership group that has monitored the football operation with increasing concern since the start of a six-game losing streak that ended on Saturday at Washington.
Plenty of people inside and outside the organization expected the Vikings to struggle in 2011. A preseason poll of scouts unanimously pegged them for last place in the NFC North Division. But even those who saw the train wreck coming didn't think it would, or should, look this bad in the standings.
The upside to total derailment, of course, is the Vikings will be in a power position when it comes to upgrading the roster through the draft and beyond. Not only will they own a first-round draft pick between Nos. 2 and 6 in April, they'll be at the top of each round that follows and they'll sit high in the waiver priority order until mid-September.
"It's a never-ending process for player personnel acquisition," the personnel director said. "This is a 365, 24/7 thing. You can better your team at any point in the season. You would hope and your goal would be, 'Hey, look, if I'm going to be at this draft (slot) right now, I'm not coming back here ever again. So, we better get this right now, because I don't plan on being (3-13) ever again.'"
The Vikings have at least seven draft picks. They should get a couple of mid-round compensatory picks for the free-agent departures of Sidney Rice and Ray Edwards. The smart money says they'll actively seek opportunities to move down at every turn, too, amassing even more bites at the apple.
Free agency is another avenue for addressing specific needs. But it remains to be seen how active the Vikings will be -- particularly in the initial wave, given the financial commitments they've made in recent months to retain their own (Adrian Peterson, Chad Greenway, Cullen Loeffler, John Sullivan) and the reality this team likely is another season away from returning to contention.
Peterson's knee injury is one more reason to view 2012 as a season of transition. An offense designed to run through the NFL's best running back won't operate the same way if Peterson isn't at full speed, which is a distinct possibility until he's at least a year removed from surgery.
Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder has more lumps to take. The defense will be tweaked and may be overhauled completely. The roster needs an influx of talent at virtually every position.
The Green Bay Packers are the best team in football. The Detroit Lions finally have exploited a decade's worth of high draft picks to earn a wild card. Even the aging Bears may have one more run in them before that front office blows things up, too.
Frazier's change of message seems to reflect a realization that managing expectations will be part of his job description in the coming months as well.
"We're going to get this thing turned eventually," Frazier said. "We'll get it done."
It's just tough for anyone to expect this overhaul will get done soon enough for the Vikings to make another playoff push before 2013.