Updated: June 24th, 2012 10:40pm
Pelissero: Vikings may look better on paper, but division is daunting

Pelissero: Vikings may look better on paper, but division is daunting

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by Tom Pelissero

The process of rebuilding the Minnesota Vikings might seem just a little less daunting if not for the talent elsewhere in the NFC North Division.

The Green Bay Packers are less than 17 months removed from winning Super Bowl XLV and appear set up to remain contenders for the next several years.

The Detroit Lions finally capitalized on all those high draft picks last season to end an 11-year playoff drought and only figure to get better in 2012.

The Chicago Bears might have returned to the postseason, too, if not for an injury to quarterback Jay Cutler that ushered in front-office changes but not lower expectations.

"You know the teams and what the talent level is at this division," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told 1500 ESPN on Sunday.

"We play each other twice a year and you monitor what they do in the draft and what they added in free agency, and what you do is try to every year add and improve your roster, and I think we were able to do that this year and even with some of these young guys that we drafted last year that are going to contribute and play that you have not heard of yet.

"Hopefully, with these two past draft classes, and we'll continue to add with future classes, that'll develop our roster and be able to be right up there with the Green Bays and the Chicagos and how quickly Detroit came along."

Based on personnel alone, most scouts projected the 2011 Vikings to win six to eight games -- not go 3-13, which was enough for ownership to overhaul the structure of their personnel operation with Spielman in control as GM.

On Sunday, Spielman pointed to the Vikings' defensive backs, receivers, tight ends and offensive line as four groups that looked significantly improved at last week's minicamp than they did at the end of last season.

Still, there is little question about the standing from a personnel standpoint of a Vikings team that figures to be one of the NFL's youngest in 2012.

As one NFL personnel director put it last week, "I think Chicago will be a little bit better. It looks like they're trying to make an effort here (to win now). Detroit's obviously much improved, and Green Bay are who they are."

That leaves the Vikings fourth out of four -- but that's somewhat beside the point for a roster Spielman is in the process of overhauling after consecutive last-place finishes.

The following is a position-by-position look at the Vikings' roster, based on observations of offseason practices and conversations with coaches and scouts around the NFL. Number of players on the current roster are in parentheses.

Quarterbacks (4)

On the roster: McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Christian Ponder, Sage Rosenfels, Joe Webb.

The skinny: Ponder is the starter as long as he's healthy. Webb is the backup and could work into game plan-specific packages during the season. Rosenfels didn't exactly light it up in minicamp, but he's not on the team to play. Bethel-Thompson has some raw ability and can really fling it. There's no room for him if they want to keep a veteran mentor, though.

How many they'll keep: Three.

Running backs (8)

On the roster: Matt Asiata, Derrick Coleman, Ryan D'Imperio, Jerome Felton, Toby Gerhart, Lex Hilliard, Adrian Peterson, Jordan Todman.

The skinny: Peterson is nearly six months into his rehabilitation from knee reconstruction, and coach Leslie Frazier says he's on pace to meet his goal of playing in Week 1. But it's a given Peterson will be limited in the early going, and there's no way of knowing when or if he'll be himself in 2012. Gerhart has bulked up and is in line to carry the load out of the gate. Todman's speed has impressed and solidified him atop the list of No. 3 options, although Hilliard's special-teams ability could factor. Same with D'Imperio, who has ceded starter's reps at fullback to Felton but is on all the No.1 return and coverage units.

How many they'll keep: Four to six, depending on Peterson's early-season availability and the possibility special-teams considerations could keep an extra fullback around.

Receivers (12)

On the roster: Emmanuel Arceneaux, Devin Aromashodu, Stephen Burton, Greg Childs, Percy Harvin, Michael Jenkins, Kamar Jorden, A.J. Love, Jerome Simpson, Kerry Taylor, Bryan Walters, Jarius Wright.

The skinny: Simpson is the starting split end but is suspended the first three games. Childs is the top option to fill the void, but he's coming off a patella tendon injury and missed the bulk of offseason practices with a calf strain. That gave Arceneaux more chances and he took advantage -- though not as much as Burton, who turned heads at flanker in place of Harvin (shoulder surgery) until he came down with pneumonia. Jenkins has healed from his season-ending knee injury but could be the odd man out, with a $2.5 million base salary that's exorbitant for a backup. Aromashodu may be gone, too, but that all depends on the development of younger options. Wright has been working at flanker and in the slot.

How many they'll keep: Five or six, since Simpson won't count against the 53-man roster during his suspension.

Tight ends (5)

On the roster: John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Allen Reisner, Kyle Rudolph, Mickey Shuler.

The skinny: Rudolph is the top receiving threat, seems to have regained a half-step another year removed from a hamstring tendon avulsion and will be used all over the place. Carlson probably will see more time inline but had several memorable moments in the passing game during offseason practices. They'll be on the field together a lot. Ellison isn't a smooth athlete but can catch the ball and will be asked to do a lot of dirty work. Reisner catches everything, but Shuler's balanced skill set might give him an edge if he can stay healthy.

How many they'll keep: Three or four.

Offensive linemen (15)

On the roster: Joe Berger, Pat Brown, Chris DeGeare, Brandon Fusco, Tyler Holmes, Levi Horn, Charlie Johnson, Matt Kalil, Phil Loadholt, DeMarcus Love, Austin Pasztor, Quentin Saulsberry, Geoff Schwartz, John Sullivan, Darrion Weems.

The skinny: Four of five starting spots are locked in -- Kalil at left tackle, Johnson at left guard, Sullivan at center and Loadholt at right tackle -- unless someone gets hurt or falls on his face in camp. Fusco is a nasty sucker and has the inside track at right guard in part because Schwartz (hip surgery) still is regaining his wind after sitting out last season. Berger, Brown and DeGeare all have played and figure to get long looks as backups along with Love, who likely will stick again as a developmental swing tackle.

How many they'll keep: Probably nine.

Defensive linemen (16)

On the roster: Jared Allen, Christian Ballard, Chase Baker, Fred Evans, Everson Griffen, Letroy Guion, Trevor Guyton, Anthony Jacobs, Eric Latimore, Ernest Owusu, Tydreke Powell, D'Aundre Reed, Nick Reed, Terrell Resonno, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams.

The skinny: The starters are Allen, Williams, Robison and Guion, a penetrator who has earned positive reviews in his transition to full-time nose tackle. Evans is having a solid offseason, too, and figures to split time there. Ballard has been getting most of his work as the second-string base undertackle behind Williams. Griffen appears poised to get the turns as an inside nickel rusher Ballard couldn't exploit last season. Reed will get a shot there, too. Guyton hasn't shown much yet, but it's always tough to break through as a lineman until the pads go on.

How many they'll keep: Eight or nine.

Linebackers (10)

On the roster: Jasper Brinkley, Audie Cole, Larry Dean, Solomon Elimimian, Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, Tyrone McKenzie, Marvin Mitchell, Tyler Nielsen, Corey Paredes.

The skinny: Greenway is locked in as the strongside linebacker and Henderson all but secure on the weakside. Despite missing last season (hip surgery), Brinkley entered the offseason mostly unopposed in the middle, only to suffer a groin strain in OTAs that still is bugging him. McKenzie worked there in minicamp but isn't even a good bet to make the team. Mitchell -- who has been working outside and playing all the special teams -- and Cole could get a look in camp. Dean is another special-teams mainstay, but he'll get a challenge from Elimimian and perhaps Nielsen, who for now looks stiff and tentative.

How many they'll keep: Six or seven.

Defensive backs (17)

On the roster: Robert Blanton, Zackary Bowman, Brandon Burton, Chris Carr, Chris Cook, Bobby Felder, Eric Frampton, Corey Gatewood, Reggie Jones, Mistral Raymond, Josh Robinson, Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo, Marcus Sherels, Harrison Smith, Nicholas Taylor, Antoine Winfield.

The skinny: Cook is the starting right cornerback and everything else is at least somewhat unsettled. Winfield's better in the slot, and the Vikings would prefer to play him fewer snaps as a preservation measure. However, that depends on how confident they feel in Carr or Robinson, who took more first-team reps as the offseason went on. Fellow rookie Smith is a probable starter at safety, with Raymond a good bet to start next to him. Frampton and Sanford are core special teamers. Bowman is on several special teams, too, although he's so buried on the depth chart at cornerback his spot isn't safe. Blanton has shown some encouraging signs in his transition to safety. Burton and Sherels have to earn their spots on special teams, with the former carrying more upside on defense as an outside corner.

How many they'll keep: 10 or 11.

Specialists (3)

On the roster: Chris Kluwe, Cullen Loeffler, Blair Walsh.

The skinny: Kluwe will punt. Loeffler will long snap. Walsh will get every chance to be the place-kicker, with no one else in camp because coaches want to build chemistry in the operation. The Vikings hope Wright can become their punt returner, but just catching the ball is a work in progress. Sherels at least is sure-handed. Robinson will get a look on kick returns. Jones, Taylor and Walters have worked on returns as well, and Harvin always is an option.

How many they'll keep: Three.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
In this story: Jared Allen, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Devin Aromashodu, Matt Asiata, Chase Baker, Christian Ballard, Joe Berger, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Robert Blanton, Zackary Bowman, Jasper Brinkley, Pat Brown, Stephen Burton, Brandon Burton, John Carlson, Chris Carr, Greg Childs, Audie Cole, Derrick Coleman, Chris Cook, Ryan D'Imperio, Larry Dean, Chris DeGeare, Solomon Elimimian, Rhett Ellison, Fred Evans, Bobby Felder, Jerome Felton, Eric Frampton, Leslie Frazier, Brandon Fusco, Corey Gatewood, Toby Gerhart, Chad Greenway, Everson Griffen, Letroy Guion, Trevor Guyton, Percy Harvin, Erin Henderson, Lex Hilliard, Tyler Holmes, Levi Horn, Anthony Jacobs, Michael Jenkins, Charlie Johnson, Reggie Jones, Kamar Jorden, Matt Kalil, Chris Kluwe, Eric Latimore, Phil Loadholt, Cullen Loeffler, A.J. Love, DeMarcus Love, Tyrone McKenzie, Marvin Mitchell, Tyler Nielsen, Ernest Owusu, Corey Paredes, Austin Pasztor, Adrian Peterson, Christian Ponder, Tydreke Powell, Mistral Raymond, D'Aundre Reed, Nick Reed, Allen Reisner, Terrell Resonno, Josh Robinson, Brian Robison, Sage Rosenfels, Kyle Rudolph, Jamarca Sanford, Quentin Saulsberry, Geoff Schwartz, Andrew Sendejo, Marcus Sherels, Mickey Shuler, Jerome Simpson, Harrison Smith, John Sullivan, Nicholas Taylor, Kerry Taylor, Jordan Todman, Blair Walsh, Bryan Walters, Joe Webb, Darrion Weems, Kevin Williams, Antoine Winfield, Jarius Wright