NFL team previews: Minnesota Vikings

With the 2012 NFL season approaching fast, we go around the league to preview every team. Up next: the Minnesota Vikings.

OUTLOOK

After tying for the worst record in franchise history, the Vikings went into full rebuilding mode with the unabashed philosophy of getting younger. They are making no secret of their intent to build through the draft and to re-sign their own as they build around 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder.

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Last year, perhaps no team was as adversely affected by the lockout as the Vikings, who were preparing a new offense with a new quarterback (first, veteran flop Donovan McNabb, and then Ponder, after the season was already lost). This year, Ponder has valuable starting experience under his belt, more explosive weapons in the receiving game and a full offseason to hone in on the details of Bill Musgrave's offense and familiarize himself with his new receiving options.

OFFSEASON

Gone from last year's squad are Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser, E.J. Henderson, Cedric Griffin and Ryan Longwell -- all veterans who would be in their 30s this year. General manager Rick Spielman replaced them all with younger options.

Charlie Johnson will slide inside to Hutchinson's left guard spot, rookie first-round pick Matt Kalil will take over at left tackle, second-year player Brandon Fusco will battle young free-agent signee Geoff Schwartz at right guard, John Carlson and rookie Rhett Ellison will replace Shiancoe and Kleinsasser, Jasper Brinkley and Marvin Mitchell will work to fill Henderson's spot, a number of players -- including free-agent signees Chris Carr and Zack Bowman, along with rookie Josh Robinson -- will be in the mix to replace Griffin as potential starting cornerbacks, and rookie Blair Walsh is getting the opportunity to replace the place kicker Longwell.


Jared Allen is one of the top pass rushers in the NFL.

ROOKIES

First-rounders Kalil (left tackle) and Harrison Smith (safety) are penciled in as starters, while Robinson and fourth-round receivers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, along with Ellison, should see contributing roles.

THE SCHEDULE

Despite a 3-13 record last year that tied for the worst in franchise history, Minnesota is tied for the eighth toughest strength of schedule in 2012. However, working in the Vikings' favor is that the bulk of their NFC North games come in the second half of the season. Their only divisional game in the first nine contests is at Detroit on Sept. 30, but a four-game stretch in November and December –- when they play Detroit, Chicago twice and Green Bay with their bye week sandwiched in between -– will be critical to assessing their place in one of the most difficult divisions in the league.

The relatively forgiving first half of the schedule should allow the many new component parts to meld, and wide receiver Jerome Simpson to return from suspension, before the heart of the schedule kicks in to determine the toughness of the team.

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER

Adrian Peterson, running back. He may not show it this year on his way back from a torn ACL and MCL, but he's the best back in the NFL.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER

Jared Allen, defensive end. His quick burst and relentless hustle allowed him to nearly break the all-time sacks record, but he's an underrated run stopper as well.

WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...

Adrian Peterson returns from ACL surgery with a vengeance, Ponder improves dramatically, and Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford fall drastically out of form by December.

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