NFC North: Percey Harvin

Does Christian Ponder have the kind of team around him to succeed the way Mark Sanchez did with the Jets in his rookie year?

That was the question proposed to me. First off, I will define the "success" that Sanchez had during his rookie season as how far the Jets went into the playoffs, rather than how well the rookie signal-caller performed on the field -- which didn’t impress me.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Chuck Cook/US PresswireCan rookie quarterback Christian Ponder lead the Vikings to early success?
So, by those standards, I think the answer here is no. Of course, like every team in the NFL, free agency will have a major effect on the Vikings. They could lose exceptional players such as Ray Edwards and/or Sidney Rice. And they obviously will add some new faces during the process as well.

But still, I find it hard to believe that Minnesota ends up as a playoff team in 2011. I love Adrian Peterson. And if Rice is re-signed, the Vikings' skill position players could be very strong with a starting unit of Peterson, Rice, Percy Harvin (another player I love), Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph as the base personnel. You could do a lot worse than surrounding a first-round rookie quarterback with those five.

And, I am very high on Ponder and see him as the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2011 draft class. He is smart, athletic and comes from a more advanced offensive system than many of his fellow high draft pick quarterbacks. I expect Ponder to adjust quite quickly to the NFL, all things considered.

But where the argument in the Vikings' favor falls short is along the offensive line, on defense and with their divisional foes. Of those three factors at work, the defense is the thing that I feel best about for Minnesota to make a deep playoff run. But in reality, outside of Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, Chad Greenway, E.J. Henderson and Edwards (if he returns), I don’t see enough quality players or depth on this side of the ball for Minnesota to end up among the top half of the league defensively.

Minnesota’s offensive line, particularly the run blocking, is a huge worry for me. And that isn’t a good recipe for a rookie quarterback. I also think this line is going to prove to be very difficult to fix during just one free-agent period before the season starts. There isn’t one starter with whom I am really comfortable -- and that includes Steve Hutchinson -- nor is there much position versatility among the top linemen on this club.

But maybe the biggest hurdle for the Vikings in 2011 will be their divisional opponents. I don’t think I am alone in saying that Packers are the strongest team in all of football. The Bears, of course, were a final four team last season. Could the Bears take a step backwards? Sure. But I still think they have more going for them than Minnesota right now. And Detroit is building an amazing young nucleus of talent that looks ready to burst out.

So, as it stands during the first week of July, I see the Vikes as the fourth-place team in the NFC North.

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