Eight Candidates Poised For Breakout Seasons In 2012

Posted Apr 23, 2012

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Every NFL team has star players who are relied upon year-in and year-out to perform at a certain level. But on a year-in and year-out basis, successful NFL teams also have players who take huge steps in their development to push their team to the next level.

We call that a breakout season, and if the Vikings are to surpass expectations in 2012 and take a big step forward, they will need breakout seasons from several players. So who are the candidates for breakout seasons in 2012? We’ve identified eight of them right here…

On Offense

OL Brandon Fusco
A sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft, Fusco came to the Vikings from Division II school Slippery Rock. But he came to the Vikings with the full endorsement of offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, who worked out Fusco privately in the lead-up to the draft. He only played in three games as a rookie in 2011, but in 2012 Fusco will have a shot to earn significant playing time, perhaps as one of the Vikings top interior reserves. Fusco’s ceiling is unknown at this point, but he has the type of work ethic and demeanor to progress from an unknown on draft day to an eventual starter in the NFL.

RB Toby Gerhart
It’s hard to live up to expectations when you’re second-fiddle to the best running back in the NFL, but that was Gerhart’s charge coming to the Vikings in 2010 as a second-round selection. He had just 81 carries for 322 yards as a rookie, but he became more of a factor last season, especially when Peterson was lost for the final game and a half after a knee injury. For the season in 2011, Gerhart logged 109 carries for 531 yards (4.9 yards per carry), including 109 yards on just 11 carries in the game Peterson was lost and 67 yards on just 15 carries the following week as a starter. It’s unknown how far along Peterson will be in his recovery once the 2012 season starts, but what is known is that Gerhart is a reliable backup who will fill in more than capably should Peterson be slow to go early in the season.

QB Christian Ponder
Vikings fans are familiar with Ponder’s story, so we won’t re-hash it too much here. It’s obvious that 2012 is a big season for Ponder, as this Vikings offense will only go as far as he takes it, especially with Peterson coming back from a serious knee injury. Ponder was running for his life most of the time as a rookie, as he was sacked 30 times in just 11 games. But early on, before he was battered and bruised, Ponder showed flashes of what he could become. He threw for two touchdowns in his first start, a game the Vikings almost won vs. Green Bay, and then he won his first start on the road against the Carolina Panthers the following week. Ponder also had 381 yards passing and three touchdowns against the Broncos a few weeks later. It will be interested to see how Ponder performs if the Vikings can protect him.

TE Kyle Rudolph
It was a surprise to most when the Vikings selected Rudolph with a second-round choice last year, but it makes complete sense now with Jim Kleinsasser retired and Visanthe Shiancoe on the market as a free agent. Rudolph is the Vikings No. 1 tight end and he’s the odds-on favorite to become Ponder’s favorite target. At 6-6, 258 pounds, the former Notre Damer has the prototypical size for a field-stretching tight end in the NFL and last year he showed flashes of brilliance, with 26 receptions and three receiving touchdowns in 15 games with eight starts.

On Defense

DL Christian Ballard
A rotational player in 2011 as a rookie, Ballard trained hard this offseason and is committed to earning more playing time for 2012. Perhaps Ballard’s biggest asset will be versatility because he can line up at defensive end or defensive tackle. He was also a special teams contributor as a rookie, and if Ballard isn’t a starter along the defensive line in 2012 he will likely be one of Mike Priefer’s best special teams players.

LB Jasper Brinkley
A fifth-round choice of the Vikings in 2009, Brinkley was developing nicely until a hip injury cost him his 2011 season. With E.J. Henderson still unsigned, it appears Brinkley will get first swing at starting middle linebacker duties for the Vikings in 2012. If he’s the man in the middle, 2012 will be a huge year – and a huge opportunity – for Brinkley. He’s a thumper in the run game, but where all Vikings coaches’ and scouts’ eyes will be while evaluating Brinkley will be on his injured hip and on his ability to play the pass.

DE Everson Griffen
Another versatile defensive lineman for the Vikings, there were whispers that Griffen would ultimately be moved to linebacker. But the re-signing of Erin Henderson may squash that thought, and it will allow Griffen to focus on his role as a key reserve defensive lineman and core special teams player. Griffen has tremendous athleticism, and even plays gunner on punt team. Rotating Griffen with starting left defensive end Brian Robison gives the Vikings an adequate pass rush from that side. But if Griffen progresses this season as he has in seasons past, that pass rush should become more than just adequate.

LB Erin Henderson
For a while it looked like Henderson wouldn’t be back with the Vikings, but eventually the two sides agreed on a re-signing and the Vikings defense could benefit greatly if Henderson has a breakout season in the hopes of parlaying it into a big-time free agent contract next offseason. Henderson is a heady player who is always around the ball, and it’ll be interesting to see if he has a consistent role in the Vikings nickel package.