Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 5/29/12
As the Minnesota Vikings convene at Winter Park today for the start of organized team activities, they are trying to erase the stigma of a 3-13 record that tied the franchise mark for futility in a 16-game season. The NFL presents rags-to-riches stories every season. Though the players and coaches won't publicly acknowledge the obvious, Minnesota isn't so concerned with getting rich again a little more than two years removed from the NFC championship game. The Vikings, for now, would settle for getting above the poverty line. That seemed to be the motive all along from newly promoted general manager Rick Spielman. He has shown patience when the big-name, big-money free agents went elsewhere. Instead of aggressiveness in free agency, Spielman shopped for bargains and focused his efforts on the draft. He wanted the team to get younger. Mission accomplished. There have been changes this offseason, quite a few of them. Yet, the core of that 3-13 team will be expected to pull Minnesota out of the muck and make the Vikings relevant again. Are the offseason changes enough to help the team contend in the brutally tough NFC North? Not likely. But that doesn't mean 2012 is already a lost season for Minnesota. On paper, Minnesota does look like an improved team. Upgrades have been brought in to help shore up the Vikings' two weakest spots: the secondary and at wide receiving unit. The aging, declining offensive line was overhauled and looks to be far more athletic. Improvement in second-year quarterback Christian Ponder should be expected. He finally has an offseason to immerse himself in the offense and work side by side with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. With No. 4 overall pick Matt Kalil, he has a left tackle he can trust to protect his blind side. He has several new targets in tight end John Carlson and receivers Jerome Simpson, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright, with receiver Michael Jenkins returning from his knee injury. Even the news regarding Adrian Peterson's return from knee surgery is positive, and he's expected to be ready for the season opener. All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen is a good starting spot for a defensive front seven that has a familiar look with only middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley as a new starter. Letroy Guion and Fred Evans will try to fill the void at defensive tackle, but they essentially had done the same thing last year after Remi Ayodele was a free-agent flop. The secondary, of course, received a major transfusion of new players. First, and possibly most important, Antoine Winfield returns from his neck injury and Chris Cook has rejoined the team after being acquitted on domestic abusestrangulation charges. That gives the Vikings two starting-caliber cornerbacks, something they didn't have for about two-thirds of last season. Harrison Smith, a first-round pick, is penciled in at one safety spot. Other additions include third-round pick Josh Robinson, fifth-round pick Robert Blanton and free agents Chris Carr and Zack Bowman. Starting this week with the beginning of OTAs, the Vikings finally get to start seeing whether the changes will be enough to compete in a division with three teams that have designs on the playoffs and more. The Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears are the biggest obstacles to marked improvement for Minnesota, regardless of all its changes. How a team fares against its own division will always be the key test in judging quality. Minnesota could look, and actually be, better this season even if things don't go their way in the NFC North. The schedule will help. The Vikings open against the 2-14 Indianapolis Colts and then have the a home opener against the 5-11 Jacksonville Jaguars. They also see just one division foe in the first nine weeks, when five games are at home. Six of Minnesota's opponents had losing records last season. With a promising early slate, the Vikings could finally gain some traction, something they were never able to do last season. Of course, six of the final seven games are against playoff teams from last season, including two each against Green Bay and Chicago. Minnesota has slowly taken steps toward improvement. Spielman at least has the right philosophy on building through the draft, getting younger and getting ready to compete for years to come. The results of that plan won't be fully realized in one season, especially in the final record. However, the first five months of the offseason have revealed positive progress. And if the Vikings are looking for any motivation, they can look back at the only other team in franchise history to go 3-13. Though there were other circumstances at play, Minnesota recovered from 3-13 in 1984 to go 7-9 the next season, finishing third in the NFC Central. After last season's debacle, 7-9 might feel pretty good. It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility and would definitely qualify as a step in the right direction. Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.
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