Earlier, the offense was considered in light of the current roster and the impending draft. It is now time for the second half of this series, focusing on the defense.
Defensive line depth
The defensive line is the strength of the team, and in a sign that the front office is doing a good job, also the highest-paid unit on the team. Enough can't be said about Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, and Jared Allen. Ray Edwards, 25, is emerging as a potential star. In addition to four quality starters, the Vikings have good backups, including Jimmy Kennedy, Brian Robison, and Fred Evans. During games, the Vikings use a rotation system, so all defensive linemen active for the game typically see some action. Jared Allen has played nearly every down as a Viking, but his backup, Brian Robison, is so talented that he has seen time at left end and tackle.
In terms of transition, Pat Williams, 37, is playing on the last year of his contract, and things suggest he will retire after the 2010 season. Ray Edwards and Fred Evans were both tendered as restricted free agents. Jimmy Kennedy, 30, was re-signed through 2011. Brian Robison's contract runs through 2011. Kevin Williams will turn 30 in August.
With Edwards's status as a restricted free agent, the Vikings could negotiate a long-term extension with him between now and the start of free agency in 2011. Otherwise, Edwards could sign elsewhere as a free agent, and the Vikings would have to look to Brian Robison, Jayme Mitchell, Mike Montgomery, or another player to start at LDE. The starter at LDE for 2011 and beyond is likely to already be on the roster. My guess is that Edwards will be re-signed.
At nose tackle, however, the future starter is not as clear. Jimmy Kennedy is signed through 2011, and has become the probable heir-apparent to Pat Williams. If Kennedy impresses, the Vikings might extend that contract to a longer period. If not, the Vikings may turn to another player at nose tackle by 2012. Some feel that Kevin Williams may shift to nose tackle. Kevin Williams is more of a penetrator, though, and I think he will stay at the three-technique "under tackle" position.
While hopefully Jimmy Kennedy will have a great run like Pat Williams is having in his 30s, he will still need a backup behind him. For that reason, the Vikings should be looking at adding a backup or developmental nose tackle through the draft this year. This player needs to project as a nose tackle, plus have durability and a good work ethic. East Carolina's Jay Ross is a durable hard working nose tackle who helped his fellow Pirate linemen do great things. He will be available in the later rounds.
One player the Vikings need to consider is Brian Price out of UCLA. He is projected as a three-technique defensive tackle, and seems to have a lot of talent. Due to the stacked draft, he is likely to be available when the Vikings make the 30th pick of the draft in the first round. On the one hand, he might be the best player available. On the other hand, where could he fit on the roster? It wouldn't help the Vikings much to spend a first-round pick on a backup, especially when Fred Evans already does a very good job in that role. While Brian Price might be the best available player, this might be one time when the Vikings have to not draft the BPA simply because they couldn't give Price enough playing time, unless a role could be found for him.
To a lesser extent, Jared Odrick, defensive tackle, Penn State, is another player that the Vikings might have to pass on because he couldn't get enough playing time to justify the pick. Odrick can play 3-4 defensive end, as well as the 4-3 three-technique. He will probably be gone before the 30th pick.
The defensive line starters in 2010 are set. The backups are nearly set. In 2011, there could be one or two different starters on the defensive line.
The 2009 season saw an injury to a starter, and a young player rise up and take on the challenge. The 2010 season is likely to be the season in which the reserve linebackers are asked to do even more.
E.J. Henderson, 29, is said to be recovering nicely after breaking his leg last season. Jasper Brinkley put his name down firmly as Henderson's heir-apparent by doing a good job filling in for the Vikings' field general. With Brinkley unlocking his potential, I don't think the Vikings will consider middle linebacker to be a position of need in the draft. Even if Henderson begins the season on the PUP list, and misses the first eight weeks or so, Brinkley should be able to handle the load during that time.
Chad Greenway has a chance to take another step and potentially make the Pro Bowl in 2010.
Ben Leber, 31, had another solid campaign. but did not convert on several turnover chances at the end of the season. He did intercept a pass in the playoffs, however. Some of Leber's statistics, like number of tackles, declined in 2009. That may be just a statistical lark, and nothing to worry about. On the other hand, Leber might be on the decline. Leber is signed through the 2010 season. Regardless of whether he is in decline, or not, the Vikings might not have Leber in 2011. If Leber's last-season difficulties continue into 2010, the Vikings may need to spell him more often with a reserve linebacker. Leber is a great Viking, and we hope he continues to produce at his level. Realistically, though, the Vikings need somebody ready to step into his shoes if need be.
Leber will typically cover the tight end on pass plays. Pass coverage is something that many young linebackers struggle with. Replacing Leber will be a challenge for whomever is asked to do the job. That might be Erin Henderson, J Leman, or even Chad Greenway.
The Vikings have three excellent starters at linebacker, and one proven backup. Practically speaking, one starter, E.J. Henderson, may miss significant portions of the season as he rehabilitates his leg. In addition, it time to consider the possibility that Ben Leber might retire or leave the team after the 2010 season, and may need to be substituted for significantly during the 2010 season. While the Vikings have three starters and one proven backup, there is a need for a fifth reliable linebacker who can play significant amounts of time on defense if called upon, and be a strong positive on defense.
I'm hoping that one (or more) of the Vikings' reserve linebackers is able to step up and contribute to the defense. Maybe Erin Henderson, Heath Farwell, Kenny Onatolu, or J Leman will become that fifth quality linebacker who sees a lot of playing time on defense and contributes in 2010. The oppportunity is there.
The Vikings are likely to draft a linebacker. Perhaps that newly drafted linebacker comes in and contributes right away, or maybe is just groomed for later, while playing special teams in 2010.
If a linebacker prospect has 4.7 speed or better, and can play both middle linebacker and outside linebacker, and is skilled in pass coverage, that player would be high on the draft board for the Vikings. While Missouri's Sean Weatherspoon would fit the criteria, there is only a slim chance that he could fall to the Vikings in the first round. Alabama's Rolando McClain will be long gone. Other possibilities in other rounds are Sean Lee, Eric Norwood, Rennie Curran, A.J. Edds, Simoni Lawrence, Nate Triplett, Daryl Washington, Donald Butler, Phillip Dillard, Pat Angerer, Roddrick Muckelroy, Dekoda Watson, and Jamar Chaney. If the Vikings target a linebacker as a successor to Ben Leber, that player should be: 6'3 or 6'4 or taller to match up well with tight ends, quick on his feet, mentally quick, and good at pass coverage. That list eliminates some of the above names. For example, 5'11 Rennie Curran is highly talented but would not be the ideal choice to cover tight ends simply because of his height. On other other hand, Ben Leber's heir-apparent may already be on the roster.
The Vikings probably will draft a linebacker, but at this point it's unknown what role they will ask that linebacker to play. I am optimistic that the linebacking corps will meet the challenges they face and play great in 2010.
NCB - Benny Sapp
The secondary played hard all season in 2009, despite the bedeviling foot injury Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield suffered. While the secondary was decent, and at times shut down opponents, it didn't reach Super Bowl quality consistently enough. The worst news came at the end. As bad as Winfield's injury was, Cedric Griffin suffered a worse one in the lategoing against the Saints: a torn ACL. Recent reports suggest the rehab is slow.
Chances are Griffin may start the season on the PUP list and miss maybe the first eight weeks or so of the season. The general expectation for Winfield's injury is that he will be at full strength by the new season's start, although I can't help but wonder if the same issue won't occur again if he keeps playing cornerback. Cornerbacks put a lot of pressure on their feet.
The key for both Griff and Winfield is to take whatever time is necessary to heal up the right way. As someone noted recently, former Vikings safety Orlando Thomas rushed back from a torn knee ligament, and was never the same. These days, incidentally, Thomas still cheers for the Vikings from his home in Louisiana, while he beats his ALS like he used to intercept quarterbacks.
Charles Gordon hasn't played for the Vikings since 2008 after his broken leg on the punt return against the Packers. He tried to come back last year and was at training camp. He did not make the team. This is a new year, and as a Charles Gordon fan and Vikings fan, it would be great to see Gordon show up at camp again and win a job with the team. We'll see.
DeAndre Wright was drafted last year by the Giants, and spent about half the year on the Vikings' practice squad. He was good in college at New Mexico, and he'll have a chance to win a roster spot with the Vikings.
In all, however, it appears that the Vikings could be a little short at depth in the cornerback position. With the draft looming, it appears likely that the Vikings will draft a cornerback at some point. It's possible, but less likely that the Vikings could draft two or even three cornerbacks. Potential prospects include Devin McCourty, Kareem Jackson, Chris Cook, Amari Spievey, Walter McFadden, Alterraun Verner, and many others.
At the beginning of the 2009 season, cornerback Walter Thurmond was the leader of the Oregon Ducks' defense. He was projected as a first or second round draft choice. He stood out for his interceptions and playmaking ability. Then he tore three ligaments in his knee on a kick return. Now he is projected as a later-round pick. Thurmond is rehabbing, but it isn't known when he'll be at full-strength. If the Vikings draft him as a second or third cornerback, he could be a valuable player later in the season, or even for the 2011 season, if he spends his rookie season on IR.
Now that the NFC North has become a passing division, and seemingly the entire NFL is going pass-happy, continuing to ramp up the secondary seems like a priority for the Vikings, along with every other team.
At safety, starters Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams played well at times, and may have the wherewithal to return in 2009 and play better. Recently, the Vikings said they want more aggressiveness out of the safety position. Can Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson fulfill that requirement? I hope so. We will see. The Vikings need a contingency plan if one or both cannot.
One possibility is to move Antoine Winfield to strong safety. Winfield is an elite tackler, and has good coverage skills. As a wiley veteran, he could make the transition more smoothly than otherwise. What is compelling about moving Winfield to strong safety is that it would place the Vikings' best defensive back in the middle of the field, where he can make more plays. This would trade depth at cornerback for depth at safety. I think this should be done.
Another possibility at strong safety is for Jamarca Sanford to step up and become the starter. He did well when called on in 2009. As a second-year player with limited experience, it might work, or it might not. It's an unknown to us fans.
Free safety makes play-calls to an extent. Ideally, a veteran plays the position, although Orlando Thomas did very well as a free safety as a rookie. Madieu Williams is good in coverage, but his tackling in 2009 did not always match the free safety job description. Another option at free safety is Tyrell Johnson, if he is displaced from strong safety.
If Eric Frampton, Husain Abdullah, or Colt Anderson can rise to the occasion and challenge for a chunk of playing time at safety, now is the time.
The Vikings must be tempted to draft one or two safeties. The top two, Eric Berry and Earl Thomas, will be long gone in the first round. Taylor Mays may slip to the Vikings, but the talk recently has suggested he would be a liability in most schemes due to his inability to cover and his inconsistent tackling. That leaves other safety prospects like Nate Allen, Larry Asante, Major Wright, Reshad Jones, Myron Rolle, Darrell Stuckey, and T.J. Ward. In later rounds, Jeromy Miles of UMass, Barry Church of Toledo, or Darian Stewart of South Carolina might interest the Vikings.
At cornerback the primary concern is depth. Yet, I'm optimistic that the younger cornerbacks will rise up and help veterans like Cedric Griffin, Antoine Winfield, and Benny Sapp meet the challenge. At safety, the primary concern is level of play. Again, here I'm optimistic that Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson can play more aggressive, and be more effective. Winfield could add punch to the safety position as well, and the safety position might improve from the younger players on the roster or through the draft.
The Vikings have room to improve on defense. The 2010 draft appears to be rich in defensive talent. If the Vikings use their draft picks wisely, they can select a number of future defensive starters in this draft, while still leaving room for a few draft picks for the offense.