I was skimming through the Yahoo! Sports page last night and came across an interesting article that discussed how, thanks to the lockout potentially hampering training camp and other pre-season activities, seasoned vets could suddenly have a lot more value in the upcoming free agency period.
Now, I know this isn't a shocking revelation: in particular, the fact that the Vikings will likely need just such a vet at QB should the lockout continue for much long has been oft-discussed around these parts. But- we really haven't considered or discussed the need for vets at other positions where we are bringing in untested youth, and I thought it might make for a good idea to discuss that here.
Now, the Vikings are clearly a team in ‘transition'. During the 2010 campaign, we had one of the oldest average rosters in the league, including both the oldest offensive player (Favre) and the oldest defensive player (Pat Williams)- and not just as active team members, but as starters no less.
That said, we weren't a team bereft of youth. Our WR corps, in particular, has both Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, neither of who are ‘old guys' by any means. Also, many of our key players are what would be called ‘in their prime'- neither young, neither old: Jared Allen, Adrian Peterson, Kevin Williams, etc.
Other players are not quite at the ‘too old to continue' point, but are staring at it right in the face in a year or two: Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser, Steve Hutchinson, and Antoine Winfield, for example.
And then, returning to the original point, there are the guys who may or may not be, depending on who you ask, at that point now. These players are, in particular*, Pat Williams and Ben Leber. (*If you feel there is another player or two who fit into this category, please post in the comments below. Think of it like an old college English class assignment: points are only awarded for explaining your opinion. If it's good, I'll edit this post to add them to that list.)
Both Williams and Leber are free agents, and generally not expected to return... or, at least, went the conventional wisdom at the close of the 2010 season. It's also worth noting of course that Ray Edwards is considered long gone as well- not because he's a vet past his prime, but more because the Vikings have decided to hitch the ship to Brian Robison instead.
So now here's the question raised. Is the conventional wisdom still... well... wise? It's still a bit vague as to who will be stepping into Ben Leber's shoes. We drafted Russ Homan, but for fear of incurring Ted's wrath, I'm not quite sold that he will be ready day one to fill those massive cleats. The ‘other guys' on our LB corps aren't exactly slackers- Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson have both had their moments- but I still have similar doubts as to their ability to hold the OLB position down.
In particular, our LB corps is a curious blend of the above mentioned ‘types' of players. EJ Henderson is a monstrous stud who cannot be brought down even with an elephant gun shot in his face( hey, you wanna argue? YOU go do a somersault interception less than a year after having a titanium rod jammed into your leg because your femur was broken in two) BUT he does fall into the category of staring the age factor right in the face. Then there's Chad Greenway, who falls somewhere in the ‘youth' to ‘prime' factor- as using our franchise tag on him obviously indicated. And then of course there is Leber, who, depending on how you see it right now, is either in the ‘past his prime' to ‘staring age in the face' group.
Our LB corps has been a strength on a sometimes inconsistent defense for us the past few years. Even with the loss of Henderson midway through the '09 campaign, Brinkley was able to come in and get things done. The LBs were asked to play double duty during the '10 campaign- reinforce a sometimes inconsistent D-line as well as reinforce a... well... always inconsistent secondary- and considering the Sisyphean nature of that task, did us proud.
So what do we do here? Do we take Homan and throw him into the fire, and risk weakening a key part of our defense during a learning curve? Do we trust Brinkley or Erin Henderson to make the jump from MLB to OLB and also face a learning curve? Or do we keep Leber around for a year, pick his replacement now and develop him specifically for that job?
Here's the trick. Even with that scenario, yes, there will still be a bit of a learning curve in '12. Less of a learning curve perhaps, but a learning curve none the less. So- do we keep Leber around, hope that age isn't a big enough factor to cause significant problems in '11, accept potential mediocrity for two years... or, do we take '11 in the teeth (as far as LB goes), and own in '12?
The same question could be posted with DT. Pat Williams suffered a more noticeable decline in '10 than Leber did. The other issue there is, however, the fact that Williams is one of two players who will be departing a veteran D-line. So the question could be rephrased, "do we replace half our D-line all at once, or do we do it one step at a time?". Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are both somewhere in the ‘prime' to ‘staring age in the face' category... sad as it is to say, we won't see the guys around in 10 years, and perhaps not even in 5. Sooner or later, our perennial Pro Bowl D-linemen will need to be replaced with the future stars.
So, again, do we take '11 in the teeth with the D-line, hoping Robison can guard the edge as well as Edwards did, can keep a high motor when pressuring the QB, and also hope that whoever is filling Pat Williams' enormous cleats can get the job done? Like Leber, Williams' heir apparent isn't that apparent. Christian Ballard was drafted at DT, but could be a bit undersized for the position. Jimmy Kennedy, (ed) Letroy Guion and Fred Evans are on the roster and might be the guys to step up, but again like Leber's replacements, none of the three are surefire bets to truly be the next Pat Williams.
As stated in the beginning, there's no questioning that '11 will be a reloading year. Ponder may or may not start, as we may or may not have a vet QB doing that for us. Sydney Rice may or may not be back. We have a new offensive scheme for everyone to learn. Adrian Peterson will remain Adrian Peterson, and defenses shall fear him... but the rest of our offense could be in major flux. So, what of our defense? Do we try and roll the dice with the new guys, or do we roll the dice with our vets, and keep them for one more run?
If our offense is in flux, perhaps we could try and keep the vets and hope for higher consistency on the defense than we had in '10, and that they can carry the day. After all, as the old (and admittedly not always true) saying goes, defenses win championships. Do we go for guts and glory again in '11, while also preparing to build our future dynasty? Or do we accept '11 for what it could be- a reloading year, where a playoff appearance alone is a sign of success? Do we groom our future on both sides of the ball, and accept a few bitter losses in the process?
And here's one final thought. As the Yahoo! article mentioned at the beginning stated, vets like Leber and Pat Williams have higher value. Will we have to enter bidding wars to keep these guys around, if that's what we choose? How much money are we willing to give out of the salary cap for one year contracts?
So what say you, DN faithful? What direction do we go with defense in '11: Keep the vets, hope that we can truly go far on a solid defense, or throw all the new guys to the fire at once, and accept the risk of taking '11 in the teeth?