Evaluating the Roster: Defense and Special Teams

Run Anthony, RUN! - Joe Robbins

The Daily Norseman takes a look at the Vikings roster and using player grades from Pro Football Focus, attempts to project who will be the starters for the 2014 Season.

Yesterday, we took a look at the state of the offense based on the current roster posted at Vikings.com. But now that the dust has settled from the draft, it's a perfect time to re-evaluate the roster and see where upgrades can still be made. Again, you can check out some other roster projections in the fanposts from Josh_D and J-Dog: VikingsSuperFan as well.

Like I did in the first article, I'm going to attempt to make some projections for the depth chart utilizing last season's player grades from Pro Football Focus. Rookies (or anyone who hasn't played a snap in a regular NFL game), will be given a baseline grade of zero, until they can prove otherwise. This projection is going to be a true shot in the dark, because we really don't know what kind of defense Mike Zimmer will be running, although it will probably be some kind of hybrid scheme with more of a base 4-3 defense. Whatever it ends up being, it's pretty clear that Zimmer plans to put a ton of pressure on the quarterback, what with drafting two pass rushing specialists and retaining Robinson and Griffen. So, let's get to it, starting with the defensive line.

Defensive Tackles

Position

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

Nose Tackle

Linval Joseph

9.9

22 of 151

3-Tech Tackle

Shariff Floyd

-1.3

103 of 151

Backup #1

Fred Evans

-0.5

83 of 151

Backup #2

Shamar Stephen

0

?

As mentioned, it's tough to project exactly what scheme Mike Zimmer wants to run. We really only have one tackle on the roster with the size of a true nose tackle: Linval Joseph. All of the rest are more of a smaller nose tackle or 3-technique tackle. It's somewhat alarming that outside of Linval Joseph none of the tackles on the roster scored a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, although Shariff Floyd was only a rookie last year and played mostly in a backup/rotational role behind Kevin Williams. Still, if Floyd doesn't step it up this year we might begin to understand why he slid so far down the 1st round in last year's draft. The Vikings have typically only kept four defensive tackles on the roster, and I am projecting newly acquired 7th rounder Shamar Stephen to get the nod over Chase Baker for the 2nd backup role, although it's really Baker's to lose at this point. Even free agent Tom Johnson has a legitimate shot to crack the roster. But I expect Joseph, Floyd and Evans to be virtual locks. I wouldn't be surprised to see some 3-4 looks with Joseph, Floyd and Evans all on the field together, with Floyd and Evans taking on the 5-technique role of defensive ends. If that were the case, then I would project Chase Baker to also make the roster and have the team keep five tackles instead of only four.

Other DTs on the roster: Chase Baker, Tom Johnson, Randall Kheeston, Isame Faciane, Shamar Stephen

Defensive Ends

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Brian Robison

7.0

16 of 93

2nd String

Everson Griffen

4.7

19 of 93

3rd String

Scott Crichton

0

?

4th String

Justin Trattou

0.2

32 of 93

Again, the scheme could change this entirely as outside linebackers might end up being more of a pass rusher in the defense and Anthony Barr might get counted more as a defensive end (or Robison and Griffen could get counted as outside linebackers!), but for now I'll assume a base 4-3 and go with this. The two starters are easy to project, but it gets much more difficult after that. As a 3rd round pick, I think Scott Crichton has an almost guaranteed spot on the roster, but that 4th spot is totally up for grabs. I wanted to slot former Chicago Bear Corey Wooton in there, but his injury history and abysmal PFF grade from last season prevents me from doing so. Justin Trattou has the next highest grade of any backup option, so he gets the nod although I like Wooton's chances. I do have some concerns about our defensive end depth, but there are plenty of other options available and it will likely be quite a camp battle that produces some good backup options. If the team adopts more of a 3-4 look, then this position group would cease to exist for all practical purposes.

Other DEs on the roster: Corey Wooton, Spencer Nealy, Rakim Cox, Tyler Scott, Jake Snyder

4-3 Linebackers

Sam Linebacker

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Anthony Barr

0

?

2nd String

Brandon Watts

0

?

Mike Linebacker

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Jasper Brinkley

1.1

21 of 125

2nd String

Michael Mauti

-0.4

53 of 125

3rd String

Audie Cole

-0.6

58 of 125

Will Linebacker

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Chad Greenway

-19.4

93 of 94

2nd String

Gerald Hodges

0.0

38 of 94

This was arguably the most difficult group to deal with, again because of scheme concerns, but mostly because I'm just not sure where everyone fits. Middle Linebacker is easy. Jasper Brinkley, for all his faults with the Vikings in the past, is the most experienced and highest graded middle linebacker on the roster. As much as we all love the Cole Train, he strikes me as a placeholder for either Brinkley or Mauti. I love Mauti's potential, but until we actually see it come to fruition on the field and can trust his rehabbed knees, it's hard to project him as a starter. I've read in multiple sources that Barr will take over Greenway's old SAM position, meaning that Greenway would likely slide over to the Will position that Erin Henderson used to excel in. I always viewed Hodges as more of a Will-backer and was confused when he was the SAM backup to Greenway last year...and I think he follows Greenway over to Will this year. That leaves the final backup position for Anthony Barr, and 7th round pick Brandon Watts.  Watts is a speedy, pass-rushing linebacker who posted a 4.41 40-yard dash at his Pro Day and who racked up 4.5 sacks and 12 stops behind the line of scrimmage last year.

Of course, this could get thrown completely out the window if we switch to more of a 3-4 look with four starting linebackers, so here is an alternate depth chart with that in mind.

3-4 Linebackers

Sam Linebacker

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Everson Griffen

4.7

19 of 93

2nd String

Anthony Barr

0

?

Mike Linebacker

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Jasper Brinkley

1.1

21 of 125

2nd String

Michael Mauti

-0.4

53 of 125

Ted Linebacker

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Chad Greenway

-19.4

93 of 94

2nd String

Audie Cole

-0.6

58 of 94

Will Linebacker

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Brian Robison

7.0

16 of 93

2nd String

Scott Crichton

0

?

3rd String

Gerald Hodges

0.0

38 of 94

The benefit of this look is that we can minimize Chad Greenway having to play the Will (read: coverage) position and focus him instead on the inside linebacker Ted role which is primarily to eat up blockers. The downside then is that Jasper Brinkley has to take on the Mike role, which is usually reserved for an elite linebacker (like Patrick Willis) that can be equally good at run defense, coverage and spying the QB. Brinkley really only excels at one thing: run defense (and in fact, he's terrible in coverage). He's more of a 2-down linebacker that fits a base 4-3 defense that comes off the field in passing situations. I really feel that our best setup will be a 4-3 base defense with Brinkley in the middle, Barr in the SAM pass-rushing position (where Greenway used to play) and then having an open competition for the Will with either Greenway or Hodges winning out. But a 3-4 look like the one above is not totally out of the question...it's just not a great fit for our current crop of linebackers.

In fact, our linebackers needed a complete overhaul this offseason, and we addressed it by signing Jasper Brinkley in free agency, and drafting Anthony Barr and Brandon Watts. We arguably needed to replace all three starting linebacker positions and while drafting Barr is a good step in the right direction, it's not quite enough. We're going to have to address this position again next off-season as it still remains a weak link. There are eight linebackers on the roster, and only one of them had a positive grade from PFF last season...let that sink in. I've been pounding the linebacker-need drum for the past 3 offseasons, and we're just now finally starting to address it.

Other LBs on the roster: Larry Dean

Cornerbacks

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Captain Munnerlyn

10.1

11 of 199

2nd String

Xavier Rhodes

1.5

57 of 199

3rd String

Josh Robinson

-8.8

188 of 199

4th String

Derek Cox

-12.3

193 of 199

5th String

Shaun Prater

0.6

71 of 199

6th String

Marcus Sherels

-6.4

174 of 199

We've got two very good starting cornerbacks now in Captain Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes, but our depth behind them is still pretty suspect. Josh Robinson is going to have to an incredible year to prove that 2012 and 2013 weren't aberrations. He's super-fast, but sometimes speed isn't enough. Shaun Prater looked pretty decent in limited action last year and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him climb the depth chart. I've learned to never count out Marcus Sherels, as his punt return skills are truly elite. There are a slew of unknown options to compete this year including two late round draft picks, so hopefully the cream rises to the top. Josh Robinson will have plenty of competition that's for sure and I wouldn't be surprised to see recent draft picks James and/or Price make the roster over veterans Derek Cox and Shaun Prater.

Other CBs on the roster: Kip Edwards, Robert Steeples, Kendall James, Jabari Price

Safeties

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

1st String

Harrison Smith

-4.6

141 of 171

2nd String

Jamarca Sanford

0.6

46 of 171

3rd String

Andrew Sendejo

-1.2

110 of 171

4th String

Antone Exum

0

?

5th String

Robert Blanton

0.1

61 of 171

Just looking at the PFF grades leads me to think that our group of safeties is not very good. But Harrison Smith had a rough year due to injury and he looked much better in 2012 when he ranked 19th best with a 6.6 grade. Hopefully he can return to his rookie year form. For all the flack that Jamarca Sanford gets, he's the quintessential league average option and with the state of our roster, he's a good player to have as a starter. I would expect either Antone Exum or Robert Blanton (both CB turned S, developmental projects) to eventually grow into a starting role, but maybe not this season. Andrew Sendejo is an excellent special teams guy and looked like a valuable backup option last year. I wouldn't sleep on veteran Kurt Coleman though, who looked decent in limited action with Philadelphia last year

Other S on the roster: Mistral Raymond, Kurt Coleman, Brandan Bishop

Position

Player Name

PFF Grade

PFF Rank

Placekicker

Blair Walsh

29.5

8 of 52

Punter

Jeff Locke

-10.6

40 of 41

Longsnapper

Cullen Loeffler

-5.0

1131 of 1188

Kick Returner

Cordarrelle Patterson

14.3

1 of 250

Punt Returner

Marcus Sherels

4.3

17 of 250

I was pretty harsh on Jeff Locke last year, but I'm hopeful that he can turn it around for 2014. After that, I really have no complaints. We have the best pair of returners in the league and one of the best placekickers in the league too. I do think we're overpaying an older longsnapper, but what do I know?

Assuming we run the 4-3 scheme, I've pegged our defense for 26 roster spots, which is the same number we've had the past couple of seasons. With 24 on offense that leaves us 3 spots for the Special Teams guys to bring my final projection to 53 players. In any case, our defense looks improved over last year, but we still have a long way to go. I love the following changes and upgrades:

DT: Drop Letroy Guion and Kevin Williams for Linval Joseph and Shariff Floyd
DE: Drop Jared Allen for Everson Griffen and Scott Crichton
LB: Drop Erin Henderson and Marvin Mitchell for Jasper Brinkley and Anthony Barr
CB: Drop Chris Cook for Captain Munnerlyn
S: Add Antone Exum

We had one of the worst defenses in the league last year (if not the worst) and it was certainly one of the worst in team history. We couldn't stop anyone from scoring last season and it seems fitting that 7 of our 10 draft picks were on the defensive side of the ball. If anything our defense can't get any worse from last year and has nowhere to go but up. I have a lot of faith in Mike Zimmer and his ability to turn our defense around, but they're not going to becpme a top 10 unit overnight. Never-the-less, I expect them to be much more competitive and climb out of the basement of the rankings. It will help to keep our starters healthy and on the field, especially in the secondary. But this defense is not done being rebuilt and will take at least another year to restock the depth at every level.

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