As we mentioned in our look at defensive tackles, the defensive line has undergone the biggest overhaul this off-season. That transformation was not isolated to the tackles, as the Vikings lost one of the best players in recent history. DE Jared Allen took his talents to the North Shore after playing out his contract, and the Vikings re-shuffled and re-tooled in the draft and free agency.
What we have now is a defensive line that's younger, quicker, hopefully more balanced, but still mixed with veteran leadership. Who are the top guys we think will head north out of Mankato?
Brian Robison: If there's one player that kind of symbolizes the Vikings transformation this past off-season, it's Robison. He was always the young kid of the line, and although he's a good player in his own right, he was overlooked due to guys like Kevin Williams and Jared Allen. And with Allen focusing his game almost exclusively on rushing the passer in the last couple of seasons, you could make the argument that Robison has developed into a better all around player than Allen at this point in his career.
With Allen and Williams gone, Robison is now, suddenly, the veteran of the bunch, and you look at his career and think 'wow, he's entering his ninth year. Doesn't seem possible he's been here that long already.' Robison will anchor this new look line, and the Vikings are expecting him to step up and lead on and off the field.
Everson Griffen: As big as the Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn signings were, a good argument can be made that re-signing Griffen was Rick Spielman's number one priority. If that doesn't happen, the whole focus of free agency changes for the Vikings, and they might not have gotten Joseph and/or Munnerlyn, depending on how things shook out. Griffen has flashed some serious talent in what's been primarily a backup role, and one of the reasons the Vikings were comfortable with letting Allen walk is the belief that Griffen can step in and fill that void. He got his payday, he's now a starter, so it's time for him to transition into a full time force off the edge.
Scott Crichton: Kind of lost in the hoopla of the Vikings draft weekend was the fact that they may have selected the next Jared Allen in the third round. When you watch Scott Crichton's tape, you see that same speed off the edge that Allen had, and an ability to get to the quarterback. He still needs polishing, but his natural ability is such that with good coaching, he can become a really good DE in the NFL. I'll be stunned if he isn't worked into the mix on a fairly regular rotation, right from the beginning.
Corey Wootton: Wootton was one of those classic Spielman free agent signings that we've come to see over the last few years. He seemed to be on the verge of breaking out with the Bears after 2012, and after winning a starting job, and keeping it in 2013, he was bothered by a hip injury that required surgery after the season was over. He's a versatile guy that can play inside or outside, and his edge speed makes him an intriguing pass rushing option. Assuming he's 100%, I expect to see Wootton utilized both inside and outside, depending on the down and distance.
Justin Trattou/Spencer Nealy: Trattou was with the Giants in 2011, out of the league in 2012, and actually suited up and played for the Vikings last year in the final home game ever at the Metrodome. Nealy was a member of the Vikings practice squad for the last half of the 2013 season, but was never put on the active roster. You'd normally think that guys in this spot would be ready to make the leap to the 53 man roster, but when the Vikings drafted Crichton and signed Wootton, the chances of either of these guys making the leap seems a longshot.
Rakim Cox/Tyler Scott/Jake Snyder: If Trattou and Nealy are longshots, then the three undrafted free agents of Cox, Scott, and Snyder are really on the outside looking in. Once the Vikings drafted Crichton and signed Wootton, it seemed the DE depth was pretty much set. Barring an injury or what would be an unthinkable drop in play, these guys are probably playing for a spot on the practice squad, at best.