We continue our look at what the Minnesota Vikings could, potentially, look like going forward, and our focus now shifts to the defensive side of the ball with a look at the defensive line. The defensive line for the Vikings was, for the most part, a source of strength in 2014, and it doesn't appear to be a position where a lot of changes need to be made.
We'll start with the defensive ends, and the player that might have been the Vikings' defensive MVP last season in Everson Griffen. (I say "may have been" because he had plenty of competition for that title.) When it came out last season that the Vikings were going to eschew potentially bigger names at defensive end in free agency and spend top dollar to keep Griffen in purple, many of the "experts" were immediately skeptical of the move. After all, Griffen had only started one game in his NFL career to that point, and had registered just 17.5 sacks in four seasons before Rick Spielman and company backed the Brinks truck up to his house. However, Griffen proved Spielman correct, racking up 12 sacks and proving to be a force against both the pass and the run. His one weakness is his propensity for jumping offside, but hopefully that's something that's easily corrected.
At the other defensive end spot, Brian Robison appears to be tailing off a little bit, and is the one piece of the defensive line that could wind up finding himself being replaced. Going by what the folks at Pro Football Focus have. . .and, again, I know they're not the be-all and end-all, but they're pretty good at what they do. . .Robison was one of the worst run defenders on the team (with a -6.7 grade) and one of the weak links on the defense overall. Robison is one of the older players on the team and on defense, and if the Vikings feel that his $5.65 million cap hit is too prohibitive, they could wind up cutting him to try to save some money. It would be strange to see his name attached to such a transaction, but maybe not entirely surprising.
The primary backup at the defensive end spot in 2014 was former Bear Corey Wootton. While the Vikings were fairly free in rotating their defensive tackles, Robison and Griffen saw the lion's share of time at the end spots, with Wootton only seeing 275 snaps on the season (compared to 993 for Griffen and 932 for Robison). In those 275 snaps, Wootton managed to have the second-lowest overall grade among all Vikings' defenders from PFF with a -14.4 mark, and was almost equally bad against the run (-7.7) and the pass (-6.7). He was only on a one-year deal with the Vikings, and I'd be pretty shocked to see him back. But at least Wootton gave us this to remember him by in the season finale.
Justin Trattou came up from the practice squad to provide a little bit of defensive line depth later on in the season, but didn't show much. That brings us to someone that disappointed a lot of Vikings' fans last season, that being rookie Scott Crichton. The team spent a third-round pick on Crichton in 2014, with the thought that he would find himself in the defensive line rotation fairly early and often. Instead, Crichton found himself active for only half of the Vikings' games this past season, and played only 16 snaps on defense all year. When the Vikings selected him, Crichton was viewed as a potential replacement for Robison, and if the team thinks he's ready to contribute, he could step into that role sooner rather than later.
Now, if the team feels that he isn't ready to assume a bigger role, that could move defensive end up the Vikings' priority list in free agency and the draft. But, as things sit right now, the Vikings have a lot of other positions that they probably need to address first.
At the defensive tackle position, Sharrif Floyd took a huge step forward in Mike Zimmer's defense in his second season. Despite battling a knee injury through most of the second half of the season, Floyd received the highest overall grade of any Vikings' defender from Pro Football Focus with a +22.0 grade. (Harrison Smith was second with a +17.9 mark, so Floyd finished pretty comfortably ahead of him.) Floyd dropped a lot of weight during last off-season, and said that he changed his footwork thanks to Zimmer's coaching, and both paid huge dividends for him last season. If he can stay healthy, he should continue to develop into a real force in the middle for the Vikings.
On the first day of free agency last season, the Vikings made a splash by signing big Linval Joseph to man the other defensive tackle spot. Joseph got off to a bit of a slow start, but as he got more used to the new defensive scheme, he started to come on later on in the season. Ultimately, Joseph wound up being pretty much as advertised. . .a big body that can cause havoc in the run game while occasionally contributing to the pass rush. He's sort of "Pat Williams lite" so far, which is basically what the Vikings brought him in to be.
One of the more pleasant surprises for the Vikings last season was defensive tackle Tom Johnson. Johnson had bounced, literally, around the world during his football career, with stops in NFL Europe and the Arena League before finding his way to Minnesota. He signed a one-year deal with the Vikings, and flourished as a situational pass rusher with 6.5 sacks on the season. Despite an incident that saw him get arrested at a Minneapolis restaurant, he appears to be the Vikings' highest-priority in-house free agent. It's been said that Johnson wants a longer-term deal, but at age 30, it remains to be seen if he will get one. . .and if it comes from the Vikings.
Generally, you don't expect much from guys that get taken in the seventh round of the draft, but the Vikings got surprisingly decent play out of rookie Shamar Stephen when he was called upon. Stephen received nearly as many snaps in 2014 as Johnson did (444 for Johnson, 414 for Stephen) and was even called upon to start three games while Floyd battled his injuries. His grade from Pro Football Focus of -8.0 looks pretty poor on the surface, but for being thrown into the breach the way he was, the Vikings should have reason for optimism with him going forward.
Much like the end position, the defensive tackle spot doesn't appear to be a huge priority for the Vikings this off-season. Though I'm sure if someone like Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton were to fall to them in the draft, the team might be tempted to grab the talent first and wonder about fit later, but the odds of that happening seem to be pretty slim. If Johnson winds up leaving for another team, however, they might need to look for someone to replace his pass rushing prowess on a situational basis. Still, as stated earlier, the Vikings' defensive line is a strength, and there are other spots the Vikings need to focus on before worrying about defensive line depth.
We're nearing the end of our positional (p)reviews, as we still have to go through the linebackers and the defensive backs, but we'll do our best to get through them before the start of free agency.