My apologies for getting this back on track a little later than I had anticipated. . .guess I'm vacationing a little too hard. (Yes, I do take the occasional vacation, even though they're pretty few and far between.)
We continue our look ahead to Training Camp by moving over to the defensive side of the ball and the unit that might be the strength of the team, the defensive line. Mike Zimmer has done some pretty serious work with this unit, and it showed last year on the field. Can he do more this season?
How They Started Last Season: Brian Robison (starter), Everson Griffen (starter), Corey Wootton, Scott Crichton
How They Ended Last Season: Robison (starter), Griffen (starter), Wootton, Crichton, Justin Trattou
How They Head Into Camp: Robison (starter?), Griffen (starter), Crichton, Trattou, Danielle Hunter, B.J. Dubose, Leon Mackey, Caesar Rayford
How They Started Last Season: Sharrif Floyd (starter), Linval Joseph (starter), Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen
How They Ended Last Season: Floyd (starter), Joseph (starter), Johnson, Stephen
How They Head Into Camp: Floyd (starter), Joseph (starter), Johnson, Stephen, Chigbo Anunoby, Chrishon Rose
I'm not sure how much turnover to expect from this unit when the final cuts come. Of the nine defensive linemen that were on the roster for the season finale against the Bears last season, eight of them are back, with Wootton continuing his tour of the NFC North by signing with the Detroit Lions as a free agent.
As we went into last season, people were still of the mindset that Rick Spielman was crazy for giving Griffen the sort of contract that he gave him, as he had never played a season as a starter at defensive end. By the end of the season, nobody thought Spielman was crazy any more. Griffen led the Vikings in sacks, and showed great ability to make plays against the run as well. It's hard to believe that he's going into his sixth NFL season, but there's still plenty of room for Griffen to get better in 2015.
The more interesting battle might be what happens on the other end of the line. Robison, who is one of the longest-tenured members of the team, was once again penciled in as the starter at defensive end, but injured a pectoral muscle during OTAs and was limited. His absence gave Crichton, a player that essentially redshirted his rookie season, an opportunity to get on the field, and he drew raves from his teammates. If Robison is limited in camp, Crichton might get an opportunity to see if his OTA success translates to real game action.
Danielle Hunter, who the Vikings selected in the third round of this year's draft, appears to be in the same mold as Crichton. Everyone knows about Hunter's athletic ability, but it really didn't translate into production at LSU, as he managed only 1.5 sacks in his last year in Baton Rouge. He, like Crichton, may have to take a season to really get his bearing at the NFL level, and he could start out as a significant addition to the special teams units. Still, if Zimmer gets his athletic ability harnessed sooner rather than later, everyone could end up being wrong on that front.
I have another Vikings' draftee, B.J. Dubose, listed as a defensive end, though the Vikings' roster page has him as the lone player with a "DL" description, so it doesn't really specify. He could end up bouncing back and forth between end and tackle, and either way is going to have a tough time cracking the roster, in my opinion. However, I give him a better chance of making it than either Leon Mackey or Caesar Rayford.
At the tackle position, Sharrif Floyd may have made bigger strides in his first year under Mike Zimmer than even Griffen did. Per the folks at Pro Football Focus, Floyd was Vikings' highest-graded defensive player, despite struggling through a knee injury at times. When he was healthy, Floyd was outstanding against both the run and the pass, and there's no reason to think he won't continue his upward climb this season.
The team gave big Linval Joseph a significant free agent contract before last season, and I'm not sure if he quite lived up to it. Of course, it's tough to get it going when you have to recover from getting shot in the leg during the pre-season. (He didn't Plaxico himself or anything. . .he was found to be completely innocent in what went on that night.) Hopefully last season was just a bit of a hiccup and Joseph can bring a little more to the table in 2015.
Before last year, Tom Johnson was sort of the Lucky Starr of the NFL. . .he'd been everywhere, man, he'd been everywhere. However, in Mike Zimmer's defense, he came out of nowhere to finish second on the team in sacks, and played himself into a new three-year deal. This is going to be just about the longest that he's stayed in one place in professional football, so we'll have to see if he can carry last year's success over. He's on the wrong side of 30 now, but he's another guy that should still be able to produce.
When Floyd missed games last year, it was rookie Shamar Stephen that replaced him in the starting lineup. Not bad for a seventh-round pick that not a whole lot was expected out of. With the players that are on the team right now, he's once again the fourth defensive tackle, and with a team that likes to rotate its defensive front as much as the Vikings do, that's not a bad position to be in. He could step in for either Floyd or Joseph if either of them have to deal with injuries again in 2015.
With apologies to Chigbo Anunoby and Chrishon Rose, I expect the Vikings to start the 2015 season with the same four defensive tackles they finished the 2014 season with. They might be able to play their way onto the practice squad. . .and, hey, there are worse places to be than on a practice squad getting to learn from one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL.
That's a quick look at the defensive line prospects as we head into Training Camp 2015. We'll come back tomorrow with the linebackers.