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Vikings Defense Off-Season Evaluation

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The Vikings have at least started their off-season evaluations, and may have completed them too, as some coaching changes at least seem to be in the works. Let's take our own look at the Vikings following a very promising season, and how to make this team better prepared for a deep playoff run next season. First of two parts.

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Unlike past off-seasons going back, well, to the 20th century more or less, there are not major questions at key positions, whether on the field, head coach, or GM, or ownership, and they all get along pretty well it seems.  The team is not in salary-cap hell, nor are they facing the departure of any key players at this point, nor are they in the midst of any player scandals.   In addition,  the Vikings have a $1+ billion dollar, state-of-the-art, new stadium to play in, and an NFC North title to defend.   As off-seasons go, things could be worse.  A lot worse.  See Browns, Cleveland.

Let's start the first part of this evaluation with the good news, which is the defense.


Defensive Evaluation

The Vikings defense finished the regular season with some pretty respectable league rankings:

  • 5th in the league in points allowed per game
  • 13th in total yards allowed per game 
  • 12th against the pass, and 17th against the run
  • 5th best in red-zone % TDs allowed, which corresponds with being 5th in points allowed 
  • 4th best in 3rd down conversion percentage allowed.  

This continues the improvement Mike Zimmer began last season, elevating the Vikings defensive unit to arguably one of the elite units in the league in just two years.  More than that, the Vikings defense retains a core nucleus of talented young players, all of which will be returning next year.  They include:

Everson Griffen - Pro-Bowl alternate.

Sharrif Floyd

Linval Josesph - PFF All-Pro

Danielle Hunter - Pro Football Writers' All-Rookie team

Anthony Barr - PFF All-Pro

Eric Kendricks - Pro Football Writers' All-Rookie team

Harrison Smith - PFF All-Pro

Xavier Rhodes

Captain Munnerlyn

Trae Waynes

Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn, while not getting any accolades, quietly had very solid years, while Sharrif Floyd was OK, but was also injured for a few games and filled in for Linval Joseph at NT for a few games.

In terms of depth, Tom Johnson continued to play well backing up the interior of the defensive line.  Shamar Stephen looked promising as a backup NT, but was injured most of the year.  Anthony Harris looked good at times replacing Harrison Smith at FS.

Beyond these players, there are some questions regarding older players- Brian Robison, Chad Greenway and Terence Newman in particular.  Also, SS Andrew Sendejo, now a free agent, is a question mark too.

But with just about all the starters returning next year, the only real question marks are at LB and SS, with some question as to whether the new guy or old guy starts at LDE and CB opposite Rhodes.

DEFENSIVE FREE AGENTS

The Vikings have some defensive free agents they could possibly re-sign or not for various reasons.  Here's my take:

DE Justin Trattou - Not essential.  Liked the two picks he had, but overall not a strong DE.  Depending on how other depth players like Scott Crichton pan out, and any potential draft picks, Trattou could be re-signed for a team friendly figure or not.

DT Kenrick Ellis - Not essential.  If Shamar Stephen returns to form, and Tom Johnson continues to play as he has, there is no reason to re-sign Ellis.

LB Casey Matthews - Do not re-sign.  He was injured all season on a one-year deal, and looked to be a has-been anyway.

LB Audie Cole - Not essential.  Cole is a 2-down LB in this league, despite his uncanny INTs in pre-season, and was injured most of the year.  I don't have a problem with offering him a minimal deal if he can make the team, but his value is limited, and I'd rather see a guy with more potential fill the roster spot.

LB Jason Trusnik - Not essential.  Similar to Cole, but worse.  No problem with him on a 90-man roster, just not a 53-man one.

CB Josh Robinson - Not essential.  As a depth CB on a team-friendly deal he's a possibility.  Robinson had some good games a year ago under Zimmer, and improved greatly under his coaching, but he's short for an outside CB, still has a ways to go, and missed most of this past season to injury.

CB Terence Newman - Re-sign him.  My hope is that Trae Waynes can take over the starting job, but having Newman as a capable backup for any of the DB spots is a nice safety blanket and well worth keeping on - if he wants to continue to play.  His familiarity with the system is also a big plus working with younger players.

CB Marcus Sherels - Not essential.  Sherels is a decent punt returner and good special teams player.  He's not an NFL-caliber CB.  I have no problem signing him to a team-friendly, if he makes the team contingent deal, allowing him to compete for those positions, but I'd rather a player(s) with more potential outside of special teams take over his duties.

S Robert Blanton - Not essential.  There is a case for re-signing him to compete as a depth player/special teams, which would be fine, again on a team-friendly deal, but I hope the players above him on the depth chart by the end of training camp make his services unnecessary.

S Andrew Sendejo - Not essential.  This is contingent on the Vikings finding a starting SS either in the draft or free agency, either of which is possible.  Again, he could be re-signed to compete for depth, but I suspect this is the top position in need for upgrade on defense.

TOUGH DECISIONS AND INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

DE Brian Robison. He had a decent year, and a bit of a pleasant surprise.  But Robison is also turning 33, and at $5 million against the cap, is no bargain, especially as a back-up to Hunter, who looks ready to take over as starter.  I think it makes sense to keep Robison as a backup if he's willing to restructure his contract to a more team-friendly number that better reflects his value to the team, similar to what Greenway did last year.

LB Chad Greenway. Great guy and Viking, he did OK this year in a more limited role, as fit his ability at this stage in his career.  He is also a free agent, but has said he wants to go another year.  Re-signing him at near the veteran minimum for his tenure is not without merit, but backup LBs typically need to play special teams, which would not be a strength for the slow and aging Greenway. Overall, the Vikings need to add some new guys at LB, so keeping a roster spot for Greenway doesn't make a lot of sense.

He does seem well suited to join the front office, with former Vikings linebackers Jack Del Rio and Scott Studwell both being potential role-models for continuing his career in the NFL in a different capacity.  It would be nice to retain Greenway in the Vikings organization, if not on the field next year.

DRAFT AND/OR FREE AGENCY NEEDS

Strong Safety

George Iloka is a free agent from the Bengals, who knows Zimmer and his system, could work well alongside Harrison Smith.  My guess is that the Bengals will want to re-sign him, so it's not a given the Vikings could get him away from the Bengals.  He would be a nice pick-up, but not necessarily a bargain.  He's 6' 4", 225 lbs., 25 years old, ran a 4.66" 40.  He's done especially well as a pass defender.

As a later round draft pick, Jayron Kearse, Clemson could also be a nice addition here.

Linebacker

This looks to be a deeper draft this year at LB.  In addition to Brandon Watts and Edmund Robinson as developing depth players, the Vikings could use a MLB with 3-down ability.  Joshua Perry, Ohio St., could be a nice mid-round pick up to fill that need.

Cornerback

A perennial need, but more for depth and development via the draft, rather than free agency.   Some home cooking- Eric Murray, Minnesota could be nice pickup with a 4th or 5th round pick.

Defensive End

The Vikings need to find a replacement for Brian Robison, as Scott Crichton has not been that guy so far, not to mention a backup to Everson Griffen, now the Hunter could end up starting opposite him.  Bronson Kaufusi, BYU could fit the need as a 2nd or 3rd round pick.

OUTLOOK FOR THE DEFENSE

I don't expect a lot of changes for the defense next season, both in terms of personnel and performance.  I expect it to be a top ranked unit in the league, as it was this year, and to remain a strength of this football team.  Danielle Hunter and Trae Waynes could step up for the Vikings next season, and make the defense better.  Eric Kendricks in his 2nd year should improve as well.  Also, new players at strong safety and linebacker could prove to be upgrades, and help improve run defense.

This off-season is an opportunity to improve depth, particularly at LB and DB, and for new leaders to emerge.  Harrison Smith is becoming a leader on the back-end, and Everson Griffen up-front, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Eric Kendricks emerge as a leader in the LB group.

Overall, this group is well coached at every level, and is a talented young group of players now more fully versed in Zimmer's system, with players like Griffen, Joseph, Barr, Rhodes and Smith entering or in their prime.  Just how well this unit will do next year will depend upon the potential new starters at DE, CB, SS and LB and how quickly they can get up to speed.  But I expect this unit to maintain its top rankings next season, and perhaps improve upon them if they can stay healthy.