Training Camp has officially broken. After dual practices in Cincinnati followed by the first preseason game against the Bengals Friday night, the Vikings will return to Winter Park to complete the rest of their preseason in preparation for the Week 1 tilt against the Tennessee Titans. We're that much closer to meaningful football!
Yesterday I went through some general observations about the offense before diving into evaluations of each and every player on offense and special teams. Today it's the defense's turn.
Overall defensive observations
Much of the success of the 2015 season was largely attributed to the defense, with good reason. The defense carried the sputtering offense at times. Just two years into Mike Zimmer's tenure, his charges were starting to morph into the versatile and athletic vision he had for them.
And you know what? The defense should be even better this season. All eleven defensive starters are back, and a few of those incumbents should be pushed by some of the great young talent behind them.
One of the biggest areas the defense is looking to improve is in the two-minute drill. The Vikings allowed a lot of points at the end of halves last year. Zimmer and Defensive Coordinator George Edwards mentioned the need for improvement there on multiple occasions last week. Shoring up the defense late could help a very good defense become great.
When you're watching Training Camp live, it's fairly simple to get a good feel for the defensive line and secondary. Linemen that get to the quarterback and stuff the run are obviously faring better than those that can't get off their blocks. Corners and safeties that stay close to their man in coverage and break up passes are having a better camp than those who are consistently getting beat or committing penalties.
While discussing the merits of players with other writers while I was in Mankato, the biggest disagreements always seemed to revolve around linebackers. Our pal Arif pointed out several times throughout the course of the week that linebacker is the toughest position to evaluate at Training Camp. He couldn't be more correct. Most of the hitting is muted, so you can't learn much about how a linebacker tackles. Most of the coverage is rather vanilla and it's hard to know assignments without direct input from Zimmer or Edwards. And with all the rotation between the first, second, and third teams, it was hard to get a feel for where a lot of them stood in the coaches' mind as well. So if you see some evaluations that differ greatly from what you have seen from other sources, now you know why.
Yesterday I shared the 13 personnel run package I was so excited about. I have a package on the defensive side of the ball I really enjoyed watching as well. It was a nickel package with the usual starting secondary and Captain Munnerlyn in the slot. Along the defensive line were Danielle Hunter, Brian Robison, Tom Johnson, and Everson Griffen, in that order. That's arguably the four best pass rushers on the team. To make it even more exciting, they practiced a lot of blitzes with Munnerlyn, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith attacking every possible edge and gap. When opponents are in obvious passing downs this year, watch out. There might be times where the Vikings are in the backfield so quickly it will look like they called the other team's play in Tecmo Bowl. It obviously isn't something you can do all the time, but at the right time it could be deadly.
Without further ado, let's get to which players will be trying to make this defense even more formidable in 2016.
Everson Griffen: Griff has been nearly unstoppable in camp. If you protect the inside, he'll speed rush around you. If you cheat to the outside, he'll spin straight to the quarterback. If you're leaning back too far or if your pad level is too high, he'll just shove you back and proceed to terrorize the backfield. At this point he should probably be paying for Matt Kalil's therapy. Griffen is a top five pass rusher. End of story. I'm really glad he's a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
Linval Joseph: We already knew that Joseph was a beast. After watching him live for four days, I'm downright frightened of what he might do to the rest of the league this season. Linval absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage and constantly shoved offensive linemen out of the way like they were Pop Warner players. If Joseph stays healthy all year, he's going to be an absolute terror.
Sharrif Floyd: To be honest I was a bit disappointed in Floyd's overall performance in camp. At times it looks as though he's just going through motions and he didn't really show the explosiveness he's known for as often as I anticipated. There isn't need for major concern though. With Floyd's injury history I'm sure the team is erring on the side of caution. (Which hopefully explains his latest absence.) While he may see a slight downturn in snaps this season with the third down packages the team has shown, he still has a firm grip on his starting gig.
Brian Robison: All the talk this season surrounding Robison has been about how he will inevitably lose snaps to Hunter. He will, but not as many as you might think. The "super pass rush" package that sees Robison moving to the inside is a great wrinkle that will allow Robison and Hunter to both see plenty of action this year. And Robison deserves it--the 33-year-old vet still appears to have plenty left in the tank.
Danielle Hunter: I could write just about anything in this space and you wouldn't notice because you'd be too busy staring at Hunter's action figure arms in the picture below. But just in case, I'll tell you how year two should be much better than his breakout rookie season. Hunter made the lives of the second team offensive line absolutely miserable the entire week. The first team wasn't too fond of him either. Drafting raw talent doesn't always work out that well, but in this case Rick Spielman might have hit the jackpot.
Tom Johnson: I've said it before, I'll say it again--Johnson could be a starter on nearly any other team in the NFL. Luckily for the Vikings, Johnson seems to be more than happy rotating in and destroying whoever's in front of him. His pass rush ability combined with the fact that he'll be relatively fresh most of the time is a lethal combination.
Justin Trattou: I don't think there's any way that Trattou will crack the starting lineup of the deepest and most talented unit on the team. However, I don't think there's any way he'll be cut from the final 53 either. Trattou had a very solid week of camp and caused all sorts of problems for the second team offensive line. His perseverance after originally getting cut by the Vikings has definitely made an impression on the coaching staff. Mike Zimmer and George Edwards both lauded Trattou in their press conferences.
Zach Moore: The pride of Concordia-St. Paul wasn't on my radar heading into camp, so it was surprising to see him get so many reps with the second team. He got to the quarterback on occasion in the full team work and looked fluid in the individual drills. Moore has been a pleasant surprise that has a real chance at making the roster.
Shamar Stephen: Call him "Solid Shamar." There isn't anything about his play that makes you say "wow" but he always seems to be in the right spot. He had some really nice run stops in the night practice. Is that enough to earn him a roster spot? I wouldn't mind but I think it'll be close.
Kenrick Ellis: If you saw Ellis at all last season, then you know what you have this season. A veteran backup defensive tackle with a decent overall game. Solid, not great. In a week full of splash plays by the defensive line, I kind of forgot Ellis was out there at times. I think it will come down to Stephen and Ellis for the final defensive lineman spot on the 53. From what I saw, I would give the edge to Stephen.
Scott Crichton: The move from defensive end to defensive tackle smacks of a last-ditch effort from the coaches to see if he can remain on the roster. And I don't think it worked. I really liked Crichton coming out of college, but for whatever reason he just hasn't found his niche on the team. I'll be surprised if he makes the final cut.
Stephen Weatherly: The seventh round pick out of Vanderbilt looks smooth with every movement. He does tend to get a little too high with his big frame at times though. I don't think Weatherly is quite ready for primetime; I think he would make a good candidate for the practice squad.
Claudell Louis: He certainly looks the part; he's a big dude that fills a lot of space in the middle. However, it doesn't look like Louis will actually play the part. I didn't see anything out of him that warranted serious consideration for the final roster.
Toby Johnson: A couple of guys covering camp liked a couple of things "the other Johnson" did in camp. I'm still not giving him even a couple percent likelihood of surviving the cuts.
Travis Raciti: Two words: Camp. Body. Not a chance.
Thieren Cockran: I'm not saying he got a tryout only because of his Minnesota ties, but I'm not saying it wasn't either. I didn't see anything that would make Cockran a candidate to survive the cut to 75, much less the final roster or practice squad.
Denzell Perine: Decent technique, but looked a half step behind the rest in the drills. Perine barely got any run in 11 on 11. See ya.
Anthony Barr: Guess what? He's still really good. He looked 100% healthy and was flying all over the field all week. He's going to be a problem for any offense that faces him. I apologize for the lack of in-depth evaluation here, but what else can I tell you? You already know Barr is a beast.
Eric Kendricks: He had a little bit of an injury scare in the night practice but it didn't seem that serious. It looks like Kendricks is working hard on his pass coverage to compliment instincts that were already top notch. Remember how much Barr improved from year one to year two? I'd expect a similar improvement from his college teammate this year.
Chad Greenway: This is likely Chad's last hurrah in a Vikings (or any other) uniform. I personally never want him to leave. Greenway is always one of the most vocal and funny players on the field, constantly interacting with anyone in his vicinity. (His taunting of Al Franken and Arif this year were especially memorable.) Of course this is likely Chad's last hurrah for a reason--there isn't much left in the tank. But Greenway is also listed as starting weak side linebacker for a reason--he's still a viable option thanks to his excellent football IQ and understanding of the defense. I think some of the names after him on this list could definitely steal some his playing time later on this season.
Audie Cole: There aren't many linebackers with a nose for the ball better than Audie. He attacks with aplomb at every opportunity. But I still get the feeling that the coaching staff doesn't completely trust him to be an every down linebacker. His aggressiveness can get him caught out of position at times.
Edmond Robinson: He seemed noticeably bigger than last season, looking a little more physical while still moving well. I liked what I saw from him with the backups, so I was disappointed he didn't rotate in with the starters more often.
Emmanuel Lamur: At first glance, Lamur is incredibly impressive. He's tall, angular, and just looks like the kind of athletic linebacker tailored for a Mike Zimmer defense. If this were Backup Linebacker Bachelorette, Lamur would get the first impression rose. But as for his play? Evaluating Lamur depends on who you ask. Talking to people in camp, Lamur may have garnered the widest variety of opinions. Personally I think he's just OK. I liked what I saw from Robinson a bit more. Lamur is definitely a candidate to make the final 53 though, especially since he was rotating in with the first team so often.
Kentrell Brothers: I really liked Brothers' instincts and the angles he took to attack the ball. But man does he look small out there compared to the rest of the linebacking corps. The best comparison I heard for Brothers was London Fletcher. I'm not saying his play is even close yet, but Brothers' build makes him a dead ringer. If it comes down to Lamur and Brothers for making the roster—which might very well happen—I'd lean towards Brothers. (I'm not sure the coaches would with all the first team snaps they have given to Lamur.)
Brandon Watts: The former 7th round pick certainly carries himself on and off the field like someone that believes he has a spot in this team, even though he was temporarily released last season. Unfortunately, I'm not nearly as confident about Watts' future as he is. The linebacker group has become much more crowded and it doesn't look like he has got any better. I think Watts will be on the wrong side of the numbers game this year.
Jake Ganus: Ganus is basically the poor man's Mike Mauti, down to the uniform number. He has a great motor and does everything the coaches ask of him; unfortunately for Ganus most of what the coaches ask of him is scout team related.
Terrance Plummer: I sat staring at my screen for nearly five minutes trying to think of something, anything, to say about Plummer. That should tell you everything you need to know about his chances of making the roster.
Xavier Rhodes: Rhodes is definitely the best corner on the team, even if he hasn't elevated himself to "shutdown" status yet. Overall he had a good camp, including an incredible series of pass breakups in the night practice. However, it wasn't impossible to complete a pass on Rhodes either. There are still a few kinks he can work out before "Rhodes Closed" turns into an island.
Trae Waynes: If there was a Most Improved Player award for this year's Training Camp compared to last year, I think Waynes would get my vote. He looks like a different player than the under-performing rookie we saw in 2015. His physicality and timing on contesting passes has been great in camp. His hips and lateral movement still aren't ideal but they're noticeably improved. I think Waynes should be the Week 1 starter opposite Rhodes.
Captain Munnerlyn: Captain still has the slot corner position on lock. His play doesn't seem to have dropped a bit after his strong performance last season. In fact, Munnerlyn is such a sure thing at the nickel corner that the Vikings PR staff had t-shirts made:
Harrison Smith taking the podium in a Captain Munnerlyn "In Captain We Trust" t-shirt. pic.twitter.com/814Cf7VZxI— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) August 5, 2016
Terence Newman: If Waynes is the starter, that obviously means Newman would be relegated to backup. Newman is still doing everything right at corner, but he does look a half step slower than last season. Father Time is still undefeated, so it was going to happen eventually. I think Newman will be the Chad Greenway of the secondary—a seasoned veteran that sees the field in a slightly diminished role, but still an important contributor.
Mackensie Alexander: As with Waynes last year, the Vikings seem to be deliberately bringing their highly touted cornerback along rather slowly. He worked almost exclusively in the nickel in drills, which means something would probably have to happen to Munnerlyn in order for Alexander to see many snaps this season. He had a surprisingly quiet week of camp; he didn't have any egregious mistakes but didn't make any incredible plays either. I'm hoping that we'll see more of what he can do in the preseason games.
Tre Roberson: The FCS-quarterback-turned-NFL-cornerback is actually a lot better than that hyphenated phrase would imply. The athleticism he displayed under center at Illinois State was certainly on display in Mankato, even if the finer points of playing his new position still need some work. I see potential in Roberson but making the team is going to be an uphill climb. I think he's a perfect practice squad candidate.
Marcus Sherels: At this point Sherels' only real contribution to this team should be as a punt returner. He can be a decent stopgap corner if somebody else goes down, but if he's getting extended snaps in the defensive backfield we're in trouble. For what seems like the 19th straight year, everyone is speculating that Sherels could be cut. But as you know, only cockroaches, Twinkies, and Marcus Sherels can survive anything. He'll be around.
Jabari Price: Wow did Price have a disappointing camp. He was repeatedly beaten by wide receivers from all regions of the depth chart. I don't think it was a coincidence that Price's snaps migrated from mostly second team to mostly third team as last week wore on. I doubt he'll be a Viking for much longer.
Melvin White: Whenever a second string guy got open for a nice catch, I usually found #31 trailing him. Not a great sign if you're hoping to make the team. White did make a couple nice plays over the course of the week, but not nearly enough to justify a roster spot.
Harrison Smith: One of the best safeties in the league played like...well, one of the best safeties in the league for the entirety of camp. Outside of one play in the night practice where Smith didn't turn his head around to break up a pass to Kyle Rudolph in the end zone, his play was nearly flawless. He's a special player and I'm really glad he's on my favorite team.
Andrew Sendejo: Hating on Sendejo has become so in vogue that it has started to inaccurately reflect his play. He might actually be underrated at this point. He really isn't that bad. His run defense has always been good and it's not like he's getting burned deep every other play. Sendejo still has plenty to work on though. Teddy Bridgewater was able to find receivers on Sendejo's side of the field fairly often on intermediate routes. The corner and out routes in the 15-20 yard range were completed in front of him pretty frequently. Sendejo also has a knack for being in the right spot on coverage but not being able to make a play on the ball. So no, this defense isn't screwed if he's the Week 1 starter, which I assume he will be. There's just a good amount of room for improvement.
Anthony Harris: He's picking up where he left off last year and improving. I liked what I saw with Harris' physical play and ball skills over the middle. Has he done enough to supplant Sendejo and his shiny new contract? I doubt it. But Harris definitely deserves to be in the mix. If Sendejo falters again, Harris should be the first name called.
Jayron Kearse: "Wow, he's big!" That's the sentence you heard uttered over and over from everyone that saw Kearse in person for the first time. You can't help but draw your eyes to his lanky 6'4" frame every time he's roaming the back end of the defense. And size isn't the only thing Kearse has going for him. He moved very fluidly and showed some nice speed in both drills and full-field work. I can't believe a player with his size from a big school like Clemson lasted until the seventh round. The competition for Mr. Mankato was pretty weak this year, but my vote would go to either Kearse or David Morgan. Kearse won't win the competition for starter just yet but I can see it happening down the road.
Michael Griffin: There's a sentiment among the people I talked to in camp that the ten-year veteran was signed to compete for the open starting safety job or risk being cut. If that's the case, Griffin is going to be looking for work soon. I thought Griffin was OK in camp but I didn't see anything that would qualify him to pass Sendejo. (Or Harris or Kearse for that matter.) If the Vikings decide to keep five safeties, I think Griffin makes it. If they keep four, I think he's out.
Antone Exum Jr.: I had such high hopes for Exum when the Vikings drafted him in 2014. He seemed to be the perfect fit for Mike Zimmer's defense. But for whatever reason, it just hasn't panned out. I think he has the ability but it doesn't seem like the coaching staff trusts him to consistently make the right reads. It's unfortunate but I don't see Exum making the final 53 this year.
So there you have it--my evaluations of all 90 players on the Vikings roster as they break camp and head to Cincinnati. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed my annual trek to Mankato to cover it.