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Assessing the Vikings Starters: Defense

A look at what we may expect from the Vikings’ presumed starters at each position this year

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

As we go though training camp, it’s interesting to see how the position battles are progressing, who may or may not make the roster, and who may move up the depth chart. But I thought I’d also take a look at the presumed starters for the Vikings (most of which are virtual locks) to see what we might expect from them this year- which is obviously more important than who is backup RT or DT, for example. At least we hope it is.

Defensive Line

RDE- Everson Griffen- Griffen has been among the top DEs in the league the past few years, and expectations are for him to continue performing at that level again this year. But one thing to keep in mind for Griffen is that he turns 30 this year and has performed just a little worse each of the past couple years overall, according to PFF. Perhaps the main thing for Griffen to improve in his game this year to reverse that trend is his run defense, which is not as good as his pass rush.

The Vikings, based on what has been seen in training camp, are also looking to switch Griffen to left-end on occasion, perhaps to exploit a favorable matchup or keep the opposing OL off-balance, which may help Griffen’s performance this year as well. Griffen may also be helped if Danielle Hunter becomes a bigger threat for opposing offenses, which should take some focus off of Griffen.

It may also help Griffen if the overall depth at DE improves this year, allowing for a little more rotation and for Griffen to play a little fewer snaps this year (he played about 90% last year). But overall the thing to watch this year is if Griffen can elevate his game and reverse the trend of the past couple years.

DT- Tom Johnson- I’m not sure Tom Johnson will actually be the starter at 3-tech, but right now he’s listed that way so I’ll go with that. Based on what we’ve seen in years past with Johnson, I would expect the occasional big play- a sack or TFL- which makes the highlight reel but disguises often poor play in run defense and inconsistent pressure in his pass rush. Johnson has always been rated ‘poor’ by PFF in run defense, and that really needs to change if the Vikings are to improve in that area, which is an area of focus for them this year.

I haven’t seen that change so far in training camp. Instead I’ve seen the Tom Johnson his track record suggests. Johnson turns 33 later this month, and despite his comments otherwise, I’m not sure he’s changing his penetrating/shoot-the-gap/swim-move style that has resulted in some big plays for the Vikings at key times, but also many other bigger plays given up, which are not as noticeable, particularly against the run. For Johnson to improve against the run and be more consistent generally, he needs to develop more power and a more well-rounded game. He can get his pad level high and lose the leverage battle, allowing him to be easily moved in run defense, and doesn’t have much of a bull rush to go along with his quick/swim/gap moves, so that is something to improve.

Overall it may be more likely that one of the other players at 3-tech may develop into a more well-rounded player than Johnson, or Johnson becomes more of a sub-package guy, but if not, this could continue to be a weak spot in the Vikings front four.

NT- Linval Joseph- Joseph has been solid the past two years as a run defender, and pretty good in pass rush too. Mike Zimmer has said a couple times he wants Joseph to improve some in his pass rush, but this is from a 79.4 PFF grade last year- higher than any defensive lineman last year except Everson Griffen. Joseph turns 29 in October and has had his best years under Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson. I’m not expecting a drop-off in performance from Joseph based on his age, as NTs can often play well into their 30s at a high level (Pat Williams went to the Pro-Bowl 3 times beginning at age 34). Perhaps Joseph will have the opportunity to make more plays himself this year, but as long as he solidifies the middle, taking on double teams and allowing others to make plays, he’ll be doing his job very well.

The key for Joseph is to rotate him out enough to keep him fresh- having a stronger backup would be helpful in that regard.

LDE- Danielle Hunter- Last year was a break-out year for Hunter, but this year he may contribute even more. First off, as fearsome as he was last year in pass rush, he was actually rated higher by PFF against the run- 2nd only to Linval Joseph among all Vikings defensive linemen with an 82.6 rating.

This year Hunter takes over the starting spot, which will give him more snaps and an opportunity for more production. Switching him at times to the RDE spot with Griffen may also help his production, as could simply having another year under his belt. In any case, Hunter has a chance to be an elite DE this year as he enters his prime.


SLB- Anthony Barr- Last year Barr had a big drop-off in performance. His overall PFF rating went from ‘elite’ at 91.4 in 2015, to very much in the ‘poor’ category at 39.3 last year. I’m not sure if that level of drop-off is unprecedented, except due to injury, for a young LB. There is speculation that Barr’s drop in performance was indeed injury-related, but as far as I know nothing was ever officially disclosed. He had been held out as early as OTAs last year with an undisclosed injury, but beyond that I never heard anything official. The rumor was that he had done something to his hand/wrist/arm that may have effected his tackling ability, and speculation that he had groin issues or knee issues. It may have been all of the above, but no one particular injury bad enough to keep him out. Barr played the most snaps of any Vikings player on defense last year with 1,025 snaps. There is also the criticism from Mike Zimmer late last year that, “Barr likes to coast sometimes,” which may have been part of the reason for the fall off in performance as well. In previous years Zimmer rode Barr pretty well to get him to elite status, but didn’t do so as much last year.

Whatever the reason for the drop-off in performance, the specific areas where he did poorly according to PFF were in coverage, tackling in coverage, and run defense. Half of Barr’s snaps were in coverage, and 40% on run defense last year. If indeed Barr was suffering from the injuries mentioned, that would go a long way in explaining his poor performance. The groin/knee issues could have slowed him some, while the hand/wrist/arm issue may have reduced his tackling and block-shedding ability. It’s also possible it was effort-related. The promising thing for Barr so far this off-season is that he doesn’t appear to have any injury issues- I don’t think he’s missed much of the off-season or training camp- so if his drop-off last year was injury-related, you would expect a much better season ahead.

If it was effort-related, that is another issue. I suspect that if Barr is healthy now, but wasn’t last year, Mike Zimmer may get more involved again in his motivation. I’m not sure that was the issue with Barr last year, and it was at least encouraging he played well in the Pro Bowl, even though he didn’t deserve to be there. I didn’t get a chance to really focus much on Barr when I was in training camp, but I haven’t heard anything to the effect that he hasn’t played well. We should get an indication of where Barr is at during the pre-season games. But if Barr is able to get back near his 2015 performance level, that takes away by far the weakest link in the Vikings defense from a year ago.

MLB - Eric Kendricks - Last year was a big improvement for Kendricks over his rookie year, going from 49.4 overall PFF rating to 79.4 last year. His coverage rating- 81.2- was his best last year and a big improvement over his rookie year. Against the run he was rated only 70.4, as he’s a little undersized to play the middle and can sometimes have more difficulty getting off of blocks to make the tackle. His pass rush rating was worse at 51.7, but he didn’t do as much of that last year.

To me this suggests Kendricks may be better suited to the WLB spot, particularly if a guy like Ben Gedeon or Kentrell Brothers- who are more two-down thumpers- could step into the starting MLB role in base defense. We’ll see what happens there, but it may be that coach Zimmer is waiting for a base LB he has confidence in before moving Kendricks, or he may simply believe that Kendricks will continue to get better. We’ll see. But the lane running though the 3-tech and MLB was the 2nd worst in terms of run defense. By far the worst was Robison/Barr, but that looks to get better with Hunter and (hopefully) an improved/injury-free Barr in place.

WLB - Emmanuel Lamur- While Lamur is listed as the starting WLB in the first “unofficial” depth chart released by the Vikings (which looks like it was determined by veteran protocol mostly), I’m not sure he’ll be the starter week one with Robinson and Gedeon both looking relatively good. In any case, Lamur is the only guy with any NFL experience to look at, and what there is, isn’t good. Lamur only played 38 snaps last year, almost all of them in coverage, and earned a ‘poor’ 46.4 pass coverage rating, and a 48 rating overall last year. That was actually an improvement over his previous two years, where his overall rating was under 40. Curiously he had a 76 overall PFF rating his rookie year in 2012, but didn’t play in 2013, due to a shoulder injury, and he also suffered a knee-injury at the end of the 2015 season, so there’s that. Bottom line, Lamur hasn’t played well since 2012, so not sure he’s a strong addition as a starting LB.

In the event Lamur is not the starter, it looks now like the starting job would be given to either Edmond Robinson or Ben Gedeon, from the comments I’ve read from the coaches and reports from training camp- assuming also that Kendricks remains at MLB. For now, we’ll have to wait and see how things play out- both have been good in camp so far, but perhaps Robinson has the advantage being more familiar with the system.

But whoever wins the starting job will be on the field around a third of the time, given how often the Vikings use their nickel package. I don’t expect there to be a noticeable drop-off in performance compared to Chad Greenway last year in any case.


RCB- Xavier Rhodes- Rhodes had a good year last season, earning a 79.5 overall PFF rating, bouncing back from a 65.6 rating the prior season, and more in-line with his first two seasons, where he had a 78 and 83.4 overall rating respectively. But I would argue Rhodes is a better CB last year and today than his previous years, primarily because in addition to covering well and learning the subtleties of contact at the NFL level, he has now developed the ability to look back for the ball at the right time, which has helped in pass defenses and interceptions. In previous years there were many times where he had great coverage down the sideline, but did not look back for the ball, allowing the receiver to win a contested catch. That doesn’t happen as much now, and is reflected in the very low passer rating generated when he was targeted last year.

Rhodes was rated even higher in run defense last year (88.1), so improvement for him will have to come from still better coverage, where he was rated 79.5 last year. I think Rhodes has developed the confidence necessary to play outside on an island, and at 27 is in his prime, so barring injury I would expect another very good year from Rhodes.

LCB- Trae Waynes- It looks like the Vikings are ready to give Trae Waynes the other starting CB spot, replacing 38 year-old Terence Newman, who was the highest rated CB on the team last year. Waynes started off last season still pretty shaky, and struggling with being too grabby and generating penalties. I thought the key game for Waynes was week two against the Packers, when he played most of the game as Rhodes was out. Aaron Rodgers picked on him most of the game, and Waynes drew a several penalties. But he hung in there well enough and was able to intercept Rodgers late in the 4th quarter, securing the win for the Vikings. Waynes gradually improved over the course of the season, and looks about where Xavier Rhodes was at this point in his career. From what I’ve seen so far in training camp, Waynes isn’t giving up much space in coverage, and looks much improved in terms of not generating penalties from contact- while perhaps also being more aggressive than Rhodes was in pass break-ups. But he hasn’t learned to look back for the ball yet that I’ve noticed- at least not consistently. He’s getting there though.

Last year Waynes had a respectable 77.5 grade in run defense, but only 53.9 in pass coverage. Based on his gradual improvement over the course of last season, and in training camp so far, I’d expect an improvement into the average territory for Waynes this season (70+ coverage rating) as he slowly is learning the complicated skill of being a good CB in the NFL. How well he does will likely be a big factor in the Vikings pass defense, however. Last year he was the 6th most targeted CB in the league when he was on the field. He was targeted one out of every five plays. In other words, QBs picked on him as the weak link in the Vikings secondary- which he was. Expect him to continue to be the most targeted CB until he proves otherwise.

SCB- Terence Newman- I’m gonna put Newman here, as the highest rated CB for the Vikings last year- ahead of MacKenzie Alexander. It may be that Alexander wins or takes over the slot CB position at some point, but I suspect he needs to show more yet to displace Newman, who had the best season of his career since 2007 according to PFF. Newman will be 39 in September, and I’ve read he hasn’t looked as good in camp so far, but until I see a drop-off in performance on game day, I’ll put Newman ahead of Alexander. Last year playing outside, Newman had an overall PFF rating of 86.3- best of all Vikings CBs and 9th best in the league- including 85.7 in coverage, and 80.6 in run defense. But, while Newman has proven his versatility over the years, and is very familiar with Mike Zimmer’s defense, it remains to be seen how well Newman will execute as a slot CB this year. Not having the sideline as a boundary can make the slot CB position more difficult, but at 5’10”, playing outside can be tougher too. Newman knows the routes and the technique, so the only question is whether he still has the legs. Playing the slot would mean not being on the field for as many snaps, so that could help the senior man on the Vikings stay fresh longer as the season and game wears on.

If Newman doesn’t play slot, it would be because MacKenzie Alexander has earned the spot- and pre-season should go a long way in determining that. From most accounts Alexander has improved a lot since last year, learning the system better and working better with coaches, and that has shown up so far in training camp. But whether he is ready to supplant Newman remains to be seen.


FS- Harrison Smith- After back-to-back ‘elite’ seasons by PFF ratings (90 & 90.2 in 2014 & 2015 respectively), Smith’s overall rating declined a bit last year, to 85.6 - still very good. Last year run defense was his best grade at 89.9, while his coverage grade was a respectable 78.4. Smith was bothered by an ankle injury the last third of the season- missing two games in December- and that may have brought down his results somewhat. In any case, Smith had a minor surgery to clean up his ankle after the season ended, and hasn’t had any injury issues in training camp.

At 28, Smith is still in his prime, and barring injury there is no reason to believe he won’t maintain the same type of performance he’s had over the past three years, as the captain of the secondary.

SS- Andrew Sendejo- Sendejo bounced back to have an average season last year, after a poor one the prior year. The Vikings have tried to develop a replacement to Sendejo, but so far have yet to have anyone beat him out for the starting job. The issue with Sendejo is his coverage. In run defense, Sendejo graded out well with a 79.5 PFF rating last season. But his coverage grade was only 52.2, which is a liability. That has always been the case with Sendejo, who turns 30 next month. Given his age and track record, it isn’t realistic to expect Sendejo will suddenly improve in coverage this year.

So, that being the case, and if nobody beats Sendejo out for the starting job, it may make some sense to rotate in a safety who is better in coverage on passing downs. And while Anthony Harris proved no better in coverage last year than Sendejo, Jayron Kearse was marginally better in limited duty, and may be improved over last year. Another possibility, if Terence Newman does not start at slot corner, is to move him to safety instead of Sendejo, either in passing situations or as the starter. Newman is adept in coverage and run defense, knows the system well, and could prove an upgrade as a strong or free safety alongside Harrison Smith. Apparently the Vikings have been giving Newman some reps at safety during training camp.


The Vikings were 3rd best in the league last year in yards allowed, and 6th best in points allowed.

Looking at the presumed starters this year compared to last, I see improvements at LDE and SLB. I expect roughly the same performance from RDE, NT, MLB, FS, SS, and RCB.

The question marks right now are at the other DT spot (3-tech), WLB, and the two other CB spots.

Given the performance at 3-tech last year, it’s not asking alot to see equal or improved performance there, especially given the number of acquisitions this off-season to compete there.

I see a similar situation at WLB in replacing Chad Greenway. My hope is that Kendricks moves to that spot, and Gedeon or Brothers takes over at MLB in base defense, which may result in the greatest improvement in both spots. In any case, I don’t anticipate a fall off in performance there either.

That leaves the two other CB spots. My guess is that if Waynes starts at LCB, there will be some drop-off in performance compared to Newman last year, as he was the Vikings highest rated CB. Just how much drop-off remains to be seen, and will be a key factor in overall improvement from last year. The thing to remember is that Waynes played 581 snaps last year- over half- and looks to be improved over last year, so thinking about it that way, I don’t expect much drop-off overall compared to last year- and possibly a little improvement.

At slot CB, if Newman starts there, I expect same or improved performance over Captain Munerlyn last year, who didn’t play as well as the prior year. Munnerlyn had a 74.5 overall PFF grade last year, including a 73.9 coverage grade and a 46.8 grade in run defense. Newman was rated over 80 in both grades, so even allowing for some drop associated with a new position, I think he does better than Munnerlyn last year.

If Alexander starts as the SCB, then I would anticipate roughly equal performance. But in that case Newman would backup virtually all the CB spots, and perhaps SS too, which could lead to overall improvement for the CB group as a whole.

Bottom line, if a few guys the Vikings have been developing are able to take another step forward in their development- Waynes and Alexander in particular- and new guys at WLB and 3-tech can make improvements at those spots, the Vikings defensive starters look to be at least as good as last year overall. It may be in the improved depth, however, that makes them even better.