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Vikings Camp Evaluations, Part II: Defense/Special Teams

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Eric Thompson completes his breakdown and roster projections for every defensive and special teams player based on what he saw in Mankato.

The Vikings defense has a chance to be one of the NFL’s best in 2017.
Thad Chesley

If you missed Part I of my evaluations and projections for the offensive side of the ball, click this link. And just in case you don’t click that link, I’ll include Thad Chesley’s amazing photography from the final night practice in Mankato again here:

I’ll cover the defensive and special teams players in the same manner that I covered the offensive players. The only difference between this group of evaluations and the offense is that we have now one preseason game to go off of as well. I’ll go position by position for every player on the Vikings defense/special teams and give my brief evaluation of what I saw from them during my time in Mankato last week. Think of it as a CliffsNotes version of Training Camp for each player. These won’t be comprehensive evaluations; they will simply be blurbs giving you a general idea of how I thought the player performed. After each mini-evaluation, I will provide where I think the player will end up after the final 53 is announced: lock, bubble, practice squad, or cut.

Ready? Break!

Defensive Line

Everson Griffen

What can I say about Griff that you don’t already know? He remains in the upper echelon of edge defenders in the league. Griffen has a relentless motor and no glaring holes in his game against the run or pass. He is the heart and soul of the defensive line and has proven himself as an excellent vocal leader through the years. As long as Griffen doesn’t fall off much over the next couple of years, that contract extension will be a great deal for the Vikings.

Prediction: Lock

Linval Joseph

Yet another defensive lineman that just got paid playing at an extremely high level. While there can be some debate on exactly where Griffen falls among the NFL’s best pass rushers, no conversation about elite interior linemen is complete without mentioning Joseph. More often than not, he simply lays waste to anything the offense wants to do up the middle by eating up real estate and blockers. Joseph remains one of the best—if not the best—free agent signings by the Vikings in recent memory.

Prediction: Lock

Tom Johnson

At nearly 33 years old, Tom is still going strong in the middle. If there was some anticipation of decline in his game this season, I didn’t see any of it in Mankato. I think he’ll be the other starting defensive tackle to start the season, but it will be interesting to see how his reps are managed. Johnson has excelled best as a passing down specialist in the past; can he provide consistent pressure in a wider variety of situations this year? We’ll see.

Prediction: Lock

Danielle Hunter

As Hunter was named the starter before camp, Vikings fans went wild with their expectations of what he could do in 2017. 35 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, and a couple touchdowns? Sure, why not! Hell, even Las Vegas has given him relatively good odds of winning Defensive MVP this year. While I don’t think Hunter will break any records, I believe he could live up to a good portion of the hyperbolic hype. He seems to have added to his repertoire of moves in the offseason, which should bode well for his increased workload. Don’t sleep on his ability to stop the run either—Pro Football Focus had him at the #1 run stop percentage among edge defenders in the NFL last year. And oh yeah—he’s only 22! ALL ABOARD THE HYPE TRAIN!

Prediction: Lock

Brian Robison

Not since Ellen Barkin has someone aged as gracefully as B-Rob. His productivity isn’t what it used to be, but I think he’ll be enable to embrace his new role as a rotational defensive end. Robison was able to give the second unit fits at times in Mankato. His guile and motor combined with fresh legs should allow him to make an impact on this defense in a limited capacity.

Prediction: Lock

Shamar Stephen

Stephen keeps surprising me in camp every year I cover it. He has always been considered an outlier on the fringes of making the Vikings roster, but each year he makes it by showing steady improvement. This year, he was impossible to ignore at times. Stephen’s strength was often on display in the full-team sessions as he blew up plays in the middle. The biggest difference I noticed in his game this year was that he seems to be anticipating instead of reacting more often. I don’t think he’ll crack the starting lineup unless there’s an injury, but he can be an excellent interior rotational player.

Prediction: Lock

Jaleel Johnson

Johnson was one of the rookies I was most excited about heading into camp. I thought he could come in right away and do a lot of what Tom Johnson was doing for the defense. After watching him in camp, I was a little disappointed he didn’t stand out more. It’s not like he was silent though. He seems like a very smart player with great technique, which allowed him to quickly get in the backfield and disrupt the offense several times. He also had a nice sack in Buffalo. His athleticism was a bit of a question coming out of Iowa, and I’m wondering if he could get caught in the “tweener” stage between nose tackle and three-technique. I still have high hopes for Jaleel; I might just have to wait a little longer than I wanted.

Prediction: Lock

Datone Jones

After being misused as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Green Bay, the Vikings signed Jones to play his natural position of defensive tackle. Well, at least I’m pretty sure of that. Jones lined up mostly in the middle along with a few snaps on the edge from what I saw. I think there’s still a little work to do with deprogramming him from his Packers days. He flashed at times but it appeared as though he was still getting used to some of the finer points of his new/old position. No matter where he plays, he has likely shown enough talent to be a decent part of the defensive line rotation. Make sure to keep an eye on his snaps in the preseason.

Prediction: Lock

Stephen Weatherly

Before covering camp, I thought Weatherly making the roster was a complete tossup. After leaving Mankato, I think he’s firmly entrenched to be in the mix for part of the final 53 players. He was rocketing up the depth chart over the course of Training Camp thanks to his great flexibility and length. The knock on Weatherly coming out of Vanderbilt was his technique, but it looked like he had a lot more pass rush moves in his arsenal compared to last year. The only concerning part of his game was that he didn’t contain well against the run a few times.

Prediction: Bubble. I’d be learning towards lock if it wasn’t for the next guy.

Tashawn Bower

I wasn’t as enamored with Bower as some of the other writers at the beginning of Training Camp. I thought he could have been a little more consistent from day to day and drill to drill in camp. Yet I quickly understood why his size, speed, and LSU pedigree led to lots of “poor man’s Danielle Hunter” comparisons. And did he ever back up those comparisons (and then some) in Buffalo on Thursday night! Bower appears to be blowing up at just the right time. It would be quite a feat for him to make the Practice Squad as an undrafted free agent. Except now I’m thinking that leaving him there for another team to snatch up might be too risky.

Prediction: Bubble. It’s going to be really hard to keep him off the 53 at this point though.

Ifeadi Odenigbo

Ifeadi was one of my favorite players in camp based on our interview alone. Thankfully he was just as fun to watch play as he was to talk to. Odenigbo showed a more versatile array of moves than the film I watched of him at Northwestern. He doesn’t have ideal size, but I think his relentless drive and good understanding of what he needs to do in the defense can help him overcome any physical limitations. He probably isn’t ready for prime time yet but I hope the Vikings keep him around for at least another year.

Prediction: Practice Squad

Will Sutton

It feels weird to just sort of write off a “name” player like Sutton, who was so highly regarded coming out of Arizona State just a few years ago. But if I didn’t already know who he was, I would have assumed he was just another camp body. Sutton showed some excellent moves in the defensive line drills, but he went largely unnoticed in most of the full team activities.

Prediction: Cut

Dylan Bradley

Bradley has some incredibly impressive strength. He put on a show with some of his bull rushing in camp. However, I thought his technique left a lot to be desired. Bradley was taken completely out of the play several times against the run. There’s some potential there but Bradley remains a long shot to stick.

Prediction: Cut. Maybe Practice Squad, but I doubt it.

Chunky Clements

If only his game was half as memorable as his name. Clements’ play was largely forgettable. He was brought in late as a camp body; he will likely leave early as a camp body.

Prediction: Cut

Sam McCaskill

Every position group has to have someone at the bottom of the pecking order; it appears that McCaskill had that undesirable distinction at this year’s Training Camp. He was on the field so seldom that I had to check my roster every time he was out there to remind myself who #66 in white was.

Prediction: Cut

Sharrif Floyd

Let’s just move on before everyone gets sad. It was promising to see Floyd working out on the side fields throughout camp, but it doesn’t look like he’s very close to coming back soon. Or, perhaps, ever. TOO LATE NOW I’M SAD.

Prediction: PUP/IR

Linebackers

Anthony Barr

Thankfully, I saw more of 2015 Barr than 2016 Barr in Mankato. He was moving around very well in coverage and showing off the blitzing skills that helped him make a big splash his first two years. Most importantly, he looked healthy. I have no factual information to back this up, but it looked like Barr was playing hurt for most of last year. Hopefully he can regain his form, because he can help bring this defense from very good to elite.

Prediction: Lock

Eric Kendricks

Kendricks’ play was just about you’d expect from a budding star heading into his third season. He’s stepping up as a key cog in the middle of the defense. He’s also becoming a more vocal leader on and off the field. Anyone that has ever interviewed Kendricks knows he’s extremely soft spoken, which matched his demeanor on the field at times. This year he was moving people around pre-snap and constantly barking out orders. If he can improve even half as much in 2017 as he did from year one to year two, we could have a special player on our hands.

Prediction: Lock

Emmanuel Lamur
Edmond Robinson

Like Stacy Coley and Rodney Adams on the offense, I feel like you can’t talk about the performance of one of these linebackers without talking about the other. Lamur and Robinson switched back and forth as first team weak side linebacker literally every other day throughout camp. To be honest, neither player played poorly but neither one stood out as the favorite to start either. If I had to pick, I’d give Robinson the edge since he had a better camp overall. Robinson is still a special teams stud as well. Maybe it’s similar to the old saying regarding two quarterbacks: if you have two starting WLBs, you have no starting WLBs. Hopefully someone can step up soon, whether it’s one of these two or someone else. Good thing NFL defenses play mostly nickel these days.

Prediction: Both Locks. But not locks to start.

Ben Gedeon

There was no clear-cut Mr. Mankato in 2017, but if I had to vote right now, I would probably choose Gedeon. The fourth rounder out of Michigan had an excellent camp overall. The knock on him coming out of college was that he couldn’t cover enough ground; he seemed to be doing that just fine in Training Camp. He is a tackling machine that’s always around the ball. When I asked Zimmer to talk about Lamur and Robinson in a press conference, he brought up Gedeon a couple times without being prompted. It seems like the coaches are noticing too. He was a half step behind on a couple coverage plays in Buffalo, but the instincts are definitely there. Gedeon could grow into an important contributor in his rookie year.

Prediction: Lock

Kentrell Brothers

Another guy I didn’t get to see in action because he was hurt the entire time I was at camp. Brothers probably showed enough in his rookie season to have the team keep him around, especially when it comes to special teams. But if he doesn’t get healthy, I could see the Vikings putting him on the IR a la Antone Exum in 2016. (aka the “You might not make the roster this year, so we’re using this injury of yours to prevent you from counting against the 53” trick.)

Prediction: IR. If not, Bubble.

Eric Wilson

The first thing I noticed about Wilson was his size—he’s noticeably smaller than most linebackers. The second thing I noticed about Wilson was his motor—he was constantly going at full speed regardless of the situation. Apparently the coaches have been noticing the latter trait as well. It was surprising to see the undrafted free agent get more snaps than Elijah Lee, who the team drafted in the seventh round. Despite a very solid showing against the Bills on Thursday, he still has an uphill battle to make it.

Prediction: Cut. Outside chance at the Practice Squad.

Elijah Lee

After watching film of Lee at Kansas State, I was excited to see what he could do at the next level. As I had hoped, I saw a lot of his college strengths on display in Mankato. He looked agile and flowed to the ball in pursuit against both the pass and run. The only problem? I barely got to see him on the field. Lee seldom got any run against players that weren’t at the bottom of the depth chart. At this point it would appear that I like him a lot more than the coaches do.

Prediction: Practice Squad. (He’s still a draft pick, after all.)

Noor Davis

Usually when a team signs you after cutting another player at camp, you eventually follow suit a short while later. Davis will likely be no different. Davis’ dust-up with Reid Fragel was the most memorable moment of his camp; probably not a great sign for his future with the team. But when he eventually gets cut, you better believe I’m firing off a “Davis is neither here Noor there” tweet.

Prediction: Cut

Darnell Sankey

The “other” Sankey came in even later than Davis, so you already know how I feel about his chances. He had a really nice hit in the Saturday night practice. Hopefully someone recorded it, because that will likely be his only highlight in a Vikings uniform.

Prediction: Cut

Defensive Backs

Xavier Rhodes

Rhodes joined the Just Got Paid Club during camp and was 100% worthy of his new deal. He is evolving into a nearly perfect corner for Mike Zimmer’s system. He certainly wasn’t perfect in camp, but there was nothing there to cause any alarm. #RhodesClosed will be shutting down receivers a lot like he did last year. Like Kendricks, I noticed how much Rhodes has stepped his vocal game up this season. His trash talk with Michael Floyd before a 1-on-1 drill in front of the stands one afternoon was especially memorable. A new era of defensive leaders is emerging in Minnesota, and Rhodes will be part of that core.

Prediction: Lock

Harrison Smith

I’m not sure that there is a single safety in the NFL that I would trade for Smith at this point of his career. Are there a few that I’d think about? Sure, but it would have to be a long deliberation. For a few years now, Vikings fans and film analysts have realized what a special player the Hitman is. Now it seems like the rest of the country and league are catching on. He can do just about everything you’d ever ask of a safety. In other words, what I’m trying to say is that Harrison Smith is still really freaking good.

Prediction: Lock

Andrew Sendejo

In 2015, most Vikings fans (including myself) couldn’t believe that Sendejo was a starting safety. In 2016, there was quite a bit of consternation before the season, but folks started to come around as the season went along. This year? I think we might finally be OK with it. He isn’t just a flashy pair of arms anymore. Sendejo has genuinely improved every year and it’s starting to pay dividends for him. He’s still a thumper on the back end and he’s cleaning up a lot of the big misses that plagued him earlier in his career. I’ll sort of miss the annual tradition of debating who should start opposite Harrison Smith, but I’m glad that I’m finally OK with the answer to that question.

Prediction: Lock

Trae Waynes

The good news: Waynes continues to improve. He’s using his straight-line speed much better in downfield coverage. He’s getting better about using his hands within the rules of the game (and not using them when he isn’t supposed to). He seems more comfortable in general on the outside. However, I am still a little concerned about Waynes being the full-time starter. For every great pass breakup he had in camp, he would get turned in the wrong direction on another play. The phrase “stiff hips” is never far away from the conversation when talking about Waynes. If he can continue to improve like he did over the course of last season, he should be fine. But with Rhodes locking things down on the other side, I’d expect teams to target Waynes early and often in many games.

Prediction: Lock

Mackensie Alexander

Mack appears to have the nickel corner spot locked down as the Captain Munnerlyn replacement. He had an excellent camp overall and has shown a lot of improvement heading into his sophomore season. His anticipation is much better, and even when he guesses wrong he has shown the ability to recover quickly. There will still be some growing pains over the course of the year, but overall I don’t think we’ll miss Munnerlyn as much as we originally anticipated.

Prediction: Lock

Terence Newman

Jalen Rose has a saying that two things in this world remain undefeated all time: Father Time and gravity. It appears that age is finally starting to catch up with the Vikings’ elder statesman. He let receivers behind him more than any other time since arriving in Minnesota. Newman hasn’t fallen off of the proverbial cliff yet; he should still be a solid backup for every corner position. (Like Lloyd Christmas said in Dumb And Dumber, the elderly can still serve a purpose.) However, I don’t think we can expect a repeat of his stellar 2016 season. Like Robison on the defensive line, perhaps a reduced number of snaps will allow him to remain effective in shorter bursts.

Prediction: Lock

Antone Exum

Outside of being persona non grata for a while after his low shot on Laquon Treadwell in the scuffle, it looks like Exum has found a new niche on the team as the backup slot corner. Being closer to the line of scrimmage allows him to showcase his incredible physical abilities as a defender. As long as he can stay healthy—something that definitely hasn’t been a given over the course of his career—I think there’s a spot for him on this team.

Prediction: I’ll say Bubble, but I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t on the final roster.

Anthony Harris

For three years running, Harris has been the king of the flashy pass breakups in Training Camp. He has a knack for getting a hand on deep passes at the last second. Despite some limitations in his tackling game, his reactions and closing speed have kept him around since joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 2015. With Sendejo’s spot more solidified, Harris didn’t get the first team looks he had last year. And that’s probably just fine. I don’t think Harris is starting material at this point, but he should still be a decent backup/stopgap safety.

Prediction: Lock

Jayron Kearse

Now that we’re over the initial “Look at how big he is!” shock from his rookie season, the evaluation of Kearse has become much more realistic. Kearse is still great at using his amazing size and length when he’s in position to make a play. The issue is getting in that position more consistently. When Kearse had a few opportunities to play last year, it was pretty obvious that he still had a lot of work to do with the angles he took. Those flaws looked a little cleaned up in camp, but there is still a way to go before he’s ready for prime time.

Prediction: Bubble. But he should make the final 53.

Marcus Sherels

Like Twinkies and cockroaches, Marcus Sherels can survive just about anything. After six straight seasons of wondering whether Sherels would make the team, we have finally given up and just accepted the fact that he’ll be on the Vikings roster in perpetuity. He’ll once again be the main punt returner and is currently at the top of the depth chart to replace Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs. As a bonus, he actually had a pretty solid camp at cornerback too.

Prediction: Lock

Jack Tocho

As Exum was moving from safety to cornerback, Tocho was converted to safety after playing corner at North Carolina State. Tocho’s physical play makes him look bigger than his frame out on the field. Overall he had a good camp and showed that his development would be a good investment. Ultimately it will come down to a numbers game when it comes to making the roster, but I believe the Vikings will keep him around if they can.

Prediction: Practice Squad

Terrell Sinkfield

It’s crazy to think that Sinkfield originally joined the Vikings as a wide receiver. I couldn’t believe how well he played throughout most of camp. Sinkfield utilized his amazing speed and vertical jump to make some outstanding defensive plays. He still gets beat pretty badly from time to time, as evidenced by the touchdown he allowed in Buffalo on Thursday night. But the improvement he has shown is very real. Going into Mankato I thought he had absolutely no chance of making the team. Now I’ll be a little bummed if they don’t retain him in some fashion.

Prediction: Practice Squad

Tre Roberson

Roberson had the kind of camp that I expected Sinkfield to have. Not exactly a ringing endorsement there. And if my personal disapproval wasn’t enough, Arif officially renounced his affinity for the converted Illinois State quarterback. Once Arif decides he no longer has a football crush on you, it’s over. Roberson certainly showed enough potential to keep getting signed (and cut...and then signed again) by the Vikings last year. This time around, I doubt there will be that back-and-forth.

Prediction: Cut

Horace Richardson

True story: the only time I noticed Richardson during my four days in Mankato was when someone on the coaching staff was getting on his case for missing assignments. Snaps were hard to come by, and notable plays were even more scarce for him.

Prediction: Cut

Sam Brown

Unlike Richardson, I noticed Brown fairly often in camp. Unfortunately, it was because Brown was allowing nearly every wide receiver on the roster get past him for big plays. He seemed decent on special teams but didn’t show enough to warrant serious consideration for a roster spot.

Prediction: Cut

Special Teams

Kai Forbath
Marshall Koehn

We had some real kicker competitions this year! Hooray! They didn’t turn out to be particularly exciting, but still, it was something new! Koehn probably has a slightly bigger leg than Forbath, especially on kickoffs. But accuracy is paramount when it comes to kickers. [Insert Blair Walsh joke of your choosing here.] Forbath showed more accuracy and was more consistent. He’ll retain the starting job.

Prediction: Forbath Lock, Koehn Cut

Taylor Symmank
Ryan Quigley

I joked during the Saturday night scrimmage that the Vikings should retain two punters on the roster. Symmank could crank out bombs with tons of hang time to flip the field while Quigley pinned teams deep on shorter punts. Of course a team would never do that, so I’ll have to choose one. You didn’t need a stopwatch to figure out that Symmank’s punts hung in the air significantly longer than Quigley’s; the difference was that obvious in real time. Quigley was probably the better directional punter in camp but Symmank wasn’t far behind him in that aspect. Overall I would consider Symmank the better option. The game in Buffalo did nothing to change that opinion.

Prediction: Symmank Lock, Quigley Cut

Kevin McDermott

My in-depth evaluation of McDermott: he’s the long snapper. He didn’t screw anything up yet. Good job, Kevin!

Prediction: Lock


Congratulations, you made it! A total of around 8,000 words over the course of two days describing all 90 players currently on the Minnesota Vikings roster. Hopefully you learned something, even though at least 30% of the players I wrote about won’t be affiliated with the team by this time next month. (Damn, football is brutal.) Covering Training Camp is one of the best things I do for Daily Norseman; I can’t wait to do it from the inaugural season in Eagan next year!