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Vikings Training 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 Eagan.

The Vikings defense is looking to remain one of the best units in the league.
Thad Chesley

If you missed Part I of my Training Camp evaluations and projections for the offensive side of the ball, click here. Today we’ll be tackling the defense and special teams.

I’ll cover the defensive and special teams players in the same manner that I covered the offense. I’ll go position by position through every player and give my brief evaluation of what I saw from them during my time in Eagan. Again, think of it as a CliffsNotes version of Training Camp. 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.

And for some visual stimuli before another big ol’ wall of text, here is part two of our Training Camp gallery from Thad Chesley.

Ready? Let’s get it.

Defensive line

Everson Griffen

Griff is still every bit of the top-end pass rusher that he has been over the past few years. He’ll turn 31 toward the end of this season but I haven’t seen any signs of him slowing down. There don’t appear to be any concerns of the foot injury that slowed him at the end of last year lingering. Griffen is all the way back and ready to go. With his endless motor complimented by his motor mouth, he’s probably my favorite player to watch from the sidelines at camp.

Projection: Lock

Linval Joseph

Joesph is the Mountain to Griffen’s Viper when it comes to camp demeanor. Big Goon is a quiet, menacing, heavily armored presence and destroys everything he faces with zero remorse. (He really is heavily armored. As Drew Mahowald of Vikings Territory has joked, Joseph looks like a created player in Madden where you maxed all the sliders and gave him every possible accessory.) Joseph doesn’t seem to be tapering off at all either. He’s still a force to be reckoned with in the middle.

Projection: Lock

Sheldon Richardson

Richardson doesn’t seem quite as physically imposing in person as I expected—he seemed like a space-filling giant when he was in New York and Seattle. Then again, that’ll happen when you’re standing next to Linval every day. Sheldon didn’t have a ton of splash plays in camp but his impact was still felt. I kind of got the feeling that he was going through the motions a bit at times during drills. More in a “saving it for when it counts” sense than “mailing it in.” That said, he’s incredibly fluid and a very efficient tackler in the middle of the line. He has defensive end agility in a defensive tackle body. Richardson consistently stymied runs up the middle before they got started. I’m confident that he’ll turn it up a notch when the games start to count; after all, he’s on a one-year “prove it” deal.

Projection: Lock

Danielle Hunter

We’re on year two of wild hyperbole surrounding Hunter’s potential. I think he could live up to quite a bit of it this season. It felt like Hunter was using his otherworldly size a lot more efficiently than last year’s camp. His repertoire of pass rush techniques looks more polished, especially the spin move. Hunter was already an excellent defensive end by relying mostly on his physical skills and technical ability. If he can be a little more savvy with his game plan, I pity opposing tackles and quarterbacks. The sky is the limit.

Projection: Lock

Brian Robison

After 11 seasons and 173 games with the Vikings, I think we all know what we have in B-Rob at this point. He’s the Chad Greenway of the defensive line—you don’t want to depend on him to play 1000 snaps throughout the course of the season but he can still make some plays and be an invaluable locker room presence. Robison doesn’t have the burst he once had, and he has a propensity to over-pursue around the edge at times. But he still had more than enough productive reps in camp to ensure he has a spot on the team for one last ride at glory.

Projection: Lock

Jaleel Johnson

I like how Johnson has progressed since his rookie camp. He’s getting off the ball better and showing the instincts that made him such an impactful player at Iowa. He still needs some work finishing plays off and being more consistent. There are still stretches where he can sort of disappear into the mix along the trenches. Overall, I think he has definitely shown enough to earn a spot among a loaded defensive line rotation.

Projection: Lock

Jalyn Holmes

The first thing that jumped out to me watching Holmes in camp was his strength. He can move his opponent around regardless of where he lines up. I saw a handful of amazing 1-on-1 reps by Holmes throughout camp as well. The potential is certainly there. However, he’s sort of a DE/DT “tweener”, and the last few of those the Vikings had didn’t really pan out. He didn’t show an expansive set of pass rush moves, which could be problematic too. I see his rookie year going a lot like Johnson’s last season—he’ll make the team but he might not see a ton of the field when the season starts.

Prediction: I’d say lock, but this line is stacked. If the team thinks he could survive getting put on the Practice Squad, perhaps they stash him for a year to develop?

Tashawn Bower

Last year’s darling of the preseason and surprise addition to the defensive line still has a lot to prove this time around. He used his big, athletic frame to make several plays throughout camp. A solid showing against Denver in the first preseason game certainly helped his case as well. But there are still a lot of worthy players along this defensive line—he needs to keep it up for the next three weeks to secure a spot.

Prediction: Bubble. I think he’ll make it.

Ifeadi Odenigbo

When the Vikings announced that they were going to try Odenigbo out on the interior defensive line as well as on the edge, I thought it sounded like the beginning of the end of his tenure in Minnesota. I liked what I saw from him as a pass rusher during his rookie camp that earned him a Practice Squad spot. I was weary of his abilities to do much on the inside though.

Odenigbo really surprised me in Eagan. He was consistently getting behind the line regardless of where he lined up. In my opinion, he was easily the most improved player out of this group. I had to put him ahead of the rest of the players we’re covering, especially with his newfound versatility. (Hopefully I’m not being persuaded by the fact that he’s one of the best interviews on the team.)

Prediction: Bubble. If the Vikings keep nine defensive linemen, I think he’s the last guy in out of this group. If it’s eight, maybe another year on the Practice Squad.

Stephen Weatherly

Weatherly hasn’t regressed or anything. He still uses his long frame and athleticism to shed blocks and cause pressure. But I don’t think he has progressed enough to guarantee himself a spot on the roster. It doesn’t seem like he has added to his catalog of pass rushing moves and his timing off the snap is spotty at best. Weatherly could definitely use some impact plays over the next three preseason games.

Prediction: Bubble. I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if he makes it, but I don’t have him on the 53 right now.

Ade Aruna

The three words that best describe what I saw from Aruna: raw, raw, and raw. His size is incredible; I joked to other writers in camp that I gave Aruna the Jayron Kearse Memorial “I Can’t Believe How Big He Is!” Award. But wow does he need a lot of work. He was noticeably slower than the rest of the line in most drills that I watched and his hand placement was downright terrible at times. Aruna definitely needs more time to incubate before cracking the shell of his potential.

Prediction: Practice Squad. Definitely not ready for prime time.

David Parry

Like Aruna, Parry’s stature strikes you when you see him in person, albeit in a very different way. Parry looks like a stout guard that accidentally put on the wrong color jersey and wandered into defensive line drills. I was impressed with his strength in the middle, but nothing about his technique jumped out enough for me to think he’ll get a spot in a loaded position group.

Prediction: Cut

Curtis Cothran

It always looked like Cothran was going hard and giving everything he had when given reps in camp. Unfortunately, there weren’t nearly enough reps for him to make much of an impact.

Prediction: Cut. Possible Practice Squad.

Jonathan Wynn

To bastardize a famous sonnet from the great American poet T-Pain: “THEY WON’T GO WITH WYNN WYNN WYNN NO MATTER WHAT!” He was unheralded coming into camp, and he’ll probably be unheralded going out of camp.

Prediction: Cut


Linebackers

Anthony Barr

It was an odd Training Camp for Barr to say the least. The former ninth overall pick saw a second rounder (Eric Kendricks), third rounder (Hunter), and fifth rounder (Stefon Diggs) all signed to lucrative contract extensions while his future with the team remains uncertain. He missed a handful of practices to an undisclosed injury. He spent a lot of time at the beginning of camp training with the defensive line in anticipation of rushing the passer more this season. When Barr was out there, I’d say he looked a lot like what we saw last year. Not the amazing 2015 version of Barr, not the inexplicably bad 2016 version of Barr, but the 2017 very good version of Barr. He’ll still be a key cog in the Vikings defense, and it looks like they’re going to play to Barr’s strengths as much as possible this season.

He’s going to have to go out and earn that new contract though.

Prediction: Lock

Eric Kendricks

Last year at this time I was certain that Barr was the most irreplaceable linebacker in Mike Zimmer’s defense. I believe that Kendricks may have taken that mantle. Barr’s former college and current pro teammate has improved his pass coverage every season in the NFL and it looks like he is set to take it up another notch this year. Kendricks is always flying around the field from sideline to sideline. His instincts and football IQ usually put him in the right place, and once there he’s still a very reliable tackler. He can still get caught guessing from time to time against crossing routes. Kendricks’ size can be a bit of a hindrance against the run, but being a smaller linebacker isn’t nearly as much of an obstacle in today’s NFL. He’ll be the man in the middle of this defense for years to come.

Prediction: Lock

Ben Gedeon

The book on Gedeon in 2018 is a lot like it was last year. He’ll likely be the starting third linebacker in the base package, which of course means fewer snaps than the non-starting nickel corner. He can still tackle everything in front of him, but he still struggles a bit at getting into position to make said tackles. He’s still a special teams ace and will likely be among the team leaders there again. (Gedeon led the team with 368 special teams snaps in 2017.) Gedeon remains very reliable, albeit a bit limited.

Prediction: Lock

Eric Wilson

Wilson was a surprise addition to the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent last season. In 2018 it would be a bigger surprise to see him left off. Wilson came into camp noticeably larger and it doesn’t appear that packing on some muscle has slowed him down at all. He was getting shoved around much less than last preseason and made some impressive plays in coverage. The majority of Wilson’s action will still be on special teams, where he proved to be very valuable last season. But don’t be surprised to see him rotate in on defense every now and then, especially if any of the three starters miss time.

Prediction: Lock

Antwione Williams

After spending last season on the Practice Squad, I didn’t exactly have the former Lions linebacker highlighted as a key player to watch in Eagan. He certainly made me watch more than I anticipated though. Williams vacillated between linebacker and safety in college, so I was surprised to see him explode through the middle to disrupt so many runs in camp. He never shies away from contact and has an impressive motor.

Prediction: Near-lock, especially with the next guy suspended.

Kentrell Brothers

I was incredibly disappointed that Brothers got suspended for PED usage before the season. His performance thus far in the preseason hasn’t changed my attitude much. Brothers had a few really bad plays in the Denver game and didn’t do much to counteract that in Training Camp. His lack of speed, especially for someone his size, stuck out more than I remember last year. His saving grace will likely be special teams, where was excellent in 2017.

Prediction: N/A, suspended for the first four games. When he comes back he’ll likely have a spot unless one of the other linebackers really impresses on special teams.

Devante Downs

Linebacker is always one of the toughest position groups to analyze in camp. It’s hard to tell if they’re in the right place much of the time because you don’t know what coverage was called. The majority of practices have limited hitting so you can’t assess a lot of tackling. Many of the backup linebackers make the team because of their special teams play, but most of that is at half speed in practice. The preseason games are really the only place you get a good idea of what a linebacker is capable of.

Downs was especially hard to analyze considering he’s coming off a serious injury in college and he didn’t play on Saturday. He didn’t really show a ton of the athleticism that made him such an intriguing late-round prospect and he tended to get lost in the shuffle a lot in practice. However, that might be by design—the Vikings are likely planning to stash him and bring him along slowly. I still like his upside.

Prediction: Bubble. He might make the roster until Brothers comes back, or he might go straight to the Practice Squad.

Reshard Cliett

The Vikings taking a flier on Cliett fits their M.O. He’s an excellent athlete that has flashed potential but had some bad injury luck thus far in his career. Cliett had a pretty solid showing in Denver, making a nice tackle for loss and being heavily involved on special teams. Out of the group of linebackers that was mostly buried with the 2’s and 3’s, Cliett stood out the most. His relatively slender 225-pound frame was a problem against the run at times. Thankfully for Cliett, he won’t be called upon to stop the run much if he makes the roster, because the only way I see him making it is on special teams.

Prediction: Bubble. If the Vikings stash Downs, I think Cliett could sneak in for the first four weeks. If not, he’s probably out.

Garret Dooley

Mike Needham

I’m lumping these two together for three reasons:

  1. Of all the players in camp, I had to check my numerical roster to remind myself who each guy was the most often.
  2. Neither of them are very physically imposing for their position.
  3. Both of them are likely meeting the same fate at the end of the preseason.

Prediction: Cut

Brett Taylor

The two things I remember most about Taylor in camp: he was noticeably smaller than the rest of the linebackers and he sat watching other players go through drills a lot. Probably not a great combination for making the team.

Prediction: Cut


Defensive backs

Xavier Rhodes

Rhodes is still the straw that stirs the poison for opposing quarterbacks in this secondary. His ability to take on top receivers with little to no help makes everyone else’s job easier.

But you already knew that. What I have been most impressed with is how Rhodes has developed into a vocal leader of the defense over the years. He was very quiet and reserved in his first couple seasons in the NFL; now you can tell he’s extremely comfortable doing just about anything on and off the field.

(I have to admit that I secretly enjoyed Zimmer putting Rhodes and Diggs on timeout for one practice last week. It showed the competitive fire in both players.)

Prediction: Lock

Harrison Smith

Still the best safety in the NFL. No need to elaborate here—this article is already way too long.

Prediction: Lock

Andrew Sendejo

Remember a few years back when every Vikings fan was incredulous that Sendejo was playing, let alone starting? And how his four-year, $16 million extension was ludicrous? Those loud voices have slowly melted away since then, haven’t they? Sendejo has quietly evolved and improved every season of his career. Suddenly he’s a mainstay one of the best defenses in the league and a trend-setting fashion icon to boot. Sometimes it almost seems like the people in charge know better than the fans.

Dejo is in the last year of his contract, and I have my doubts on whether the team will pay him the going rate next season. (Although the market for safeties was inexplicably low this past offseason.) But for now, he remains a very reliable starter next to Smith.

Prediction: Lock

Trae Waynes

Like Sendejo, Waynes has slowly been winning people over since being a lightning rod for loathing early in his career. He is using his straight line speed much more efficiently these days and getting beat at a significantly lower rate. However, one major knock on his game remains. Even with consistent tight coverage, opposing receivers still make a maddening amount of catches over Waynes because he struggles to locate the ball too often. I don’t know how many times Diggs or Adam Thielen or Laquon Treadwell made a circus catch over a perfectly positioned Waynes because he was just a skosh late on getting his head around or his hands up. It’s the hurdle between Waynes making the next leap in his career. Zimmer said as much in a press conference this week. Even if Waynes never makes that next step, he’s still a very good bookend to Rhodes on the outside for now.

Prediction: Lock

Mackensie Alexander

As of right now, it appears that Mack is the nickel corner. And on any other team that didn’t have a stud rookie breathing down his neck, Alexander would have definitively earned that distinction. Now that Alexander has finally accepted his role in the slot, his play has taken off in his third Training Camp. He still had a handful of missteps, but the good reps outweighed the bad by a fairly large margin in Eagan. Alexander looks like he would be a fine slot corner on nearly any team in the league. Nearly...

Prediction: Lock

Mike Hughes

Go ahead, Vikings fans. Keep bashing the selection of Hughes in the first round as a “luxury pick.” Use the hindsight of the offensive line camp injuries to accentuate how the Vikings should have gone after a need. But I implore you to keep a close eye on Hughes throughout the next three preseason games.

You might have to look closely, though. Chances are Hughes might not get a lot of passes thrown his way because he’s usually covering his receiver like a wet sleeping bag. Cornerback is supposed to be one of the toughest positions to learn in the NFL, yet Hughes is making it look like he has been in the league for years. He is so incredibly smooth and fluid in coverage. People all around the team can’t stop singing his praises.

So go ahead, be mad that the Vikings didn’t pick a lineman at 30. Just appreciate how damn good the guy they did pick is.

Prediction: Lock

Anthony Harris

Ant lifts, bro. Harris came to camp much more jacked—largely in part to one of the first completely healthy offseasons of his career—and his play in camp has benefited from the extra muscle. His run game support has noticeably improved and his hits have a bit more of the wallop that they were previously lacking. He was rarely caught out of position in the passing game, which was definitely not the case for Harris early in his career. As solid as Sendejo has been, one could make a decent case that Harris deserves a crack at a starting gig. (I highly doubt that will happen, but it isn’t insane either.)

Harris proved last year that he could fill in admirably if either starting safety missed time; that might hold even more true in 2018.

Prediction: Lock

Terence Newman

This year I realized that Newman absolutely has to make the team for one reason: if he doesn’t, there will be no Vikings players older than me for the first time in my life. I’m not ready for that kind of midlife crisis.

Thankfully, it doesn’t look like Newman needs to be put out to pasture just yet. Critics will point to how he has lost a step. I’d say he lost that step a couple years ago, yet he keeps chugging along because of how well he can anticipate almost any kind of route.

Newman got beat pretty badly at times in camp. If the Vikings were depending on him to take 800 snaps this season, I might be pretty nervous about it. But the old man can still ball in a rotational role.

Prediction: I won’t put him down as a certainty, but he’ll be there.

Marcus Sherels

You know our saying around these parts by now: the three things in this world that can survive anything are Twinkies, cockroaches, and Marcus Sherels. We have been doing this dance every year since 2010. Even with the Hughes on the team, Sherels is still the team’s lead punt returner. Coaches can’t stop commending him in press conferences. Heck, he’s even making a bunch of great plays in red zone drills that he should have no business making.

Just accept it.

Prediction: Lock until proven otherwise.

Jayron Kearse

I was hoping that Kearse would take a big step forward in his development this season; that doesn’t appear to be the case so far. His incredible size and length can seem like more of a hindrance than an asset at times. Kearse can still look a bit awkward in coverage and got caught on the wrong side of receivers too often for my liking. He was mysteriously kept out of the game against Denver even though he hasn’t missed a single practice in camp. Fortunately for Kearse, he is still effective on special teams and I don’t think the other safeties in camp are going to threaten his spot on the depth chart.

Prediction: Not a lock but still probably on the good side of the bubble.

Holton Hill

Before camp started, Hill was pegged as a possible steal that had slipped out of the draft because of his off-field problems. After camp started, it looked like Hill was a definite steal that was going to make a loaded defensive roster with his undeniable talent. Hill was the darling of the first week in Eagan, making a ton of big plays and pass breakups.

Since then, the hype train has slowed a bit. Hill didn’t have a particularly good showing in Denver and has been more hit-and-miss in practice. I think the first practice against Jacksonville was indicative of what the Vikings have in Hill—a very talented and athletic corner with a ton of potential that still makes his fair share of missteps in coverage.

Prediction: I don’t think he’d survive getting put on the Practice Squad. Last year the Vikings put six corners and five safeties on their initial 53-man roster. I think they go with seven corners and four safeties this time to ensure Hill sticks around.

Jack Tocho

Tocho’s entire young career has been a roller coaster. Since getting drafted in the seventh round last year, the Vikings have already cut him from the team and Practice Squad four times only to bring him back each time. So perhaps it was fitting that even though Tocho got roasted badly for two touchdowns last Saturday, he somehow earned Pro Football Focus Team of the Week honors. (To Tocho’s credit, he was directly involved with both of Minnesota’s interceptions as well. But c’mon, PFF.)

It was a lot of the same in Eagan for Tocho: a lot of good reps and a lot of really bad reps. Probably not enough to crack the 53.

Prediction: Sent to the Practice Squad again, where he will inevitably be cut and re-signed at least three more times.

Horace Richardson

After the first weekend of full team practices, I was convinced that Richardson was a dark horse candidate to make the team. He was making plays all over the field and getting a lot of run on the second team defense.

This is why covering camp for more than a few days is extremely beneficial—you aren’t overly persuaded by a couple of nice practices.

Since that solid opening weekend, Richardson has basically disappeared into the crowd. I don’t see how he’s cracking a roster that’s this loaded at his position.

Prediction: Cut, but I’d be OK with him on the Practice Squad too.

Tray Matthews

Matthews came in with an outside chance to unseat one of the incumbent safeties. It doesn’t seem like he has had enough opportunities in practice to do so. He seems like a solid run stopper when he does get reps, but I wasn’t overly impressed with anything I saw from him in pass coverage. The good news is that Matthews got plenty of work in the first preseason game, so he might have three more big chances to make an impact.

Prediction: Solid Practice Squad candidate at best.

Craig James

Trevon Mathis

I came into camp knowing very little about each player outside of the fact that James played for the Gophers for a while. I left camp continuing to know very little about each player. Both were buried on the third team and I can’t recall a time where either were involved on the good end of a big play.

Prediction: Cut


Special teams

Daniel Carlson

Kai Forbath

The kicker bout seemed to be over and done with on Saturday night—TKO by 57 yard Carlson field goal. While I wouldn’t call the fight just yet, I am giving Forbath a standing eight count.

Neither kicker has been perfect in camp by any means. There have been a fair amount of misses from both. Carlson has one gigantic advantage over Forbath, and that’s his gigantic leg. It was on full display during the first preseason game. This past Tuesday, both kickers went 6-for-6 on kicks ranging from 32 to 53 yards. I would suspect Forbath gets a few opportunities against Jacksonville, but this is going to end up as Carlson’s job.

After all, the Vikings have a great history of drafting SEC kickers with big legs that might have a lingering accuracy issue that could rear its ugly head at the worst possible time. (Too soon?)

Prediction: Carlson wins, Forbath cut

Ryan Quigley

No competition for Quigley this year. His directional kicking looked good in camp. So...uh, yeah...we good on punter talk now?

Prediction: Lock

Kevin McDermott

He still has one job. He still does that job well.

Prediction: Lock


[Gigantic exhale]

We made it! After 90 players and over 9500 words, we have put a nice little bow on the 2018 Minnesota Vikings Training Camp. I hope you enjoyed following along half as much as I enjoyed covering it.