Vikings training camp is under way and how the defensive line develops and comes together will play a big role in the team’s success or failure.
This is the time of year where I like to take a full inventory of the roster. We know pretty well who is at camp and who has the best chance of being a starter or second team.
The real mysteries are going to be who makes up the third team and those last few guys that make up the back end of the roster. At the beginning of training camp we are full of zest and practically frothing with excitement (maybe I speak for myself) about the team.
I always enjoy using my initial, early training camp assessment and compare it with the one I do after the final roster is set just before the first regular season games. Surprisingly my opinion of where the team is at sometimes changes quite a bit.
The projected and almost certain starters at defensive end will be Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. Jared Allen left to join the Bears in the off season after the Vikings were not offering a contract anywhere close to 4 years $32 million. I would have liked to see the Vikings sign him but that contract is a bit too rich for a player with diminishing ability and at his age.
However, Jared Allen was still productive last season and I think that the number of pass rushing snaps affected both Allen and Brian Robison. Robison and Allen played the most pass rush snaps of any defensive end combo in the league (1,283 snaps) and it wasn’t even close. So, I think that both Vikings defensive ends simply wore down over the season in addition to Allen possibly losing a step.
Everson Griffen takes his on the role of starting right end. I know the tendency is to be very excited about Griffen being the starter, but we have to pump the breaks and temper the enthusiasm.
Yes, he has enormous physical ability, freak athletic ability and looks the part but last year was his most active year by far and he only played a little under half the snaps that Jared Allen did. He will be counted on the to be a three down defensive end and his snaps will increase by about double this year.
Adding to that we really don’t know for sure what he can do in a starter’s role.
Time to play good cop! Now with all the negativity about Everson Griffen out of the way, it’s time to highlight some what is exciting about Griffen.
First, it has been mentioned about his athletic ability and he comes into training camp looking perhaps bigger and stronger than last year. He has clearly been working hard in the off season to assume a starter’s role. Statistically, Griffen was favorable to Jared Allen last year in a significant way.
According to Pro Football Focus, Allen only had 12 more quarterback pressures than Griffen last year and had more than twice as many snaps. So, Griffen’s productivity rate was much higher than Allen’s. However, Griffen was actually more effective from the left while filling in for Robison.
His new role of being a three down defensive end will require him to play many more snaps against the run. The encouraging news here is that statistically (again Pro Football Focus) Griffen didn’t play near as many run snaps as Jared Allen or Brian Robison, but when he did he was the most effective of the three.
The sample size may be small but from what I’ve seen on the field and in the stats he should be capable of being both a good pass rusher and adequate run stopper as a right end. I think the biggest issue will be if he can be as effective as he was last season over twice as many snaps.
I didn’t give a full section on Brian Robison because he’s a known commodity. He’s an above average all around defensive end that is a better pass rusher than run stopper. That is sort of the reverse of most left ends, in that he most left ends are better against the run than right ends. At times, Robison can even create havoc in the backfield. Overall, he’s the type of player that is good enough you’re not looking to replace him but he’s not likely to be an All-Pro at any point.
The Vikings will be watching Corey Wootton closely in training camp who had hip surgery in January but appears to be ready to go here in training camp. When healthy and playing defensive end he can be nearly as effective as Brian Robison.
Last season the Bears had several injuries and Wootton was moved to the inside and played defensive tackle about the same number of snaps as Kevin Williams did for the Vikings. Assuming that he is healthy, Wootton should be a very solid asset to the defensive line as a whole but particularly defensive end.
Wootton at his best can be as good as Robinson and has the added value of playing equally well on either end (in a 4-3) or even playing under tackle if needed.
It would seem that three defensive end spots are nailed down with Wootton, Robison and Griffen so that leaves one or maybe two defensive end spots open. Justin Trattou is a third year player that played six games between the Vikings and Giants last season. Tom Johnson and rookie third round pick Scott Crighton should round out the five possible spots, though they may only keeep four.
It is pretty unlikely that Crighton doesn’t make the team so it would seem that Tom Johnson could be on the bubble.
The tackles on defense will be more solidified this year than last year with the addition of Linval Joseph. Joseph will lineup as a nosetackle for the Vikings and provide some much needed mass along the line. Joseph should be a significant upgrade over any tackle on the roster last season, in both pass rush and run stopping. Joseph may not have any eye-popping stats this year but he will take up space, stop the run and eat up double teams.
Sharrif Floyd will also be able to concentrate on being the three technique tackle that he is instead of lining up at nose. Part of the issue last year was that the Vikings didn’t have a true nosetackle and used Kevin Williams in that role. While Kevin Williams was a dominant tackle in his prime, he was not suited for nosetackle last year.
While I think Sharrif Floyd should improve over last year and will benefit from having Joseph next to him and being in a better suited role, he still has to play better for the defensive line to be effective.
There were far too many stretches in games last season where Floyd seemed to disappear and was ineffective. However, if Floyd takes the step forward that many second year players do, the tackle pairing of Joseph and Floyd could be very good.
The Vikings typically keep four or five defensive tackles, so with the starters set with Floyd and Joseph that leaves two or three spots. Fred Evans figures to have one of the two spots locked down. Evans has been a steady, reliable backup and part time starter for the Vikings and I don’t see that changing this year.
Kheeston Randall, a former 2012 7th round pick of the Miami Dolphins, has been invited to camp to compete for a spot at defensive tackle. Randall played eight games for the Dolphins in 2012 and was cut in training camp in 2013.
Physical makeup would suggest that the 325 pound Randall would make a nice backup for Linval Joseph. Chase Baker is a second year player with the Vikings who gained four years of experience last year but wasn’t particularly effective when he played. Baker would be better suited to back up Floyd.
Shamar Stephen is a darkhorse to make the team. He is a big, athletic but very raw tackle out of UCONN. If the Vikings keep five tackles there is a very good chance he makes the team. He has the physical make up to be a very good tackle in the NFL but is very raw in technique and needs to work more learning blocking schemes. Isame Faciane (6’3″ & 300 pounds) out of Florida International had an outstanding senior season and displayed impressive ability to penetrate the line.
He didn’t play in a major conference and was under the scouting radar but has good potential and could push Stephen for a spot on the team. In any case, the Vikings will have a raw but talented tackle to put on the practice squad. Tom Johnson could also get time at tackle which could pust Stephen and Faciane even further down the chart.
Overall, I think the defensive line is very much in flux. If Everson Griffen lives up to potential, the defensive ends will be put a hurting on opposing QBs this year. If he can’t handle the increased snaps he is just a very expensive placeholder. If Sharrif Floyd steps up and is capable next to Joseph, the tackles should be squared away. As you can see there are still a few too many “ifs” to be overly confident about the defensive line going into training camp.