The defensive line was pretty below average last season, with just Brian Robison and Everson Griffin playing well enough for positive grades by Pro Football Focus. The line was poor against the pass and miserable against the run.
Enter new head coach Mike Zimmer, who had excelled with the Cincinnati Bengals. Zimmer was especially good at wringing every last bit of productivity out of guys who most had been convinced were topped out.
There is talent in the front seven and they should be able to get to opposing quarterbacks more frequently than they did last year.
If the Vikings are going to emerge from last season’s disappointing finish as a competitive team, the front seven is where it has to start.
In the first half of our look at the front seven, we’ll be talking about the defensive line—who is in, who is out, who is on the edge and what we can expect from the position heading into the 2014 season.
Safe: Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph, Scott Crichton, Fred Evans, Tom Johnson, Corey Wootton
Robison graded out as a top-20 4-3 defensive lineman and he’s shown a lot of toughness in his time, playing through a Grade-3 sprain in his AC joint during the 2012 season. Considering the season was pretty much over by then, his dedication and toughness is impressive. Robison is a quietly productive player, but an effective one. He needs some help up front, which the Vikings are hoping will be provided by Griffen.
Griffen just signed a five-year contract and is expected to replace Jared Allen, who had been slowly becoming less effective over the last few years. Despite being behind Allen and Robison, Griffen had totaled 17.5 sacks in three years. He should flourish with a starting job, one that will allow him to bring his pass-rushing prowess to bear more consistently.
Floyd underperformed in his rookie season, but has the athletic ability to shine in Zimmer’s defense. Zimmer is expected to use Floyd similarly to how he utilized Geno Atkins in Cincinnati—as a fierce interior pass rushing presence. Next to him at nose tackle is Joseph who, while lacking the upside of the other three starters, is solid at plugging gaps against the run and able to bring some pressure on the quarterback as well.
Rookie Crichton will be a rotational player, but is versatile enough to play on the end or at the interior. He’s got a tremendous motor and plays a tough, physical brand of football—something the defensive line lacked at times, especially against the run.
Wootton played both end and tackle for the Chicago Bears last season, though the majority of his snaps were at tackle. Coming off hip surgery, his time with the team on the field has been limited but the expectation is he’ll bounce back from a poor 2013.
The last two players—Johnson and Evans—are solid players who really are one-trick ponies. Former CFL player Johnson is a huge, strong tackle who was a rotational player in New Orleans and will remain so here. Evans has been with Minnesota for seven years purely as a reserve nose tackle. A decent run-stopper, he’s had a shot or two to get starts but can never really get over the hump.
On the bubble: Justin Trattou, Spencer Nealy, Rakim Cox, Shamar Stephen
Trattou seems to be the Vikings’ favorite whipping boy as he was cut and re-signed multiple times last year. Primarily a special teams player, he’s a guy who contributes a little but as soon as there is the need for a roster spot he’s on the street. He strikes one as the type of player Zimmer excels at maximizing, but ultimately, Trattou may be too slow and lack the strength to regularly contribute in the defense.
Nealy has already been cut twice, from the practice squad no less. An undersized tweener, he lacks the strength to hold the point of attack inside as well as the speed and athleticism to play end. He’s got a high motor, and the thought when he came into the league last season was that he could play end on run plays or maybe work as a three-technique but that never panned out. There’s some upside for a guy who could be a specialized role player, but the two cuts tell us the staff has yet to see enough to hang onto him. He’ll need to change that if he is to stick this time.
Cox is an intriguing player. He’s not fast, but he has an impressive first step. He’s got a nose for the quarterback and showed the ability to improve every year he was at Villanova. Cox’s lack of speed limited him in pursuit situations, but he seems to have the instincts to be where he needs to be. Cox has a lot of strength and can excel as a run-stopper on the outside where he can set the edge. He’s a reliable tackler as well.
Not long ago, I was shouting Audie Cole’s name from the rooftops as my pick for a darkhorse player to contribute down the road. This year, Cox has that feel to him.
Stephen is already 23, so the clock is ticking on his career. He’s a strong potential five-technique who can run stop, but the team has a lot of those. He has very good size but isn’t terribly athletic and if he makes the team it’s likely as a rotational player. Again, the team certainly has a lot of those, so it could be tough to stand out.
Outside looking in: Chase Baker, Kheeston Randall, Jake Snyder, Tyler Scott, Isame Faciane
At Virginia, Snyder was a run-stopper who could fight off blocks on run plays not on passing downs, showing inconsistent penetration. The problem is, he doesn’t quite have the body for tackle and there are a lot of guys on the roster who can stop the run more effectively. Special teams is his only hope but he has no experience blocking and very little ability to cover. It’s a long shot.
Baker was a practice squad player who briefly bumped up tom the main roster in preseason due to injuries ahead of him and then was active for just four games and 58 defensive snaps. An undersized special teams player, Baker has little upside, though he is apparently a hard worker who will take on whatever the team needs from him.
Randall has bounced around a bit since he was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in round 7 of the 2012 NFL draft. Zimmer knows him a bit from the cup of coffee Randall had with the Bengals last November, but never took a snap. He’s slow, with no quickness or burst and marginal pass-rush skills.
Scott was a solid pass-rusher at Northwestern, but is another guy who lacks the size to play interior at tackle as well as the speed to play outside. He’s got great instincts and works hard but is just too limited athletically.
Faciane has decent size, a quick first step and shows some good lower-body power. He’s not much of a pass rusher and is a bit slow to close though, so if he’s not there immediately, he is unlikely to catch a ball carrier in pursuit. He is a good bet to see a spot on the practice squad if he performs in camp, but with a roster filled with run-stoppers, it’s hard to imagine him making the final round of cuts.