Positional review: Defense, special teams

The defense had several easily detectable holes in 2011 and will look significantly different in 2012 after free agency is completed. Numerous contributors last year will be free agents and the Vikings aren't even expected to pursue several of those.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DLE Brian Robison, NT Remi Ayodele, UT Kevin Williams, DRE Jared Allen. Backups – DL Christian Ballard, NT Fred Evans, UT Letroy Guion, DE Everson Griffen, DE D'Aundre Reed.

With a team-record 22 sacks, Allen came within half a sack of the NFL record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Allen turns 30 before next season, but he's got a few more All-Pro caliber seasons left in him. On the other side, Robison had a career-high eight sacks in his first season as a starter.

He has proven he can be an every-down end in the NFL. Williams looked old at times at the under tackle position. He'll be 32 next season and his All-Pro days are behind him. But he still has at least one more year left in him. He ended up with five sacks and some impressive games despite battling foot and knee problems all season. Nose tackle was a major weakness as Ayodele never panned out after leaving New Orleans for Minnesota via free agency. Ballard, a rookie, is big and strong enough to possibly start at nose tackle. He also can play under tackle and the left end position. Evans doesn't stand out. Guion has promise as Williams' eventual replacement, but might leave via free agency. Griffen can play either end position and either tackle or as a linebacker in passing situations. He's one of the most athletic and physical defenders on the team and needs to be given a consistent role somewhere. Reed, a rookie seventh-round draft pick, was inactive for all 16 games. He showed natural pass rushing skills in the preseason.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – WLB Erin Henderson, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups – WLB Kenny Onatolu, MLB Xavier Adibi, SLB Larry Dean.

The Henderson brothers are unrestricted free agents. The team is expected to pursue a deal with the younger Erin, but let long-time starter E.J. leave because he'll be 32 next season. Greenway, the team's leading tackler the past four seasons, made very few splash plays this season. He is athletic and fast enough to be given a role that's more conducive to making big plays. That will be a priority for the defensive coaches as they try to bounce back from a disastrous season. Adibi played in only four games, mostly as a special teamer. Onatolu and Dean, a rookie from Division II Valdosta State, are only special teamers. The Vikings could be looking at overhauling this position with two new starters and possibly a new backup to replace Onatolu.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Asher Allen, RCB Cedric Griffin, FS Mistral Raymond, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups – CB Benny Sapp, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Brandon Burton, CB Chris Cook, S Eric Frampton, S Jarrad Page, S Andrew Sendejo. Injured reserve – LCB Antoine Winfield, S Tyrell Johnson, FS Husain Abdullah.

This was, by far, the weakest unit on the defense. Injuries and an overall lack of playmakers doomed the defense to the second-worst passer rating allowed (107.6) in NFL history. The team went a whopping nine games without an interception despite leading the league in sacks. The final tally of eight picks tied a franchise record for fewest in a season. By the end of the season, Allen was the best defensive back. Under normal conditions, he'd be a dime back, at best.

Griffin isn't expected back after a dismal season that saw him unable to return to form after tearing the ACL in each knee over the past two seasons. Raymond, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, showed just how raw he is in five starts. Sanford is the only Day 1 starter that stayed healthy or didn't lose his job because of performance. But he proved to be a questionable tackler that also lacks the instincts to play the position at a starting level. Sapp, a late-season stopgap, is a free agent who won't be re-signed. Page and Sendejo also have no future with the team. Sherels, a second-year pro who made the team as a returner, might make a good nickel back some day. He's got good instincts and above average hands.

Burton, a rookie, is raw and did nothing to gain the confidence of the coaching staff as injuries mounted around him. Cook, a big corner drafted in the second round in 2010, is the most talented DB on the roster, but his future with the team is uncertain because he faces felony domestic assault charges. His trial is expected to start in March.

Frampton is one of the best special teams players, but doesn't get a whiff at safety. Winfield will be 35 next season, but he should return as a starter. He missed all but five games in 2011, but the good news is his injuries (neck, clavicle) weren't to his legs. Johnson, an unrestricted free agent, was a major bust as the team's top pick (in the second round) in 2008. He's coming off surgery to repair a detached hamstring. He'll get a fresh start somewhere else. Abdullah is an unrestricted free agent who is contemplating retirement at age 26. He's had four concussions the past two seasons, including two in 2011. The former undrafted free agent has built himself into an OK player, but he's far from a priority. The team needs to find playmakers at safety and corner.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, KOR Percy Harvin, KOR Lorenzo Booker, KOR Marcus Sherels, PR Sherels, LS Matt Katula, H Kluwe. Injured reserve – LS Cullen Loeffler.

Longwell had his worst season in his six years with the Vikings. He missed 6 of 28 field goal attempts, but some of them came after Loeffler was placed on IR because of a fractured bone in his lower back. When Loeffler returns, the place-kicking should be back in good hands with three men (Loeffler, Kluwe and Longwell) who have been together since 2006. Harvin is one of the most dangerous kickoff returners in the league. He averaged 32.5 yards with one touchdown on 16 attempts this season. The team limits his number of returns, so Booker (19) and Sherels (16) combined to return 35 kickoffs. Neither is nearly as dangerous as Harvin, but Sherels did average 27.8 yards per return. Sherels started off as an excellent punt returner, but lost some confidence and became hesitant after making some poor decisions near his own goal line. He finished with an 8.4-yard average.


Viking Update Top Stories

\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":" Starters – DLE Brian Robison, NT Remi Ayodele, UT Kevin Williams, DRE Jared Allen. Backups – DL Christian Ballard, NT Fred Evans, UT Letroy Guion, DE Everson Griffen, DE D'Aundre Reed. With a team-record 22 sacks, Allen came within half a sack of the NFL record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Allen turns 30 before next season, but he's got a few more All-Pro caliber seasons left in him. On the other side, Robison had a career-high eight sacks in his first season as a starter. He has proven he can be an every-down end in the NFL. Williams looked old at times at the under tackle position. He'll be 32 next season and his All-Pro days are behind him. But he still has at least one more year left in him. He ended up with five sacks and some impressive games despite battling foot and knee problems all season. Nose tackle was a major weakness as Ayodele never panned out after leaving New Orleans for Minnesota via free agency. Ballard, a rookie, is big and strong enough to possibly start at nose tackle. He also can play under tackle and the left end position. Evans doesn't stand out. Guion has promise as Williams' eventual replacement, but might leave via free agency. Griffen can play either end position and either tackle or as a linebacker in passing situations. He's one of the most athletic and physical defenders on the team and needs to be given a consistent role somewhere. Reed, a rookie seventh-round draft pick, was inactive for all 16 games. He showed natural pass rushing skills in the preseason. Starters – WLB Erin Henderson, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups – WLB Kenny Onatolu, MLB Xavier Adibi, SLB Larry Dean. The Henderson brothers are unrestricted free agents. The team is expected to pursue a deal with the younger Erin, but let long-time starter E.J. leave because he'll be 32 next season. Greenway, the team's leading tackler the past four seasons, made very few splash plays this season. He is athletic and fast enough to be given a role that's more conducive to making big plays. That will be a priority for the defensive coaches as they try to bounce back from a disastrous season. Adibi played in only four games, mostly as a special teamer. Onatolu and Dean, a rookie from Division II Valdosta State, are only special teamers. The Vikings could be looking at overhauling this position with two new starters and possibly a new backup to replace Onatolu. Starters – LCB Asher Allen, RCB Cedric Griffin, FS Mistral Raymond, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups – CB Benny Sapp, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Brandon Burton, CB Chris Cook, S Eric Frampton, S Jarrad Page, S Andrew Sendejo. Injured reserve – LCB Antoine Winfield, S Tyrell Johnson, FS Husain Abdullah. This was, by far, the weakest unit on the defense. Injuries and an overall lack of playmakers doomed the defense to the second-worst passer rating allowed (107.6) in NFL history. The team went a whopping nine games without an interception despite leading the league in sacks. The final tally of eight picks tied a franchise record for fewest in a season. By the end of the season, Allen was the best defensive back. Under normal conditions, he'd be a dime back, at best. Griffin isn't expected back after a dismal season that saw him unable to return to form after tearing the ACL in each knee over the past two seasons. Raymond, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, showed just how raw he is in five starts. Sanford is the only Day 1 starter that stayed healthy or didn't lose his job because of performance. But he proved to be a questionable tackler that also lacks the instincts to play the position at a starting level. Sapp, a late-season stopgap, is a free agent who won't be re-signed. Page and Sendejo also have no future with the team. Sherels, a second-year pro who made the team as a returner, might make a good nickel back some day. He's got good instincts and above average hands. Burton, a rookie, is raw and did nothing to gain the confidence of the coaching staff as injuries mounted around him. Cook, a big corner drafted in the second round in 2010, is the most talented DB on the roster, but his future with the team is uncertain because he faces felony domestic assault charges. His trial is expected to start in March. Frampton is one of the best special teams players, but doesn't get a whiff at safety. Winfield will be 35 next season, but he should return as a starter. He missed all but five games in 2011, but the good news is his injuries (neck, clavicle) weren't to his legs. Johnson, an unrestricted free agent, was a major bust as the team's top pick (in the second round) in 2008. He's coming off surgery to repair a detached hamstring. He'll get a fresh start somewhere else. Abdullah is an unrestricted free agent who is contemplating retirement at age 26. He's had four concussions the past two seasons, including two in 2011. The former undrafted free agent has built himself into an OK player, but he's far from a priority. The team needs to find playmakers at safety and corner. K Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, KOR Percy Harvin, KOR Lorenzo Booker, KOR Marcus Sherels, PR Sherels, LS Matt Katula, H Kluwe. Injured reserve – LS Cullen Loeffler. Longwell had his worst season in his six years with the Vikings. He missed 6 of 28 field goal attempts, but some of them came after Loeffler was placed on IR because of a fractured bone in his lower back. When Loeffler returns, the place-kicking should be back in good hands with three men (Loeffler, Kluwe and Longwell) who have been together since 2006. Harvin is one of the most dangerous kickoff returners in the league. He averaged 32.5 yards with one touchdown on 16 attempts this season. The team limits his number of returns, so Booker (19) and Sherels (16) combined to return 35 kickoffs. Neither is nearly as dangerous as Harvin, but Sherels did average 27.8 yards per return. Sherels started off as an excellent punt returner, but lost some confidence and became hesitant after making some poor decisions near his own goal line. He finished with an 8.4-yard average. 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