OTA outlook: The battles on defense

Organized team activities start this week, and the Vikings have plenty of questions to answer as the "offseason" progresses. We take a look at the battles on the depth chart and players of intrigue as we prepare for some of the questions to start being answered this week.

For the first time since their roster overhaul, the veterans and rookies will be on the practice field as a full team this week.

Gone is the rookie minicamp with dozens of tryout players that would never make the team. The offseason conditioning program gave the rookies and veterans an opportunity to acquaint themselves off the field, but the start of organized team activities this week will give them their first chance to acclimate on the field.

Here is a look at the positions on defense and special teams:

DEFENSIVE END
The shoo-ins: The NFL's defending sacks king, Jared Allen, and Brian Robison have the starting jobs locked down, and Everson Griffen offers pass-rush support behind them.
The battles: There is a lot of youth behind the top three. Seventh-round pick Trevor Guyton could play end or a pass-rushing tackle, and the same holds true with second-year player Christian Ballard. Both of them will compete for a rotational role with D'Aundre Reed. After that, there are a lot of unknowns and rookie free agents and younger veterans looking to find work: Eric Latimore, Ernest Owusu, Anthony Jacobs and Nick Reed.
Player of intrigue: Nick Reed was signed off waivers and had interest from other teams. He was a solid player in the Pac 10 three years ago, but has he been miscast since then? Might the Vikings give him a look at linebacker rather than defensive line? The OTAs will be the first clue there.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE
The shoo-ins: Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion will be the starting defensive tackles, and Fred Evans and Ballard should be rotational guys behind them.
The battles: Guyton could earn a spot on the 53-man roster and slowly be worked into a game-day active if he shows well once training camp starts, much like Ballard last year. But, once again, there is a lot of unproven youth behind the "shoo-ins" – Tydreke Powell, Chase Baker and Rosonno Terrell.
Player of intrigue: The biggest intrigue here is whether the waiver wire will provide more solid depth. The Vikings sit comfortably at No. 3 on the waiver-claim order and could use a solid backup nose tackle.

LINEBACKER
The shoo-ins: Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson are the expected starters from strongside to weakside linebacker. Free-agent acquisition Marvin Mitchell should also have a secured roster spot as one of the few backup linebackers with experience.
The battles: Mitchell is the fallback options – at least right now – if Brinkley can't stay healthy or proves ineffective as the replacement for longtime starter E.J. Henderson, but general manager Rick Spielman has seemed to indicate that Mitchell could push Brinkley for the starting spot. The outside linebacker spots seem set with Erin Henderson on prove-it-again, one-year contract.
Player of intrigue: Tyler Nielsen is probably the best of undrafted free-agent types, but CFL transfer Solomon Elimimian will be the player to watch once the pads go on at training camp and during the preseason. He is a full-effort, hard-hitting backer with impeccable instincts. If he can get used to diagnosing and dissecting NFL offenses, he will have a chance to earn a role on more than just special teams.

CORNERBACK
The shoo-ins: Antoine Winfield should be a shoo-in, despite a role that could be reduced to a nickel back, where he is most effective and best able to use his run-support and blitzing skills. Chris Carr, Josh Robinson, Asher Allen and Zack Bowman should also have roster spots secured.
The battles: There is a lot of potential to weed through this year after the Vikings found themselves short-handed on numbers and talent in 2011 following Winfield's injury, Cedric Griffin's ineffectiveness and Cook's legal problems. Someone will have to step up on the outside to unseat Winfield as a starter. Chris Cook will enter the season as the other starter after a strife-filled rookie season and early part of the 2012 calendar year, but can Carr, Robinson or even Bowman perform well enough at left cornerback to allow Winfield a move inside and into a part-time role?
Player of intrigue: Remember Nick Taylor? He is the former Florida International point guard that the Vikings targeted as a cornerback. Power forwards have been transformed into effective tight ends, but can a college point guard really just turn into an NFL cornerback and earn a roster spot, even on the practice squad?

SAFETY
The shoo-ins: Jamarca Sanford is really the only returning starter at this point. Mistral Raymond became a starter by default after Husain Abdullah's multiple concussions sidelined him for the end of the 2011 season and Tyrell Johnson's hamstring did the same. Johnson is now with the Dolphins and Abdullah remains a free agent, leaving Sanford, first-round draft pick Harrison Smith, fifth-round draft pick Robert Blanton and Raymond as the top four safeties.
The battles: Smith will have a starting role, but it should be a three-way battle between Sanford, Blanton and Raymond to see who starts alongside him. Sanford is the player with the most experience, but his range is limited. Raymond got a taste of starting experience last year but didn't overwhelm with his skills. Blanton is the rookie who is being converted from a cornerback at Notre Dame to a safety with the Vikings. If he beats out Sanford and Raymond, the Vikings will have an all-rookie, all-Notre Dame safety tandem.
Player of intrigue: The Vikings liked Blanton's instincts enough to draft him, but his lack of speed as a cornerback told them a shift to safety is the best option. He says he is fine with either position, and lucky for him the Vikings have a need at both. He will likely be running with the second team behind Sanford when OTAs open, but by the middle of preseason he could be pushing for a starting job.

SPECIAL TEAMS
The shoo-ins: Chris Kluwe has the punter job locked down, Cullen Loeffler remains one of the league's best long snappers, and Blair Walsh instilled enough confidence in rookie minicamp for the Vikings to release veteran kicker Ryan Longwell.
The battles: The battles will be at the return positions. Rookies Jarius Wright and Robinson both have solid potential as punt returners, and the Vikings could use someone to unseat Marcus Sherels. Will they find a kick returner to take the pressure off Percy Harvin?
Player of intrigue: Robinson has blazing speed (the fastest cornerback at the NFL Scouting Combine), making him a favorite to win the punt-return job if he doesn't earn a starting job at cornerback. But, if Robinson does end up starting at cornerback, they may not want to overload a rookie with too many responsibilities, leaving the door open for several other youngsters to grab a game-day active spot as a return man.


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.



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\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":"For the first time since their roster overhaul, the veterans and rookies will be on the practice field as a full team this week. Gone is the rookie minicamp with dozens of tryout players that would never make the team. The offseason conditioning program gave the rookies and veterans an opportunity to acquaint themselves off the field, but the start of organized team activities this week will give them their first chance to acclimate on the field. Here is a look at the positions on defense and special teams: The NFL's defending sacks king, Jared Allen, and Brian Robison have the starting jobs locked down, and Everson Griffen offers pass-rush support behind them. There is a lot of youth behind the top three. Seventh-round pick Trevor Guyton could play end or a pass-rushing tackle, and the same holds true with second-year player Christian Ballard. Both of them will compete for a rotational role with D'Aundre Reed. After that, there are a lot of unknowns and rookie free agents and younger veterans looking to find work: Eric Latimore, Ernest Owusu, Anthony Jacobs and Nick Reed. Nick Reed was signed off waivers and had interest from other teams. He was a solid player in the Pac 10 three years ago, but has he been miscast since then? Might the Vikings give him a look at linebacker rather than defensive line? The OTAs will be the first clue there. Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion will be the starting defensive tackles, and Fred Evans and Ballard should be rotational guys behind them. Guyton could earn a spot on the 53-man roster and slowly be worked into a game-day active if he shows well once training camp starts, much like Ballard last year. But, once again, there is a lot of unproven youth behind the \"shoo-ins\" – Tydreke Powell, Chase Baker and Rosonno Terrell. The biggest intrigue here is whether the waiver wire will provide more solid depth. The Vikings sit comfortably at No. 3 on the waiver-claim order and could use a solid backup nose tackle. Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson are the expected starters from strongside to weakside linebacker. Free-agent acquisition Marvin Mitchell should also have a secured roster spot as one of the few backup linebackers with experience. Mitchell is the fallback options – at least right now – if Brinkley can't stay healthy or proves ineffective as the replacement for longtime starter E.J. Henderson, but general manager Rick Spielman has seemed to indicate that Mitchell could push Brinkley for the starting spot. The outside linebacker spots seem set with Erin Henderson on prove-it-again, one-year contract. Tyler Nielsen is probably the best of undrafted free-agent types, but CFL transfer Solomon Elimimian will be the player to watch once the pads go on at training camp and during the preseason. He is a full-effort, hard-hitting backer with impeccable instincts. If he can get used to diagnosing and dissecting NFL offenses, he will have a chance to earn a role on more than just special teams. Antoine Winfield should be a shoo-in, despite a role that could be reduced to a nickel back, where he is most effective and best able to use his run-support and blitzing skills. Chris Carr, Josh Robinson, Asher Allen and Zack Bowman should also have roster spots secured. There is a lot of potential to weed through this year after the Vikings found themselves short-handed on numbers and talent in 2011 following Winfield's injury, Cedric Griffin's ineffectiveness and Cook's legal problems. Someone will have to step up on the outside to unseat Winfield as a starter. Chris Cook will enter the season as the other starter after a strife-filled rookie season and early part of the 2012 calendar year, but can Carr, Robinson or even Bowman perform well enough at left cornerback to allow Winfield a move inside and into a part-time role? Remember Nick Taylor? He is the former Florida International point guard that the Vikings targeted as a cornerback. Power forwards have been transformed into effective tight ends, but can a college point guard really just turn into an NFL cornerback and earn a roster spot, even on the practice squad? Jamarca Sanford is really the only returning starter at this point. Mistral Raymond became a starter by default after Husain Abdullah's multiple concussions sidelined him for the end of the 2011 season and Tyrell Johnson's hamstring did the same. Johnson is now with the Dolphins and Abdullah remains a free agent, leaving Sanford, first-round draft pick Harrison Smith, fifth-round draft pick Robert Blanton and Raymond as the top four safeties. Smith will have a starting role, but it should be a three-way battle between Sanford, Blanton and Raymond to see who starts alongside him. Sanford is the player with the most experience, but his range is limited. Raymond got a taste of starting experience last year but didn't overwhelm with his skills. Blanton is the rookie who is being converted from a cornerback at Notre Dame to a safety with the Vikings. If he beats out Sanford and Raymond, the Vikings will have an all-rookie, all-Notre Dame safety tandem. The Vikings liked Blanton's instincts enough to draft him, but his lack of speed as a cornerback told them a shift to safety is the best option. He says he is fine with either position, and lucky for him the Vikings have a need at both. He will likely be running with the second team behind Sanford when OTAs open, but by the middle of preseason he could be pushing for a starting job. Chris Kluwe has the punter job locked down, Cullen Loeffler remains one of the league's best long snappers, and Blair Walsh instilled enough confidence in rookie minicamp for the Vikings to release veteran kicker Ryan Longwell. The battles will be at the return positions. Rookies Jarius Wright and Robinson both have solid potential as punt returners, and the Vikings could use someone to unseat Marcus Sherels. Will they find a kick returner to take the pressure off Percy Harvin? Robinson has blazing speed (the fastest cornerback at the NFL Scouting Combine), making him a favorite to win the punt-return job if he doesn't earn a starting job at cornerback. But, if Robinson does end up starting at cornerback, they may not want to overload a rookie with too many responsibilities, leaving the door open for several other youngsters to grab a game-day active spot as a return man. 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