D-Line Starters Still Not Settled

Three of the four starting DL positions are probably spoken for, but one defensive tackle spot remains up for grabs.

While rookie Shawn Worthen made the most of his opportunity to start at nose tackle in the Vikings' preseason opener against New Orleans by getting two sacks, that does not mean the fourth-round pick from Texas Christian will be lining up at the starting spot during the Sept. 9 opener against Carolina.

Line coach Brian Baker appears set on only three starters at this point. "I would be very surprised if Chris Hovan does not start for us," said Baker, who is in his first season with the Vikings after spending the past four with Detroit. "He's clearly having a very fine camp right now. I'm anticipating Lance Johnstone (will start at right end) because of the skill level he brings to the position and the same thing with Talance Sawyer (at left end). I expect those guys to start right now.

"But they obviously have to go out and do it. The other position is up for grabs. There are a lot of guys shooting for it, there are a lot of guys who want to do it and you are going to see a lot of faces in there with those other three players."

The Vikings entered camp with a depth chart that had Johnstone and Sawyer at the ends, Hovan at nose tackle and Fernando Smith at under tackle. But Worthen's start against the Saints meant Hovan moved to under tackle and Smith went to the sidelines.

The ability to shift Hovan, along with the versatility of a few other players, is one thing Baker likes about the makeup of his line.

"This is a very sharp group," he said. "Fred Robbins has played both nose and under tackle and so has Chris. Shawn is the only one who has been primarily a nose. Fernando Smith has played both under tackle and defensive end and Willie Howard has done the same. So, we have got some versatility and a pretty high talent level. We just have to make all the pieces fit at the right time."

With veterans such as John Randle and John Burrough gone, Baker knows he is dealing with a younger line. However, he also knows that can't be used as a crutch.

"In this league you don't have that luxury," he said. "You can't say, ‘A guy's a rookie or he's not a rookie.' If he's in position to play, he better play like a vaunted veteran. A tackle is a tackle.

"They don't put an asterisk beside a tackle who is a rookie. If it's a big gain because a guy made a mistake, they don't bring it back 5 yards because he's only a rookie. You are either good enough to play or you aren't. If you are good enough to play, then the question is, ‘How much can you contribute?' If you contribute enough to be a starter, you are a starter."

Making progress
While Worthen has passed Robbins on the depth chart, Baker remains confident Robbins, a second-round pick in 2000, can contribute. Robbins played in eight games last season in a reserve role and contributed five tackles and one sack.

"Fred has made some progress," Baker said. "I think he is trying to push himself a little more. When Fred got here, we talked about breaking comfort zones and I think he's trying to do that. ... We have a very high skill level. We've got some big guys that can move and Fred is certainly one of them. But I think we have a degree of toughness, and that's where we have to see if Fred is going to break his comfort zone to become a truly tough defensive tackle. If he does that, he will be a good player."

And what will it take for Robbins to break that comfort zone? "Just literally pushing himself beyond the level where is he comfortable," Baker explained. "If he has a bad snap, pushing himself to forgetting that snap and winning the next play. If he gets a little fatigued, push himself to concentrate on staying low, staying powerful and just going as hard as he can go for as long as he can go. That's true for all (players). But I say Fred because I think that's the only thing stopping Fred from being a very, very good football player."

Notes
* Pro Football Weekly picks receiver Randy Moss and strong safety Robert Griffith as its choices for the players who have the best shot of becoming the Vikings' offensive and defensive MVPs this season. PFW rated Tampa Bay's signing of former Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson as the top offseason move in the NFL.

* Robinson said rookie cornerback Eric Kelly, a third-round pick out of Kentucky, has the ability to help the Vikings defensive backfield but he is taking a wait-and-see attitude. "With all rookies, it comes down to waiting until they play first before you make that determination," Robinson said. "But as far as the things he has learned, you can see he's picking things up well. Now, he just has to go out there and play. Then you can make that determination."

* Former Vikings running back Terry Allen has resurfaced with the Baltimore Ravens as an injury replacement for Jamal Lewis, who is expected to miss the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He suffered the injury during a training camp practice. Allen, who beat out Mario Bates, Robert Chancey, Greg Hill and Chris Warren for the job, signed a one-year deal for the league minimum of $477,000. Allen spent part of last season with New Orleans. VU

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