Vikings position analysis: Defensive ends

Everson Griffen had a strong start to the season before his sack numbers faded a bit, but the Vikings will have multiple decisions to make at defensive end this offseason.

Scott Crichton
Crichton finished up his rookie season in the NFL after being drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Vikings. When a player is drafted in the third round, he usually would get ample playing time to make an impact on his team. That was not the case for Crichton, who spent a majority of the games inactive.

He was only active for six out of the Vikings’ 16 games, and much of the time when he was active he was primarily a special teams contributor. He played only 16 snaps on defensive, less than 1.5 percent. Crichton was disappointed at the end of the season about his playing time and his role on the team, but he said he is going to go into this offseason determined to work hard and earn more playing time next season.

Throughout the course of the season Crichton only recorded two tackles on defense and two tackles on special teams.

Going into next season, Crichton could have the perfect opportunity to compete for more playing time as Corey Wootton – who was the third defensive end on the depth chart – is a free agent and may not be back with the team. If that is the case, Crichton could take over that role and be the rotational player in Zimmer’s defense.

Everson Griffen
Griffen finished his fifth season in the NFL after being selected by the Vikings in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. Before this season, his primary roll on the team was to back up Jared Allen, but during last year’s offseason the Vikings went with Griffen over Allen and it paid off well for them.

Griffen had a career year, totaling 55 tackles and 12 sacks. He also made an impact on special teams, returning a blocked punt for a touchdown in the Vikings’ Week 13 matchup against the Carolina Panthers. Griffen’s production did decrease some in the second half of the season as he only recorded three sacks after the bye week, but he was still considered one of the top defensive ends in the NFL.

Pro Football Focus had Griffen rated as the No. 8 defensive end in the NFL with a rating of 16.8. His 993 snaps, according to PFF, were also second-most played by a defensive end during the 2014 season – Cameron Jordan on the New Orleans Saints played the most (1,018).

There was a four-game stretch during the middle of the season – Weeks 7 through 11 – where Griffen was dominant. PFF gave him a combined 17.3 rating during that stretch, with his lowest rating being a 3.4. During those four games he was able to total 20 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble.

A lot is going to be expected from Griffen in the 2015 season. He will have a full year as a starter under his belt, and full year in Zimmer’s defense to have learned the intricacies of it. And maybe not being voted to be a part of the Pro Bowl will serve as further motivation.

Brian Robison
Robison finished his eighth year in the NFL after the Vikings selected him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. He is the veteran leader on the defensive line, especially after Allen left via free agency, and showed he is still willing to be a team player.

2014 was not a great year for Robison when it comes to stats. At the end of the season he recorded 24 tackles and 4½ sacks. He also did not record his first sack until Week 6 against the Detroit Lions, and even then it was only a half a sack. That is a big change after he recorded 37 tackles and nine sacks in the 2013 season.

Robison is now 31 years old, but one of the reasons for the decline in sacks is Zimmer’s defense. Zimmer preached often that players could not worry about individual stats and need to focus on what is better for the team. Some players may not have the stats to show they are being successful, but all Zimmer cares about is them doing what he wants and allowing the entire defense to succeed.

Zimmer would usually say that Robison was doing a good job, but sites such as PFF did not see it that way. PFF rated Robison No. 52 out of 59 defensive ends with a -12.2 grade. According to the site, he only had three games rated at a 1.0 or higher, but had eight games rated at a -1.0 or lower.

In 2015, Robison will continue to be a veteran leader on the defensive line, but it could also be a possibility that his role could decrease some. He played a majority of the snaps throughout the course of the season, and as he continues to get older the Vikings coaching staff could limit his number of snaps to help keep him fresher.

Justin Trattou
Trattou finished his third season in the NFL, and his second with the Vikings. At the age of 26, he has already had to overcome multiple obstacles. He entered into the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants in 2011 and made his football debut in September of that season. He then spent the 2012 season on injured reserve and was later released in 2013. The Vikings then claimed him and put him on their practice squad – he was active for the final game of the 2013 season.

At the start of the 2014 season, Trattou once again found himself on the Vikings’ practice squad, but luckily for him he did not have to wait until the last game of the season to be moved to the active roster. Instead he was activated on Dec. 6 for the Vikings’ Week 14 matchup against the New York Jets. He was primarily a special teams contributor during that game, but he did see his role increase during the remaining weeks.

He finished the season with two tackles and two quarterback hits on defense, as well as a tackle and an 8-yard kickoff return on special teams.

It is hard to see what Trattou’s role will be moving forward. There are multiple factors that play into it – whether Wootton re-signs with the Vikings during the offseason, how much Crichton develops in the offseason and whether or not the Vikings draft a defensive end.

Corey Wootton
Wootton finished his fifth year in the NFL, and his first with the Vikings after signing as a free agent last offseason. Before he arrived in Minnesota, he played four year in Chicago after the Bears drafted him in the fourth round in 2010. Wootton is best known for sacking Brett Favre in 2010 and ending his career when Favre’s head hit the frozen surface of TCF Bank Stadium – it was Wootton’s first career sack.

This season, Wootton was used as the primary rotational player along the Vikings’ defensive line. He played in 271 snaps on defense, which equaled out to him being on the field a little over 25 percent of the time. During that time he recorded 27 tackles, one sack, and four quarterback hits.

PFF gave Wootton a -14.9 grade at the end of the season, which was the fifth-lowest among defensive ends. Wootton appeared in every game except one – he was inactive for Week 7 against the Buffalo Bills – during the 2014 season, but he was only given a positive rating in two of the games.

This offseason Wootton is once again a free agent, and the Vikings have to make a decision on whether they wish to resign him or not. He has expressed his desire to stay, but with younger talent on the team and an unimpressive 2014 season the Vikings may wish to part ways with him.

Defensive End Overview
The big bright spot at the defensive end position during the 2014 season was Griffen, and even his stats diminished some in the second half of the season. In fact, all the defensive ends struggled after the bye week, only accounting for six combined sacks – Griffen had nine sacks on his own before the bye week.

There are going to be multiple decisions made regarding the defensive end position, the first being whether the Vikings wish to keep Wootton or part ways with him. The second being whether they wish to bring in another defensive end to fill his role as the rotational defensive end, or whether they think a player such as Crichton or Trattou can fill that role.

Either way, improvements will need to happen across the board for the defensive ends. One of the primary jobs for the position is to pressure the quarterback, and that didn’t happen as often in the second half of the year. If the Vikings wish to be a playoff contender any time soon, they cannot allow quarterbacks to be able to sit in the pocket. They will need their linemen to be able to get after them and disrupt them.

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