Vikings defense: 5 curiosities for OTAs

Most of the starting lineup on defense is set, but situational roles and playing time are far from being determined. Those battles begin to take shape this week with the start of organized team activities.

With organized team activities underway for the Minnesota Vikings, the roster battles begin.

Ten of the 11 defensive starters appear set if two rookies drafted in the first two rounds – cornerback Trae Waynes and linebacker Eric Kendricks – take the top spot at their position on the depth chart, as is expected. But while strong safety is still up for grabs, there is plenty of competition to watch, not just in who is holding down the top spots but how they are used.

Here are five situations we’ll be watching:

1. Who’s the early favorite at safety? Last year’s secondary never seemed settled, from the time that cornerbacks and safeties started experiencing pulled hamstrings and groin muscles in training camp all the way through the end of the season. The cornerback battle between Josh Robinson and Captain Munnerlyn was well-chronicled, but that quickly became Munnerlyn’s starting job. The safety position, however, was changing as late as the final month of the season.

Robert Blanton won the starting job at the start of the regular season, but lost the job to Andrew Sendejo when injury hit Blanton in December, but after he recovered it was still Sendejo in the starting lineup. Last month, the Vikings extolled the virtues of 2014 rookie Antone Exum, then added undrafted free agent Anthony Harris. Before that, it was veteran Taylor Mays being added to the roster. In other words, this should be a completely open competition that starts this week with the advent of OTAs.

2. What’s the real story at linebacker? Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway have their spots secured on the outside, and Kendricks is expected to win the starting job in the middle. So what’s the intrigue left? Not every starting linebacker plays the majority of snaps.

With teams in nickel defense more than 50 percent of the time, there is a distinct difference in playing for the linebacker taken off the field in those situations. Will it be Kendricks, as middle linebackers are usually considered the worst of the starting three in coverage, or will it be 10-year veteran Greenway to save his legs a bit in his 10th NFL season? Head coach Mike Zimmer has already thrown it out for public consumption that Kendricks could be moved to weakside linebacker when Greenway’s days are done, so will Kendricks be used more than Greenway in 2015 and supplant him already as the third-down “middle” linebacker?

3. How is Newman used? When the Vikings signed 36-year-old Terence Newman, the first thought here reflected back to their signing of safety Chris Crocker last year. Crocker was signed during training camp as a veteran on-field voice for Zimmer’s new defense, but Crocker was cut before the regular season began. Like Crocker, Newman has more experience playing in Zimmer’s defense than any other current Viking. Unlike Crocker, Newman ensured $750,000 in guaranteed money in his contract.

That makes it a strong possibility Newman will be part of the regular-season roster (or else a huge offseason investment/mistake). So if he’s on the roster, what’s his role? He might just be depth-chart insurance in case Xavier Rhodes or Trae Waynes goes down, but would the Vikings consider using him in some sort of package in a nickel or dime defense?

4. Where do the pass-rush specialists fit? The entire starting defensive line should be set, barring injury. But for years the Vikings have been advancing the idea of more rotation. That happened a bit more last year with Zimmer at the helm, but will the addition of Danielle Hunter mean greater advances in shifting players for ideal third-down rushing lanes? Brian Robison started his career in that role, so maybe a lineup of Hunter, Sharrif Floyd, Tom Johnson and Everson Griffen is a regular sight on third downs in the regular season.

5. Is Waynes all that? Because of his well-rounded résumé on the field and no red flags off the field, Waynes was considered the consensus top pick among cornerbacks. He fits well with how Zimmer likes his cornerbacks to press often at the line of scrimmage before covering. All of that made Waynes a natural selection in the first round for the Vikings.

However, Waynes was a frequent visitor with Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray after many of the reps he took in his first practices at rookie minicamp. They had him playing off the ball more, perhaps to see how he reacted in those situations, and Waynes struggled at times, appearing to give too much cushion to the receivers. Was that by design or just the coaching staff testing him with techniques he didn’t play often in college? More than likely, Waynes is the starter opposite Rhodes at the beginning of the season and we see him trying to get physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage and working toward his strengths.

OTAs are just the start of the full-team offseason practices, with nine more to go, followed by the three-day minicamp in mid-June, but this is the start of players vying for playing time before the game-planning begins.

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