Vikings defense: Deep battles to watch

The Vikings will have a few starting spots up for grabs, but behind those are players simply fighting for the final roster spots.

Everyone knows about the starting position battles happening on the defensive side of the ball. Eric Kenricks and Audie Cole competing for middle linebacker. Robert Blanton, Andrew Sendejo and Antone Exum Jr. competing for the second safety position. And Terence Newman and Trae Waynes competing for the left cornerback spot. But there is more competition taking place than just these, and some could determine which players make the team and which get cut.

Reserve Safety
There is another competition taking place at the safety position other than what was previously listed. Anthony Harris and Shaun Prater will be competing to see who might be the team’s fifth and final safety to make the cut.

Harris joined the Vikings after going undrafted in May. The Vikings coaching staff and front office is high on Harris and likes what he brings to the team. He has the ability to drop back into coverage, can line up in man coverage and is able to step up into the box and provide run support. The biggest concern regarding Harris is his size. He will need to put on more weight if he is going to ever be a regular contributor at safety.

Prater is a more experienced player and will be entering his fourth season in the NFL. Even though Prater has more NFL experience than Harris does, he may not have as much experience playing safety. He began his career as a cornerback but was converted to safety a year ago.

It is not likely that either of these players will see the field as a safety during the 2015 season, so the winner of this position will likely come to the one who makes the biggest impact on special teams. The role of the fifth safety will likely be that of a special teams contributor and a player that the coaching staff can work with and groom during practices.

Reserve Middle Linebacker
Another battle to look at is who will earn the third middle linebacker position. This battle seems to be between Casey Matthews and Brian Peters – although Michael Mauti is also in play.

Matthews was a free-agent signing by the Vikings this offseason after he spent the first four years of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles. He has experience starting, but he was used more as a rotational player throughout his career as he has amassed 112 tackles, 2½ sacks, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. One thing that is hurting him is he has yet to make it to offseason workouts because of a mystery injury, so he has a lot to make up.

Peters has been there during all of the Vikings’ offseason workouts and has been impressing people while there. He went undrafted in 2012 and since then he has spent time in the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League. He is a converted safety, which makes him good in pass coverage, better than the average linebacker might be. The Vikings coaching staff have liked what they have seen in him so far so don’t be surprised if he is able to beat out Matthews.

Reserve Outside Linebacker
Along with the middle linebacker battles, there will also be competition for depth at the outside linebacker position. One of the key ones to keep an eye on is the battle between Brandon Watts and Edmond Robinson.

Watts was a seventh-round pick a year ago and the coaching staff had high hopes for him once he made the 53-man roster. Those hopes started to get lower and lower as the season progressed because he was not able to stay healthy. He had to miss multiple games with hamstring problems, and once he was finally healthy and was able to see the field because of injuries he hurt his hamstring again. Mike Zimmer was clearly unhappy with his inability to stay healthy so it will be interesting to see how the offseason goes for him.

Robinson is also a young player that the Vikings drafted in the seventh round this year. He is a high-risk, high-reward type of player because he is very athletic but also very raw. He attended Newberry College, which is a Division II school with an enrolment of 1,042. Because of this, it is unclear how his skills will translate to the NFL, but if things work out well for him he could end up being a great find for the Vikings organization.

Reserve Defensive End
The final defensive position battle to keep your eye on is the one for the fifth defensive end. This is going to be an important one because they could get ample playing time as a rotational player on defense, especially when Danielle Hunter is still developing and learning the defense. The players in contention for this position are Justin Trattou, Caesar Rayford and B.J. Dubose.

Trattou is entering into his fourth season in the NFL. He has spent time with both the New York Giants and the Vikings, but he has always seemed to take on the role of a rotational defensive end, never a starter. At 6-foot-4, 258 pounds he is a good size for the rush defensive end position, but if he wants to make the cut he will likely have to make most of his impact on special teams.

The Vikings signed Rayford after they saw him participating at the NFL Veteran Combine earlier this offseason. He has spent time in the Arena Football League, the Canadian Football League and then he cracked a couple NFL rosters, spending time with the Indianapolis Colts and the Dallas Cowboys. Rayford will be a long shot to make the Vikings roster, and at the age of 29 there are younger options available for them. He will need to really impress the coaching staff to earn a roster spot.

One of those younger options available to the Vikings is Dubose, who was a sixth-round selection out of Louisville. He has good strength in his lower body but is thought to lack the natural athleticism needed to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. If the Vikings ran a 3-4 scheme, it would be a different story because his attributes are better fit for a defensive end in that type of defense. Still, he could find a rotational role at both end and defensive tackle if he shows promise.

There are plenty of well-known players on defense fighting for playing time ahead off those mentioned above, but many of these deeper battles will be the ones coaches and scouts will debate as the roster-cut deadline approaches at the end of August.

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