Jon Dahlin/Viking Update

Sunday slant: Breakout players for Minnesota Vikings defense

This week’s draft will help shape the roster, but no matter who is added to the mix, some veteran players on the roster right now have every chance to earn a significant (maybe starting) role in the defense.

The fans’ view is not always from the same perspective of the coach’s view.

That might be the case to some degree this year, as the Minnesota Vikings’ biggest needs for offseason help clearly were on offense. However, many of those needs were addressed, or at least the brass of the Vikings hope so, with free-agent signings in tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers and running back Latavius Murray.

Still, heading in free agency head coach Mike Zimmer said he didn’t want to ignore upgrades that presented themselves on defense, especially in the draft. At the time, we didn’t know that Sharrif Floyd’s progress from knee surgery had been stalled and he may not be available – at least anywhere near full strength – in 2017, which is the fifth-year portion of his rookie contract that the decision-makers picked up before his injury and were forced to honor because of his injury.

That has created a need, along with the retirement of Chad Greenway and one aging starter in the secondary. After looking at the players last week that could be in position for a breakout season and might be needed on offense, this Sunday we focus that same sentiment on defense. 

My position-by-position look at which defensive player is in the catbird seat to show off his worth this year and ascend from the shadows of the bench or a part-time role and fight for a starting spot:

Defensive end – Danielle Hunter. You might argue he already emerged, but he wasn’t a starter last year and even Brian Robison, the savvy, talented and veteran defensive end admitted that Hunter deserves a shot to compete for the starting role. Hunter started to put things together midway through his rookie season when the coaches realized how much more effective he was standing up. Last year, he displayed a more well-rounded game, too, and now it’s time for him to put it all together and showcase his skills even further with more playing time.

That doesn’t have to mean Robison is benched, and he won’t be. In fact, a case could be made that Floyd’s injury will open up more pass-rushing time for Robison inside on third downs and splitting reps on the outside with Hunter and Everson Griffen. Last year, Hunter played in 57 percent of the defensive snaps, with Griffen and Robison both between 80 and 87 percent. Expect Hunter’s playing time and pass-rush production to increase. Without starting any games in 2016, Hunter registered 12½ sacks. How many more could he have by increasing his time?

Defensive tackle – Datone Jones … or a draft pick. Jones has had a shot at several different positions on the Green Bay Packers defensive line and linebacker rotation, but he never settled into a home. With the Vikings knowing Floyd’s precarious situation at the start of free agency and Minnesota believing Jones could contribute at end or tackle, the signing makes much more sense. A former first-round pick, Jones has started only seven games in four years. And at 26 years old, it’s getting to be prove-it time if he’s seeking career longevity. The opportunity is there for him to at the very least earn a rotational role. With Floyd out last year, Shamar Stephen was the replacement starter, but the Vikings could use more of a pass-rush presence next to Linval Joseph. Robison probably will get increased time inside and Tom Johnson should battle for that, too, but Jones is the only one of those three still in his 20s and could carve out a future if he ever lives up to first-round billing.

Linebacker – Edmond Robinson. With Greenway out, the expectation is that Emmanuel Lamur will be the successor, but Robinson might have more untapped talent – or at least talent that hasn’t been fully exploited. If he can earn the trust of coaches, he could start to shed the “special teamer” label and become the first- and second-down linebacker that Greenway turned into late in his career. Robinson didn’t play a down on defense last year, so he might be a longshot, but this is his best shot to make the big leap forward from small-college (Newberry) star to NFL mainstay. Most likely, competition is coming in the form of a draft pick, and Lamur will probably get the first shot to earn it, but Robinson has to take advantage of whatever offseason, training camp and preseason reps he can get with the first-team defense in an attempt to prove his athleticism can be funneled into reliability.

Secondary – Trae Waynes. Zimmer said a few times this offseason that, besides the quarterback position, offensive line and cornerback are probably the toughest positions to transition from college to the NFL. Waynes’ rookie preseason proved that. He clutched and grabbed too much and flags were flying too often. Last year, he improved with more time in game situations as Zimmer looked for opportunities to expose him and rest Terence Newman. Eventually, Newman, the ageless wonder, will wear down. The opening is there for Waynes to put his speed on display and prove his mental game is now in sync with his athleticism. He has every chance to be a long-term, very effective starter. Nothing athletically is holding him back. Like Hunter, it appears just a matter of time before he is a quality, full-time starter. No better time than now.

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