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Minnesota Vikings defense: Locks and battles on the depth chart

The Minnesota Vikings have fewer starting battles on defense, but still plenty of decisions to make with the depth chart. Here is our assessment of those battles after viewing OTAs and minicamp.

The Minnesota Vikings have at least one starting decision to make at each level of the defense as Mike Zimmer’s baby continues to morph and change, whether through injury, retirements or free-agent defections.

After viewing the open practices during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp, here is how we seeing it shaping up.

STARTING LOCKS

Nose tackle

Linval Joseph is one of the best in the NFL and his strength continues to impress those who face him. He’s the key figure in the Vikings’ run defense and the clear starter. 

The depth: Shamar Stephen has provided depth behind Joseph for two years. This year, however, the Vikings added Will Sutton, who can play nose or the three-technique, in free agency, and Jaleel Johnson, who also has interior rotational capabilities, in the draft. 

Right end

Everson Griffen’s starting status isn’t being challenged any time soon. He’s still explosive off the snap and has plenty of intense fire burning inside. 

The depth: Behind Griffen, the Vikings are excited about the improvement and potential of Stephen Weatherly. He’ll make the team and be used more this year. Undrafted rookie Sam McCaskill and seventh-round pick Ifeadi Odenigbo will be looking for a spot on the practice squad if the top four ends remain healthy.

Middle linebacker

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Eric Kendricks has not only solidified his spot in the starting lineup, but he now might be the Vikings’ best linebacker. He easily led the team with 126 tackles last year and was tied for third with 10 tackles-for-loss and tied for fourth with 11 pass breakups. 

The depth: Behind Kendricks is undersized Kentrell Brothers, who could start making a case for spot duty on defense while continuing to be one of the top special-teams men on coverage. After that, fourth-round pick Ben Gedeon will try to challenge Brothers’ spot on the depth chart.

Strongside linebacker

Anthony Barr may have had a down year as far as consistency, but his 91 tackles were still fourth on the team. The issue with Barr has nothing to do with talent – he’s loaded with size and athleticism – but he didn’t seem to have as much success blitzing in 2016 as he did in the past. He will be looking for a rebound season as his rookie contract nears completion.

The depth: With a battle for a starting spot waging at weakside linebacker, Barr has the strong side tethered down, but young players like undrafted rookie Eric Wilson will try to earn a spot somewhere on the roster and learn in the shadows.

Left cornerback

Xavier Rhodes is starting to make a push for recognition as one of the best cornerbacks in the league. He has size and speed to keep up with nearly any receiver in the NFL, and he has become trusted enough by Zimmer to shadow a team’s top threat. The key for him will be finding a way to lock him into a long-term contract.

The depth: With three solid cornerbacks entrenched, depth from young prospects will create difficult roster decisions. Last year, Tre Roberson made an impression in preseason as an undrafted rookie. This year, Horace Richardson is that guy. They will likely be battling for a spot on the practice squad.

Safeties

Harrison Smith is a Pro Bowler who will be a staple of the defense for years to come, and there is no reason to think any of the other safeties will unseat Andrew Sendejo on the strong side. These two appear set to start together as long as they are healthy.

The depth: Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse earned the majority of the second-team reps while Antone Exum sat out OTAs and minicamp with a knee injury that looks like it will keep him out of training camp, too. His roster spot is precarious, opening the door for rookie Jack Tocho, who has the versatility to play safety and contribute as a nickel cornerback. If the Vikings keep four safeties again this year, Tocho is likely to give Harris and Kearse a run for their money for a roster spot.

STARTING BATTLES

Left end

Brian Robison recognizes the talent of Danielle Hunter, who could become the breakout defensive player the Vikings envision this year. If OTAs and minicamp were any indication, Hunter will overtake Robison as the starter while the veteran continues to contribute as a rotational player at end, inside on passing downs, and even dropping into coverage on occasion. His value to the defense isn’t lost, even if the starting job is no longer his.

The depth: While Griffen, Hunter, Robison and Weatherly are expected to get the majority of the time, undrafted rookie Tashawn Bower is an intriguing prospect who could find some sort of roster spot while developing his skills.

Under tackle

With Sharrif Floyd still sidelined (and there is no indication of real progress with his leg), the Vikings will turn to Tom Johnson as their first replacement, but that position is far from decided. Datone Jones is making a real push after the Vikings signed him in free agency and they believe he is a natural three-technique defender. 

The depth: Sutton also has a chance to compete for the starting spot as he becomes more familiar with the Vikings’ attacking style. Fourth-round pick Jaleel Johnson also has a chance to contribute there. Undrafted rookie Dylan Bradley will have to make up for lost time (injury) in OTAs to vie for a practice-squad spot.

Weakside linebacker

With Emmanuel Lamur dealing with an injury during OTAs, the starting spot in the base defense was given to Edmond Robinson, but those two will battle for the top line on the depth chart during training camp and the preseason. 

The depth: Rookie Elijah Lee will compete for a roster spot, along with Wilson. Another undrafted rookie, Shaan Washington, missed most of the offseason with a foot injury, meaning he will be running an uphill battle to find work on the practice squad.

Right corner

The Vikings seem intent on making this the year that Trae Waynes becomes a full-time starter and the former first-round pick lacks no confidence in his abilities and increasing comfort level with the techniques and schemes. There is certainly no shortage of athleticism from Waynes. Should there be any setback in his development, Terence Newman is still very capable of moving into a starting role. 

The depth: Jabari Price will have a stiff challenge to find a roster spot with established veterans in front of him and developing youngsters behind him. Terrell Sinkfield is trying to transition from receiver to cornerback, so his best chance is likely on the practice squad.

Nickel corner

Coaches would love to see 2016 second-round pick Mackensie Alexander blossom into the player he can be. He has the skills, but he lacks real game experience and it is not an easy position to step into. But giving him the majority of the first-team reps as the nickel corner during spring practices was part of the plan to accelerate his development.

The depth: Just like at right cornerback, Newman could fill the void if Alexander isn’t quite ready for the complexities of the duties required in the nickel role. If Marcus Sherels wins the job as the lead punt returner, he can offer depth at this position, too.


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