Is Kearse The Answer?

The Vikings are expected to be heavily involved in the 2004 market for a defensive end and a cornerback — in free agency, the draft or both. There are a handful of solid defensive ends scheduled to be free agents at the beginning of March, but which one is right? A team source offers his insight on the situation.

Vikings director of pro scouting Paul Wiggin has been a football man his whole life. He had an 11-year career as a defensive end with the Cleveland Browns and was named to their all-time team by Football Digest in 2002, so he knows a thing or two about playing the position.

He also knows how to coach the position. He spent seven years as the defensive line coach for the Vikings at a time when they featured Chris Doleman, Keith Millard and Henry Thomas, and during the beginning stages of John Randle's career. Now, as the Vikings' director of pro scouting, there might not be a better authority on Minnesota's situation on the defensive line. With those credentials, VU spoke to Wiggin earlier this month about the pending free-agency period. We asked … and listened.

Some fans covet the acquisition of a big cornerback. Others want a defensive end. Still others want a defensive tackle. So do the Vikings still need a big run-stuffing defensive tackle to clog up the middle or can they be successful with Kevin Williams and Chris Hovan lining up beside each other in the interior?

"That guy has more to do with concept than a clear-cut need," Wiggin said. "You need that guy if your defensive concept demands that it'd be nice to have that kind of guy to rotate in there. (Fred) Robbins played that role. If we do lose Robbins (an unrestricted free agent), we're going to have to find a guy inside who could play both positions. I know if I were coaching I'd want (Hovan and Williams) next to each other because they bring out the best of each other."

New defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell has said he wants to keep Hovan and Williams next to each other, so the Vikings' concept under Cottrell would seem to turn the defensive line discussion to defensive end. The Vikings also believe they can win with Kenny Mixon as one defensive end, so that leaves right end — the primary pass-rushing position on the field.

Wiggin believes that is the Vikings' biggest need during the 2004 offseason. "I do, but that's me — I'm a former defensive line coach," he said. "You need to have that skill at that position at all times. I don't know if that's a priority, but we wouldn't turn it down if he fell into our lap."

Which brings us to the available players. Jevon Kearse is a name familiar to Vikings fans, many of whom would have preferred the Vikings selecting him in the 1999 draft instead of Daunte Culpepper because the team had solid veteran quarterbacks at the time and needed better defensive personnel more than offensive playmakers.

Kearse had an outstanding rookie season in 1999, but he hasn't played at that level since, partially due to injuries. He participated in all 16 games each of his first three years with the Tennessee Titans and registered double-digit sacks in 1999 (14.5), 2000 (11.5) and 2001 (10). But in 2002 Kearse played in only four games, and injuries kept him out of two games in 2003 and limited his effectiveness in other games.

He had two sacks in 2002 and 9.5 in 2003.

Now he enters the marketplace as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career and the Vikings have another shot at his services … if they want him and don't believe his injuries are becoming a trend.

"He had a decent year (in 2003), but I don't know if he had the year that he had when they named him "The Freak" in his rookie year," Wiggin said. "So you have to weigh those things. You look at their durability, their character and if they would fit with your team."

Kearse's durability may limit the high end of the financial offers he will receive this offseason if the Titans aren't able to re-sign him before free agency hits, but he still is expected to be considered the top free-agent defensive end available in 2004.

Others scheduled to hit the market aren't bad, either, but few bring the pass-rushing presence that a healthy Kearse does. Those considered top talent that are available as unrestricted free agents are Grant Wistrom of St. Louis, Bert Berry of Denver, Darren Howard of New Orleans and Eric Hicks of Kansas City. Top restricted free-agent defensive ends are Adewale Ogunleye of Miami and Reggie Hayward of Denver.

VU will compare and contrast those other available defensive ends in an article next week.

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