The Vikings need help on the defensive line and they know it. They also know that a right defensive end is one of their top two priorities, and there are a number of solid free agents available.
In his five years in the league, Jevon Kearse has earned a reputation as one of the best pass rushers in the game. However, his reputation may be built more on his first two or three years in the league than his recent production.
To wit: As a rookie coveted by Vikings fans in the 1999 draft, Tennessee selected "The Freak" and he immediately produced. He played every game in his first three seasons, and produced sack totals of 14.5, 11.5 and 10, but, like the slight decline in his sacks, his other statistics also started dipping from his rookie season to 2001. His total tackles went from 57 in 1999 to 52 in 2000 to 25 in 2001. Likewise, his passes defensed — an indicator of getting close enough to the quarterback to swat a pass out of the air — went from 9 to 6 to 1 in his first three seasons. So did his forced fumbles (6 to 4 to 3).
But that might not be the biggest concern when considering Kearse in the free-agent market. In the past two seasons, he has been limited because of injuries. In 2002, he missed all but four games, and in 2003 he missed two games but was limited in others. He statistics rebounded with the increased field time in 2003 (with 9.5 sacks, 28 tackles and 4 forced fumbles), but the questions of durability will follow him as he makes the rounds to interested teams in the coming month — if the Titans even allow him to get to that point before re-signing him.
Kearse may be the biggest name among the 2004 free-agent defensive ends, but his 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame is giving teams — including the Vikings — cause for pause before rolling out the dough.
Second among unrestricted defensive ends in 2004 is Grant Wistrom of St. Louis. He has been a durable, big-effort end for his six NFL seasons, all with the Rams. At 6-4, 267 pounds, he has an additional 20 pounds on Kearse. While unspectacular in any one area, Wistrom appears to be good at all facets of the game. Since 1998, he put up tackle numbers of 18, 32, 50, 44, 44 and 49, while his sack numbers are 3, 6.5, 11, 9, 4.5 and 7.5.
The Saints' Darren Howard is a similar player to Wistrom, but Howard might have more pass-rush potential and is even bigger (6-3, 281). He proved durable for each of his first three seasons in the league, but he missed eight games last year. He has been a consistent tackler (36, 35, 34, 27), but his sack production has dropped since a career-high 11 in his rookie year of 2000. Since then he compiled 6, 8 and 5 sacks each of the last three years.
The Chiefs' Eric Hicks has a couple of positive things going for him. First, he is a big, every-down player at 6-6, 280. Secondly, his alma mater, Maryland, is the same as Vikings head coach Mike Tice. But on-field production is what counts in free agency, and Hicks' sack numbers have been erratic during his six years in the league. While he missed three games in 2000, that was by far his top year for sacks with 14. He had nine sacks in 2002, but the rest of his four seasons in the league Hicks didn't produce more than 5 sacks a season. His tackles read 2, 27, 36, 42, 40 and 37 since entering the NFL in 1998.
A final unrestricted free agent who is an intriguing prospect is Bert Berry of the Broncos. Berry has the most tenure of the top free-agent defensive ends this year, spending three years with Indianapolis and the last three with the Broncos. He appears to be one of Tice's "players on the rise," a guy who registered seven sacks in his first four years combined but has since turned into a productive pass rusher. In 2002, Berry had a career-high 6.5 sacks, then improved on that last season with 11.5 as a 16-game starter for the first time in his career. He is one of the smaller defensive ends available at 6-3, 250.
Two restricted free agents also make the most wanted list.
First is Adewale Ogunleye of the Dolphins. Ogunleye appears to be on the rise, with 9.5 sacks in 2002 and 15 in 2003 after a limited rookie season. He also is a bit more slender at 6-4, 250, but he proved he can play the run as well as the pass, with 44 tackles in 2002 and 62 last season. He is not a big name on the market yet, but if he could be obtained without giving up too much in compensation, he is definitely worth the look.
At 6-5, 270, the Broncos' Reggie Hayward has only started four games in his three-year career, but Denver may have to make a decision between Berry and Hayward, and the latter showed upward potential in 2003 as well, with 8.5 sacks and 23 tackles. It was only one year of solid production in mostly a backup role, but Hayward would be an intriguing prospect.
None of the available free-agent defensive ends — restricted or unrestricted — come without questions, which is why the Vikings appear to be putting cornerback ahead of defensive end in their quest of free agents. However, they realize the need for a proven right end and will likely make a play for one or more of these when the market starts moving in earnest in one month.
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