Tough Decisions on Defense

The Vikings enter the 2006 offseason with a coaching vacancy and 16 unrestricted free agents. Eight of those come on the defensive side of the ball, where some of the hardest decisions will have to be made. We analyze the possibilities and get reaction from the players.

The talent base on the Vikings over the last two years has moved from the offensive side of the ball to the defensive side, where they have become far more talented and more veteran than at any point in the Mike Tice era.

But with more experience comes more unrestricted free agents, and the defensive side of the ball is where most of the tough decisions will have to be made.

While the offense could lose a potential starter or two – like running back Michael Bennett or wide receiver Koren Robinson (if the Vikings decline to match an offer he might get) – the defense has important unrestricted free agents at every level.

On the defensive line, end Lance Johnstone has finished as the Vikings' top sackmaster each of the last three seasons. He has become more effective since the team committed to limiting his role from a full-time end to a pass-rush specialist, taking away as many as 20 snaps a game to keep him fresh when they need him most.

"You've got to look around (in free agency), but I have no problems with coming back here," Johnstone said. "It's not like I'm one of those people that can't wait to get out of here."

Sans Johnstone, the rest of the defensive line is sewn up contractually and looks to be an emerging force in the Vikings' future, with tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams and ends Kenechi Udeze and Erasmus James all contractually bound to the Vikings for at least the next two season. Only swingman Darrion Scott will be a free agent after the 2006 season.

The picture is far more uncertain at linebacker, where starters Keith Newman and Sam Cowart are both scheduled to be free agents come March, as well as part-time starter Raonall Smith. The only full-time starter returning for sure is E.J. Henderson, who would welcome a return to the middle linebacker spot if the Vikings are unable to re-sign Cowart or another starting free agent.

Newman has proved to be an effective starter in the last two seasons, but he might need some assurances of being able to hold that starting spot from a new coaching staff. He felt slighted last offseason with the acquisition of Napoleon Harris in the Randy Moss trade and didn't feel he was given a fair chance to earn the starting spot in training camp.

"I don't have any hard feelings. I understand it's a business, but it's kind of tough to say you're going to put your best players on the field and you can't give a guy a reason he's not on the field and you know somebody else is part of a trade," said Newman, who didn't replace an ineffective Harris in the starting lineup until the fifth game, when the Vikings were 1-4.

While the secondary has improved quite a bit over the last two years with the additions of cornerback Antoine Winfield in 2004 and safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Fred Smoot in 2005, the Vikings will be forced to make some important decisions at the third level of the defense.

CB Brian Williams, who became a starter for the Vikings in the second half of the season when Fred Smoot was injured, was a restricted free agent in 2005. The Vikings slapped a first-round tender on him and then signed Smoot. The combination of those moves irritated Williams, who elected to skip the team's voluntary developmental camps, which in turn irritated the Vikings.

Despite all the acrimony, Williams proved he is an effective starting cornerback and is also on the rise as a sure tackler, apparently honing that craft from one of the best in the game – Winfield. While Smoot vowed to return in 2006 in better shape and have the best season of his career, the prospect of losing Williams and fellow unrestricted free agent-to-be Ralph Brown could place a youth movement in the team's nickel and dime defenses. It's a risk the Vikings might be willing to take with Dovonte Edwards, but a new coaching staff and talent evaluator would likely have a lot to say about that.

More than likely, the Vikings would either sign Williams, Brown or another veteran nickel back.

At the safety position, the Vikings might have to choose between re-signing Corey Chavous or Willie Offord. Chavous hasn't missed a regular-season start since joining the Vikings in 2002, but he also hasn't appeared to be happy in Minnesota since the Vikings considered signing Donovin Darrius in March 2005. Chavous joined Williams in skipping the Vikings' voluntary offseason workouts last year, but Newman defended their right to do that.

"This is the key thing: In this league, you have voluntary workouts and you have mandatory workouts. Corey Chavous and Brian Williams were here for the mandatory workouts, which means those are the ones you have to be here for when you're under contract," Newman said. "Now, when you make a personal decision not to be here for the voluntary stuff, that's your own decision."

Interestingly, Chavous, Williams and Bennett all had their nameplates removed above their lockers on Monday, and some have interpreted that to mean they don't plan on coming back to the Vikings.

If the Vikings and Chavous part ways, it could open the door for Offord, a strong safety who has improved every year since being drafted in 2002. However, Offord tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in September and his best chance of winning a starting job might be in Minnesota if Chavous isn't retained. Offord was also the special teams captain entering the season.

Another possibility at safety is 2005 third-round draft pick Dustin Fox, who hasn't gotten much practice time with the team after breaking his arm in training camp and being placed on injured reserve.

As usual, most of the free-agent decisions on defense will be tied to each other, but with the Vikings expected to have approximately $25 million under the salary cap, the opportunity is available to do more addition than subtraction.

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