Free Agency: Phase Two – Vikings Defense

The Vikings have added linebacker Ben Leber to the defensive side of the ball, but there are still areas to address. We break down the team needs on defense as they are being indicated and examine where there is still value in the free agent market.

The Vikings have made four moves that should provide new starters in signing running back Chester Taylor, linebacker Ben Leber and kicker Ryan Longwell, as well as inking Seattle guard Steve Hutchinson to a monster offer sheet that the Seahawks will have a difficult time matching.

Now comes "Free Agency: Phase Two," and indications are pointing us to where the team feels it needs to go from here.

Today, we examine the defense.

The Vikings are still in search of potential starters in the free agent market.

Up front, where head coach Brad Childress is committed to building his team on both sides of the ball, the Vikings may still be searching for another starter. With Kevin Williams and Pat Williams entrenched as the starting tackles and solid depth provided by C.J. Mosley and Spencer Johnson, the interior of the line is set. However, the uncertain nature of Kenechi Udeze's comeback from microfracture surgery and Erasmus James' relative inexperience makes defensive end a questionable position when it comes to the remainder of free agency.

The Vikings' best option at the position might be a player that was on their roster last year—pass-rushing specialist Lance Johnstone. In the Vikings' new Tampa 2 scheme, finding a defensive end to pressure the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly is a key component. Johnstone might be the best option left on the free agent market for that role.

Atlanta Falcons free agent Brady Smith might be the only other player on the market worth a look at defensive end.

While there was significant chatter about Carolina linebacker Will Witherspoon being a good fit for the Vikings, indications are that the team might follow Philadelphia's philosophy of not paying huge salaries to linebackers and safeties. Childress' commitment is to building in the trenches, which might be why the Vikings were looking for value in signing a linebacker of Ben Leber's quality. He is a good cover linebacker, and that is important in the team's new defensive philosophy.

What's left on the market is a trio of what is probably going to be high-priced linebackers—Julian Peterson, LaVar Arrington and Willie McGinest—that either have injury issues or don't seem like a great fit for Minnesota's philosophy. After that, the quality left on the free agent market might be equaled by what is already on the Vikings roster.

As it stands now, Leber will play on the strong side, E.J. Henderson will remain on the weak side and the competition at middle linebacker will be between Napoleon Harris (who gets new life with a new coaching staff), Dontarrious Thomas and Rod Davis. Harris brings the most experience to the equation and would likely be the favorite heading into minicamps.

While the Vikings are set for their starting cornerbacks with Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot, they probably will be in search of a nickel back. Dovonte Edwards did a solid job in limited action as a nickel and dime back last year, but a veteran presence might be helpful. There are a number of options available in free agency and the draft that would help bolster depth at the position. Another possibility is looking at 2005 third-round draft choice Dustin Fox in that role. Fox, who spent the entire season on injured reserve, played a combination of safety and cornerback at Ohio State and might be suited for a role in the team's nickel or dime defense, but a more proven asset might be needed there.

The biggest need on defense at this point is probably safety, and the Vikings might be ready to address that Tuesday. They are meeting with Baltimore free agent strong safety Will Demps, who might be the best value pick after higher priced options like Marlon McCree, Adam Archuleta and even Corey Chavous were allowed to visit and sign elsewhere without strong interest from the Vikings.

While Pro Bowler Darren Sharper is the obvious starter at free safety, another option at strong safety will be Willie Offord. Offord is coming off of a torn ACL, but he recently signed a two-year deal with the Vikings and could compete for the starting role there.

The change in defensive philosophy has brought a change in how the Vikings approached free agency, or at least which positions are valued highest. Under Childress, the value is with the linemen.

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