Defensive Unit-By-Unit Analysis

It seems like an annual tradition lately to rework the Vikings defense. This year, they do it with a new coordinator, a new scheme and a few new faces. So who does that leave in starting roles and where are the backup battles heading into training camp?

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LDE Kenechi Udeze, UT Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, RDE Erasmus James. Backups - LDE Darrion Scott, Ray Edwards, Khreem Smith, UT Spencer Johnson, Ross Kolodziej, Manase Hopoi, NT C.J. Mosley, Eric Taylor, RDE DeQuincy Scott, Jayme Mitchell.

Pressure, pressure, pressure will be the key for this group. The Vikings will need the line to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks and that likely will have to happen without a lot of blitzing. James tied for second on the team last season as a rookie with four sacks and figures to be that much better this time around. The first-round pick's progress was slowed by a holdout early in training camp and he seemed to show greater maturity as the season progressed. Udeze is coming off microfracture knee surgery that many thought would slow him at least until training camp and might be career threatening. However, he took part in all the minicamps and Organized Team Activities and appears to be at full strength. A first-round pick in 2004, the Vikings will be looking for Udeze to prove he deserved such a lofty draft status. The team also is hoping Kevin Williams can rebound after his sack total decreased to four in 2005. He had recorded 22 sacks combined in 2003 and 2004, the most by an NFL defensive tackle in that time. Williams entered last season out of shape after being unable to do much conditioning because of knee surgery following 2004. Pat Williams, meanwhile, is coming off a standout campaign in which he led Vikings linemen with 88 tackles and led the team with nine tackles for loss. But it remains to be seen how the 6-3, 317-pound Williams fits into the Tampa-2 system. Darrion Scott, who saw extensive playing time a year ago, and free-agent DeQuincy Scott figure to get on the field in various packages. C.J. Mosley, who showed flashes while subbing for the injured Kevin Williams in two games in 2005, could find himself playing a role in the middle.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB E.J. Henderson, MLB Napoleon Harris, SLB Ben Leber. Backups - WLB Chad Greenway, Marcus Lawrence, MLB Dontarrious Thomas, Rod Davis, SLB Heath Farwell, Kyle McKenzie.

No roster group on this team has as much uncertainty as this one. About the only sure thing is Leber — and that's assuming the free agent from San Diego can stay healthy after being bothered by a foot injury last season. Henderson assumed the starting weak-side role in 2005, but could shift back to the middle if Harris or Thomas struggle to win the job. Henderson played in the middle two seasons ago but struggled with some of the responsibilities. If Henderson does have to move, the Vikings will look for Greenway to assume the starting weak-side spot in his rookie campaign. That might be a lot to ask, at least in the early going, for the 17th overall pick in the draft.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, SS Tank Williams, FS Darren Sharper, RCB Fred Smoot. Backups — LCB Dovonte Edwards, Cedric Griffin, Ronyell Whitaker, Charles Gordon, SS Willie Offord, Greg Blue, FS Will Hunter, RCB Dustin Fox, Ukee Dozier, R.J. Cobbs.

The Tampa-2 not only will insist that members of the secondary play an aggressive, physical style, it also will call for some of them to alter their traditional coverage techniques by constantly looking to read the quarterback as they cover receivers. Williams was signed as a free agent from Tennessee largely because of his ability to lay big hits on opponents. Sharper had nine interceptions last season after leaving Green Bay to sign with the Vikings and earned a starting spot in the Pro Bowl. He could have another big season in interceptions. Smoot, unlike Sharper, struggled after signing as a free agent from Washington. His season took a turn for the worse when he was named as one of the players on the Vikings' infamous Love Boat cruise. He then missed five games because of a broken collarbone and was unable to reclaim his starting position when he returned. Smoot has gained about 15 pounds this offseason in an effort to stay healthy and become more physical. Winfield has no problems with physical play, despite being only 5-9, 180 pounds. He finished third on the team with 100 tackles in 2005 and is one of the top-hitting cornerbacks in the NFL. Edwards and Griffin, a second-round choice this past April, figure to battle for the job at nickel back. Whitaker, coming off an outstanding NFL Europe performance, also could work his way into the mix. Offord, who missed much of last season because of a knee injury, should be the top backup at both safety spots.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, John Torp, LS Cullen Loeffler, KR Koren Robinson, Mewelde Moore, Kevin Kasper, PR Moore.

Longwell joins the Vikings after spending his previous nine seasons as a member of the archrival Green Bay Packers. No question, he should benefit from kicking in a dome instead of the cold and blustery conditions of Lambeau Field. The Vikings will be looking for plenty of consistency from the relocated kicker after giving him a five-year, $10 million contract that reportedly included a $3 million signing bonus. Kluwe did not punt this offseason because of surgery he underwent on his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee after last season. That enabled Torp, a rookie free agent out of Colorado, to get all the work. Torp appeared as if he was working on his directional punting during the last minicamp. If the Vikings want a directional punter that might be bad news for Kluwe, who had a 44.1-yard gross average and 35.8-yard net average last season by simply booming the ball away. Who returns kicks for the Vikings remains a question mark. Robinson made the NFC Pro Bowl roster by averaging 26 yards and scoring a touchdown on 47 returns last season. He would like to continue in that role but that's unlikely since he will be the No. 1 receiver. That could mean Moore will return kicks and punts. Moore averaged 11.7 yards with a touchdown on 21 returns in 2005. Kasper, signed as a free agent, also could get a look on kick returns.


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