Keeping It Together: Defense

The Vikings may add a player or two during training camp, but a look at the length of player contracts on the current roster may give us a glimpse into the future of coordinator Willie Shaw's defense.

After finishing low in the 2001 NFL rankings on most defensive categories and revamping the coaching staff, it isn't surprising to see the defensive personnel overhauled as the team enters training camp on Friday. As many as nine or 10 starters on defense could be new to that role when the regular season opens.

So with all the changes on defense this year, is this a one-year makeover or could sweeping changes take place nearly every year for the next couple?

Head coach Mike Tice admitted during the offseason that he couldn't address every talent hole that was there to fill, so more changes can be expected in the coming years. However, there is little chance those additions will be as sweeping as they were in the past few months.

Here is a look at the commitment to the leading defensive personnel on the current roster:

Defensive Line: The Vikings brought in two new bookends, both from Miami. Kenny Mixon, whom Tice called the best defensive end on the free-agent market, signed a deal through 2006 and is expected to anchor the left end spot. Lorenzo Bromell, a teammate of Mixon's throughout their careers, is expected to take over the starting pass-rushing right end position and is signed through 2005. The 2001 starter on the left side, Lance Johnstone, signed a one-year deal in the offseason.

The tackle spots are a little more wide open in the future. Chris Hovan is still signed for three more years, so he holds down the under tackle spot. But nose tackle is much more wide open. Fred Robbins, whose contract expires after the 2004 season, is expected to be the opening-day starter. Giving him competition are Shawn Worthern, signed through 2004, Darius Holland, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason, and Willie Howard, signed through the 2005 season but attempting to come back from major knee and leg injuries.

Linebackers: Henri Crockett is expected to anchor this unit in the middle and is signed through 2004. On the strong side, Patrick Chukwurah, is under contract for two more years, and Lemanski Hall is the other veteran but only under contract this year. As of this writing, rookie Raonall Smith, who could become the weakside starter, hadn't signed a deal. He will likely sign a three- or four-year contract.

Defensive Backs: Many of the starting positions in this unit are up for grabs, but the expected starters at cornerback are veteran Corey Chavous and second-year player Eric Kelly. Chavous signed during the offseason through 2006, while Kelly is inked through the 2004 season. Rookie Brian Williams just signed a three-year deal, while Robert Tate is good through 2004 as well. Kenny Wright's contract expires after this season.

The safety position is wide open, with veteran Ronnie Bradford signed for only this season and rookie free-agent signee Kyries Hebert inked through 2004. Third-round pick Willie Offord hadn't signed as of this writing, but it looked like the two sides are close to agreeing on a three- or four-year deal.

That means the areas where there is the most uncertainty about the talent — safety and linebacker — there is also less commitment to those players. The Vikings are also expected to have well over $20 million in salary cap room after this season. So Tice's insistence that free agents take it or leave it when the sides were negotiating has left the defense in a desirable upward climb in potential — and in flexibility for the future.

In essence, the team can keep the defense together … or suffer very little if they decide they need to go in other directions next season.

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