DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LDE Kenechi Udeze, RDE Erasmus James, NT Pat Williams, DT Kevin Williams. Backups - DT Conrad Bolston, DT Joe Bradley, DE Ray Edwards, DT Howard Green, DT Alex Guerrero, DT Spencer Johnson, DE Jayme Mitchell, DE Brian Robison, DE/DT Darrion Scott, DE Khreem Smith.
There needs to be an asterisk by the starting four for this unit. That's in large part because James is coming off a season-ending knee injury and will be brought along slowly. That could mean new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier starts the season with second-year player Edwards at right end. Scott also could end up figuring into the starting equation at left end if Udeze doesn't show improvement. Whether James returns quickly, the Vikings line can't afford a repeat of last season when it had only 17-½ sacks and the team's 29 total sacks were fewer than all but six teams. That was a large reason why the team's pass defense tied with Cincinnati for worst in the NFL. The athletic Robison, a fourth-round pick, also could factor into the pass-rushing mix. Udeze was moved from left to right end early last season to replace James but somehow ended up with no sacks. Frazier already has said that Udeze will play left end this season, even if James isn't ready by the opener. The Vikings interior line tandem of Pat and Kevin Williams is among the best in the NFL and both made the NFC Pro Bowl roster after the Vikings' rushing defense finished No. 1 in the NFL in 2006. Green and Johnson likely will be the primary backups for those two.
LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Chad Greenway, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Ben Leber. Backups - OLB Rufus Alexander, MLB Vinny Ciurciu, OLB Heath Farwell, OLB Jason Glenn, OLB David Herron, OLB John Kerr, MLB Dontarrious Thomas.
The free-agent departure of middle linebacker Napoleon Harris to Kansas City has caused some juggling with this unit. Henderson, who has played the middle for most of his career, returns to the spot after two seasons on the weak side. That opens the door for Greenway to win a starting job after the Vikings' 2006 first-round pick missed all of his rookie season because of a torn ACL. Leber, who left San Diego to sign with the Vikings as a free agent in March 2006, will be back on the strong side after putting together a solid first season in Minnesota. Henderson's adjustment will be among the most interesting to watch given the duties of the middle linebacker in the Tampa-2 scheme the Vikings use. Henderson will be counted on to frequently drop into coverage and play a role that will present some challenges with which he will be unfamiliar early on. He also will need to make the calls and provide the necessary leadership from his spot. Thomas is the primary backup at all three linebacker positions. Ciurciu was signed as a free agent from Carolina but primarily will be used as a special-teams ace; Farwell has the same role. Alexander, a sixth-round pick from Oklahoma, will start out playing special teams but should eventually (not this year) make a push for a starting spot on the outside.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Cedric Griffin, FS Darren Sharper, SS Dwight Smith. Backups - S Greg Blue, CB Patrick Body, S Mike Doss, CB Dovonte Edwards, CB Charles Gordon, CB Mike Hawkins, CB Marcus McCauley, CB Ronyell Whitaker, S Tank Williams, CB Jerron Wishom.
Assuming the Vikings' front four does a better job of getting a pass rush, this unit should prove to be a strength. Winfield had some issues with Childress during the offseason and stayed away from many of the optional activities, but that has been resolved and reportedly all is well. Griffin, entering his second season, replaced Fred Smoot as a starter last season and will remain in that role for the foreseeable future. Sharper and Smith return as the safeties, although veterans Williams and Doss could compete for jobs. The latter two are coming off season-ending knee injuries. Blue is a heavy hitter at safety and should eventually work his way into this mix. It appears the front-runner for the nickel job might be McCauley, a third-round pick in April out of Fresno State. Edwards, who missed last year because of a broken arm, will serve as McCauley's primary competition.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Ryan Longwell, Ps Chris Kluwe and Alex Reyes, LS Cullen Loeffler, KR Bobby Wade, PR Mewelde Moore.
Longwell made 21 of 25 field-goal attempts last season - all of his misses came from beyond 40 yards - but the Vikings weren't overly pleased with his distance on kickoffs. Longwell is confident that has been corrected by work he has done this offseason. Kluwe finished 25th in the NFL with a 42.3-yard average and appeared to struggle with the Vikings' desire to have him punt directionally. Reyes, a top college free agent out of Texas Tech, will provide plenty of competition and could win the job. The kick and punt return duties are wide open, especially if Moore doesn't stick. A handful of players were tried at both spots during organized team activities and the minicamp.
Vikings Defensive, Special Teams Analysis
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