The Vikings are balancing a fine line these days when it comes to their issues at defensive end.
First and foremost, their support is going out to Kenechi Udeze, a 2004 first-round draft choice who was diagnosed with leukemia, a form of cancer, last month. Head coach Brad Childress said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last week that he has seen Udeze three times since that diagnosis and that he would probably be in the hospital for a couple of months while continuing to have chemotherapy administered.
Childress praised Udeze's courage and said he has the necessary attitude to try to beat the disease.
"If there is anybody that I know that would be able to beat that disease, it would be Kenechi Udeze. I'm amazed at the rounds of chemo that he's been through how positive he is and how he's hitting that every day," Childress said. "Again, he is positive and upbeat in a tough time. As he told me the other day, ‘Coach, this nothing more than a cold. I'm going to beat this.' That's his mentality."
While Udeze's immediate and potentially long-term football future have been halted while he fights a more important battle, the Vikings are also left to wonder about their other former first-round draft pick at defensive end, Erasmus James, the 18th overall selection in the 2005 NFL Draft. The most explosive end off the snap of the ball has also been the most fragile, suffering two season-ending knee injuries in consecutive years.
"Of course, it's been a bad turn after another for Erasmus. He really made a move last year during his first full camp," Childress said. "He was a holdout as a rookie and then got hurt immediately in the second game of the year and had a bad surgery. Came back and had to have a knee repaired again. So he's on track. This second surgery wasn't as tough. He's got a long row to hoe rehab-wise and getting back on the football field."
All of which leaves the Vikings with interest in Justin Smith, the top defensive end available in free agency, according to what a league source told Scout.com's Adam Caplan. But they won't be alone in their pursuit of the current Cincinnati Bengal.
Among the other teams that are expected to show early interest are believed to be the Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers. All of those teams will be looking for pass-rush help in free agency and during April's NFL draft. According to Bengals.com, an NFC source said the 49ers have already been talking to Smith to try to work out a deal, a premature strike into free agency which, if true, would constitute tampering.
According to a member of the Cincinnati media, Smith gives supreme effort on every play and has a lot of near sacks that pressure the quarterback but don't always result in him getting the sack. His strength is stopping the run, which would likely put him as a base (left) end in the Vikings' scheme, the spot where Udeze registered five sacks last year, which tied for the team lead.
Despite starting all 16 games last year, Smith only had two sacks, but in his previous six seasons with the Bengals he tallied between 5 and 8.5 sacks each season. In the last five seasons, he has never had fewer than 60 tackles in a season, and the last two seasons he has registered 78 and 81 tackles.
The Bengals were reportedly considering using the franchise tag on Smith, which likely would have ended other teams' pursuit of him, but Cincinnati elected to use that designation on offensive lineman Stacy Andrews.
Among Smith's greatest strengths are his non-stop motor and his durability. The only game the 6-foot-4, 275-pound end has missed in his seven-year career came as a rookie, and he has started every game in the last six years.
Smith was in his third and fourth years in the league when Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier held the same title with the Bengals in 2003 and 2004.
The Vikings continue to support Udeze during the fight of his life, and they also know they have to prepare for their business on the field.
"Without sounding callous, you still have to know what you're dealing with from the football end and understand what may become available in free agency and what could possibly be available in the draft and where the depth is in the draft and kind of projecting," said Rick Spielman, the team's vice president of player personnel. "Can you get a guy with the 17th pick (in the draft) or can you get a guy in the second or third round if the position is that deep?"
What they would get in Smith is a 28-year old whose effort and production is already well-established.
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