End Game

Having been shut out in attempts to sign a veteran defensive end in the first week-plus of free agency, the Vikings may have to turn their attention to the draft to find relief. Fortunately, there is help available. The question now is which of these Fantastic Four can help the Vikings the most?

With the top guys (apparently) on the Vikings' wish list among free-agent defensive ends that were available on the market – namely Justin Smith, Antwan Odom and Jevon Kearse – the Vikings are likely going to be a giving a much longer and harder look at the rookie Class of 2008. So why don't we?

It's never too early to start breaking down the available defensive ends in the draft and you have to start with one piece of reality. Barring a trade, which Rick Spielman doesn't care to do when it involves giving up multiple picks to move up to grab one, the top two DE candidates – Chris Long of Virginia and Vernon Gholston of Ohio State – will be gone. Most view Long as a top two or three candidate going to the Dolphins or Rams, and Gholston likely won't make it past the sixth or seventh picks currently held by the Jets and Patriots. So who else is out there? Here's our short list of the guys the Vikings may be targeting with their first-round pick.

Phillip Merling, Clemson -- Merling has very good size and always plays at a high energy level. It's easy to see on film that he never gives up on plays and gets his share of tackles chasing plays to the opposite side. He projects to be a solid left defensive end in a 4-3 alignment that the Vikings run, but will need some solid coaching to become a top-end pass rusher. In 26 starts as a sophomore and junior, he had just 10 sacks.

Derrick Harvey, Florida -- Very good quickness off the snap and a strong finisher – in his last two seasons, he recorded 19.5 sacks. He's a more polished pass rusher than Merling and has multiple pass-rush moves – from an outside bull rush to inside dip-of-the-shoulder move that springs him clear. However, he was only a one-year full-time starter at college and tended to get neutralized by big left tackles that could get into his body. His position flexibility will allow him to be an edge rusher on the right side as well as the strength to be a run stopper on the left side.

Calais Campbell, Miami -- Extemely big at 6-7, 280 pounds, he has near-prototype size. He had good sack numbers as a sophomore (10.5), but took something of a step backward as a junior last year (6). Has a nice variety of pass-rush moves. For his great size, he doesn't have the bulk strength some coaches look for and can get neutralized by top offensive tackles. Has been branded as playing a bit lazy at times and takes some plays off.

Quentin Groves, Auburn -- Very quick off the snap and has explosive first-step speed. Can cover tight ends and backs extremely well when he drops out of pass-rush responsibilities. Viewed by some as too small at 6-3, 250. Only a full-time starter once during his career (and that was a junior in 2006).

The Vikings wanted to address this need in free agency because, as Vikings fans have learned over the years, a college pedigree doesn't always necessarily translate into success at the NFL level. But, with this group of four likely available at or near the time the Vikings pick, there will be a talent out there on draft weekend to help the team. The question now becomes which one will best fit in the Vikings' system and will that guy still be on the board at No. 17?

* Free agent DE Ellis Wyms arrived at Winter Park last night and was scheduled to tour the facility and meet with the coaching staff today.
* The Bears are still trying to make up for the losses of Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad. Earlier this week, the team signed former Bear and Dolphin Marty Booker. Friday they inked former Redskin and 49er Brandon Lloyd.
* Former Vikings offensive lineman Jason Whittle signed a one-year deal to remain with the Bills.

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