DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DLE Ray Edwards, DLT Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, DRE Jared Allen. Backups – DT Fred Evans, DT Letroy Guion, DT Jimmy Kennedy, DE Jayme Mitchell, DE Brian Robison.
The Vikings led the NFL in sacks with 48 and finished second in the league in run defense after being No. 1 in that category for the three previous seasons. Allen again led the team with 14.5 sacks, placing him second in the league. Edwards continued to emerge, getting 8.5 sacks, and three more in a divisional playoff victory over Dallas. The key for Edwards was that Allen and Kevin and Pat Williams all have the potential to draw double teams, so that opens up room for him to work. The Williams Wall, as they are known, continued to plug the middle. Kevin Williams also had six sacks, tying him for first among NFL defensive tackles. Pat Williams did not have a major impact at the start of the season but showed improvement in the second half. Kennedy, considered a first-round bust from 2003, made a significant contribution as a backup. He had three sacks, became a regular in the rotation of linemen and bypassed Evans as the first option off the bench at tackle. Robison continues to see playing time as a backup both at left end and inside in passing situations. He had 4.5 sacks and clearly would like to find a way to get more playing time. Part of the issue is that Robison is probably best suited to play right end, but Allen rarely is willing to come out of a game. Guion and Mitchell were both bit players.
LINEBACKERS: Starters – WLB Ben Leber, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups – WLB J Leman, WLB Erin Henderson, MLB Jasper Brinkley, SLB Heath Farwell, SLB Kenny Onatolu.
The Vikings suffered a significant blow in early December when E.J. Henderson suffered a broken leg against Arizona. That forced Brinkley to start in the middle. While the rookie is good against the run, he was far from Henderson's equal versus the pass. The Vikings also had to alter their nickel package, leaving Greenway and Leber on the field in passing situations instead of Henderson and Greenway. Leber moved into the middle in the nickel with Henderson out. It's unclear when Henderson will be able to return. That could mean Leber, Brinkley and Greenway will be the linebacker corps when training camp opens. Greenway and Leber have proven to be extremely reliable players. Greenway had a team-leading 127 tackles and Leber tied for the team lead with nine pass breakups. The Vikings' other linebackers are mainly special-teams players. Farwell was selected to the Pro Bowl for his performance on special teams and Onatolu proved to be a standout on that unit.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Cedric Griffin, SS Tyrell Johnson, FS Madieu Williams. Backups – LCB Karl Paymah, RCB Benny Sapp, RCB Asher Allen, SS Jamarca Sanford, SS Eric Frampton, FS Husain Abdullah.
Winfield missed six games this season because of a broken foot he suffered in October and was not the same after he returned. In fact, Winfield ended up playing primarily in the slot in the nickel after struggling in back-to-back games in December. Griffin, meanwhile, suffered a torn ACL covering a kickoff in the NFC title game at New Orleans and could be out for up to nine months. Griffin led the Vikings with four interceptions. Sapp played extensively in Winfield's absence and the Vikings could look to bring him back. He was playing this season on a one-year contract. Allen, a third-round pick last spring, also figures to get a chance to compete for more time in training camp. Johnson and Williams were the primary starters at safety this season but neither did much to impress and it's likely Sanford will challenge Johnson for the starting job at strong safety in training camp. Paymah was signed to play primarily on special teams but saw his role expanded when Winfield got hurt. Paymah, however, himself missed time because of an injury and was never able to get back on the field even after he was healthy. Frampton and Abdullah are on the roster because of their contributions on special teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, KOR Percy Harvin, PR Darius Reynaud, LS Cullen Loeffler.
Longwell continues to be extremely reliable, having made 26 of 28 field-goal attempts and 54 of 55 extra-point attempts. Longwell hit eight of nine field goals from 40 to 49 yards and two of two from 50-plus yards. The Vikings also expressed satisfaction with Longwell's kickoffs in part because he went to angling them toward the sideline under new special teams coordinator Brian Murphy. Kluwe averaged 43.9 yards gross and 37.8 net this season, but he did what he was asked to do and that was put hang time on the ball and hit the proper spots. Kluwe certainly has the leg to boom it but that wasn't Murphy's goal. The Vikings had not been able to find a kickoff return man in Childress' first three seasons, but that changed this season. Harvin did not return kickoffs at the University of Florida but he was so good at it that teams eventually started kicking short to avoid seeing him return the ball. The explosive rookie averaged 27.5 yards with two touchdowns on 42 returns. Reynaud averaged 10.3 yards on 30 punt returns and likely will have to battle Jaymar Johnson in training camp to keep that job.
Vikings roster outlook: defense
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