Sunday slant: Versatility could pay off

The Vikings could be losing their starting two defensive tackles for four games, but the versatility and growing experience of their linemen could help ease the pain. We look at the efficiency numbers for tackles and sacks, which could make a case for situational football if the Williams Walls is deconstructed for four games.

Brad Childress has preached position flexibility for years. It made Artis Hicks a valuable free agent this offseason, leaving the Vikings with a question on the offensive line that might not yet have an answer.

Normally when you hear all the talk about position flexibility, think of the phrase "jack of many trades, master of none." Still, with a limited number of active game-day spots available for NFL teams, there is value in having some players that can fill in at multiple positions.

The Vikings may need to rely on those player at the outset of the 2010 season.

When Hennepin County Judge Gary Larson upheld the four-game suspensions to Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, both Pro Bowl defensive tackles for the Vikings, it sent a bit of purple panic through Vikings fans. How are they possibly going to get through this now?

While the ruling has to be concerning at the front-office level for the execs at Winter Park, there are a few words of caution.

First, the appeals process isn't done yet. In his ruling, Larson said the NFL did violate Minnesota workplace laws in the way it handled issuing the suspensions, but ruled that the suspension should still be enforced. The NFL and the Williamses will have one week to issue their arguments in a follow-up request by the Williamses to have the restraining order issued against serving the suspensions until their appeal can be heard. What that means is likely more delays before the Vikings know for sure.

A second reason to avoid panic is the Vikings' depth at the position. If the Williams Wall ends up serving suspensions, the team did a decent job at covering for that possibility, even if they didn't select a defensive tackle in this year's draft.

Prior to free agency, the Vikings issued a second-round tender to Fred Evans. At the time, that seemed like a high tender, but their only other option lower than that was an original-round tender, which could have incited another team to offer him a multi-year deal and only have to surrender a seventh-round pick. That relatively high tag means the Vikings will be paying Evans $1.759 million for his one-year tender, which seemed like a lot for a guy who played on only 17 percent of the defensive snaps. By contrast, Jimmy Kennedy, another backup at defensive tackle, played about 28 percent of the defensive snaps, according to a league source.

So how did Pat and Kevin Williams figure into the playing time? Not surprisingly, the younger Kevin played far more than Pat.

Pat missed one game to injury, but he still only played on 49 percent of the defensive downs while Kevin played on 86 percent of them, so the Vikings had to start thinking about replacing Pat for the long-term anyways. This latest ruling just increases the need to have a solution ready.

That solution could well be Kennedy, who signed a two-year, $4 million deal shortly after taking a free-agent visit to the Buffalo Bills. That should provide Kennedy the stability he has been looking for since coming into the league in 2003, the same year the Vikings drafted Kevin Williams.

But for all the rest that Pat Williams got during games last year, he was productive when on the field. None of the four main defensive tackles had a better number of tackles per defensive snap played than he did. Pat averaged a tackle every 7.7 snaps played. Surprisingly Kevin averaged a tackle only every 15.1 snaps played, but his teammates maintained throughout the season that Kevin was the one consistently being double-teamed.

As for the backups, Kennedy fared best there. He averaged a tackle every 9.4 snaps play and Evans was every 14.6 snaps.

While Kennedy, Evans and the little-used Guion, who played only 9 percent of the defensive snaps, are the main backups at defensive tackle, the Vikings do have a couple of versatile defensive linemen who are considered ends but slide inside to play tackle on some passing downs.

Unquestionably, it's a different game in the middle of the defensive line, where strength, quick reads and fighting through traffic are keys. Brian Robison was used in that swingman role the most last year. It's unclear how many of his snaps came from end and how many were at tackle, but he did play in 23 percent of the defensive snaps. He averaged a tackle every 18.5 snaps, but he also led all defensive linemen with a sack every 49.3 snaps.

On that same statistic, Jared Allen had a sack for every 62.8 plays he was in on, Ray Edwards had a sack for every 99.4 plays in which he participated. At the defensive tackle position, Kennedy averaged a sack every 91.3 snaps, Kevin Williams every 138.8 snaps, Pat Williams every 238 snaps and Evans didn't have a sack in 161 snaps.

What does it all mean? The Vikings used their defensive linemen in a lot of different ways, some of them (Kevin Williams and Jared Allen) getting double-teamed more than others. But when it comes down to the potential four-game suspensions of Pat and Kevin Williams, they might have good enough run-stuffing options on first and second downs with a combination of Kennedy, Evans and Guion with Robison sliding inside to apply pressure on passing downs.

Any way they cut it, losing two Pro Bowl defensive tackles will hurt, but having versatile linemen to play more situational ball for four games might get them by.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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