Everson Griffen has been subject to rife speculation by many Vikings insiders, hot on the heels of news that he could take serious snaps at linebacker come training camp. While intriguing, the Vikings should avoid spending their limited practice time on giving Everson Griffen time as a linebacker.
The third-year defensive end has taken the field at every position along the defensive line as well as at linebacker. The versatile lineman has also been a gunner on special teams, notable for a player who is 6'3" and 273 pounds.
His natural athletic prowess and prodigious pass-rushing skill have received attention from the Vikings coaching staff and has encouraged them to find other ways to put him onto a field that already has four good pass-rushers in Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, and Brian Robison.
Given his athleticism, they believe they might have found a solution at the linebacker position, lining him up on the outside in subpackages.
Everson Griffen was drafted in the fourth round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2010. He was projected as a late first-round, early second-round pick, but fell due to the always vague but ever-threatening red flag of "character concerns."
He hasn't been able to allay those character concerns, but he has certainly made an impression on the Vikings coaching staff. Their insistence upon putting Everson Griffen on the field forced more than one fan to ask whether or not Griffen deserves a spot, even if it means replacing a linebacker on a number of snaps.
He does not.
Griffen wouldn't fit as a linebacker in the Vikings system
The Vikings run a modified Tampa-2, with an emphasis on intuitive outside linebackers paired with penetrating undertackles and strong-side defensive ends. The strong-side linebacker (the "Sam") needs to quickly read the play and respond to any receivers in the flats or take on the lead blocker— over-pursuit will allow running backs to gash the Vikings.
The weak-side linebacker (the "Will") must manage the C gap (to the outside of the tackle) or the D gap (the alley on the sideline) depending on the weak-side defensive end.
What it means is that the Vikings needs outside linebackers who excel at reading the play. Not only must they quickly determine the intent of the offense, but also how their defensive end will react.
The emphasis on gap control (particularly for the Will) means that the OLBs need to exhibit patience and savvy when reading the offenses.
As noted by our own Matt Miller, Griffen has issues with play fakes—he bites hard on play-action and draws, and has been wildly out of position both as a joker and as a defensive lineman on these plays. This creates clear issues for defensive ends, but lining up on the second level exaggerates the issue.
Both Sam and Will linebackers need to be disciplined in their positioning, or they'll easily give up eight-yard plays.
As a Sam backer, Griffen would be tasked with taking on the lead blocker—something that he doesn't have the physical capability to do effectively.
While Everson has decent strength for a linebacker, his footwork and leverage have been poor, allowing him to be pushed around the field. He doesn't release well enough from blocks to be the focal point of any running attack, despite his excellent agility.
Here, Griffen's well-known problems with over-pursuit on the play would create serious weaknesses.
Griffen would also be unsuited to line up as the Will.
The Will backer must be an excellent tackler—the defensive line will funnel the running back to the Will in order to make the play. Beyond that, the Will needs to take good angles on defense in the open field.
Griffen certainly takes an excellent approach to the ball-carrier, but still needs some work in his tackling form when one-on-one. He reads players poorly and needs to work on his instinct at the point of decision.
Griffen is a liability in coverage
Everson Griffen is an excellent and agile football player. His ability to read the development of a running play allows him to place himself in good spots, so long as he hasn't overreacted to a fake. Despite his ability to read runs, Griffen does not display the skills necessary to be effective in coverage as a linebacker.
Dropping into cover, Griffen has often been hesitant in picking up players entering his zone. He often seems confused about the concepts behind his coverage, and is inconsistent about WR and TE pickups–he'll delay the proper pickup, whether it's outside in (prioritizing receiver pickups from the outside of the zone) or inside out (the opposite, prioritizing the inside receivers).
He has the strength to press the running backs and tight ends that he needs to pick up, but has poor technique, often allowing them to release much faster than he should.
Coupled with his poor turning speed, he'll often create temporary holes in his coverage. Despite his speed and length, he's a poor cover linebacker and will need to use his athleticism to catch up to his receivers, rather than maintain coverage.
In addition, he's slower to read on the quarterback than most linebackers in the modern NFL, forcing him to lose a half step when trying to get to the ball. This is a critical skill for any player that intends to drop into coverage, and this weakness in his coverage game could be fatal.
Everson Griffen is a downgrade compared to who he would replace
The Vikings have well-publicized depth problems at linebacker, and Leslie Frazier has even indicated that he feels bringing Griffen in as a linebacker on certain snaps could help shore up that depth.
More than that, they feel that his skill has earned him more than 10 or 15 snaps a game. Given that Griffen played in over 25 percent of Vikings' defensive snaps in 2011, they must envision quite an important role for the young defensive end.
The issue, naturally, is that in order for Griffen to get on the field, another linebacker must get off of the field (as the Vikings do not run a four linebacker subpackage on many snaps, particularly not with the implied plans for Griffen), generally an outside linebacker.
The Sam linebacker, Chad Greenway, had a down year for coverage, but was an excellent tackler and made plays in the run game and as a pass-rusher. It's important not to downplay how horrendous Greenway's coverage was (he allowed a league-high 120.8 passer rating on passes thrown into his direction), but it is beyond reasonable to believe.
Alan Williams' comments aside, Greenway had performed adequately well in coverage every other year, and there are reasons to believe this down year was related to Singletary's coaching approach.
Greenway is excellent as a run defending linebacker in the Sam position, and even at his worst, would likely outperform Griffen in coverage. Replacing a Pro Bowler for more than 25 percent of his snaps seems unfeasible (and unlikely, given that he played 99.8 percent of Vikings' defensive snaps last season).
Greenway is already an excellent pass-rusher as well, which would obviate Griffen's comparative advantage in blitz packages.
Sam Monson, Bleacher Report contributor and one of the lead analysts at Pro Football Focus, boldly promoted Erin by saying "[he] made more positive defensive plays relative to how much he was on the field than any other linebacker."
Knowing that Henderson played in just under 60 percent of defensive snaps, the Vikings are looking to increase his contributions on the field. Compared to one of the best run defending OLBs in the league, Griffen would be a serious downgrade.
Despite his low snap count as a pass-rusher, Erin Henderson has been effective. Further, he has been more than adequate in coverage, so Griffen's comparative advantage is relatively small.
Beyond that, the Will linebacker is often at a disadvantage in pass-rushing, because blitz pickups from running backs will focus on the weak-side rushers. Even as a pure pass-rusher, there is only a small advantage in replacing Erin Henderson with Everson Griffen.
The buzz around Griffen and rumors surrounding minicamps imply a larger role for Griffen, which would mean bringing him on much more than last year. Everson saw the field on third down and in obvious passing situations before, and replacing Henderson or Greenway on plays where pass or run alerts are not obvious brings a substantial risk to the defense.
Even as a pass rusher, Griffen's presence on the field would hurt more than help
Griffen is an excellent pass-rusher from the second level, and has created some fairly powerful penetration while rushing as a stand-up player instead of as a down lineman. This cannot be his only duty heading into the new season.
It's not strategic, not only because the other outside linebackers are also good pass-rushers, but because he would provide an alert for the offense. If he continues his poor performance in coverage or rushes the passer on most plays, the hole he would create in coverage would provide a tempting option for many quarterbacks in the league, including the accurate passers in the NFC North.
There is certainly value (and historical success) with ends like Jared Allen and/or Brian Robison dropping into zones while linebackers rush, but the repeatability of this specific tactic is suspect at best.
Beyond that, many of the coverages created to fill the hole of the OLB blitz are dangerous—a strong safety or Mike coverage in the OLB hole enables seam routes or encourages QBs to look for their deep receiver, not something that many Vikings fans should be comfortable with, even with the return of cornerbacks Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield.
The Vikings are thin enough at Mike and have inexperience with their safeties (with second-year Raymond looking to get the free safety spot and rookie Harrison Smith nearly a lock for strong safety) that rotating the coverage over Griffen's spot is a risky prospect at best.
What should the Vikings do about Everson Griffen?
Even sticking with traditional man blitzes will be an issue for the Vikings—not only will inexperience damage them through their safety tandem, but asking Brinkley or Greenway to man up against a tight end is perhaps taking an even larger risk.
Naturally, this is not to say the Vikings should avoid blitzes, but it does mean that quarterbacks would be alerted to excellent passing options when Griffen is on the field as a linebacker, regardless of whether or not he decides to rush the passer.
There are other valuable options for Everson Griffen
There should be no problem substituting Griffen in for other members of the defensive line. Brian Robison would often line up as a nose tackle in nickel packages before he started, and the Vikings are intending to start Letroy Guion there for this next season.
Guion is not a solid replacement for the recently departed Pat Williams, nor has he shown the skill to replace a sub-par Remi Ayodele last season, which means that his presence on the line should not be written in stone.
While Griffen didn't perform extraordinarily well in his nose snaps this last season, he was able to funnel runs to the Will backer, which is the most important contribution nose tackles have in the Tampa-2 system the Vikings deploy.
Griffen does not need to increase his snaps to be valuable in this role, and it would develop his skills as a bull rusher, a tool he has not yet sharpened. More importantly, Griffen could line up as the 3-technique, or undertackle, on nickel snaps and reduce the snaps for Kevin Williams, who is aging (but should not yet be entirely replaced).
Griffen shows a lot of potential as a defensive end, particularly when lined up in a wide-9 technique. He does, however, need to focus on developing a full menu of pass-rushing moves—he has a few effective moves on speed rushes, but tends to get locked down as soon as blockers get their hands on him.
Placing him on the line and rotating him with Robison, Williams and Guion would develop him enough to make him one of the most effective backup pass-rushers in the league. You could ask the Giants how valuable that is.
If none of these options appeal to the Vikings, they could always trade him.
He would do well as a 3-4 linebacker in some systems, and there are more 3-4 systems than there are effective 3-4 linebackers. The Vikings "paid" a fourth-round pick for him and could quite possibly get a bit more than that.
Teams lacking a 4-3 defensive end would also find him valuable, particularly if he improves enough to be a right defensive end, which would resolve some of the focus issues others find him to have.
Griffen still has a lot to learn and shows great potential. Forcing him to learn new responsibilities and techniques will only hinder his development and wouldn't help the Vikings on the field today or tomorrow.