Shining a spotlight on the defense, let's look at three Vikings defenders who are primed to have a big 2013-14 campaign.
With so many capable playmakers on this roster, this list was narrowed down to three players who represent each level of the defense.
From the defensive line to the linebacking corps and finishing with the secondary, these three defenders who are primed for a big 2013-14 season were selected.
One of the strengths of this defense is its rugged line. Over the years, guys like Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Kevin Williams have helped shape the culture of this Tampa-2 style of defense that Minnesota loves to play.
Outside of those core players, one guy who could be primed for a big 2013-14 season is fourth-year defensive end Everson Griffen.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Griffen graded out last season as the 36th-ranked 4-3 defensive end in all of football. Although he managed to play just 623 snaps, racking up eight sacks, Griffen not only proved to be a productive pass-rusher but also showed he was capable of stopping the run.
Putting his production aside, what makes this former USC Trojan a candidate for a big season is his versatility.
In the NFL, there has always been a stigma that "speed kills." For a pass-rusher who weighs 270 pounds, Griffen has been blessed with mind-blowing speed.
According to ESPN.com, Griffen ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash at the 2010 NFL combine—which was the best time posted out of every defensive end who ran that year at the combine.
With a skill set that demands your attention, according to Ben Goessling of TwinCities.com, when defensive coordinator Alan Williams took the job in 2012, he started watching tape of every Vikings player and had to hit the rewind button the second he saw Griffen.
Realizing just how much talent this young man possessed, when talking about ways to utilize Griffen, Williams said the following:
With a guy like that, you have to be careful, because you want to play him everywhere, then I think you water down what a guy does. With a guy that has that much talent, you lock them into one or two positions, and then he is even more special.
Clearly Williams' plan has worked to date. Now with Allen, Robison and Griffen all set to hit free agency after the season wraps up, this young man has a chance to prove he is worth the big bucks.
With fresh legs, an obscene amount of athletic ability and playing in a contract year, Griffen is primed to take the next step and have a huge impact for this Vikings defense this season.
Entering the offseason, one of the biggest questions this Vikings defense had to address was the middle linebacker position.
Knowing that a quality MLB is an integral piece to any thriving 4-3 defense, after the dust settled, the Vikings decided to let former weak-side linebacker Erin Henderson earn the job.
Although he endured somewhat of a battle in camp—especially when the team signed Desmond Bishop to a contract—Henderson, who has been focused on playing the position since day one, told ESPN1500 on June 18 that he would be playing middle linebacker for the Vikings this season.
Now that he's officially earned the role, it's time to watch as this young man follows in the footsteps of his older brother E.J. Henderson—the last truly great MLB for the Vikings.
Having some experience playing the position in nickel packages last season and combining it with the work he's put in during training camps and the preseason, head coach Leslie Frazier loves what he's seen out of Henderson, per the Pioneer Press:
Frazier says Desmond Bishop is working well at OLB while Erin Henderson is thriving at middle, maturing as defensive leader. Switch unlikely— Pioneer Press (@VikingsNow) August 2, 2013
Outside of his strong football mind, what's exciting about Henderson is he has the talent it takes to succeed. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), last season Henderson graded out as the 17th-best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL.
While the positions are totally different, the one constant we know about this guy is that at his core, Henderson is a dedicated football player. And that type of dedication is exactly what this defense needs to get back to the playoffs.
With his second season about to begin, Vikings free safety Harrison Smith could be destined for greatness this year.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), during his rookie season Smith ranked as the 19th-most productive safety in the NFL.
A hard-nosed, aggressive football player, not just a tackling machine, Smith also thrives in coverage. With a full season under his belt, look for Smith to not only fill up the stat sheet, but thanks to the departure of Antoine Winfield, he will also become the undisputed leader of this secondary.
Garnering high praise from just about everyone, NFL.com analyst Elliot Harrison has projected Smith to become a first-team All-Pro player at the end of the season.
Watching Smith on tape, one thing that stands out is that this guy isn't afraid to take chances. He makes plays and is a fearless risk-taker—making him lethal around the football.
Although he appears to play overly aggressive when he's on the field, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith was only penalized three times all of last season. For a rookie who racked up 74 solo tackles and one sack, that's the definition of composed aggression.
Now with the 2013-14 season just days away, it's time for all Vikings fans to enjoy watching one of the most talented young defensive players in the league do his thing and help try to elevate this secondary to the next level.
*All stats courtesy of ESPN.com unless noted otherwise.
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