6 Vikings Players in Danger of Losing Starting Role After Week 1
The Minnesota Vikings are reeling after a disappointing loss in Detroit. The season is young, but the Vikings roster is already in flux, and several starters in Week 1 could see their spots at risk—not just because of their performance but because of the talent behind them.
NFL teams nominally have 22 starters, but that figure can rise to include nearly half the team once you include the nickel corner, the third receiver, the primary fullback and the specialists, many or all of whom are considered starters for all intents and purposes.
Knowing that, it's surprising that almost a quarter of those starters could see themselves losing their spots in the coming weeks, especially for a team that capped their previous season with a surprising berth into the playoffs.
But roster flux is inevitable and the Vikings are more prone than other teams, given the uncertainty surrounding their squad and the poor play they've exhibited at times.
With six players at risk, the Vikings have about a quarter of their starters under pressure, and we could see a different roster by the time the Vikings leave the bye week, just after the Week 4 matchup in London against the Steelers.
Aside from the six players that could lose their spot midway through the season, there are a number of players that are on the hot seat that nevertheless will likely continue to be starters throughout the 2013 season either by fortune of the depth chart or roster shuffling.
There's not a large chance that the Vikings will abandon Christian Ponder for Matt Cassel or even McLeod Bethel-Thompson despite what could be a depressing season from the Vikings signal-caller.
A poor showing in Detroit comes on the heels of questionable preseason play, itself dogged by questions that followed throughout the offseason. Despite a good game against Green Bay to close out the 2012 season, the benefit of the long view that the offseason gave fans clouded Christian Ponder's summer.
He didn't do much to temper concerns, throwing three interceptions. To his credit, he played a far deeper passing game, with four passes beyond 20 yards, per Pro Football Focus' subscription game tracking and had 8.4 yards per pass attempt, the second-highest of his career.
But he hurt the team more than he helped, even after acknowledging that he was likely not to blame for one interception and his fumble. Errant passes could have been more easily exploited by Detroit, and Ponder rarely moved beyond his first read.
Backups Cassel and Bethel-Thompson likely don't have the talent to really be starters in the NFL, so there's not much choice when it comes to picking a starting quarterback. But the same won't be true when the season finishes, and Ponder will play for his job throughout 2013.
Erin Henderson will start for the Vikings for the remainder of the season, barring injury or an uncharacteristic dropoff in ability. But he shows up as an honorable mention because he may not continue starting as a middle linebacker for the Vikings, where he's currently installed.
A quiet game marked by misreading gaps and taking poor tackling angles didn't help Henderson's case as he worked to prove he's a reliable starting middle linebacker.
A former outside linebacker, Henderson also endured a slew of questions as he made his position switch to the inside. Without more impressive showings in future games, Henderson could see himself moved outside and free-agent-signing Desmond Bishop take his place.
For now, Henderson is safe due to Bishop's slow introduction to the team and playing time, but more poor performances from him could see him revert to the weak-side linebacker position, one that is clearly outside of his ambitions.
The former Arkansas receiver played in 27 snaps, which was more than starters-in-name only Rhett Ellison and Marvin Mitchell, who combined for only 25.
Wright didn't get a look in the game, despite being the team's primary slot receiver and clear third option in "11" personnel sets.
More to the point, there's no chance Wright advances ahead of Greg Jennings on the roster, and Jerome Simpson's excellent game will keep him afloat for a little bit as well. But should Wright falter and Simpson fade, there is a small possibility of a roster shuffle.
Jennings could move back into the slot, a natural position for him, while Simpson plays Jennings' flanker position and Cordarrelle Patterson takes over at split end. This would leave Jarius Wright as the odd man out, and he's in the odd position of competing with the Tennessee rookie despite not playing the same position.
Should Wright fulfill the promise he showed in the preseason, he won't likely lose his relatively prominent role. But if Patterson's development proceeds ahead of schedule and Simpson can't impress, Wright could be in trouble.
1. Marvin Mitchell, OLB
The starting weak-side linebacker, Marvin Mitchell was a bit of a surprise for fans heading into the season. The signing of Desmond Bishop during the offseason was expected either to precipitate Henderson's move back to the Will position that Mitchell plays or lead to Bishop supplanting Mitchell entirely.
My personal game tracking revealed that the Vikings didn't play in their base defense all too often, only playing in 15 snaps sets with three linebackers—the only sets that had Mitchell seeing the field. This is particularly interesting, given that the Lions ran 83 offensive plays.
This could signal either a lot of confidence in the nickel package with the necessity to deploy it against a high-powered passing offense, or a lack of faith in Mitchell's abilities to contribute to the defense in a meaningful way.
Like many things, the truth is probably in the middle, but that still portends doom for Mitchell's fledgling career as a starter.
In his 15 snaps, Mitchell recorded no tackles, no passes defended or anything worthy of a statbook. Of greater importance was his inability to fit himself into appropriate gaps or generate push in the run game.
He was involved in Calvin Johnson's near-touchdown catch, after a miscommunication or a poor zone handoff led to an open Johnson and a scary moment for Vikings fans who were relishing their 7-point lead at the time.
Behind him is Desmond Bishop, who was an incredible player before his hamstring injury last year and played at nearly Pro Bowl caliber for two years in Green Bay. His preseason looked very good and he looks like he could slot into a starting role fairly quickly.
2. Zach Line, FB
Zach Line is the first fullback listed on the depth chart and played more snaps that nominal starter Rhett Ellison at the fullback, but was not technically a starter on Sunday afternoon.
Nevertheless, he plays more snaps than anyone else at an important position for the Vikings and could be considered a starter for the purposes of defining the shifting roles and responsibilities in the offense.
Line is a bit of a "gimme" when it comes to discussing starters who could lose their role, largely because of previous starter Jerome Felton's imminent return upon the conclusion of his suspension, earned as a result of a DUI before the 2012 season.
But there always existed the possibility that Line could hold on to his role given his cheap contract, should he perform more than admirably in the three games that Felton didn't see.
Unfortunately, Line didn't block very well for the Vikings at all, and was a liability when attempting to create holes for Adrian Peterson. He couldn't finish his blocks, nor did he take on defenders with the correct angles or leverage.
One of the many problems in the Vikings running game against Detroit, Line likely won't be able to earn that spot back, especially as the Vikings continue to see excellent work from tight end/fullback hybrid Rhett Ellison.
3. Kevin Williams, DT
Even playing abysmally against the run, the defensive line was one of the few bright spots for the Vikings against the Lions. Starting under tackle Sharrif Floyd, who took the most snaps at that position because of an injury Williams sustained in the preseason, accounted himself well, which isn't great news for the aging veteran.
When Williams does return from injury, he'll likely take the starting spot back, but he won't have it secured. Floyd could nip at his heels all season, and any significant signs of dropoff in his play will be met with quick substitution and eventual replacement.
While Floyd didn't do much in the box score, recording one batted pass, he was stout in the run game and hard to move around. Redirecting running backs to different lanes is nearly as important as tackling the ballcarrier himself, and Floyd played that role well.
Nevertheless, Williams was a better player last year and would have been in a better position to make plays in the run game and as a pass rusher. But if Floyd continues to improve, that won't be the case for much longer.
There's a good chance that the Vikings won't extend Williams' contract past the 2013 season, so it only follows that they'll give Floyd all the chances he can get to grow into his future role with the Vikings defense.
4. Jerome Simpson, WR
Jerome Simpson entered the opening weekend of the 2013 season on thin ice. His 140 receiving yards surely put him on more solid footing, but he is by no means safe.
A disappointing 2012 will ensure he's subject to more than one critical eye in the front office, and he'll have to produce week-in and week-out to prove he continues to deserve his starting role over exciting rookie Cordarrelle Patterson or subject to a roster shuffle due to Jarius Wright's growth.
More 100-plus-yard games should give him a solid foundation with which he can negotiate a new contract, but his history implies that this isn't a serious possibility, having done it only six times in his 36 game career.
Hidden from a traditional box score is his propensity to draw defensive pass interference calls, which could add to his value. But an exciting and developing threat like Cordarrelle Patterson could move Simpson out of the starting roster and relegate him to his more familiar backup role.
5. Letroy Guion, DT
Subject to a bevy of criticism during and after the 2012 season, it looked like converted nose tackle (previously a 3-technique, like Kevin Williams) wasn't a fit for the Vikings defense.
Despite that, he entered the preseason as the presumed starter covering the all-important A-gap for Minnesota and only a brief respite from that position during Organized Team Activities ever brought that into question.
Nevertheless, it's pretty clear that Guion is in hot water in regards to his starting position on the defensive line, and it's easy to argue that Fred Evans outplayed him for much of 2012. A disappointing performance against the Lions only adds fuel to the fire in regards to his career prospects and the Vikings may finally decide it's time to move on from Guion as a starter.
Consistently moved around when defending the run, Guion could rarely redirect runners or keep them out of his lane and his game against Detroit was no different. Once again generating no pressure on the quarterback and recording two perfunctory tackles, Guion has an increasingly short leash when it comes to proving he can be a difference maker.
His play at the nose tackle has been so poor, that Sam Monson at Pro Football Focus devoted an article to creative ways to get Guion off the field, ultimately concluding that Kevin Williams should get a crack at the spot before Guion plays any more downs as the starter at nose tackle.
As the season moves on, it's clear that Guion cannot hold down the spot for the Vikings, and he could see himself replaced, whether by backup Fred Evans or someone else entirely unexpected.
6. Josh Robinson, CB
The Vikings' pass defense problems don't begin and end with Josh Robinson, but he certainly has been the worst of the lot when it comes to the secondary.
Pro Football Focus' proprietary review of the game found that Robinson was targeted nine times—more than any other player on the roster—and allowed a reception each time. With first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes behind him, Robinson is at serious risk of losing his spot on the outside.
While it's not likely that Robinson could lose time as the slot cornerback in nickel packages, it does seem more and more obvious that he won't be featuring on the outside for the entirety of the season.
Rhodes still needs to adjust to the NFL and doesn't seem entirely comfortable with everything the Vikings defense asks him to do, but he already looks to be a better outside cornerback than Robinson.
Even if Rhodes doesn't replace Robinson right away, A.J. Jefferson looked to have improved in the preseason and could serve as an effective stopgap while Rhodes learns the position.
Aside from his poor performances playing the traditional cornerback spot, the young speedster could also use work in the slot, and splitting time between the two positions could be detrimental to his performance at both positions.
Instead, the Vikings could determine that learning his role as the slot corner defender, a position he's never played before, could simply be more important. Even if Rhodes is a downgrade on the outside, the benefits from allowing Robinson to focus on one position may be worth it.