[This article is one of eight in B/R contributor Jack Harver's "State of the DTs" series, introduced here.]
Albert Haynesworth's biggest competition for NFC Pro Bowl honors will come from Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams.
During their past three seasons manning the middle of the Vikings' defensive line, the Williams duo has been the engine room for the NFL's stingiest rush defense. Minnesota's opponents have averaged less than 71 yards per game on the ground during that span, and Kevin and Pat have been fixtures on the NFC's Pro Bowl roster since .
Kevin, who has 42.5 career sacks in his six pro seasons, is considered the better pass rusher of the two. Pat, who has played at 320 pounds for the Vikings since arriving at 335 pounds from Buffalo in 2005, uses his massive frame to occupy blockers, freeing the Vikings' linebackers and other down linemen to make plays. He's deceptively quick, taking on double teams with his fast movements and sheer bulk.
Minnesota had a few scares involving these two cornerstones of their defense toward the end of last year—situations worth watching going into the 2009 season.
After taking the NFC North lead with a Week 13 win against Chicago, both Willams were suspended for testing positive for a banned weight-loss diuretic. Both Kevin and Pat hunkered down against commissioner Roger Goodell in court just like they'd done against opposing running backs, filing an injunction that stalled the suspension and allowed them to play out the season.
Opinions differ on whether the Williamses will win their protracted legal battle with the NFL as they continue to fight tooth and nail to clear their names and play.
The stakes are particularly high for their reputations: if they are eventually suspended, criticism from pundits and sports fans—already disillusioned by the seeming prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball—would likely be severe.
Point-blank; if Kevin and Pat Williams come out of court with anything short of a complete victory, they'll likely be tainted in the public eye. Fair or unfair, they'd have long odds to be voted into the Pro Bowl.
On the football field, Kevin shows no signs of slowing down. A Pro Bowler in four of his six NFL seasons, he has missed only two games in his career—a knee sprain sidelined him for Weeks 13 and 14 in 2005—and is coming off his highest one-season sack total (8.5) since exploding onto the big-league scene with 10.5 and 11.5 in his first two seasons.
Pat, on the other hand, seems to have a few chinks in his formidable armor. He missed the Vikings' last three games this past season after breaking a bone in his shoulder, but the real points of concern are his offseason surgeries. He had work done on his elbow in 2008, and recently underwent a minor procedure on his knee.
Turning 37 this October, the heftier of Minnesota's two top-caliber tackles is no spring chicken. Joint injuries tend to nag and recur; while Pat's level of play may not drop, medical problems might keep him out of enough games to miss out on a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance.