Minnesota Vikings: Defensive Position-by-Position Depth Chart Analysis

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IJuly 6, 2014

Minnesota Vikings: Defensive Position-by-Position Depth Chart Analysis

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Any Minnesota Vikings fan is aware of the woeful defensive rankings from the 2013 season by now. 

    Here's a refresher just to remind you how important it is for new head coach Mike Zimmer to put his imprint on the 2014 defense: 31st in total defense, pass defense and third-down conversion against. Dead last in points allowed, surrendering 30.0 points per game.

    These were not your father's purple people eaters.

    The symptoms for the Vikings defensive problems were pretty simple. They were soft up front, slow at linebacker and their secondary couldn't cover anybody. Other than that, they were pretty good.

    Quarterback is probably the main culprit why the Vikings have struggled with inconsistency so much over the last three seasons, but after that, all of the main reasons have been the decay of the defense.

    With that backdrop it was no surprise the general manager Rick Spielman went out and hired a defensive guru in Zimmer, a feisty personality who presided over the Cincinnati Bengals defense over the last six years. Zimmer had the Bengals defense near the top of the league every year with a group of reclamation projects as well as guys he seemingly found out of nowhere and molded into star players.

    The Vikings defense will be much improved in 2014. They've added size and speed and now have a talented core group of youngsters who could lead a huge turnaround for Minnesota on the defensive side of the ball.

    Here we take a look at each position on the defensive depth chart and give analysis on what to expect from each player in 2014.

Nose Tackle

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Starter: Linval Joseph

    Backups: Fred Evans, Shamar Stephen

    The Vikings' most recent glory years as a run defense were led by the "Williams Wall," the combination of Kevin and Pat Williams, two large men who dominated the interior line in almost every game they played.

    Minnesota didn't bring nose tackle Pat Williams back following the 2010 season and have had a revolving door of well-below-average tackles lined up next to Kevin Williams since then.

    Part one of fixing this came in the 2013 draft when Minnesota selected Sharrif Floyd with their first choice. Part two came this past March, when the Vikings signed free-agent Linval Joseph to a five-year, $31.5 million deal that should once again give the middle of their line size and strength.

    At 6'4", 323 pounds and still just 25 years old, Joseph gives the Vikings a massive presence in the middle of their line that will make everyone around him better.

    Joseph is huge and quick and will demand to be double-teamed often. He's an ideal run-stopper who is athletic enough to join in on the pass rush as well.

    Fred Evans will begin camp as the first backup. With eight NFL seasons under his belt, the 6'4", 305-pounder brings experience to the role. Evans has had some decent moments in Minnesota, but has been far too inconsistent to be assured of a roster spot.

    Minnesota drafted Shamar Stephen in the seventh round this year and he could prove to be a big steal if he can play up to his potential, which had him projected as high as a third-round pick

    At 6'5", 309 pounds, Stephen has a frame that can add some weight and he's an extremely good athlete for such a big man. Some questioned his competitiveness while at UConn, and he'll have to prove he has what it takes to go up against on the best blockers in the world.

    The addition of Joseph in itself improves the Vikings from an extremely weak position to one of strength. If Stephen can prove to be a capable backup, Minnesota should be set at the nose tackle position for years.

Defensive Tackle

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Starter: Sharrif Floyd

    Backup: Tom Johnson

    Defensive Tackle Sharrif Floyd spent most of the 2012 season ranked among the top 10 players available in the 2013 draft. He had unusual size and speed for the defensive tackle position and the potential to be an impact player at the next level.

    The Vikings watched the 2013 first round unfold with a combination of anxiety and hope as Floyd continued to go undrafted heading toward their first pick at No. 23. Minnesota had planned on taking cornerback Xavier Rhodes with their first choice, but when Floyd was available, they didn't hesitate to select him.

    Playing behind Kevin Williams in his rookies season, Floyd had limited opportunities and didn't have nearly the impact of fellow first-round defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Star Lotulelei. It didn't help matters that Floyd was battling some minor knee ailments to start the 2013 season.

    Now Minnesota has parted ways with Williams, and Floyd is penciled in as the starter at defensive tackle pairing with Linval Joseph to give the Vikings their best defensive tackle duo since the "Williams Wall."

    For his part, Floyd, according to Brian Hall of FoxSports.com, is raring to go in 2014.

    Behind Floyd the Vikings have veteran Tom Johnson, who they signed in the offseason. Johnson is an experienced veteran who has spent time playing in NFL Europe, the Arena league and the CFL before spending the last three seasons as a backup with the New Orleans Saints.

Left Defensive End

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    Andy King/Associated Press

    Starter: Brian Robison

    Backups: Corey Wootton, Scott Crichton

    At just 6'3", 260 pounds, Brian Robison has always been an over-achiever at defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings. 

    Drafted in the fourth round in 2007, Robison spent four seasons as a backup for Minnesota before finally cracking the starting lineup in 2011. Since then he's put together three solid seasons where he's registered 25.5 sacks and 78 tackles from the left defensive end spot.

    Robison has always been a high-motor guy who gives his all on every snap. While you'd hope he could make a few more plays against the run, Robison uses his speed and aggressive style to be a constant threat to quarterbacks. He's forced nine fumbles in his career and recovered six more as a player who tends to come up with his share of big-impact plays.

    Robison will be backed up by veteran Corey Wootton and rookie Scott Crichton. Wootton is a four-year veteran who gives the Vikings versatility with his ability to play multiple positions on the defensive line. He's registered 10.5 sacks in the last two years while starting for the Chicago Bears.

    Crichton is a third-round draft pick out of Oregon State who should end up as a starter at some point in his career. At 6'3", 273 pounds with speed and strength, Crichton has the tools to be a double-digit sack guy in the NFL. 

    Both Wootton and Crichton will get reps at both defensive end spots and give the Vikings great depth at a position where they need to replace the huge sack production that was provided by Jared Allen, who signed with the Bears this offseason.

Right Defensive End

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Starter: Everson Griffen

    Backups: Corey Wootton, Scott Crichton

    The future is now for Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen.

    Long considered one of the most high-potential players on the Vikings defense, Griffen has spent his first four seasons as a backup. But he finally gets his crack at being a starter in 2014.

    As the 2013 season began to unravel in Minnesota, it became clear that it wouldn't re-sign star defensive end Jared Allen. The price tag was simply too high for a player whose best days were behind him. It is also high time for the Vikings to find out if Griffen can become the high-impact player they think he can be.

    At 6'3", 273 pounds, Griffen is one of the best athletes on the Vikings roster. He was a star running back in high school at Arizona and has been a big-time playmaker at USC, and when given the opportunity in Minnesota.

    With 17.5 sacks in spot-duty over the last three seasons, the Vikings went out on a bit of a limb this offseason when they spent big money to keep Griffen in the fold. Minnesota gave Griffen a five-year, $42.5 million dollar deal in March, which certainly raised some eyebrows, considering Griffen has never been a full-time player.

    The Vikings, however, are hoping to see huge things from Griffen and are paying him for the next five years, not his previous resume.

    As stated in the previous slide, both Wootton and Crichton are very capable backups at end and will probably both see plenty of snaps as the Vikings rotate defensive line players to keep everyone fresh.

Middle Linebacker

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Starter: Audie Cole

    Backups: Michael Mauti, Jasper Brinkley

    One of the biggest question marks for the Vikings as they head toward their 2014 training camps is who will win the starting middle linebacker spot?

    The candidates are veteran and former starter Jasper Brinkley, third-year man Audie Cole and second-year man Michael Mauti.

    It's an open competition and the winner will take on a huge role in Mike Zimmer's defense. Rey Maualuga was the starting middle linebacker for Zimmer in Cincinnati over the last two seasons. After a disappointing start to his career, he's developed into a difference-maker for the Bengals.

    Brinkley obviously has an edge in experience over Cole and Mauti, but he's only been an average player over his four years in the league. He's started just one year, in 2012 for the Vikings, where he proved to be decent against the run. But he was not the high-impact player you want in the middle of your defense.

    Both Cole and Mauti are late-round draft picks who won't blow you away with their speed or athleticism, but have both shown great instincts and a feel for the game that all great linebackers seem to have.

    Heading into training camp, it's anybody's guess as to who will win the job. We're giving Cole a slight edge with an extra year of experience over Mauti. Having said that, this job is up for grabs, and whoever plays best in camp will start against the Rams on opening day.

Weakside Linebacker

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Starter: Chad Greenway

    Backups: Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Brandon Watts

    Getting a new head coach this late in his career should be a huge boost to Vikings starting weakside linebacker Chad Greenway.

    The 31-year-old Greenway has been Mr. Dependable for the Vikings over the years, leading the team in tackles for seven straight seasons. Greenway has never been a marquee guy in the NFL because he's never put up lofty sack numbers, but the truth is, that's never been his role in Minnesota before.

    That might change in 2014 under Zimmer, who likes to mix up his defenses constantly. Greenway, while perhaps lacking the foot speed of some of the NFL's elite linebackers, has a nose for the ball and is always in the middle of the action. 

    He'll more than likely lead Minnesota in tackles again in 2014, and you might even see his sack total rise a bit. With nine career interceptions, he's always been decent against the pass, but he's slowed to the point that he's not great in coverage against tight ends or backs.

    Behind Greenway will be a mix of players who will all be versatile enough to fill in at any of the three linebacker positions when called upon. Second-year man Gerald Hodges and seventh-round draft pick Brandon Watts both have very good speed and could be used on the outside in coverage situations.

    Both Michael Mauti and Audi Cole will increase their value to the club if they prove they can fill in on the outside as well.

Strongside Linebacker

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Starter: Anthony Barr

    Backups: Gerald Hodges, Audi Cole

    While Vikings first-round draft pick Anthony Barr is still pretty raw in terms of his experience at linebacker, you don't use a top-ten overall choice on a guy who isn't going to start for you from day one.

    At 6'5", 255 pounds Barr has a rare combination of size and speed at outside linebacker that hasn't been seen in Minnesota since the days of Matt Blair.

    Barr, who began his college football career as a running back at UCLA, has only been playing linebacker for two seasons. But he seems a natural for the position, and his ceiling is nothing short of being one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

    There will certainly be a learning curve for Barr, who was only sixth on his team in tackles last season. The upside is that Barr is an explosive player who brings an oomph and a pop to the field that the Vikings defense has been lacking the last few seasons.

    Barr, who registered 23.5 sacks in his two seasons at linebacker in college, will be used all over the field with the Vikings: as an edge-rusher who will be a nightmare matchup for blocking seems, and also as a guy who can drop into coverage and wreak havoc on shorter routes.

    While Barr will certainly be a three-down type of linebacker, his backups will include Hodges and Cole, who will both be used in a variety of different ways.

    Barr is an exciting addition to the Vikings defense. Along with Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph, he gives the Vikings a supremely talented group of youngsters to build their defense around.

Left Cornerback

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Starter: Xavier Rhodes

    Backups: Derek Cox, Shaun Prater, Kendall James

    It's been far too long since the Vikings have had a shutdown cornerback. In a division that's stacked with outstanding wide receivers, Minnesota hasn't had defensive backs who could match up either physically or athletically with the likes of Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall.

    Minnesota hopes that changes in 2014 and that second-year man Xavier Rhodes builds on the promise he showed in the latter half of the 2013 season when he became the best player in the Vikings depleted secondary.

    The Vikings drafted Rhodes in the first round in 2013 because they loved his length and physicality at Florida State. Rhodes took some time to adjust to the NFL game, like almost all cornerbacks do, but really looked like he was figuring things out down the stretch last season.

    Rhodes led the Vikings with 10 passes defended on the year and recorded eight of those in his last three games. He's still looking for his first interception, but at 6'1", 210 pounds, he should fill one of the Vikings starting cornerback spots for years to come.

    The Vikings will have a great competition for their backup cornerback spots in training camp. They signed Derek Cox as a free agent in the offseason, and his 12 career interceptions are the most on the roster. Veterans Shaun Prater and Marcus Sherels will compete with rookies Kendall James and Jabari Price to fill out the depth chart behind Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn.

Right Cornerback

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Starter: Captain Munnerlyn

    Backups: Josh Robinson, Jabari Price, Marcus Sherels

    New Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn brings something to the Vikings defense that they've sorely lacked for the last few seasons. He makes game-changing plays.

    Munnerlyn, the hard-hitting corner who the Vikings inked to a three-year, $15 million deal in March, has intercepted four passes in the last two seasons. He's returned all four of them for touchdowns. 

    Munnerlyn has increased his tackle total in every one of his five seasons in the league. Though he stands just 5'9", he comes in at a solid 195 pounds and is excellent when moving into the slot in nickel packages, something Minnesota lacked last season without Antoine Winfield.

    Behind Munnerlyn will be a host of players vying for roster spots including third-year man Josh Robinson, who hopes to put his brutal 2013 season behind him. Robinson, one of the fastest players in the league, showed a bit of promise in his rookie season, but never adjusted to trying to learn the slot position.

    Rookies Jabari Price and Kendall James will be in the mix with veterans Derek Cox, Marcus Sherels and Shaun Prater, as the Vikings look for anyone who can create turnovers in their secondary.

Free Safety

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Starter: Harrison Smith

    Backups: Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton, Antone Exum

    With the departure of Jared Allen, the new heart and soul of the Vikings defense might be free safety Harrison Smith.

    Smith, in his third season out of Notre Dame, brings an old-school quality to the field that new head coach Mike Zimmer will love. Hard-nosed and instinctive, Smith has both the mindset and physical tools to be among the best safeties in the NFL.

    With five interceptions in just 24 games, Smith is the type of playmaker the Vikings defense is desperate for. After an exceptional rookie season in 2012, Smith was on pace to have an even better season last year, when a turf toe injury shelved him for the season after just eight games.

    One would think that Smith is the type of player who used those eight weeks off to get better, though. Watching games from above can often lead to a light bulb going off in headier players, which Smith has proved to be.

    Expect a very big year from Smith, who should be a Pro Bowl player for years to come for the Vikings.

    Behind Smith at free safety will be Andrew Sendejo, who filled in nicely while Smith was out last year, and the likes of Robert Blanton and Antone Exum, who will both be in the battle for the starting strong safety spot.

Strong Safety

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Starter: Jamarca Sanford

    Backups: Robert Blanton, Antone Exum, Kurt Coleman, Mistral Raymond

    All of the slotted positions above will go up in smoke about 10 minutes into the first practice at training camp.

    Strong safety is shaping up to be one of the most wide-open, fierce position battles the Vikings have had in years. 

    Jamarca Sanford is the incumbent starter, and you couldn't ask for a tougher player. The problem is, the Vikings just aren't getting the results out of Sanford that they need.

    Sanford is an outstanding vocal presence and hitter for the Vikings secondary, but he just hasn't made enough plays over the years. Two interceptions in 70 career games isn't cutting it.

    Having said all of that, someone will have to take the job away from Sanford in camp for him not to be the starter on opening day. Robert Blanton, the third-year man out of Notre Dame, is just as tenacious as Sanford against the run. His cornerback background in college may give him an edge in pass defense.

    Sixth-round draft pick Antone Exum out of Virginia Tech will also be given a long look in camp. Exum was a cornerback in college and might have the best ball skills of all the players vying for the strong safety spot. A muscular, 6'0", 210 pounds, Exum is a superior athlete who won't shy away from the run, either.

    Also on hand is four-year veteran Kurt Coleman, who the Vikings signed in April. Coleman is capable of playing both safety positions and started for two seasons in Philadelphia before losing his starting job last season. He comes to the Vikings with seven career interceptions and, as reported by Chris Tomasson in the Pioneer Press, is looking to land a starting job in Minnesota.

    Strong safety and middle linebacker are the two spots on the Vikings defense that are basically up for grabs during training camp. The players in the mix at strong safety all have a lot of the same attributes, so whoever can prove he can make plays on the ball when it's in the air will have an inside track on the starting job.