Money talks, and the three-year, $14.1 million contract the Minnesota Vikings gave fifth-year defensive end Brian Robison in early March spoke volumes about the future of the team's left defensive end position.
The re-signing of Robison was likely the final nail in Ray Edwards' purple coffin—the expected split should be considered mutual, as Edwards has shown no interest in returning.
The deal itself, which included a $6.5 million signing bonus, is a clear indication that the Vikings are expecting the key reserve and situational pass-rusher to take the next step in 2011.
In a recent interview with Robison, I asked the Texas native how he was preparing for his new role and the expectations that would come with it.
"I'm preparing normally, working as hard as I can in order to be the best. I'm just trying not to overwork, which I'm finding hard to balance."
His response should come as no surprise to Vikings fans. He's been lauded by the coaching staff for his work ethic, and on the field he's a maximum-effort player with a motor that won't quit. That energy has led several fans to compare Robison to star defensive end Jared Allen. Said Robison:
"I've learned a lot from (Jared) over the years—what will work for me and what won't, as we are built differently."
Officially listed at 6' 3", 259-lbs., Robison is shorter, lighter and more compact than the 6' 6", 270-lb. Allen. Many have questioned whether Robison is big enough to hold his own against the run as an every-down NFL defensive end. When I broached the topic, Robison bristled:
"I would say that at 265-270 at all times, I'm hardly undersized. For some reason I was stuck with that tag when I got to the NFL, but in college I was known as a run stopper and was questioned about my pass rush skills. I will just have to hope that my play will speak for itself."
Considering the success of similarly-sized (or smaller) defensive ends like Trent Cole, Robert Mathis and Osi Umenyiora, it's a fair response from a guy who's shown flashes of big-play potential whenever he's been given the chance.
The 2007 fourth round pick out of Texas is an exceptional athlete, and the fact that he's been powerful enough to occasionally slide inside to defensive tackle flies in the face of any size concerns. The former Texas two-sport star (shot put) has amassed 13.5 sacks in four seasons of limited duty, providing an underutilized source of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
With the NFL draft less than a week away, one can't help but notice that at pick No. 12, the talent at defensive end will be deeper than any other position. There's a very real chance that the best player on the board will be another pass rusher, and many draft analysts have speculated that the Vikings will go that direction to fill the void left by Edwards. Robison, who turns 28 one day before the draft, is handling this possibility with class and professionalism.
"It's part of the business. Competition breeds success, and I'm confident in my abilities as a player."
As reflected by his new contract, so are the Vikings. Last year's fourth round pick, defensive end Everson Griffen, collected more arrests (2) than sacks (0) in his rookie season, and Robison currently sits atop the depth chart opposite Jared Allen.
Drafting the "Best Player Available" has long been the M.O. of Vice President of Player Personnel Rick Spielman and Co., and there's sure to be more than one intriguing defensive end available when the Vikings approach the podium next Thursday. However, on a team full of holes, there will also be at least one prospect who grades out just as well at positions of greater need—offensive line, secondary, wide receiver or even quarterback.
While Robison's contract turned some heads in the fan base, it was clearly a strong vote of confidence from the organization. Investing a first round pick at the exact same position would be counterintuitive.