There are a couple aphorisms out there about the Vikings defense. First, that if the Vikings are going to go anywhere this season (the playoffs), it is incumbent on the defense to improve to a top-5 or better unit. Secondly, the Vikings have improved themselves on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Are those two ideas both accurate? Do they need to be?
Generally, in the NFL, if you are not improving you are going backwards—so yes, they need to be better. It remains to be seen if they are. We have already examined the defensive line, where everything on that side of the ball starts, but there are seven more people in on the action every time the Vikings defense takes the field, so for this piece we are taking a look at the back seven.
The Vikings said good-bye to long-time outside linebacker Chad Greenway this past offseason, and that creates a nice opening for some opportunistic linebacker. Anthony Barr (despite his less-than-stellar season in 2016) and Eric Kendricks have the two three-down linebacker spots locked down, but the third one is open.
People lining up for a shot at it are veterans Edmond Robinson, Kentrell Brothers and Emmanuel Lamur—with Robinson having the inside track early during OTAs.
The Vikings have a host of young linebackers vying for a backup spot—most notably draft picks Ben Gedeon (round four from Michigan) and Elijah Lee (round seven from Kansas State). With those veteran candidates above them on the depth chart not necessarily distinguishing themselves in recent years, the opportunity is ripe for these two rookies.
Undrafted free agents Eric Wilson and Shaan Washington round out the unit.
Best Guess: As stated earlier, Kendricks and Barr are locks with the former looking to take the next step forward in his career and the latter trying to regain his earlier dominance. Robinson and Lamur are in a battle for the third spot, and it could be a tight race. Brothers is more of a middle linebacker and will spend another season as a backup. Gedeon is better suited for the middle, while Lee’s speed makes him a decent coverage linebacker with suspect tackling skills. Both are a year away from contributing, but keep your eye on both.
The safety positions stabilized last season when Andrew Sendejo grabbed the starting job of strong safety alongside Pro Bowler Harrison Smith—and little threatens to change the status quo. In fact, the list of safeties behind this pair is quite familiar, as well, with Antone Exum, Jr., Anthony Harris and second-year man Jayron Kearse. No new faces in the safety room.
On draft day, however, the Vikings selected cornerback Jack Tocho and according to the roster on the team’s website, the rookie defensive back is listed as a safety. The fact of the matter is the Vikings could use some new blood at the position, and Tocho’s size (6-0, 202 pounds) and questionable speed might make him a better fit at safety than struggling to make an impression in the crowded cornerback room.
Best Guess: If Smith stays healthy all season, as he is a central figure in head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense, and Sendejo improves on a decent 2016, the Vikings should be fine at the back end. The backups have some experience in Purple, and we could see Kearse take another step in his development (he had one start in 16 games last season). Tocho has an uphill climb at safety, if that is where he remains at camp.
If we are taking Tocho out of the cornerback room, it hardly makes a dent in the crowd still inside. There are nine cornerbacks on the Vikings training camp roster, so there is plenty of competition for two starting corner spots and the nickel cornerback position. This is definitely a position group to watch in Mankato.
Even at the top, little is exactly set, unless, of course, for shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes. Across the field, it might be time for Trae Waynes to rise up and grab the starting spot. But veteran (well, extreme veteran) Terence Newman may, once again, have something to say about that before all is decided.
If Waynes becomes the starter, that means Newman could be the slot corner, but he will be in a battle with second-year man Mackensie Alexander. Zimmer likes Alexander (who has great corner instincts), but he needs a little more seasoning before he takes over. And Zimmer really likes Newman.
Jabari Price, Marcus Sherels and Terrell Sinkfield are the backup with time spent on the Vikings roster, while Horace Richardson and Tre Roberson round out the room.
Best Guess: Rhodes is in, and I like Waynes at the other spot. Newman starts at nickel corner and Alexander starts getting worked into the mix for 2018. Sherels, due to his flexibility as a solid punt returner makes the squad as a deep back up, and Price and Sinkfield hang around. Everyone else is fighting for a practice squad spot. Get ready for a decent battle.