Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we break down the defensive line.
One of the first acts of business of the Mike Zimmer era was overhauling the defensive line. The Vikings let defensive tackle Kevin Williams and defensive end Jared Allen walk in free agency, they added nose tackle Linval Joseph in free agency and they re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen to a big contract.
When the season started, the Vikings had three new starters on the defensive line and five of the eight players in their rotation were in their first season in Minnesota. The defensive line would turn out to be the deepest and arguably the most valuable position group on the roster.
In his first season as a starter, Griffen finished ninth in the NFL with a dozen sacks while also defending the run well. Second-year defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd took a giant leap forward under Zimmer with 4.5 sacks and five other tackles for a loss. Journeyman defensive tackle Tom Johnson surprised with 6.5 sacks as a reserve. And the Vikings finished ninth in the NFL with 41 total.
But it wasn’t all roses along the defensive line. Joseph was merely average, and veteran end Brian Robison had a down season. The pass rush disappeared at times when individuals freelanced and the Vikings as a team struggled to stop the run, finishing 2014 ranked 25th in run defense.
Still, the defensive line was a strength and with a little tweaking it should continue to be in 2015.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: While injuries limited Floyd to 14 games and 568 total defensive snaps, he made a major impact whenever he was on the field and unhampered by injury. Floyd finished with 30 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, which tied for 13th in the NFL. And he often stormed into the backfield to blow up running plays. Floyd had big shoes to fill in replacing Williams, a six-time Pro Bowler with the Vikings, but Floyd came through, showing the kind of ability that made the team so excited he fell into their laps during the 2013 draft.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: Robison has been an underrated player for years (I remember that when I covered the Ravens in 2013, they were just as concerned about him as Allen). But his 4.5 sacks were his lowest in his four years as a starter and he wasn’t particularly stout against the run. Now, Zimmer was quick to point out after the season that Robison was asked to do some things differently this season, and his dirty work might not have shown up on the score sheet. But Robison turns 32 in April, and if his play doesn’t pick up in 2015, it could be his last season with the Vikings.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Floyd, the league’s fifth-best defensive tackle according to PFF, led the group with a plus-22.0 grade. Griffen was a plus-16.8. Johnson was a plus-5.2 for his work as a sub pass rusher. And Joseph was a plus-1.3. Corey Wootton, a reserve defensive end, had the lowest grade at negative-14.8. Robison was a negative-12.2. And rookie nose tackle Shamar Stephen graded out as a negative-8.0, though it’s worth noting that the coaching staff was pleased with how Stephen played while shuffling between both tackle spots.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 64 — total pressures for Griffen, tied for fifth among 4-3 defensive ends.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: Johnson and Wootton are both free agents. The Vikings will likely let Wootton, who disappointed with just one sack, walk. But bringing back Johnson would make a lot of sense for both parties if they can find financial common ground. Johnson has said he wants a two-year contract, and one would think the Vikings can make that happen for the valuable backup. And Johnson should remember that he had more sacks this season playing for Zimmer and defensive line coach Andre Patterson than he had in his entire career before coming to Minnesota. As for potential cuts, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Vikings approached Robison about reducing his $5.45 million cap number. But it would be a surprise if he did not return for 2015.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Low. The Vikings have much more pressing needs than their defensive line, which should remain mostly intact for the upcoming season. If they cannot re-sign Johnson, that would leave a void, though I’m sure Zimmer and the coaching staff feel they could coax that kind of production out of someone else. The team could look to improve the depth at defensive end. Scott Crichton, picked as a potential replacement for Robison down the road, hardly saw the field as a rookie, though it’s too early to count him out. And Crichton isn’t exactly a speed rusher, and the Vikings would like to have another one of those to back up Griffen.
There have been many times the past two months when the Wolves — so young, so inexperienced and so flat-out bad — were simply unwatchable.
With Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic all out with injuries, and with other key players from a year ago either traded or dispatched — as we wrote the other day, the top seven in minutes played this year for the Wolves is completely different from the top seven in minutes played last year — Minnesota went from a .500 team that had a chance to win almost every game to a squad that couldn’t compete most nights.
When Pekovic returned a week ago, there were glimpses of more watchable basketball. On offense, he creates space and works the glass. He’s never been a great defensive player, but he’ll give a credible effort and take up space. He gave the Wolves better flow on both ends.
Another piece returned Wednesday, with Martin coming back and getting 21 points in his return. Just like Pek, Martin creates space on offense, scores in a way nobody else on the roster can score, and at least knows where he is supposed to be on the defensive end even if he’s limited.
The result was a 110-98 win over Boston. Yes, the Celtics looked like a tired team in the final game of a six-game road trip. Even at full strength, Boston is a bad team. But the Wolves, on many nights before the return of Pek and Martin, struggled against any team — good, bad, tired, fresh, you name it.
We at least have a glimpse, now, of the preseason vision. Andrew Wiggins is more fully developed now than he was three months ago. Shabazz Muhammad, who is out with an injury as well, looks to be another key piece going forward. Zach LaVine, raw but with ability, showed Wednesday when he can do in spurts.
The Wolves were in control of the entire second half — and had enough fun for Thad Young to play with Wiggins’ ear in the postgame locker room interview session.
When the Wolves get Rubio and Muhammad back, we still don’t think they will “shock a lot of people,” as Martin said the Wolves were poised to do before all the injuries.
But already Wednesday, they looked competent and played their most watchable game in months.
You’re Darrell Bevell and you’re an offensive coordinator, a job that’s more X’s and O’s than managing personalities within the grand framework of your football team.
Your head coach in Seattle is Pete Carroll, and his job often is more about managing personalities within the grand framework of the team than it is X’s and O’s. Carroll comes to you when you’re 3-2 and being written off as a defending Super Bowl champion. He tells you the best way to get better is to unload one of the league’s most athletically gifted and versatile O’s.
Bevell, the former Vikings offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2010, said he learned a lot from Carroll this year when he pulled the trigger that dumped Percy Harvin, the immensely talented, hard-working and oftentimes unmanageably volatile receiver/kick returner, for the Jets’ fourth-round draft pick this year. The Vikings, who drafted Harvin in the first round in 2009, ran into the same problem, although a disagreement on money was a factor as well when they unloaded Harvin to Seattle before the 2013 season.
“Pete has been in it a long time, done it a long time,” Bevell said Wednesday at the Seahawks Super Bowl hotel. “He’s made a lot of hard decisions along the way. That was one that ended up being a huge decision, but in the long run, you could tell it was good for the Seahawks.”
Seattle lost its first game without Harvin, dropping to 3-3, before going 11-1 to reach Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday.
“It’s a difficult deal because you have a player who is so talented on the field and can do so many things,” Bevell said. “Your mind is just going with all the positive things that he can do on the football field. Immediately, that’s where your mind goes. It’s like, ‘OK, if we’re going to miss that big chunk, now what are we going to do and how are we going to adjust?’”
Bevell will be a head coach at some point. He’ll remember the Harvin situation and how Carroll handled it.
“Hopefully, you don’t have to do decisions like that, but now and again they do come up,” Bevell said. “It was good to be here to watch the whys and what-fors of that decision and what it came down to. And then, ultimately, being able to pull the trigger on that.”