Monday, July 20, 2015

Training Camp Position Preview: Defensive Ends

Image Courtesy of the Star Tribune
The Vikings have proven starters at defensive end, but they will be relying on young and unproven rotational options. How will this impact the pass rush? Daniel House answers this question and more as he previews the defensive ends. 

Updated: July 20th, 2015 1:22pm

By: Daniel House

The Vikings defense is predicated on getting after the quarterback on a consistent basis. When Mike Zimmer was hired as the head coach, he made this known among everyone inside the organization. Last year, the Vikings signed Everson Griffen to an extension and committed to making him a integral piece of their defensive line. The skepticism was high among many in the league. Many analysts questioned whether Griffen was worth the high price tag he was being awarded with. He silenced the critics early in the season and notched 12 sacks, while causing a constant disruption every week. In fact, by the end of the season, he became one of the Vikings best defensive players.

Aside from Griffen, the team didn't receive any other exemplary play at the defensive end position. Brian Robison corralled just 4.5 sacks and graded -6.7 in run defense (according to PFF). His cap hit is $5.65 million and his performance on the field has continually taken a decline over the last two years. He missed part of OTA's with a pectoral injury and didn't see a maximum amount of snaps. The real problem comes when you analyze the depth behind Brian Robison.

Scott Crichton was drafted last season and wasn't quite ready for the jump to the NFL. This off-season, he worked out to get stronger and refined his techniques to understand the game better. Danielle Hunter was drafted in the third round as a project for the future. Hunter is beaming with athleticism and has the potential to play in this league. However, it will take some coaching to garner the raw tools Hunter has to offer. Justin Trattou flashed in the preseason and spent the majority of 2014 on the practice squad. Aside from the top half of defensive end group, there are many unanswered questions.

The rookies and unproven players on the bottom half of the depth chart need to be coached and groomed during training camp. If that doesn't happen, the Vikings will be in desperate need of depth in this position group. 

Everson Griffen

Everson Griffen was one of the best players on the Vikings' defense last year. He finished with 12 sacks and was consistently disruptive as a pass rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, Griffen was the eighth highest graded 4-3 defensive end and was among a select group of players to earn a grade above +5.0 as both a pass rusher and a run defender. He improved significantly in run support and made an impact in that phase of the game. In fact, he was the complete defensive end the Vikings have been yearning for in recent years. Last year, Griffen started to see more double teams as the top defensive lineman on the team. It didn't effect his ability to get to the quarterback and he used his strength to out-muscle offensive lines. This season, Griffen is the one piece of the defensive line that can relied upon each and every week. In the end, the team will be relying on his veteran leadership to cultivate the young talent they added to the defensive end position group.

Brian Robison

Brian Robison's performance has declined continually over the last two seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, he played over 900 snaps for the fourth consecutive season. That is quite a few snaps for nine-year veteran defensive end. It seems as if Robison would be more effective in a rotational role. That situation can become very complicated when you consider the limited depth that has been behind Robison recently. Robison was very ineffective as a run defender and teams were constantly running the ball to his side of the field. That aspect of his game is definitely the distinct weakness teams are looking to exploit. Robison suffered a pectoral injury in OTA's and is expected to be ready for the start of training camp. The real perk of a player like Robison is the leadership he can provide inside the locker room. He can be an excellent influence on players like Scott Crichton and Danielle Hunter. Although it seems unlikely, one of these rookies could be snatching some playing time from Robison if they can prove they are worthy.

Scott Crichton

Last year, Scott Crichton was a player that many believed would challenge for the starting defensive end spot opposite of Everson Griffen. It wasn't the case and he was overmatched from a strength standpoint. Crichton was a player that probably entered the league too early from college. He had the off-season and part of last season to gain some experience. Now, he needs to prove he has taken the necessary steps to performing in the NFL. Recently, Scott Crichton's trainer posted a video of him hang-cleaning 415 pounds. The workout also included some speed and technique work. These are the types of strides that need to occur for Crichton to take the next step as a player. One thing is certain-- he will be receiving plenty of snaps in training camp and the preseason.

Here is the video of the Scott Crichton workout I was referring to: 
Danielle Hunter

Danielle Hunter has such a high ceiling and it will be interesting to see how he is coached by the Vikings staff. His combine workouts were off the charts and the Vikings had a private workout with him at LSU. At 6'5" 252 pounds, Hunter still managed to broad jump 10-10 and corralled a vertical jump of 36.5 inches. These types of measurables are very impressive for a defensive end entering the NFL. He only played two years of high school football and just three years at the college level. If he can learn to use his physical advantages to rush the passer, he has the potential to be attacking the quarterback on a consistent basis. Hunter will need work on his technique and football awareness, but he certainly has all the tools to translate nicely in Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme. It might take some time, but it certainly could be worth the wait.

Justin Trattou

Justin Trattou spent the majority of the season on the practice squad, but was promoted near the end of the year to the 53-man roster. He didn't have any notable accomplishments, but did show some potential in the preseason and training camp. Trattou is a very aggressive player who is quick for his body frame. Not to mention, he has the strength to handle the physicality of the NFL. He will have another chance to audition among young and unproven players at this position group. 

Caesar Rayford

After stops across the CFL, arena football leagues, and two NFL teams, Caesar Rayford has landed with the Minnesota Vikings. GM Rick Spielman watched him work out at the NFL Veteran's Combine and decided to sign him to a contract. At 6'7", 265 pounds, Rayford has the frame to play defensive end, but we simply haven't seen enough film to analyze his abilities at this point. 

Leon Mackey 

Leon Mackey is another interesting prospect the Vikings signed to a futures contract in the spring. Mackey played at Hinds Community College before transferring to Texas Tech for two seasons. He hasn't played in the NFL and spent time in the Arena Football League last year. Mackey has limited tape available, but he is most known for being a solid player in the AFL. Training camp will be a time to see where Mackey is at as he begins his quest to join the NFL.

B.J. Dubose

The Vikings selected B.J. Dubose in the sixth round of the draft and he could play a variety of positions on the defensive line. Dubose could line up at defensive end or three technique, but it all comes down to his comfort level. He won't blow anyone away with his athleticism, but his lower body strength has defensive end written all over it. I'm not so sure his skill-set can translate to the NFL level. Nonetheless, the Vikings have indicated they like his work ethic and ability to be coachable.

As a whole, the Vikings defensive end group will need to see some young and unproven players step up this season. Scott Crichton and Danielle Hunter might be thrown into the fire early for some limited rotational snaps. We won't be able to truly analyze the growth these players have made until they practice and perform in the preseason. With Everson Griffen and Brian Robison as veteran leaders, the hope is that at least one of these young players can take the next step as a member of this defensive system. It might not be a quick and immediate process, but it might not be as far away as one may think. 

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