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Training camp is ten days away and it's time to unveil the defensive portion of the 53-man roster projection. Daniel House channels his inner Rick Spielman and makes pre-training camp cuts.
By: Daniel House
Training camp is ten days away and it's time to unveil the defensive portion of the 53-man roster projection. There are a few surprising names that will push for a roster spot at several position groups on defense. In case you missed the offensive portion, click here. The complete 53-man roster projection is at the bottom of this page.
Notable Cuts: Ifeadi Odenigbo, Stephen Weatherly
The defensive end group brings a plethora of talent to the Vikings' defense. Danielle Hunter is poised for a big season as he likely sees an increase in reps. He notched 12.5 sacks, despite playing just 58% of the defensive snaps. As he continues to evolve his pass rushing moves, Hunter's blend of freakish athleticism and length are going to make him dominant. If his snaps increase, he's on track to have a monster season in 2017. Everson Griffen and Brian Robison bring veteran experience to the defensive line room. Robison will likely play more of a rotational role this year, which will maximize his productivity. At 34 years old, Robison had 7.5 sacks in 2016 and is still effective at rushing the quarterback off the edge or inside on passing rushing downs.
Now it's time to discuss my sleeper at the defensive end position. I recently wrote about Tashawn Bower and how his athleticism and length are intriguing as a developmental pass rusher. If he can respond to coaching in camp, he'll make some noise in training camp and the preseason. Bower needs to tighten up his footwork to become more explosive out of the stance. He just needs to become more of an overall compact player, as I discussed in a recent post. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson can see the potential with Bower and if he gets it together quickly, he could edge Stephen Weatherly for the fourth defensive end spot.
Notable Cuts: Shamar Stephen, Will Sutton
The interior of the defensive line will pose one of the biggest positional battles on this roster. With Linval Joseph as the headliner, the defensive tackle spot next to him his open. Free agent signing Datone Jones is likely the favorite as he moves back inside (where he belongs). The Vikings drafted Jaleel Johnson to be a three-technique defensive tackle for the future. He can not only rush the quarterback, but is valuable against the run. He needs to play with a more consistent motor and develop more moves to complement his light feet/strong hand technique. Tom Johnson suffered a torn hamstring last year, but will return as a valuable rotational pass rusher. The Vikings need another veteran in the room and Johnson can provide this.
After those first four, it gets more complicated. Will Sutton was signed after being released by the Bears this offseason. Sutton wasn't a fit in Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense and the Vikings were eyeing him dating back to the 2014 draft. Mike Zimmer has expressed how much he likes Sutton's athleticism and ability to get after the quarterback. Sutton had a pretty inconsistent motor in his film and must learn to keep playing hard. He could push for the final spot, but must prove it truly was a system fit issue in Chicago. Shamar Stephen has been injured consistently and doesn't provide nearly as much value as a pass rusher. He is a very fundamentally sound player, which is a plus. However, the coaches will favor versatility and durability at the defensive tackle position.
Everyone is talking about Will Sutton, but undrafted rookie Dylan Bradley deserves some attention. In 2016, Bradley led Southern Mississippi with 64 tackles (15.5 for loss) and 8.5 sacks. He has NFL bloodlines as his uncle, defensive end Jason Hatcher, played 10 years in the NFL for the Cowboys and Redskins. He has developed pass rushing moves and experience at multiple spots among the defensive line. In several instances, he stood up in the defensive system and could slide to end during special sets. Bradley is a hybrid player you can get real creative with because he is fundamentally sound and very explosive.
Notable Cuts: Emmanuel Lamur
Many people have been worried about the depth the Vikings have at linebacker. However, this group has the chance to be an upgrade over last year's unit. Anthony Barr needs to have a bounce back season after a disappointing 2016 campaign. Eric Kendricks could move outside in the base 4-3 defense if Ben Gedeon makes noise in training camp. Gedeon flew under-the-radar at Michigan because of his limited tape. He is a pure run defender that can be a solid upgrade at the inside linebacker spot. Gedeon sheds blocks well, has great instincts, and is a two-down thumper at the linebacker position. He could be one of the more surprising contributors on defense this year. If the Vikings keep Eric Kendricks inside, Edmond Robinson will be the favorite to start at weakside linebacker. Robinson had a strong 2016 training camp before an injury derailed his momentum. As a player, he has impressive length, athleticism, and range. He appears to be getting more comfortable with the system.
Many people believe the Vikings will keep five or six linebackers, but they have traditionally kept six or seven. Aside from the top four, the door is wide open for two rookies and a second-year player to emerge. Emmanuel Lamur has yet to show he belongs in the conversation and will need to step up to claim a roster spot. The team drafted Elijah Lee, a player who provides value on special teams and as a coverage linebacker. He could develop into a future starter if he can add more weight and strength. Until then, he'll be a reliable special teams contributor, along with second-year linebacker Kentrell Brothers.
Finally, the sleeper at the linebacker position is Eric Wilson. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, the undrafted rookie was a tackling machine over his final two seasons at Cincinnati. He notched 129 tackles (7.5 for loss) and three sacks, en route to an All-AAC First Team selection. Wilson was an active performer on special teams and provides more value and upside than Emmanuel Lamur. Keep an eye on Wilson during training camp.
Notable Cuts: Jabari Price
The Vikings don't really have many questions surrounding the defensive back spot. Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes will play on the outside, with Terence Newman rotating in the secondary. He could play in the slot if Mackensie Alexander isn't ready or handle the outside for Trae Waynes. Newman provides stability to a group with uncertainty surrounding two young players. Alexander needs to see extended playing time to improve and Waynes took a step forward last year. There could be growing pains at the nickel cornerback position, but it will only get better as these players get more experience.
The yearly question: will Marcus Sherels make the team? This year seems more likely than ever. Sherels can be the starting punt returner and provide experience at a position that could use more depth. If the Vikings keep six cornerbacks, Tre Roberson will snatch the final spot. Roberson has great size and physicality as a cornerback. His footwork progressed throughout training camp and he was picking up pass breakups on a consistent basis. Roberson carved out a role on the practice squad after making a position switch from quarterback. If you read my training camp posts last year, you know how much I liked Roberson.
Notable Cuts: Jayron Kearse
Aside from the top two players at safety, there's less certainty about the final spots. If the Vikings decide to keep four safeties, the competition will increase. The team could elect to trim Roberson and keep Jack Tocho as a hybrid safety/cornerback. However, I anticipate Roberson to perform well in training camp and earn a spot. With that being said, Jack Tocho's versatility, toughness, and smarts will translate nicely into this defense. As I recently wrote, he was a very underrated player in college.
If Tocho earns his way onto the roster, it will be a battle between Jayron Kearse and Anthony Harris for the final spot. Both Harris and Kearse needed to add more weight to their frames this offseason. Harris has shown strides since joining the Vikings in 2015. He has performed admirably in his five starts, but needs to improve against the run (get stronger). Harris has shown he has the football IQ to learn coverages and make adjustments, which will serve him well. Jayron Kearse didn't see extended action, but struggled when he did. The Philadelphia and Chicago games stand out as poor performances. He was out of position and got exploited in the background. As a whole, he has all the length and athleticism, but is still very rough around the edges. Ultimately, the Harris-Kearse battle will come down to who had a better offseason and executes in training camp.
Many people are just handing the job to the veterans in the room. I'm not ready to do this. Marshall Koehn reportedly performed well in mini-camp and has a massive leg. Kai Forbath is accurate, but doesn't have range. Koehn also can provide an upgrade over Forbath on kickoffs.
At punter, four-year veteran Ryan Quigley is widely considered the favorite, but this spot will also present a battle. Taylor Symmank has been on the Vikings' radar dating back to last year. He averaged 46.0 yards per punt as a senior and holds the Texas Tech record for gross punting. The Red Raiders are a team that doesn't punt very much, but when they did, Symmank displayed his skills.
Here is the complete 53-man roster projection for your viewing pleasure:
For the defensive write-up, click here.