2014 Vikings draft preview: Defensive line

Recent Pittsburgh star Aaron Donald might be one defensive lineman who's simply too talented for the Vikings to pass up early in the upcoming NFL Draft.

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FOX Sports North’s Brian Hall provides complete coverage of the Vikings and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. Today is the eighth day of his Vikings draft previews. You can find the entire series here.

TODAY’S POSITION: DEFENSIVE LINE

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 6

On the roster

The long-expected makeover of the defensive line was sweeping and dramatic. Gone are longtime stalwarts Kevin Williams and Jared Allen. The youth movement has taken effect. Letroy Guion, never a fit at nose tackle, was released. Brian Robison, signed to a four-year extension in October, is the only starter returning.

In their place, Everson Griffen was signed to a big money extension to take Allen’s starting spot and be a full-time starter for the first time in his career. The next major move was to open free agency by getting the big nose tackle Minnesota has needed for years. Linval Joseph was a vital piece to coach Mike Zimmer’s defense. Sharrif Floyd, last year’s first-round pick, should step into a starting role.

Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman weren’t done though. Fred Evans was brought back as a reserve tackle. The Vikings signed Tom Johnson to backup at tackle and Corey Wootton, a former starter for the Bears, at defensive end to give Zimmer rotational depth.

Minnesota also brings back tackle Chase Baker and ends Justin Trattou and Spencer Nealy. Kheeston Randall, who spent time with Zimmer in Cincinnati last year, was signed this offseason.

Complete Vikings 2014 draft coverage

Last five defensive linemen drafted

Philosophy at the position

Zimmer’s defenses call for different responsibilities of the defensive line than the line under Leslie Frazier, most notably at nose tackle. Joseph will try to contain two gaps, allowing the rest of the line to do control the running game and bring a team-oriented pass rush. Joseph also has the athletic ability, despite his size, to collapse the pocket. In Zimmer’s eyes, the nose tackle is the key.

The times of Allen peeling off one edge to get to the quarterback is over now, too. Zimmer wants his defensive ends to focus on stopping the run first, setting the edge of the line and rushing the passer second. Robison is proven in this role. Griffen will be asked to adapt. He’s mainly been a pass rusher. With Griffen and Robison holding the edge, Joseph taking up blockers, Floyd will try to assume the Geno Atkins role as an inside disruptor.

The Vikings have made their changes and invested a lot into the remaking of the line with Robison, Griffen and Joseph the foundation going forward.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Aaron Donald, senior, Pittsburgh (6-foot-1, 285 pounds): Speaking of Atkins, the All-Pro defensive tackle for Zimmer in Cincinnati, no one in the draft draws more comparison than Donald, a highly-productive senior. Donald’s name has been abuzz in the weeks leading up to the draft, and Minnesota has been mentioned as a potential match. At first, the connection would seem curious. The Vikings have other needs and have Floyd, a first-rounder just a year ago.

But we’re not sure how the current regime feels about Floyd, and maybe they feel Donald is the type of prospect that can’t be passed up on. Some draft evaluators believe Donald is one of the best defensive tackles to come out in several years. A unanimous All-American last year, Donald won the Outland Trophy for college football’s best interior lineman, along with the Bronko Nagurski Award for best defender and Rotary Lombardi Award for best defensive linemen or linebacker.

Donald, a four-year starter, led the NCAA in tackles for loss last season and posted the fourth-highest total in NCAA history for his career. He added 11 sacks and is the type of inside pass-rusher that cause defensive coordinators to drool. After a standout career, he really stood out at the Senior Bowl and was nearly unblockable. Then he went to the NFL Scouting Combine in February and posted the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.68 seconds) of all defensive tackles and his 35 reps on the bench press were the second-most among all defensive linemen and just one behind the leader.

Simply put, he has the production, the game film and the measurables to stand out among the best prospects in this draft. He’s quick off the snap, disruptive in the middle of the line, has good footwork with quick feet and is considered tough and competitive. The only negatives might be his stature at 6-foot-1, 285 pounds and he’s been handled in the running game at times, negated by double teams.

Said Donald of the comparisons to Atkins: "I love the way he plays. I watched him a lot, watched him a lot my junior year in college. Explosive, fun to watch, he just makes a ton of plays. What he’s doing in the NFL is amazing. It’s an honor to even be compared to a guy like that."

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Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Kareem Martin, senior, North Carolina (6-6, 272): Another comparison to a player in Zimmer’s past. Martin is a big defensive end with long arms. He’s had success as a pass rusher, but is considered a complete player who’s strong against the run. In many ways, he’s similar to Michael Johnson, who was with Zimmer in Cincinnati. Johnson was a former double-digit sack artist who really excelled last season in defending the run.

The likely connections were made when Zimmer became Minnesota’s head coach and Johnson entered free agency. But the Vikings re-signed Everson Griffen and Johnson went to Tampa Bay. Yet, Griffen is still known more for his pass-rushing and the Vikings could add more depth, and future considerations, by drafting Martin perhaps in the third round.

Martin was fifth in the nation last year by averaging 1.70 tackles for loss per game, finishing with 21.5 tackles for loss and adding 11.5 sacks. A former prep hurdler and high jumper, he led all defensive linemen and would have finished second among linebackers at the scouting combine with a broad jump of 10 feet, 9 inches. His 35.5-inch vertical leap was best among linemen.

Martin was a three-year starter. He’s considered a good tackler and is smart, showing a knack for diagnosing plays and reading run or pass. He could become stronger, but he’s athletic and brings a complete game. He can hold up as a defender in the run game, while continuing to refine his pass-rushing skills.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Zach Moore, senior, Concordia-St. Paul (6-5, 269): The local product has seemingly come out of nowhere, but NFL teams are very aware of Moore. He was the first player in school history to be invited to the scouting combine. Moore was a finalist for the Cliff Harris Division II player of the year award after a senior season at Concordia that included 9.5 tackles for loss, seven saves and two forced fumbles.

Moore is tall and strong and plays with good lean and athleticism in coming off the edge. He ran a 4.84-second 40-yard dash at the combine and had one of the best efforts among defensive lineman in the broad jump, leaping 123 inches. He’s played in 4-3 and 3-4 defenses and could be seen as an outside linebacker prospect for a 3-4, as well.

Moore has the skills and room to grow with further coaching and NFL teams will see the untapped potential. Of course, he could get stronger and he hasn’t seen elite competition while playing in Division II. He’s raw but has the tools to develop.

Said Moore of when he believed he would have a chance at the NFL: "It was after my junior season, the season I had 14 sacks and I started generating some buzz. At first I didn’t really have a clear thought of it. I just wanted to play football. As the season progressed, more and more scouts started to come in. Then I realized I could take this thing pretty far."

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