Projected starters: Jared Allen (ninth year), Kevin Williams (10th year), Letroy Guion (fifth year), Brian Robison (sixth year)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): Chase Baker, *Christian Ballard, *Jeff Charleston, *Fred Evans, *Trevor Guyton, Anthony Jacobs, Eric Latimore, Ernest Owusu, Tydreke Powell,*D’Aundre Reed, Nick Reed
The breakdown: Jared Allen and his league-leading 22 sacks in 2011 garner all the attention, but Minnesota’s entire defensive line is the team’s unquestioned strength. The Vikings have two former all-pros along the line and Robison had a strong season in his first year as a starter. They are also versatile, strong against the run and have the ability to get after the quarterback.
Despite the success, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar was curiously let go and replaced by Brendan Daly. Daly had been an assistant line coach with the Vikings, but was brought back after time with the St. Louis Rams. Daly’s energetic and knows the players well, especially Allen and Williams. Allen, who isn’t afraid to share his opinion at times, has supported the move and is excited to see how the line can get even better.
It would be hard for Allen to get much better after falling a half-sack shy of the NFL single-season record last year. But the veteran, four-time All-Pro said he’s been working hard to try and get back to the mark. Falling short last season has been Allen’s motivation this time around. Allen isn’t a strictly one-dimensional pass rusher, though. He can hold his ground against the run and even showed the athleticism to drop in pass coverage last year.
Robison made the Vikings’ decision to let end Ray Edwards leave a smart one. In his fifth season and first as a starter, Robison was second on the team with eight sacks, 40 quarterback hurries and also held up well in run defense. The two give Minnesota one of the best outside tandems in the entire league.
Williams started slow last season after serving a suspension and dealing with plantar fasciitis. It looked like the 31-year-old was starting to lose his effectiveness. Then he responded with five sacks and 11 tackles for loss in the final seven games and is reinvigorated heading into his 10th season. He is injury free and has been a willing participant in the offseason program, helping to lead a young defense.
The Vikings feel so good about the strength of their defensive line, they have experimented with moving Everson Griffen to linebacker. Griffen is athletic and could transition well. Last season, he spent time on the outside and inside of the defensive line and could find his way back there in certain packages, but Minnesota wants to see how he fares at linebacker.
Letroy Guion and Fred Evans will compete to start alongside Williams at defensive tackle. Remi Ayodele, signed as a free agent last season to replace Pat Williams was a failure and Guion and Evans will need to step up to take pressure off the rest of the line. The Vikings must feel good about their depth with second-year tackle Christian Ballard and second-year end D’Aundre Reed. They also drafted Trevor Guyton in the seventh round this season and are bringing several defensive linemen to training camp.
Best position battle: Minnesota has been searching for a viable replacement for Pat Williams since letting the big tackle go following the 2010 season. Ayodele was a bust last season and Guion and Evans ended up taking a lot of the playing time at the defensive tackle spot next Williams. Now the two will battle for the starting spot and will likely again rotate this season. The Vikings believe Guion, a fifth-round pick in 2008, is still developing and like how he has progressed in the past year. He should win the starting job, but will have to hold off Evans. Guion’s play might also dictate how much Evans is used in a rotation. Guion isn’t the big body that Williams used to be. But between Guion and Evans, Minnesota hopes to attract enough offensive attention and be durable enough in run defense to keep double-teams off of Williams, Allen and Robison.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Vikings; 2. Lions; 3. Bears; 4. Packers. The first three teams in the rankings run a 4-3 defense, so the comparisons are a little simpler. Green Bay features a three-man front. But the defensive line also might be the Packers’ weak link, though they committed a second-round pick to Jerel Worthy and are hoping for a comeback by B.J. Raji. Chicago’s line is stout against the run, but doesn’t offer much of a pass-rushing threat aside from standout Julius Peppers. The Bears added pass-rusher Shea McClellin in the first round to help. Detroit has a very strong front with good potential. Ndamukong Suh can be a terror inside. Kyle Vanden Bosch is a solid veteran on the outside. Defensive end Cliff Avril is in a contract dispute and Nick Fairley hasn’t shown the willingness to get the most out of his talent after being a first-round draft pick last year. In the end, no team can match Minnesota’s combined pass-rushing and run-stopping prowess.
Allen says: “You got to have fun while you’re doing this. Brendan Daly was here in ‘08 when I was first here so I have a pretty good relationship with him and I know him pretty well. I’m excited to see how he’s developed as a coach and get to work with him. I always feel like you can learn new things and it’s always nice to have a different perspective of communication. Maybe he views something that I can do better or vice-a-versa, so, for me, the game of football is always evolving so therefore I’m always trying to evolve and keep my craft at what I do within the set box of what I’m capable of doing so I’m excited to work with him.”