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Breaking Down The Defensive Depth Chart – Pre Training Camp

Photo – Aj Mansour (KFAN)

Minneapolis, MN – As the Minnesota Vikings plan to kick off their 48th-straight summer in Mankato, MN, it’s time to take a closer look at the roster that the team will bring with them when Training Camp starts on Friday morning. Today we will break down the defensive side of the ball, taking a look at (a) the current depth chart at each position, (b) biggest risers at each position and then (c) the player at each position with the most to prove as Training Camp trudges along.

Here goes nothing…

Right Defensive End:
1. Jared Allen – 10th year (Idaho State)
2. Everson Griffen – 4th year (USC)
3. George Johnson – 4th year (Rutgers)
4. Collins Ukwu – Rookie (Kentucky)

There are no questions surrounding the right defensive end starting job, it’s Jared Allen’s job to lose. Allen, who is entering the final year of his six-year deal with the Vikings has a lot to prove in 2013 after a disappointing, injury laden 2012 campaign. It will be a contract year for Allen who may be looking for one final contract before he rides off into the sunset of retirement.

MOST TO PROVE – Everson Griffen: With both Jared Allen and Brian Robison (left defensive end) playing out the final years of their contracts in 2013 Everson Griffen (who is also a free agent in 2014) should be treating this season as an audition for a potential starting job with the Vikings in 2014. Griffen, who is also a standout special teams player, tallied 8 sacks in limited repetitions last season and seems to be ready to burst onto the scene if the opportunity is given.

Right Defensive Tackle:
1. Kevin Williams – 11th year (Oklahoma State)
2. Sharrif Floyd – Rookie (Florida)
3. Christian Ballard – 3rd year (Iowa)
4. Everett Dawkins – Rookie (Florida State)

When DT Sharrif Floyd dropped to the Minnesota Vikings with the 23rd pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Rick Spielman saw an immediate solution to a problem on his defensive line. With Allen, Robison and Kevin Williams all playing out the final year’s of their contracts this season, Sharrif Floyd fit an almost immediate need on the Vikings d-line. For now, that need will not be realized until next season and for at least one year, Floyd will be playing behind Kevin Williams. The senior-most player on the Vikings roster, Williams was decently effective in 2012 tallying 2.0 sacks and 30 tackles as he saw his reps in the middle limited in an effort to keep him fresh.

MOST TO PROVE – Sharrif Floyd: While he’ll surely spend most of the 2013 season behind Kevin Williams on the depth chart, it is likely that, for the second straight year, Williams’ reps on the field will be monitored and limited. This opportunity will give Floyd a chance to gain in-game experience and provide coaches a nod of confidence as he may be in line to inherit that starting position as soon as next season.

Left Defensive Tackle:
1. Letroy Guion – 6th year (Florida State)
2. Fred Evans – 7th year (Texas State)
3. Chase Baker – 1st year (Boise State)
4. Anthony McCloud – Rookie (Florida State)

The Left Defensive Tackle position is the only spot on the Vikings d-line with one-year of security past the 2013 season. Letroy Guion, who is signed through the 2014 season, filled in to the revolving door position that has been left DT since Pat Williams retired in 2010 (officially retiring in 2012). Guion recorded 2.0 sacks and 31 tackles in 2012 and is looking to build even more in his second-year as a starter.

MOST TO PROVE – Fred Evans: While his off-the-field reputation has tagged his as the best dancer on the team, on-the-field Evans has had difficulty cracking into the starting rotation with the Vikings. For seven years, Evans has played second-fiddle to other defensive tackles who have come and gone. Playing out the final year of his contract in 2013, this is an important year for Evans who was thought to have been close to competing with Guion for the starting job in 2012.

Left Defensive End:
1. Brian Robison – 7th year (Texas)
2. Lawrence Jackson – 6th year (USC)
3. D’Aundre Reed – 2nd year (Arizona)
4. Marquis Jackson – Rookie (Portland State)

With 8.0 sacks in 2011 and 8.5 in 2012, Brian Robison has done more than enough to solidify his place in the starting lineup book ending the defensive line with Jared Allen. The addition of a veteran in Lawrence Jackson gives the Vikings much needed depth but will likely do little to push Robison for the starting job.

MOST TO PROVE – Brian Robison: Heading into the final year of his deal, with the potential of NOT playing on the opposite side of Jared Allen next season, Brian Robison needs to prove his worth as an individual player this season for the Vikings. One of the hardest workers on the team, nobody will doubt that Robison will put in maximum effort, but that work off the field needs to translate into a little more production if Robison hopes to land a big deal with the Vikings after this season.

Right Cornerback:
1. Xavier Rhodes – Rookie (Florida State)
2. A.J. Jefferson – 4th year (Fresno State)
3. Marcus Sherels – 3rd year (Minnesota)
4. Greg McCoy – 1st year (TCU)
5. Roderick Williams – Rookie (Alcorn State)

The 26th overall draft selection of CB Xavier Rhodes came with little to no push back as Rick Spielman and the Minnesota Vikings addressed an area of need through the draft. That said, the plan heading into the year will be to start an unproven rookie cornerback opposite of a still largely unproven veteran cornerback (Chris Cook). That doesn’t exactly sound like an automatic recipe for success considering the quarterbacks and receivers that litter the NFC North.

MOST TO PROVE – Xavier Rhodes: This one is obvious. A rookie cornerback who will regularly lineup against Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and Brandon Marshall, Xavier Rhodes will have to be all that he was touted to be out of college to hold his own in this division. So far you should like what you may have seen (or heard about) from Rhodes in Mini Camp and OTAs but Xavier has yet to display what is supposedly his top asset, physicality. A fast, big, physical corner, Rhodes has yet to show us the full package as the team has yet to strap on pads and hit. Looking again at that list of opponents he will be facing, this remains an uphill battle for a rookie cornerback who is hoping that the adjustment period is brief.

Left Cornerback:
1. Chris Cook – 4th year (Virginia)
2. Josh Robinson – 2nd year (Central Florida)
3. Jacob Lacey – 5th year (Oklahoma State)
4. Brandon Burton – 3rd year (Utah)
5. Bobby Felder – 1st year (Nicholls State)

Heading into week one against the Detroit Lions, Chris Cook will be slotted in as the starting cornerback on the left side of the field. Cook will likely draw favorable match ups with Xavier Rhodes lined up on the opposite side but with Josh Robinson slowly making a name for himself amongst the coaches, Cook will have a little pressure on him this year and the Vikings will have depth at a position where it will be greatly needed.

MOST TO PROVE – Chris Cook: Playing out the final year of his rookie contract, whether it’s fair or not, Chris Cook is still largely thought of first and foremost as the Minnesota Vikings who alledgedly choked his girlfriend two years ago. With zero career interceptions, Cook has a lot to prove heading into 2013. His production did jump up in 2012 and his instincts seem to be where they were thought to be when he was drafted 34th overall in 2009.

Strong Safety:
1. Jamarca Sanford – 5th year (Mississippi)
2. Mistral Raymond – 3rd year (South Florida)
3. Robert Blanton – 2nd year (Notre Dame)
4. Darius Eubanks – Rookie (Georgia Southern)

For the second straight training camp, the fight for the starting strong safety position might be the most interesting battle on the team. Last season injuries sidelined Mistral Raymond, who originally won the starting job, and Jamarca Sanford jumped in and took the most of the opportunity earning him my nod at the top of the SS depth chart heading into Training Camp. With 66 tackles and 5 passes deflected last season, Sanford had a solid year for the Vikings. But the biggest asset that Sanford brings to the table is not necessarily seen by the untrained eye. Behind the scenes and inside the huddle, Jamarca is one of the Vikings’ most vocal leaders on either side of the ball. That intangible is something that coaches love and its in-game impact cannot be measured through statistics and game film.

MOST TO PROVE – Mistral Raymond: Whether it was fair or not, Raymond lost his starting job last year after a foot injury sidelined him for a handful of games. Raymond never returned to be 100% in 2012 so health will be a big thing to watch in 2013. That said, Raymond is now playing from behind as Jamarca Sanford made an impact opposite of Harrison Smith last season. The coaches like Raymond’s size (6’1″, 202 lbs) but he will have to prove his skills are still sharp if he hopes to earn his starting spot back from Sanford.

Free Safety:
1. Harrison Smith – 2nd year (Notre Dame)
2. Andrew Sendejo – 3rd year (Rice)
3. Brandon Bishop – Rookie (North Carolina State)

Not much of a competition this season at the Free Safety position as Harrison Smith almost instantly solidified his firm grip on the starting position. With 74 tackles, 3 interceptions (2 returned for TD) and a fumble recovery in 2012, Harrison Smith splashed in a big way during his rookie campaign. Smith’s opportunistic, aggressive style of play has both helped and hurt him throughout his one-year career and with one season under his belt, it is thought that maturity will only help Smith’s game evolve.

MOST TO PROVE – Harrison Smith: Smith made headlines for good and bad reasons in 2012. While statistically he wowed, he also drew some negative attention from the league racking up a few fines for late and overly aggressive hits. Smith needs to take the next step into NFL maturity and turn those hits from illegal to legal so that they will not hurt his team. Still, he’s a stud.

Left Linebacker:
1. Chad Greenway – 8th year (Iowa)
2. Audie Cole – 2nd year (North Carolina State)
3. Marvin Mitchell – 7th year (Tennessee)
4. Tyrone McKenzie – 3rd year (South Florida)

No surprises on the left side of the linebacking corps, Chad Greenway again tops the Vikings depth chart. With 98 tackles, Greenway led the Vikings last season and also found time to chip in 3.0 sacks, an interception and two fumble recoveries. Depth will be a little bit of a concern across the linebacking corps this season for the Vikings so it will be important that a veteran leader like Greenway stays healthy.

MOST TO PROVE – Audie Cole: A seventh round selection for the Minnesota Vikings in 2012, Audie Cole has been impressing coaches and making a bit of a name for himself throughout the last calendar year. Reporting this year with a new short hair cut, Cole will be looking to take the most of a fortunate opportunity this year. While experience is not one of his strong suits right now, Cole proved during last year’s preseason that instincts are. Audie will benefit most from being active all year long this season and from the extra repetitions he will receive from being second in line on the left side.

Middle Linebacker:
1. Desmond Bishop – 7th year (California)
2. Erin Henderson – 5th year (Maryland)
3. Audie Cole – 2nd year (North Carolina State)
4. Michael Mauti – Rookie (Penn State)

Most of the offseason attention over the past few months has been aimed squarely towards Erin Henderson and the middle linebacker position. Through most of the summer, Erin Henderson was preparing and expecting to be the middle linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings. That is until the team signed a one-year deal with Desmond Bishop on June 27th. The way I see it now, it’s an open competition between Henderson and Bishop, one that if he proves to be healthy Bishop will likely win. Much to the chagrin of Henderson, Bishop is more of a natural middle linebacker. Moving from the 3-4 in Green Bay to the 4-3 in Minnesota won’t be much of a problem for Bishop who made a name for himself with the Packers before a bad injury ended his year last season during the pre-season.

MOST TO PROVE – Desmond Bishop: While I think he will ultimately pull through and top the depth chart in the middle, admittedly, Bishop has a long road to go to prove that he is healthy and ready to play starting repetitions in the middle. Bishop was released by the Green Bay Packers this offseason after having suffered a torn right hamstring in which the muscle completely tore from the bone. In fact, it was the same injury that Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph suffered at Notre Dame and it took Rudolph a little over a year to fully return to be the player that he once was.

Right Linebacker:
1. Erin Henderson – 5th year (Maryland)
2. Gerald Hodges – Rookie (Penn State)
3. Larry Dean – 3rd year (Valdosta State)
4. Nathan Williams – Rookie (Ohio State)

With Desmond Bishop slotted into the middle on my depth chart, that moves Erin Henderson back to the right side, will linebacker position. With 80 tackles and 3.0 sacks last season, Henderson has proven to be an effective linebacker on the weak side and if given the opportunity will do his darnedest to prove that he belongs on the field. Depth is another issue on the right side as in second-string right now sits rookie LB Gerald Hodges.

MOST TO PROVE – Erin Henderson: If Henderson indeed gets beat out of the middle linebacker position by Desmond Bishop, it will surely be a gigantic shot to Erin’s ego. If it plays out this way, Henderson will have a lot to prove in the sense of his attitude moving back to the right side. At the end of the day he will still be a starter in the NFL, but it was undoubtedly the desire of his heart to become a middle linebacker like his brother E.J. Henderson.

Stay tuned to Thursday morning to check out Aj’s breakdown of the OFFENSIVE DEPTH CHART heading into Camp.

Minnesota Vikings Training Camp kicks off Friday morning from Minnesota State-Mankato and will run through Thursday, August 15th.

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