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Zulgad: Defense has plenty of question marks as training camp nears

The Minnesota Vikings will report to training camp in Mankato on Thursday afternoon and begin practice a day later.

It’s a safe assumption that much of the focus during the team’s stay in southern Minnesota will be on Christian Ponder and the expectation/hope that the third-year quarterback will continue to show the progress he did near the end of last season.

While Ponder taking a step forward will be key to the Vikings’ continued development, it’s actually on the other side of the football where many questions will need to be answered before the regular-season opener on Sept. 8 in Detroit.

Among the most pressing issues for coach Leslie Frazier and second-year coordinator Alan Williams will be determining if Erin Henderson or Desmond Bishop will be the team’s starting middle linebacker and whether second-year cornerback Josh Robinson can take over for departed veteran Antoine Winfield as the slot corner in nickel situations.

Here’s a look at the issues facing each unit of the defense:

Line: This is more a concern about the future than the present.

Ends Brian Robison and Jared Allen and tackle Kevin Williams all return but are entering the final season of their contracts and it’s a real possibility the trio could depart after 2013.

Allen signed a six-year, $73.260 million deal that included $31 million in guarantees when he joined the Vikings in 2008 and a year later helped the team reach the NFC title game. Williams, a first-round pick in 2003, has been to six Pro Bowls and Robison had a career-high 8.5 sacks in 2012.

In other words, the Vikings have gotten a nice return on all of these investments.

Both Allen and Robison played with shoulder injuries last season and that was a big reason Allen went from an NFL-best 22 sacks in 2011 to 12 last year.

The most important pending free agent on the line might be end Everson Griffen, whose rookie contract will expire after 2013. Griffen was third on the team with eight sacks last season and has taken a step forward since coming into the NFL with the well-deserved tag of being immature.

It will be interesting to see where the Vikings find playing time for first-round pick Sharrif Floyd. Floyd, who fell into the Vikings’ laps at No. 23 in the first round, is suited to play the 3-techinque but that is Williams’ position. At least it is for now.

The Vikings could try to work Floyd in alongside Williams, but the starting job probably will go to either Letroy Guion or Fred Evans. Evans is entering the final season of a two-year, $2.25 million contract.

Linebacker: Veteran Chad Greenway, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, is the starter on the strong side and that’s the only thing that’s certain.

The departure of Jasper Brinkley as a free agent to Arizona forced the Vikings to move Erin Henderson from the weak side to the middle during the offseason. However, the team signed Desmond Bishop this summer after he was released by Green Bay.

Bishop played inside in the Packers’ 3-4 defense and it would seem logical that he would be given a chance to take over in the middle in the Vikings’ 4-3 scheme. But Bishop is coming off a hamstring injury suffered last preseason that ended his 2012.

There also is the issue of how the team wants to handle Henderson, the younger brother of former Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. Erin spent the offseason saying he had every intention of taking over in the middle and there is a chance that Frazier will give him that shot when camp opens.

If Henderson struggles and Bishop proves to be healthy then a quick change could be made. In the meantime, Bishop could be tried on the outside. Veteran Marvin Mitchell, who primarily plays on special teams, also could get a shot on the weak side, if Bishop has any issues with the hamstring.

Gerald Hodges, a fourth-round pick from Penn State, could attempt to work his way into the mix but that’s probably a long shot.

Cornerback: The Vikings are going to have to hold their breath and hope for the best.

Chris Cook, who either because of injury or off-the-field issues has never played more than 10 games in a single season with the Vikings, is now the veteran of this unit (in his fourth year) and he must be able to stay on the field.

Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick from Florida State, almost certainly will end up taking over for Winfield as the starter on the left side. Rhodes is a big-time talent but he will be playing in a division that features quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Jay Cutler in Chicago and Matthew Stafford in Detroit.

In other words, there are going to be some “Welcome to the NFL” moments for him.

But the Vikings’ most pressing issue when it comes to the cornerback position might not be the two starters. Rather, it’s going to be how Robinson does in replacing Winfield playing inside in the nickel.

The NFL has become a pass-happy league and defenses now have five DBs on the field much of the time. Winfield, who elected to sign with Seattle after being released by the Vikings during the offseason, was a standout playing inside and served almost as a combination cornerback and linebacker. He might have only been 5-foot-9, but nobody hit harder.

Robinson, taken in the third round of the 2012 draft, started six games last season but is used to lining up outside. He still has plenty to learn about playing a spot that is far different than being in the traditional cornerback role.

If Robinson struggles, the most likely option to replace him would be veteran A.J. Jefferson, who was acquired from Arizona just before last season and started seven games. The Vikings’ desire will be to use Jefferson when they go to a dime look (six defensive backs).

There also is a chance the Vikings could go outside the organization for help if Robinson fails to grab the job.

Safeties: Free safety Harrison Smith gave the Vikings everything they could have wanted last season after he was taken with the 29th pick in the first round of the 2012 draft. General manager Rick Spielman’s decision to send second- and fourth-round selections to Baltimore in order to draft Smith turned out to be one of his best moves.

Smith tied Winfield for the team lead with three interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, and tied for second with 13 passes broken up in 16 games. Most importantly, Smith provided the secondary with the type of hard-hitting safety they had lacked for far too long.

Smith served notice that there would be consequences for wide receivers who decided to go over the middle.

Mistral Raymond started the first three games at strong safety alongside Smith but he was replaced by Jamarca Sanford for the final 13 games after suffering an ankle injury in Week 3 against San Francisco. The pair rotated at times as well.

Odds are the Vikings would like one to emerge in training camp as the clear-cut starter. Robert Blanton, a fifth-round pick in 2012 out of Notre Dame, also could look to enter the mix.

by Judd Zulgad

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