Danielle Hunter vs. Brian Robison
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

[Note: This segment is a part of a position-by-position look at what the Minnesota Vikings might be inclined to do during the 2015 free agency period. This is the ninth article, focusing on the defensive ends. In case you missed it, feel free to check out the quarterbacksrunning backstight endsfullbackswide outsspecialistssafeties, and cornerbacks.]

With free agency fast approaching, front offices are preparing to make moves that will shape their franchises in 2015 and beyond. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has never been one to sign “splashy” free agent names, but his decisions have generally been “low-risk, high-reward” moves.

This year, the Vikings will need to address their defensive ends — specifically,  the situation surrounding Brian Robison’s backup. The team drafted Oregon State’s Scott Crichton 72nd-overall in the 2014 NFL Draft hoping he’d fill that role, but the former Beaver recorded just 2 tackles in 8 games.

Robison, who turns 32 in April, is no longer capable of playing every down in every game. It’s clear that  Robison regressed in 2014, as his sack total dropped from 9.0 the previous year to 4.5. Although he played in nearly the same amount of defensive snaps (971 in 2013, 906 in 2014), he was not as effective in getting to the quarterback. While not necessarily a knock on Robison, his performance in 2014 suggests that it’s time for the team to start exploring rotational options.

On the other side of the defensive line, Everson Griffen is clearly the team’s long-term, premier pass-rushing answer. Many questioned Minnesota’s decision to sign Griffen to a $42.5 million, 5-year deal ($20 million guaranteed) last March, but the 27-year old delivered on the investment. He led the team with 12 sacks in 2014 and was the Vikings’ most disruptive defender against the run. Griffen can play every defensive snap throughout the season and does not require the same rest that Robison needs.

As for the rest of the defensive ends, five-year veteran Corey Wootton passed Crichton on the depth chart, appearing in 15 games and recording 2 sacks. His contract expires this offseason, and Wootton may be on his way out. Justin Trattou and Leon Mackey are younger rotational players who will most likely contribute on special teams.

This year’s draft class is loaded with talented edge rushers, but the Vikings will need to address more pressing needs with the 11th-overall pick. Look for the team to add defensive line depth in the later rounds, and if possible, make a few minor moves in free agency to acquire the rotational player they covet.

Below, courtesy of Sportrac, is a list of the Vikings’ potential defensive end free agent targets and their 2014 cap hits. On March 10th, teams can begin signing players or trading players still under contract:

Free Agents

Robert Geathers DE 31 CIN TBD $2,700,000 UFA
Adrian Clayborn DE 26 TB TBD $2,612,325 UFA
Anthony Spencer DE 31 DAL TBD $1,296,875 UFA
George Selvie DE 27 DAL TBD $730,000 UFA

The market is thin — the Vikings won’t be in contention for top free agents like Kansas City’s Justin Houston or Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes. As noted above, the team is not looking to add a starting defensive end to the roster. Rather, they need to add depth and acquire a player who can step in rotationally and contribute immediately.

A quick look at each player’s potential value to the Vikings:

ROBERT GEATHERS: The 11-year veteran was released by the Cincinnati Bengals last week after an underwhelming performance in 2014. Geathers tallied 1 sack and 1 interception while appearing in 16 games. Geathers is an older player and demands too much money to be considered a realistic, long-term option for the Vikings.

ADRIAN CLAYBORN: Clayborn’s 2014 season ended as quickly as it began; he was placed on Injured Reserve after suffering a biceps injury in Week 1. Clayborn has battled injuries throughout his short career, missing 13 games in 2012 and 15 games in 2014. While healthy, Clayborn has flashed the ability that made him a star at Iowa — he finished the 2013 season with 5.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. With his injury history and age, Clayborn may be a relatively inexpensive option for the Vikings to consider.

ANTHONY SPENCER: Like Clayborn, Spencer has dealt with his fair share of injuries. In 2014, he returned from microfracture surgery on his left knee. He started the season slow, but finished with 25 tackles and 17 quarterback pressures. In the Cowboys’ two playoff games, Spencer had a team-high 7 quarterback pressures and 1 sack. Spencer’s solid finish to the season should leave little doubt that he is fully recovered from surgery — will the Vikings be convinced come March 10th?

GEORGE SELVIE: Selvie joins Spencer as the Cowboys’ other defensive end free agent, and is best served in a backup role. He finished 2014 with 3 sacks and has started 29 of 32 games with the team. In a debate of who the better Cowboy is, Selvie supporters could argue that he has been more productive and less injury-prone than Spencer. The Vikings will need to wait and see what the Cowboys decide in the next two weeks.

Prediction

Right now, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison are the Vikings’ clear-cut starters at defensive end. After those two, things become a little more hazy. Corey Wootton will most likely become a free agent on March 10th, and Scott Crichton has yet to prove he was worthy of a third-round pick last year. Robison regressed in 2014, and will need to play in a rotation come 2015.

With that being said, Spielman and company may look to avoid signing one of the high-risk, low-reward players available in free agency. Each can contribute in some capacity, but the price may be too high with the injury history surrounding the group as a whole.

The 2015 NFL Draft appears to be the best opportunity to add needed depth behind Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. The marquee players, like Florida’s Donte Fowler Jr. and Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, will most likely be gone in the first round. However, the later rounds will be saturated with other talented edge rushers.

Expect a safe approach from Spielman, and look for our preview of the Defensive Tackles tomorrow!