Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Our next installment of our Vikings Free Agency Primer series: The Defensive Ends

At first glance, defensive end is the least of the Vikings’ concerns heading into 2017. Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, and Brian Robison are all under contract through next season, and the team’s only unrestricted free agent at the position—Justin Trattou—can likely be signed for the veteran’s minimum or replaced by another bargain player (Trattou appeared in all 16 games last season, but did not record a tackle).

The other Viking who could be a factor at defensive end is Stephen Weatherly. Weatherly appeared in just two games as a rookie, and it’s difficult to gauge if/how he’ll factor into the conversation in 2017.

From the outset, the Vikings look set at end; the rotation is comprised of three of the better players not just on the defense, but the entire team. But at closer examination, Robison’s contract and age, plus the emergence of Hunter, raise the question of whether the team will make a move to clear cap space and move the third-year phenom into the starting lineup.

LAST SEASON

Griffen resumed his role as the vocal and emotional leader of the defensive front, tallying 36 tackles and 8 sacks en route to his second Pro Bowl. But Hunter, in his sophomore season, was right on Griffen’s heels; the 22 year-old led the Vikings with 12.5 sacks and added 32 tackles while displaying the freakish athletic gifts that make him destined for an every-down role—and eventual stardom—in the NFL. Still, at age 33, Robison held Hunter off as the starting left end for one more season at least. Robison himself had quite the season, starting all 16 games and registering 7.5 sacks, and making enough splashy plays to remind us he still has something left.

There’s a decision that needs to be made on the left side, but for the Vikings, it’s a good problem to have. At defensive end, the team has a three-headed monster that most NFL teams would covet: the Pro Bowl lead dog in his prime on the right side, the ten-year vet playing the best football of his career on the left, and the young, hungry monster joining them in pass-rushing situations and capably spelling either position whenever necessary.

But it begs the question: how long can the team afford to keep Hunter out of the starting lineup, and at what point is limiting his snaps actually doing the defense a disservice? And, another year older, how long can Robison continue to play at a high level?

THE SITUATION

To most observers, it’s obvious Danielle Hunter has earned a chance to start. Robison knows this, too; he said as much in an interview with the Star Tribune after the season:

“He’s probably done enough to earn a starting position next year so I’m very proud of him,” Robison said. “He’s done a lot of good work.”

“We’re going to have to battle it out during OTAs and things like that. But he’s a heck of a player and he’s got a bright future.”

It’s also important to point out not everyone thought Robison had a great season in 2016. Pro Football Focus gave him a 46.1 season grade, ranking 89th among defensive ends.

Rather than squabble about the validity of PFF‘s rating system, as fans often do and Robison seemed to do a little on Twitter Wednesday, I like to use it as one metric—one of many—to help shape the analysis of a player. Not infallible, but not worthless, either. And PFF was not impressed with Robison’s season, especially against the run (ranked 103rd overall). Still though, the point of Robison’s aforementioned mini Twitter rant was that any rating system or observer that isn’t affiliated with the team doesn’t know the scheme or assignments, and thus can never be fully accurate in grading a player’s performance. I for one agree with him wholeheartedly, which is why I would give more weight to the opinion of the Vikings’ coaching staff in this regard. And based on their comments throughout the season and their refusal to remove him from the starting lineup, it’s obvious they liked what they saw.

But realistically, it’s time for Hunter to start, and that means moving Robison to a reserve role. On one hand, the fact that Hunter is still on his rookie contract—he’ll make just $792,805 in 2017—gives them the leeway to spend more frivolously in the short term. But on the other, $6.6 million is a lot to pay a backup entering the twilight of his career, which is why there’s a chance Robison could be cut before the season. The ideal situation would be for him to restructure; save the team some money in the short term and allow him to finish out his contract, and potentially his career, with the Vikings. But contract restructuring is a tricky business, and the viability varies on a case-to-case basis.

(All cap numbers are courtesy of Spotrac.com.)

What the team decides to do with Brian Robison is the big wildcard for the defensive line heading into 2017.

POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS

According to Spotrac, here are the possible unrestricted free agents at the defensive end position:

PlayerAgeTeam2016 Salary (Average)
Calais Campbell30ARI$11,000,000
Jason Pierre-Paul28NYG$10,000,000
Mario Williams32MIA$8,500,000
Jabaal Sheard27NE$5,500,000
Glenn Dorsey31SF$4,362,500
Chris Baker29WAS$3,000,000
Charles Johnson30CAR$3,000,000
Andre Branch27MIA$2,750,000
Chris Long31NE$2,375,000
Vance Walker29DEN$2,000,000
Stephen Paea28CLE$1,900,000
Mario Addison29CAR$1,280,000
Lawrence Guy26BAL$1,150,000
Jack Crawford28DAL$1,100,000
Tony Jerod-Eddie26SF$1,000,000
Cullen Jenkins36WAS$985,000
Antonio Smith35HOU$985,000
Darryl Tapp32NO$985,000
Evander Hood30WAS$935,000
Margus Hunt29CIN$917,776
Wallace Gilberry32CIN$885,000
Justin Trattou28MIN$810,000
Billy Winn27DEN$760,000
Cam Thomas30LA$760,000
Kendall Reyes27KC$760,000
C.J. Wilson29CHI$760,000
Jarvis Jenkins28KC$760,000
John Hughes28TB$760,000
Damion Square28LAC$725,000
Damontre Moore24SEA$675,000
Greg Scruggs26NE$667,500
William Gholston25TB$640,136
Devin Taylor27DET$615,146
Cornelius Washington27CHI$565,947

STAND OUTS

Like many positions, that’s a lot of names. Even if, the Vikings part ways with Robison, they won’t make a big splash in free agency. They could, however, be looking for a bargain-level replacement for Robison or Trattou or both. Here are a few thoughts on some of the names that stand out:

Calais Campbell & Jason Pierre-Paul: The top two defensive ends on the open market, both will command contracts nearing $10+ million per year (for example, Spotrac has JPP’s market value at $14.6 million). I mention them simply to point out the Vikings won’t have interest in anyone in this tier.

Charles Johnson: Another 10-year veteran, Johnson was once a double-digit sack guy who has slowed down in the past two years. This is the type of player the Vikings could target if Robison refuses to restructure or they cut him outright; Johnson made $3 million last year, and could be a serviceable backup and rotational player at a reasonable price.

Margus Hunt: Hunt spent four seasons in Cincinnati, so he overlapped with Mike Zimmer, which lends itself to natural speculation. Hunt has never contributed much in the stat column, but has excellent size (6’8″, 277 lbs), and shouldn’t cost much. A player to keep an eye on if the team has a reserve spot to fill.

Wallace Gilberry: Another player who Zimmer coached with the Bengals, but Gilberry is 32 and seriously slowing. A cheap option, but only a speculative one.

MOVING FORWARD

The Vikings set up better at defensive end than they are most positions, but the Robison question looms large. My personal preference would be for the team to retain Robison, either at a reduced salary or the full amount he’s owed; he’s shown he can still be productive, and at the very least, last year showed us the importance of having depth at every position. Plus, a move out of the starting role could help keep Robison fresh and extend his career. There has been speculation the team will cut him, but it seems unwise to unnecessarily diminish the strength of the position, especially given the flexibility provided by Hunter’s team-friendly contract.

The other big question is Stephen Weatherly. The 2016 seventh-round pick is the long, rangy type of player Zimmer loves, but he was too raw to contribute as a rookie. Whether he’s able to step into a role of any type in 2017—either as a reserve or a situational pass-rusher—remains to be seen, but it would be a welcome boost to an already strong position.