OFFSEASON PREVIEW: The Run Stoppers
[NOTE FROM ADAM: This is another installation of my position-by-position breakdown of the Vikings offseason. You can click the links to view previous installments: The Passers, The Runners, The Wide Outs, The Tight Ends, and The Offensive Line.]
After covering each position on the offense, it is time to turn our attention towards the defensive side of the ball.
On offense the Vikings experienced no coaching turnover, but that is not the case on defense. New Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams will have Leslie Frazier and Mike Singletary looking over his shoulder. Fred Pagac has moved back to his old post in charge of the linebackers. Defensive Line Coach Karl Dunbar was sent packing, and the enthusiastic Brendan Daly.
Even with the changes within the coaching staff, the Vikings are largely expected to stay the course from a scheme standpoint. From a personnel standpoint, however, things could be changing.
Defensive tackles are up first.
Let’s take a closer look.
Even in a down year, the Vikings defensive line continued to be one of the most talented and dynamic parts of this roster. Like every other part of this roster, they had their fair share of troubling performances, but they also showed enough promise to remain hopeful for things to come.
The usually staunch run defense slipped in 2011. They were ranked outside the top ten for the first time in a long time, due in large part to Pat Williams remaining unemployed after his contract expired. It can easily be argued that choosing not to bring back the league’s oldest defensive player was a justifiable move, but the failure to properly replace him became a problem.
The Vikings ended the season by giving up an average of 107 rushing yards per game. The offense, however, did this rushing defense few favors as opposing teams were able to rush often against the Vikings and still feel comfortable when looking at the scoreboard.
The truth is that the Vikings only gave up 3.9 yards per rushing attempt, tied for sixth best in the league, and only allowed 10 rushing touchdowns which is again tied for sixth. The longest run they gave up all season long was only 28 yards, and they only gave up 10 rushes of 20 or more yards, both of which are top ten statistics.
The truth is that this was still a solid defense against the run, but the defensive tackles sure seemed to take a very real step backwards in 2011.
Kevin Williams rebounded slightly from a miserable 2010 campaign. He ended 2011 with 38 tackles, 5 sacks, two defended passes, and a forced fumble. His age might be catching up with him, and he missed games for the first time in six years, but Williams continues to be an above average option to anchor the middle of the defensive line.
Letroy Guion got a chance to step up and prove himself in 2011, but that never really happened. For the first time in his four year career, Guion played in all 16 games but only started three of them. He managed 21 tackles but registered absolutely no playmaking stats such as sacks, forced fumbles, or batted passes.
Nose tackle Fred Evans also played in all 16 games this season, starting none of them, but managed no playmaking stats either. He had 22 total tackles. Rookie Christian Ballard played in all 16 games, starting two, and managed to register only 13 tackles with, you might have guessed it, no other statistics of note.
Prior to the season’s start, the Vikings paid good money to bring in Remi Ayodele, but he ended up being even more ineffective than anybody else at the position and he had more opportunity. Ayodele played in all 16 games, starting 13 of them, but managed only 15 tackles. He did manage to notch a sack and a half, but was otherwise invisible week in and week out.
In the not-so-distant future the Vikings will need to concern themselves with replacing Kevin Williams. At the moment, however, it seems the pressing question is if they have anybody competent enough to line up next to him.
Kevin Williams has three years remaining on his contract, and is slated to make $7 million in each one of those seasons. After this season, however, the Vikings will have an option on the remaining two years of the contract. Given that Williams is still considered an upper tier defensive tackle, and the potential exists for an even better rebound in 2012, I suspect he will remain with the team for at least one more season, contrary to some speculation floating around out there.
Remi Ayodele has two years remaining on his contract with the Vikings, and he is set to make $2.2 million in each of those two seasons. Christian Ballard has three seasons left on his rookie contract and will make a very manageable salary of $465,000 in 2012.
Letroy Guion is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, and a year ago I would have said the team should re-sign him, but it has to be disappointing that he was unable to take advantage of his opportunities in 2011. If he comes cheap enough, they may still want to re-sign him with hopes that he plays up to his potential.
I certainly would not be surprised if the Vikings looked towards NFL free agency in an attempt to fill their needs at defensive tackle.
If it is a big run stuffing nose tackle they are looking for, which seems possible, then Paul Soliai of the Dolphins seems like one of the top targets possibly available. I stress the word “possibly” because he is a likely candidate to receive the franchise tag in Miami and teams that employ a 3-4 defense are likely going to be willing to pay more for his services.
Outside of Soliai, the pickings get kind of slim in terms of big nose tackles, as Sione Pouha of the Jets is going to be 33 years old and Sammie Lee Hill of the Lions will be restricted. Casey Hampton, Shaun Rogers, Antonio Garay, Aubrayo Franklin, and Kelly Gregg are all on the wrong side of 30 and won’t fit into Rick Spielman’s plans for getting younger.
One solid run stopper that could be a very interesting prospect, should he make it to free agency, is 28 year old Red Bryant out of Seattle. He has done nothing but improve in each of his four seasons in the NFL and finally became a full time starter for the Seahawks last season. He played very well against the run and managed 32 tackles, a sack, two batted passes, two interceptions, and a touchdown. This is the type of playmaking ability the Vikings desperately need from an every down defensive tackle.
Outside of those run stopping tackles, there are a number of decent, young options to consider. My favorite of the bunch is the 26 year old Jason Jones from Tennessee. After a breakout season at defensive tackle in 2010, the new coaching staff decided to move him to defensive end, and his production went way down, so he may actually hit the open market. A 4-3 team like the Vikings could really benefit from adding a guy that is young and two years ago managed 39 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three batted passes, and three forced fumbles from his interior position.
A few other younger guys with the potential to improve could end up on the Vikings radar. Keep an eye on Marcus Thomas (Denver) and Amobi Okoye (Chicago) after the first week or so of free agency.
If the Vikings determine that their solutions at defensive tackle do not currently reside on the roster, and can’t be found during free agency, then the position will doubtless become a much bigger topic as the Draft draws nearer.
Michael Brockers (LSU) and Devon Still (Penn State) should both draw first round grades. Both are unlikely to be solid values at the three-spot that the Vikings currently occupy, but a trade backwards in the first round could end up seeing one of these guys in a Vikings uniform.
More likely, however, is that the Vikings continue their tradition of drafting defensive lineman in the mid-round range.
Run stuffers like Alameda Ta’amu (Washington) or Josh Chapman (Alabama) could end up being a steal in, say, the third or fourth round. Even a little later down the line, a guy like Delvin Johnson (Marshall) could end up being the best player available when the Vikings are on the clock.
Defensive tackle is a big enough need that the Vikings could select one at just about any point in the Draft. I do, however, think that their search will center on these guys that are particularly adept at stopping the run. Kevin Williams and Christian Ballard are capable of creating an interior rush, and on passing downs Everson Griffen can step inside, so I think finding a true run stopper to replace Pat Williams one year late will be the top priority along the defensive line.
One can’t help but ignore the possibility, and the speculation that is already out there, that Kevin Williams may be asked to take a pay cut or take a hike. While I disagree with those that think this will happen, it does make a tiny amount of sense, so fans should at least be prepared to hear that news.
I think the Vikings also need to pay particular attention to the level at which the Lions tender restricted free agent Sammie Lee Hill. Hill has been a decent rotational player, is entering his prime at age 25, and can actually create a decent pass rush. If the tender is low enough, the Vikings have enough late round picks to warrant signing him to an offer sheet to gain his services, while swiping a talented young lineman from an up-and-coming division foe.
At defensive tackle, I think Kevin Williams stays. End of story. That’s my prediction and I’m sticking to it.
After that, things get a little trickier. Reports surfaced after the 2011 season that head coach Leslie Frazier wanted to bring back Pat Williams prior to the season’s start, but Rick Spielman overruled him and instead decided to roll with Letroy Guion and sign Remi Ayodele. Spielman might just be too stubborn to admit that Ayodele was a mistake and opt to give him another year despite his considerable price tag.
Guion, on the other hand, will probably receive a better offer from the Vikings than anybody else and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him return on a short-term prove-you-deserve-it sort of deal. He shows enough promise that I think the Vikings are bound to offer him something.
Christian Ballard will remain on the roster until at least cut down day in August.
So, outside of the guys already on this roster, what do I predict? I think the Vikings will heavily pursue Jason Jones from Tennessee. Call it a hunch.
Regardless of if it is Jones or not, I do think the Vikings sign at least one mid-level guy in free agency and add him to the mix. I suspect we will also see one draft pick (between rounds 2 and 5) spent on a promising young defensive tackle, as well.
The process of finding Kevin William’s successor has to begin with bringing in young talent worthy of playing next to him. They will undoubtedly make some serious investment into the position this offseason, but I highly doubt they will over spend.