Minnesota Vikings: Chase Baker
Today, we'll take a look at the defensive line.
Returning players: Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Fred Evans, Chase Baker, Spencer Nealy, Justin Trattou
Gone from last season: Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion
New this season: Linval Joseph (free agent from New York Giants), Tom Johnson (free agent from New Orleans), Corey Wootton (free agent from Chicago), Kheeston Randall (free agent from Cincinnati), Scott Crichton (third-round pick from Oregon State), Shamar Stephen (seventh-round pick from Connecticut), Rakim Cox (undrafted free agent from Villanova), Isame Faciane (undrafted free agent from Florida International), Tyler Scott (undrafted free agent from Northwestern), Jake Snyder (undrafted free agent from Virginia)
Position coach: Andre Patterson (first season)
Biggest issue: There might not be any position group on the roster that went through a bigger change this offseason than the defensive line, and after the Vikings spent considerable resources to put together a line that can play coach Mike Zimmer's system, it will be incumbent upon players to execute it. Zimmer wants his linemen to engage blockers first and stay disciplined against the run, which means Robison and Griffen, in particular, will see a change in the way their position is coached. The Vikings' old system often gave defensive ends -- particularly Allen -- the freedom to take an aggressive pass-rushing stance and charge upfield, rather than working off blockers first .Zimmer's ends typically play with a more balanced stance, and don't get to set up in a wide alignment as often as pass-rushers like Allen did in the past. Reconstructing the Vikings' line play might be one of the more important steps in Zimmer's effort to rebuild the defense.
Player to watch: It's an important year for Floyd, who will take on a more significant role at defensive tackle after an underwhelming rookie season. The 23-year-old lost weight over the winter, and will likely play more this season after staying on the field for just 39.6 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps last season. The Vikings want to see him turn into the kind of three-technique defensive end that Zimmer had in Geno Atkins while he was in Cincinnati, and it's an important year for Floyd to prove he can turn into a key piece of the defensive line.
Medical report: Joseph was limited by shoulder surgery during the Vikings' organized team activities and minicamp, but should be ready for the start of camp. Wootton had hip surgery last winter, and after playing hurt last season in Chicago, he believes he will have more pass-rushing productivity now that he has regained some of his explosiveness.
Help wanted: There is some reason to be concerned with the interior line depth, but they have a solid group of ends and will get some flexibility from a few players that can work inside or outside, like Griffen, Wootton and Crichton. As common as injuries are on the defensive line, though, the Vikings are likely always on the lookout for another body (as they were when they tried to bring Williams back this spring).
Quotable: "That group, I think, is a good group," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "There was a lot of holes there when we first came in here. We’ve added some new players to that position. One thing you always like to see is guys working together and trying to help each other, and you see that group right now coaching each other when we’re not around, helping each other, trying to talk about pointers, trying to talk about the message that we’re trying to get accomplished, what we’re trying to do schematically, defensively the fundamentals and techniques of it."
Should we be worried about def line or secondary most. Joseph surgery Floyd inconsistent & secondary reconstruction #VikingsMail— zach sween (@1Sween) June 20, 2014
@GoesslingESPN: Good morning, everyone. We'll get started here. I still think the biggest concern on the Vikings' roster at this point is the secondary, in light of how many players the Vikings are counting on to improve and how much depth teams need at that position to survive, but I think your point about the defensive line is valid. Right now, the Vikings are planning for Sharrif Floyd to have a significant workload in Year 2, and we've yet to see if he can be the kind of force at three-technique tackle that Mike Zimmer got used to having in Geno Atkins. Floyd lost weight this spring, and Zimmer said he's been happy with what he's seen so far, but OTAs and minicamp are a long way from meaningful games. Linval Joseph is supposed to be ready for the start of training camp, and it seemed like the Vikings were holding him back largely as a precaution this spring. He's been a durable player during his career, but as physically demanding as the defensive tackle position is, the Vikings have some depth questions there. It's probably part of the reason they were willing to look at bringing Kevin Williams back after not communicating with him since the start of free agency.
@GoesslingESPN: We'll stick with the defensive tackle theme here, and look at the depth question in a little more detail. Tom Johnson will be the backup three-technique tackle, with Joseph ready for training camp. Fred Evans will be the primary backup at nose tackle, and guys like Shamar Stephen and Chase Baker could factor into those positions, too. Johnson could be a sneaky pickup for the Vikings as a rotational player; he was somewhat miscast in three-man fronts with the Saints last season, but he's been an effective pass-rusher from a tackle spot in a 4-3 defense. We could also see Corey Wootton play inside at times. In the end, though, there's going to be plenty of responsibility on Floyd at three-technique.
@GoesslingESPN: Boy, I can't see it. Johnson turned 33 Friday, with three years left on a contract that includes cap hits of more than $15 million each season. The Vikings just don't have the cap space to make that work, without restructuring Johnson's contract for the second time in less than a year. They already have a 30-year-old receiver in Greg Jennings, and Cordarrelle Patterson will command a larger role in their offense this year. And what would Houston want in return? It just doesn't seem like a good fit.
@GoesslingESPN Jamarca Sanford's name hasn't really been prevalent lately. Any insight as to his role as starter?— Matt Olson (@RangeVikesFan) July 11, 2014
@GoesslingESPN: His name hasn't been prevalent because he hasn't been on the field; he missed most of the Vikings' offseason program with an injury, though he's expected to be ready for training camp. Sanford took a paycut this winter, but I still like him when he's healthy; he's been solid in coverage the past two seasons, and he played through a number of nagging injuries last season. If you're going to fault him for anything from last season, it would be several dropped interceptions. But at this point, my bet would still be on Sanford to start opposite Harrison Smith at the beginning of the season.
What is the league situation with Simpson what kind of suspension he is looking at #vikingsMail— zach sween (@1Sween) July 11, 2014
@GoesslingESPN: I inquired about this with the NFL this week, and a spokesman said they have nothing to report at this point. The league has been in the habit of slipping in suspension news on lazy Friday summer afternoons the past couple weeks (see: Spencer Nealy's four-game ban this week), but if there is going to be a suspension for Simpson, they're apparently not ready to talk about it yet. And there's a chance Simpson wouldn't be suspended since his three-game suspension in 2012 was for a drug-related arrest, and this one would be for an alcohol offense. Previous arrests can be treated as "aggravating circumstances" in the NFL's personal conduct rulings, and Simpson does face tougher probation terms after his arrest violated his initial probation, but the league could decide merely to fine Simpson, not suspend him.
We'll wrap it up there for the week. Thanks for all the great questions, everyone. Enjoy your weekend.
Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, Fred Evans, Sharrif Floyd, Everson Griffen, Chase Baker and George Johnson.
Six months later, after a sweeping set of changes precipitated by a new coaching staff, the Vikings' top eight defensive linemen currently look like this:
Robison, Floyd, Griffen, Evans, Linval Joseph, Corey Wootton, Tom Johnson and Baker, with a draft pick or two possibly coming.
Five players in that group will be 27 or younger by the start of the season. Robison and Evans will be the oldest at 31, and in Joseph, the Vikings have their first true road grader since Pat Williams.
It's a striking overhaul to a position that had been the Vikings' hallmark for years under Allen and Kevin Williams. This group still could be the identity of Mike Zimmer's defense, but it figures to be younger, nastier and tougher up the middle, befitting a defense that's designed to be structurally sound and stout against the run.
In some ways, this had been coming since last spring, when the Vikings drafted Floyd, decided not to pursue a contract extension for Allen and asked Williams to void the 2014 season on his contract while taking a $2.5 million pay cut in 2013. Both Allen and Williams sensed it at the end of the season, giving a handful of valedictory speeches in December press conferences and talking about how their relationship would continue once they were done playing together.
Allen and the Vikings decided to part ways before the start of free agency, and while general manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings would keep the door open for Willliams, it seemed obvious the Vikings had other plans. Williams said Wednesday he hadn't heard from the Vikings in a week, and the team signed Johnson to add depth at the three-technique tackle position the same day. And then, to make the inevitable somewhat official, he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Thursday night he was even more sure his time with the Vikings was over.
It's a coldly efficient way for one of the Vikings' great defensive players to see his time with the team end, but it's the order of the NFL in 2014. The Vikings have swept through their defensive line remodel with little attachment to their past, and they've come out from at least the first phase of it with a markedly different look to the group. The ultimate success of their plan will depend on young players -- most notably Griffen and Floyd -- turning their potential into legitimate production, but at some point, the Vikings had to detach from their past and attempt going in this direction.
2014 free agents: Kevin Williams, Fred Evans
The good: Though he certainly wasn't the same kind of force he was in his prime, Williams showed he could be counted on more than the Vikings had planned to do at the beginning of the year. He played 733 snaps in 15 games, averaging 48 a game after the Vikings had talked in the preseason about keeping him between 30 and 40, and posted 2 1/2 sacks from the nose tackle position when injuries necessitated he fill in there against Washington. Williams played through a knee injury after a low block from San Francisco's Joe Looney in the preseason, and was probably still the Vikings' most reliable interior lineman at the age of 33.
The bad: The Vikings didn't get much closer to figuring out their future in the middle of their line. Rookie tackle Sharrif Floyd was just OK in his first season, struggling against the run early in the season and adjusting later in the year to what opposing teams were trying to do to him. He'll likely take a step forward in his second season, but the Vikings might not be able to count on him to anchor their three-technique position if they stay in a 4-3 defense. Both Evans and Letroy Guion struggled with nagging injuries that kept them out of a combined five games; Evans will be a free agent, and Guion hasn't shown he can be a force at the nose yet.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Guion ($4.3 million), Floyd ($1.835 million), Chase Baker ($495,000). The Vikings don't have much money committed to the position, and Williams -- who has said multiple times he wants to finish his career in Minnesota -- could be a candidate to return on a one-year deal. At the same time, the Vikings would only have to count $300,000 of Guion's signing bonus against the cap if they cut him, and it seems possible they could look to go in a different direction at nose tackle or try to restructure the final year of the nose tackle's deal in exchange for more guaranteed money. The Vikings' lack of depth at the position could make it tough to cut Guion, who's at least a known commodity at the position, but it wouldn't be surprising to see them look for an upgrade at nose tackle, either. The main key at the position in 2014, though, will be how much Floyd can develop in Year 2.
Draft priority: Moderate/high. The Vikings need more depth at the position, and it's been a few years since they had a dominant middle of their defense with Kevin and Pat Williams. If a quarterback isn't there for them at No. 8, the Vikings couldn't be faulted for taking a tackle to pair with Floyd, possibly after trading down to grab an extra pick or two.
Both Peterson and Gerhart are active for the Vikings, returning from a sprained right foot and strained hamstring, respectively. Peterson will start at running back, with Gerhart backing him up, as usual. It will be interesting to see how the Vikings divide the workload between the two players. Gerhart has played well in recent weeks, and the Vikings might look to take some stress off Peterson two weeks after he sprained his foot.
The Vikings will officially be without cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who was listed as out with a sprained ankle. Shaun Prater will start in Rhodes' place at cornerback after recording his first career interception last week, but as well as Rhodes has played, the Vikings would undoubtedly like to have him to deal with A.J. Green on Sunday.
Here is the Vikings' full list of inactives:
There are no surprises with the Vikings' inactives today; Christian Ponder is out, of course, with Matt Cassel starting at quarterback and Josh Freeman backing him up. Peterson, who was questionable for the game with a strained groin -- but always expected to play -- will start.
Here is the full list of Vikings inactives:
At any rate, there are no major surprises with the Vikings' inactives today; Josh Freeman is once again inactive as the Vikings' third quarterback, and all of the players who were probable for today's game will play. Audie Cole will officially start at middle linebacker for Erin Henderson, whose Nov. 19 arrest became public this week, and Xavier Rhodes will again line up at left cornerback for Josh Robinson.
Here is the Vikings' full list of inactives:
Both players were questionable for Sunday's game -- Peterson with a strained groin, Jennings with a strained right Achilles tendon -- but both are on the active roster. Peterson and Jennings had both said they would play, but Jennings was probable for last Sunday's game in Seattle, too, and wound up on the inactive list.
He said this week he felt fresh after not playing last Sunday, and he'll get to start against his former team. In fact, it seems the Vikings will start both of their regular receivers today; they didn't announce a lineup change at receiver, which should mean Jerome Simpson is back in the lineup after the Vikings didn't start him in Seattle following his drunken driving arrest. We'll see how much they use Simpson in relation to Cordarrelle Patterson today -- and how much the cold temperatures affect their passing game -- but at the moment, it appears the Vikings might be done disciplining Simpson.
Here is the Vikings' full list of inactives:
Frazier saw it happen when he played for the Chicago Bears' 1985 championship team, and he has encountered it at different times in his career as a coach. Before his first full season as the Vikings' head coach, Frazier made it clear he wouldn't tolerate his players doing it.
The issue, of course, is a hot topic in NFL circles this week in light of what Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito allegedly did to teammate Jonathan Martin, using racial slurs and threats in the name of hazing. Martin left the team before its game on Oct. 31, and Incognito has since been suspended for conduct detrimental to the team.
Frazier said he's had veteran players try to talk him out of his rule, and he reprimanded defensive linemen Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Brian Robison for taping rookie Chase Baker and pouring ice, water and Pepto-Bismol on his head during training camp last year. Allen said there can still be a place for hazing, within reason, to keep rookies in line, pointing out that veterans made him buy fried chicken for them and put himself in danger of missing team flights when he was a rookie. But these days, linebacker Chad Greenway said, the Vikings don't do much more than make rookies bring veterans donuts and coffee.
Not that everyone gets treated the same, of course.
"After those guys saw me in training camp, they really weren't trying to bother me too much," running back Adrian Peterson said. "I think I earned their respect rather quickly."
As long as Frazier is the Vikings' coach, it seems any major form of hazing won't be tolerated.
"Everybody has their own way of doing things," he said. "Those guys that you’re messing with are guys that we're counting on to help us to win. You want the right chemistry in the locker room as well. I just didn’t see the pluses to doing it."
Safety Jamarca Sanford, whose groin injury is only the latest ailment he's had this season, seems like he will be hard-pressed to return for the game; defensive coordinator Alan Williams said Robert Blanton will get playing time again with Mistral Raymond alongside Andrew Sendejo, which would seem to indicate the Vikings will be without Sanford for the second straight game.
Left tackle Phil Loadholt will definitely miss Thursday's game with a concussion, coach Leslie Frazier said, which means the Vikings will start J'Marcus Webb at right tackle and break up a group (Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco and Loadholt) that has started every game since the beginning of the 2012 season. Johnson also sat out of practice on Tuesday with an elbow injury, while Joe Berger worked at left guard.
And the Vikings could also be thin at defensive tackle; both Letroy Guion (chest/knee) and Fred Evans (knee) sat out on Tuesday. That could leave the Vikings with just three healthy defensive tackles for Thursday, in Sharrif Floyd, Kevin Williams and Chase Baker.
“There are definitely challenges (to a short week), especially if you have injuries like we do," coach Leslie Frazier said in a conference call with Washington reporters. "Trying to get everybody on the field in a short week, in our case -- if we had a couple extra days, there are some guys who probably would be able to play on Sunday, but because we’re playing on Thursday, they’re not going to be able to make the game."
Also, Xavier Rhodes will start at right cornerback for the Vikings in place of Chris Cook, who is out today with a strained hip muscle. The Vikings had previously been unwilling to put Rhodes on the right side because it would take him out of his routine of playing left cornerback in the nickel. The Vikings figure to spend plenty of time in nickel against the Cowboys' prolific passing game, though, so it will be interesting to see how they line things up when they have three cornerbacks on the field.
In addition to Cook and Freeman, Jamarca Sanford, Rhett Ellison, Fred Evans, Matt Asiata and Jeff Baca are inactive today. Defensive tackle Chase Baker is active for just the second time this year, and both wide receiver Rodney Smith and cornerback Shaun Prater will play today.
Wide receiver Rodney Smith (hip), running back Matt Asiata (shoulder) and tight end Rhett Ellison (ankle) are the other Vikings players missing the game with an injury. Ellison is a key run blocker for the Vikings, and the team promoted tight end Chase Ford from the practice squad to make up for Ellison's absence. He is active for the game, as is fourth-round pick Gerald Hodges, who has had a tough time getting on the field so far this season.
Here is the Vikings' full list of inactives:
Raymond was one of the Vikings' two starting safeties at the beginning of last season, but a persistent ankle injury opened up a chance for Sanford to take his starting spot, which he hasn't given back. Now that Sanford is out with a hamstring injury, Raymond will at least have a chance to re-assert himself, though the fact Andrew Sendejo will start in Sanford's place probably shows how far Raymond has fallen in the Vikings' eyes.
Hodges, the Vikings' fourth-round draft pick, hasn't found his way onto the field yet. I'd expect to see him mostly on special teams today, where he'd likely join former Penn State teammate Michael Mauti.
In addition to Sanford, Cook, Ellison and Ponder, defensive linemen Chase Baker and George Johnson and guard Jeff Baca are inactive for the Vikings.
It's another reminder of how quickly the best-laid plans can get altered in the NFL, and as the Vikings head into Week 1 against Detroit, they suddenly have a reason to be concerned about what looked like a position of strength.
Frazier didn't offer much detail about injuries on Monday, probably because the Vikings aren't required to file an injury report until Wednesday, but the fact that Williams didn't practice probably means things aren't looking good for the Lions game. Williams is trying to come back from a hyperextended knee in two weeks' time, and rushing him back isn't in the Vikings' best interests.
But can Floyd handle a bigger role in his first game, after not having practiced in two weeks? That remains to be seen.
"I think we’ll have to go through this week and determine that, but he’s missed quite a bit of time and then (he's) coming off an injury," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "We’ll have to gauge that as the week goes on.”
Guion played the three-technique spot before shifting to nose tackle full-time last season, and the fact that he's not a typical wide-bodied nose tackle -- which might hurt him at his normal position -- could actually work in his favor here. But the Vikings are probably at their best at the nose when they have both Guion and Evans fresh, and they could be stretching their depth on Sunday if Floyd needs help on his side.
There might not be any perfect options for the Vikings in Week 1. There rarely are in the NFL. But it's striking to look at how quickly the defensive tackle position has become a worrisome spot for them.
Matt Cassel: The quarterback hasn't been terribly impressive this preseason, doing his best work in the Vikings' exhibition opener against Houston. Since that game, where Cassel went 12-for-19 for 212 yards, a touchdown and an interception, he has completed just 7 of 18 passes for a total of 57 yards and has been sacked twice. With Christian Ponder likely to sit out, Cassel should get plenty of time to end his preseason on a good note and remind the Vikings why they are paying him $3.7 million this season to back up Ponder.
Cornerback battle: Several position battles still have to be settled on the Vikings' roster, but the competition for the team's final cornerback spot is one of the more prominent ones. Bobby Felder, who spent last season on the practice squad, has had some impressive moments this preseason and might have a shot to unseat Marcus Sherels for a spot on the roster. Felder is bigger and more physical than Sherels, who served as the Vikings' fifth corner last season, and he's been productive enough as a punt returner that it looks like he could unseat Sherels there, too. If Josh Robinson falters in the slot, the Vikings would likely go to whomever wins this spot, so it could be important for them to get it right. Thursday will give them one final look at both players, and unless they wind up keeping six cornerbacks, Thursday's game could play a pivotal role in helping the Vikings decide whether Felder or Sherels stays.
The thin D-line: With Kevin Williams and Sharrif Floyd still sitting out because of knee injuries, and Christian Ballard still away from the team because of personal issues, the Vikings will have plenty of work for their backup defensive tackles on Thursday night. Players such as Anthony McCloud, Chase Baker and Everett Dawkins should play extensively, and if it looks like Ballard's absence will extend into the season, the Vikings might have a roster spot for one of them. None of the players have distinguished themselves during the preseason, but a longer stretch of playing time could lend some more clarity to the situation.
Desmond Bishop: He played 33 snaps on Sunday night in San Francisco, and Bishop should have plenty of time again on Thursday night to prove he should start at weak-side linebacker over Marvin Mitchell. He still had some lapses in pass coverage against the 49ers, but made nine tackles and looked more assertive against the run than he did in the previous game against the Bills, which was Bishop's first in more than a year after a torn hamstring ended his 2012 season after one game.
Final receiver spot: Here's another area where Thursday's game could have plenty to say about who sticks on the roster. Stephen Burton has had an impressive camp, and caught three passes for 67 yards in the Vikings' first preseason game, but Ponder's interception on Sunday night in San Francisco could be attributed at least partially to Burton, who stopped his route and gave Nnamdi Asomugha a clear path to the ball. (Asomugha tipped the ball, and C.J. Spillman made the pick.) In that same game, Joe Webb caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Ponder, showing what kind of a red-zone threat he could be. It seems unlikely the Vikings would keep six receivers, unless they only went with two quarterbacks, so they might have to decide between two players who spent all of last season on their roster. Another factor here could be the Vikings' impression of Webb as a run blocker; Burton has fared well there in the past, and in the Vikings' offense, a receiver's ability to block downfield for Adrian Peterson will always be important.