Friday, March 21, 2014
Vikings finishing bold D-line remodel
By Ben Goessling
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Vikings made their final round of cuts Aug. 31, trimming their roster to 53, they had a nine-man group of defensive linemen that looked like this:
Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, Fred Evans, Sharrif Floyd, Everson Griffen, Chase Baker and George Johnson.
The group was highlighted, as usual, by two productive pass rushers, but four of its nine players were over 30. The group lacked bulk up the middle and depth at the end of the group, and the Vikings were waiting on a breakout year from Griffen that never really came.
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.