Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Vikings personnel review: Defensive line

Posted by: under Vikings, NFC, Brian Robison, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams Updated: January 12, 2012 - 10:33 AM

Meetings are taking place at Winter Park this week with the Vikings planning a detailed player-by-player evaluation of their current roster. As they perform their in-house review, we’re following suit and delivering our own snapshot evaluation of each position group.

 
DEFENSIVE LINE:
 
Get excited: Here we are, 11 days since the end of a 3-13 season, and the only confirmed fall guy for the fiasco is Karl Dunbar, the position coach whose position -- defensive line -- played better than any other position on the team. But, hey, who said understanding an NFL team would be easy? Dunbar, who was fired last week, wasn't perfect. Despite the team's 11th-ranked run defense, the tackles, particularly the nose tackles, often were gashed by the run at extremely inopportune times when the Vikings desperately needed to make stops late in games. The backup tackles in particular also made way too many pre-snap penalties. However, Dunbar's successor also inherits the best and deepest unit on the team. Right end Jared Allen, who very well could win NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is coming off a franchise-record 22 sacks and is still very much in his prime heading toward his 30th birthday. Left end Brian Robison is coming off a career-high eight sacks and has put to rest questions about whether he can play every down. Under tackle Kevin Williams, a former multiple All-Pro selection, had five sacks in his final six games, a sign that foot and knee problems dogged him during his first eight games.

Depth also is something to get excited about here. One of the team's best athletes is defensive end Everson Griffen. But the starting ends are so good that Griffen's relegated to a role player as backup end, pass-rushing tackle and linebacker when the team uses a nickel package with a three-man front. Rookie Christian Ballard is another exciting prospect that can play nose tackle, under tackle or left end. And even though he was inactive for all 16 games, rookie end D'Aundre Reed showed signs of being a natural pass rusher during the preseason. Bottom line here is if the Vikings acquired defensive backs the way they acquire defensive linemen, they wouldn't be looking at back-to-back seasons with just nine total wins.

Keep an eye on: Griffen has to get on the field more next season, his third in the NFL. He's too quick, too fast, too strong, too aggressive and too talented not to play more. And considering who the Vikings are looking at to replace Fred Pagac as defensive coordinator (yes, he'll be let go or demoted; no, it still hasn't happened), it doesn't appear the team will be switching to a 3-4 defense. So perhaps Griffen moves to outside linebacker full-time in the 4-3. That was something the team tried briefly last summer. Maybe with an entire offseason to make it work, it can happen. Maybe Griffen plays more at under tackle while the team reduces the workload on Williams, who turns 32 next August. Heck, the way Griffen covers punts and kickoffs, maybe he should play strong safety. The first 273-pound safety in NFL history! Whatever the answer is, next season's defensive coordinator needs to make heightening Griffen's role a priority.

Reason for worry: If only Pat Williams hadn't gotten old before the rest of his linemates, the Vikings might still be one of the best defenses in the league. Instead, without Big Pat in top form at nose tackle, the Vikings' run defense was a shell of what it was from 2005-09. The Remi Ayodele signing didn't work. Fred Evans isn't the answer. Ballard might be the answer, but his build might be better suited at under tackle or left end. Among the many, many holes to fill this offseason, a big run-stuffing nose tackle shouldn't be overlooked by new GM Rick Spielman. Also, among the team's 16 unrestricted free agents, the one that's probably most worthy of being re-signed is defensive tackle Letroy Guion. The team invested four seasons in this fifth-round project. They've made him a solid backup and given him a chance to succeed Williams in a year or two. They shouldn't let him just walk away. Not when he's only 24 and has his best years ahead of him. 

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