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.
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the defensive line.
Get excited: At this time last year, the Vikings were vowing to find ways to get Everson Griffen on the field more, hoping to take greater advantage of his rare blend of size, strength and quickness. A training camp experiment with Griffen at linebacker was quickly scrapped and defensive coordinator Alan Williams instead settled on a role that utilized Griffen as both an end and as an inside rusher in passing situations. Griffen finished the regular season with eight sacks, third on the team behind Jared Allen (12) and Brian Robison (8.5). Griffen also had an interception in Week 15 in St. Louis, returning that 29 yards for a touchdown. It was an eye-opening display of speed and athleticism for a guy who measures 6-foot-3, 273 pounds. He also had one of three Viking sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the Vikings’ playoff loss in Green Bay.
Coach Leslie Frazier continues to laud Griffen’s maturity and increased willingness to study the game. And Griffen’s emergence will allow the Vikings some flexibility on the d-line as they put together their future plans.
Griffen is entering the final season of his rookie contract. And if his production continues escalating, you can bet General Manager Rick Spielman will try to find the right timing to lock Griffen up for the long-term well before he’d be able to become a free agent in March 2014.
Keep an eye on: Defensive tackles in this spring’s draft. There’s a belief that this year’s draft class is stacked at that position, which may tempt Spielman to alter the 2012 interior rotation that featured Letroy Guion and Fred Evans at nose tackle and Kevin Williams and Christian Ballard at the under tackle spot.
On a draft analysis conference call Wednesday, ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. rattled off a handful of tackle prospects who might make sense for the Vikings. Say, for example, the team uses free agency to address its need for an outside receiver. Then it could possibly make sense to give Georgia’s John Jenkins a long hard look with the No. 23 pick. Jenkins is 6- 3, 358 pounds and can be a fantastic plug in the middle of the defense.
But even if the Vikings wanted to wait to address their defensive tackle needs, they’ll have decent options in later rounds. In the Round 3 range, for example, Kiper mentions Penn State’s Jordan Hill as an option. He also offers a couple of sleepers for the fourth or fifth round in Missouri Southern State’s Brandon Williams and Georgia Southern’s Brent Russell.
There’s also Bowling Green’s Chris Jones, who will be cast aside by many teams as undersized. But Jones is a smart player with a high motor whom Kiper said was “as productive as any defensive tackle in college football this year. At any school, at any program.”
Reason for worry: Age. Three of the Vikings’ four d-line starters in 2012 will be in their 30s by the time training camp opens.
So now comes time to ask that difficult but necessary question: Just how much do the older guys have left in the tank? And might the Vikings ask either Jared Allen or Kevin Williams to restructure their contracts this offseason?
Allen will head to his fifth Pro Bowl in the last six seasons next week. But his inclusion in this year’s game was based more on past reputation than this season’s production. Allen played most of the year with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, an injury he will need surgery to fix following his trip to Honolulu. How fast he bounces back remains to be seen. Contract-wise, he’s also entering the final year of his deal and will be owed in excess of $14 million in 2013. And it’s far from a given that Allen, now nearing his 31st birthday, will remain with the organization beyond that.
Williams, meanwhile, will turn 33 in August. And while he’s one of those ideal hard-working, low-maintenance leaders who fits Frazier’s blueprint for success, the mileage of 10 full NFL seasons is catching up. Taking loyalty and emotion out of the equation initially, it’ll be up to Spielman and his staff to deliver an honest assessment of just how much they think they can still squeeze out of Williams going forward. At present, Christian Ballard is in line to be Williams’ successor. But Ballard hasn’t yet established himself as a can’t-miss fallback plan.
It wasn’t long ago that Allen and Williams were dominant game changers whose presence was noticeable every Sunday. And to be clear, both are still very good players who can steady and energize the defense. But for how much longer? That’s the type of question that the NFL’s best teams have instinct for answering.
Quarterback Christian Ponder is listed as questionable for the Vikings-Packers game tomorrow because of his sore right elbow. Ponder had limited participation in practice all week.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield is also questionable because of his broken right hand.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Thursday that he expected both to play.
Tyrone McKenzie, one of the team's top special teams player, is out because of an injured shoulder.
Listed as probable are running back Adrian Peterson (abdomen), safety Harrison Smith (knee), defensive end Brian Robison (shoulder), defensive end Jared Allen (shoulder), cornerback A.J. Jefferson (ankle), defensive end George Johnson (quadriceps), punter Chris Kluwe (left, or non-kicking, knee) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee).
Update: For the Packers, defensive end Jerel Worthy (knee) and wide reciever Jarrett Boykin (ankle) are out, and running back James Starks (knee) is questionable.
Cornerback Charles Woodson returns from a broken collarbone and is probable, as are wide receiver Jordy Nelson (knee), receiver/kick returner Randall Cobb (ankle) and running back Alex Green (hip).
Out means a player has no chance of playing (unless he's Brett Favre). Questionable is 50 percent chance. Probable is virtual certainty he will play.
Last week, Antoine Winfield wore only a wrap and a protective pad on his fractured right hand. This week, he’ll go with a sturdier soft cast. And that more than anything else is giving Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier optimism that Winfield will be able to play more Saturday night in Green Bay than he did in last weekend’s home win over the Packers.
“I feel better,” Frazier said following Thursday’s practice, the Vikings’ last of the week. “Just to see him move around with that cast, he was actually over there hitting the dummies and doing some things to jar it just to see how it would feel. And he said it felt great. So that was encouraging, very encouraging.”
Winfield played only 18 of 64 defensive snaps last weekend. And the Vikings defense was chewed up after his exit in the second quarter. Even if Winfield can start Saturday night, Frazier has dabbled with contingency plans, one of which would include moving A.J. Jefferson inside as a slot corner and using rookie Josh Robinson outside. Marcus Sherels, who replaced Winfield on Sunday, is also an option in the slot, though it seems clear the Vikings are looking for ways to minimize Sherels’ role on defense.
Winfield will likely be listed as questionable when the Vikings issue their official injury report on Friday. It seems likely that he will start. Keeping that hand protected will be key.
Winfield also noted after Thursday's practice that he would definitely be seeking medicinal help to numb his right hand as much as possible.
In other injury news …
Quarterback Christian Ponder had his reps limited in practice today because of a bruise on his throwing elbow, coach Leslie Frazier said after practice today.
"Christian has soreness in his elbow," Frazier said. "He'll get some reps tomorrow. I think he'll be fine. Just get some work tomorrow and see how much he progresses. But it doesn't seem like it should be something that would hinder him come [Saturday]. But we need to ramp it up a little bit tomorrow to see where he is."
Frazier said Ponder suffered the bruise when he was hit on the play in which the ball blooped into the air and somehow avoided two Packers to land in the hands of receiver Jarius Wright for a 17-yard gain.
Meanwhile, Frazier voiced confidence that cornerback Antoine Winfield will be able to play with his fractured right hand. Winfield broke the hand two weeks ago against Houston, but finished the game. He tried to play last week against the Packers, but lasted only 18 snaps before pain and swelling sent him to the sideline for the rest of the game.
"Antoine didn't participate today, but he'll get some work tomorrow," Frazier said. "We think he'll make it. He's making some progress. He's going to participate tomorrow and see how he feels, but right now, he has a whole lot less pain than he had a week ago at this time. So that's encouraging."
Without Winfield, the Vikings went with Marcus Sherels as the slot corner in the nickel. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers picked on Sherels throughout the second half, including a play in which Jordy Nelson beat Sherels for a 73-yard reception.
In other injury news:
Leslie Frazier was never really considering an outdoor practice Tuesday as his Vikings prepare for Saturday’s trip to Lambeau Field. For one thing, the Vikings’ practice fields at Winter Park remain covered in snow, which would have made the footing too treacherous.
But even if Frazier had even a small thought of heading outdoors, that idea was killed permanently when he arrived at Winter Park on New Year’s morning and felt the bitter chill.
“It was minus-10 this morning,” Frazier said. “Any thoughts I had about us going out there were kind of removed when I got out of my car this morning.”
So the Vikings practiced inside. But to help prepare players for Sunday’s cold in Green Bay, the Vikings opened the giant sliding garage doors on their field house to let the freeze in.
With different rules and regulations in the playoffs, the Vikings didn’t release an injury report Tuesday even after practicing. They will have to release injury updates on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The four players to miss practice entirely were Adrian Peterson, Antoine Winfield, Harrison Smith and Tyrone McKenzie.
Winfield’s injury is the most significant. And the Vikings might not know until Saturday now much the veteran cornerback will be able to play if at all. Winfield’s right hand remains significantly swollen after he fractured the second metacarpal in Houston on Dec. 23. Winfield tried to play through the injury against Green Bay last weekend but aggravated things, played only 18 defensive snaps and left the game for good in the second quarter.
Below the surface
McKenzie’s injury has its own significance. The back-up linebacker had his left arm in a sling Tuesday. As a key special teams contributor on coverages, McKenzie’s absence this weekend would be notable. McKenzie was actually given a game ball for his special teams contribution in Week 16 at Houston. He was hurt in Sunday's win over Green Bay but was on the field when Jeremy Ross busted off a 44-yard return at the start of the second quarter. Ross’ burst to the Green Bay 43 marked the first time since Week 5 that the Vikings had allowed a kickoff return past the 25.
The Vikings were also playing Sunday without special teams ace Robert Blanton, a rookie, who was inactive as the team adjusted its roster to have an extra defensive end available in case Brian Robison’s shoulder injury was aggravated.
“We had some moving parts in that ball game on Sunday [on special teams],” Frazier said. “That did affect some of the things we did.”
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