Chip Scoggins is a Star Tribune sports columnist. He has temporarily returned to cover the Minnesota Vikings. He had the beat from 2008-2011 after covering college football for five years. Chip has been with the Star Tribune since January 2000. He can be followed on twitter at @chipscoggins.Find Chip on Facebook.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
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.
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. Over the next 10 days, we will deliver a snapshot evaluation of every position group.
Today, we lead things off with a big picture look at the direction of the franchise.
Get excited: Head coach Leslie Frazier believes strongly in building around high-character players who are not only talented but willing to invest in bettering themselves and the team as a whole. Frazier has talked at length over the past year about molding a “tough, smart, disciplined football team.” And from the results of 2012, it’s clear his vision has been embraced throughout the organization.
Even if it doesn’t generate much buzz, team building is a big, big deal in the NFL. And Frazier is proving to be a master at it, finding ways to keep his squad united and energized even through the inevitable discouraging slumps of a long season. It was one thing for players to buy into Frazier’s blueprint for success last spring when 2011’s disastrous 3-13 finish generated so much hunger for a bounce-back season. But it was quite another for Frazier to retain his team’s belief and buy-in when a skid of five losses in seven games pushed the Vikings to 6-6 in early December. That provided a fork in the road in the 2012 season. And the Vikings steered away from the “Here we go again” path and opted instead to channel their focus on winning four consecutive games to end the season. That they accomplished that goal, earning the NFC’s final wild card berth, provided validation for all Frazier had preached.
Now the Vikings have proof that Frazier’s coaching philosophy can generate significant success. And players have seen the results of retaining strong camaraderie and a contagious team work ethic. As defensive end Jared Allen said, receiving a reward for all the perseverance was essential at the end of a long season.
“It’s like training a dog or something,” Allen said. “You can’t just keep asking him to do something without a reward. So if what the coaches are asking you to do and the hard working isn’t paying off, it’s hard to come back and say, ‘OK, I’m going to keep hitting my head against this wall and hopefully I’ll accomplish something.’ To have the payoff of success [for us] is going to breed confidence and instill that trust that, OK, what they’re saying can lead to success. We’ve done it before.
“Next year, when we’re in tight situations, what if we’re 3-3? How are you going to handle that? Guess what, we’ve been 6-6 and had to make a run and we made it. I think having that kind of confidence, you hope everybody uses that the right way.”
Frazier also seems to have a knack for getting players to focus on the littlest details of preparation each week without losing sight of the big picture after each game’s result. That Frazier is beloved by his players, his coaching staff, the front office and team ownership will go a long way toward propelling 2012’s success forward. A contract extension for the head coach is on the way soon. That’s a “when” not “if” situation.
Keep an eye on: The opening of free agency and April's draft. In his first offseason as GM, Rick Spielman had a concrete plan for the 2012 draft and executed it nicely, putting together an impressive class that yielded standout left tackle Matt Kalil, starting safety Harrison Smith, Pro Bowl kicker Blair Walsh and promising receiver Jarius Wright. Spielman won't give that class a grade until after the 2014 season. That's his rule. But the early returns are encouraging, which breeds hope for repeat draft success this year.
Still, as strong as the Vikings’ 2012 draft was, Spielman’s stroll through the free agent market last spring produced a pair of high-profile signings in tight end John Carlson and receiver Jerome Simpson that didn’t pay many dividends. That duo was expected to enliven the Vikings’ passing attack. Instead, they combined for 34 catches, 317 yards and zero touchdowns. Yep, combined.
To his credit, Spielman did discover a diamond in the rough last spring in fullback Jerome Felton, who emerged as a Pro Bowler this season. Felton was selfless and tough and always prepared, aiding Adrian Peterson’s monstrous MVP-caliber season.
Remember this: Spielman’s long-term philosophy is to build through the draft and supplement with selective free agent signings. So it will be interesting to see just how active he is this March. There are a half-dozen notable in-house free agents to evaluate first: Felton, Phil Loadholt, Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley, Simpson and Jamarca Sanford. Then, with very few salary cap restrictions, Spielman should be able to browse through free agency for guys who register as "Vikings fits." Under the current thinking, fans should not be expecting a spending spree. There may not even be rewarded any big-name acquisitions. As much as anything, Spielman will have to make sure any higher profile signings he does make produce better results than a year ago.
Reason for worry: Even though the Vikings finished 10-6 and only a game back of NFC North champ Green Bay and even though they appear positioned to use that stellar campaign as a springboard, this is still the NFL. And there are no guarantees that the fantastic turnaround year in 2012 will be followed with another playoff run in 2013. For one thing, the Vikings may reside in the toughest division in football. Aaron Rodgers will have the Packers positioned to win the division for the third consecutive season. The Bears are a 10-6 team that now has new head coach Marc Trestman in position to try and push them over the hump. And for all the flaws in Detroit, the Lions are still stocked with talent. In other words, the Vikings’ margin for error will remain razor thin.
The Vikings will also face a much tougher schedule in 2013 than they enjoyed this past year. And we mean much tougher. In addition to the division games, there will be road trips to play the Seahawks, Bengals, Ravens, Giants and Cowboys plus a “home” game in London against the Steelers that will be followed by a very early Week 5 bye.
We won’t know the order of any of the other games until April. But at present, a home game with Cleveland seems to be the closest thing to a gimme the Vikings will have.
Chad Greenway is Pro Bowl bound after all. For the second year in a row, Greenway will head to Hawaii as an alternate, given the nod this afternoon after Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware pulled out of the game.
Greenway delivered a terrific 2012 campaign. The Vikings credited him with a team-best 191 tackles plus seven for loss and three sacks. It was a season worthy of serious Pro Bowl consideration. But Greenway didn’t make the NFC roster after fan and player voting was completed, handicapped in big part by logistics that group traditional linebackers together with defensive-end types that play outside linebacker in 3-4 systems.
San Francisco’s Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman earned the two NFC roster spots at inside linebacker.
The outside linebacker selections were Ware, Green Bay’s Clay Matthews and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith. Now, with Ware pulling out of the all-star contest, Greenway gets the call. He’ll be one of five Vikings to play in the Pro Bowl joining Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Blair Walsh and Jerome Felton.
Greenway becomes the first Vikings linebacker to attend back-to-back Pro Bowls since Scott Studwell went in 1987 and 1988.
Once again, Leslie Frazier's support of quarterback Christian Ponder was unwavering.
"He's our starter," the Vikings head coach said today during his final press conference of the 2013 season.
As for the team's plans for No. 2 QB Joe Webb and No. 3 QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, well, the support from the top of the Purple coaching tree was polite, but far from unwavering.
"[Webb will] be a guy that will compete for the No. 2 spot again next year, barring something that we may end up doing in our personnel meetings," Frazier said. "But we'll discuss Joe's position and everyone's position in our personnel meetings and then we'll make a decision what's best."
Asked about Bethel-Thompson's status as the No. 3 QB and the possibility that a veteran could be brought in to be the the No. 2 while Webb fills the No. 3 job, Frazier said, "It's so hard to say just two days after our season. ... Our roster is going to change. All of us in this building who've been around this league as long as we have know that. It's hard today to say that Bethel's going to be No. 3 until we see how the roster unfolds."
Webb played only three snaps during the regular season and didn't attempt a pass. Bethel-Thompson was inactive for all 16 games. But they moved up the pecking order when deep bruising on the triceps and elbow of Ponder's throwing arm kept him from playing in Saturday night's 24-10 wild-card playoff loss at Green Bay.
Webb played the whole game and was, well, awful. Trailing the Packers 24-3 after three quarters, Webb had completed 7 of 20 passes for 61 yards, an interception and a 23.1 passer rating.
"Yeah, it was a tough day for Joe," Frazier said. "Tough day all the way around. Put in a tough situation having to go start a playoff game in that environment against a good football team. We still have a lot of confidence in Joe. We understand the circumstances he played in."
Meanwhile, Frazier was clear-cut in his feelings about Ponder being the team's long-term answer at quarterback.
"We're excited about his progress," Frazier said. "The way he played down the stretch, he was great. He had a lot to do with us winning those last four games the way we did. It's unfortunate he wasn't able to play that last ballgame up at Lambeau. He wanted to play. He tried everything he could to get on the field. It just wouldn't have been a wise decision to put him out there with the injury that he had. Just didn't get the flexion back in that tricep. But he did everything in his powers to get out there. His rehab, his work ethic was tremendous. So we're pleased with the progress that he's made.
"We saw glimpses of what he can bring to our football team and the way he led us down the stretch, you feel like you've got a chance to win every game when your quarterback plays the way he played. So we're excited about his development and looking forward to him getting better this offseason."
Kluwe to have surgery on left knee: Punter Chris Kluwe, who spent several weeks on the injury report with a left knee injury, will have surgery to repair the meniscus, Frazier said. Defensive end Jared Allen will have shoulder surgery after the Pro Bowl. Special teamer Tyrone McKenzie (shoulder), cornerback Antoine Winfield (hand) and quarterback Christian Ponder (right triceps, elbow) won't require surgery, while running back Adrian Peterson's abdominal injury will be evaluated after the Pro Bowl. Peterson battled the injury down the stretch and left the Houston game early with it , but only after the Vikings had full control of the game.
Singletary, Priefer to interview with the Bears: Frazier confirmed reports that linebackers coach and special assistant to the head coach Mike Singletary and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer are among the 13 candidates who have been asked to interview for the Bears' vacant head coaching position. Singletary, who played his Hall of Fame career in Chicago, and Priefer, whose NFL coaching career began in 2002 in Jacksonville, joined the Vikings in 2011. Singletary was the 49ers' head coach from the final nine games in 2008 until the 15th game of the 2010 season.
Frazier said he would like to keep this year's coaching staff intact for next season.
"I mentioned earlier that our coaches did a great job getting our players ready to play every week," he said. "Barring someone getting a promotion, I'm hoping all our guys are back. They did a terrific job throughout the season."
Evaluating the season: Frazier obviously was disappointed to see the season end after the first round of the playoffs. But he's also encouraged because, well, you know, all the rest of us thought they'd win six games, max.
"The foundation has really been set for our team without question," Frazier said. "Our core identity showed up. The traits that we talked about throughout the year, about being a tough, smart, disciplined football team were exemplified through this group of young men."
What about that contract extension, Leslie?: Frazier, whose contract expires after next season, is expected to receive an extension soon. Asked if he's talked to ownership about a contract extension, he said: "I haven’t had a chance to talk with them at this point. These last 48 hours in the building have been meeting with players and talking with them about the future and so on, and some other things in their lives. But eventually we will talk and not worried about it. Things will work out just fine. Not worried at all."
Asked if his agent, Bob Lamonte, has spoken with ownership, Frazier said: "Not at this point. But we will have those discussions.”
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen will have offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, an injury he played the entire 2012 season with. Allen said the injury was an annoyance more than a major hindrance. He finished the year with 59 tackles 12 sacks and 38 quarterback hits. That came a year after he threatened the NFL’s single-season record with 22.
“Part of my game is an inside counter move and I just didn’t have the complete strength,” Allen said. “There’s a couple of times that I was sitting there watching the quarterback right there and I’m just trying to get a couple of more inches of separation, which is the difference of a tackle where you get a hand on him versus wrapping him up.”
Allen didn’t know how long the post-operative recovery timetable would be but said he’d probably be rehabilitating for “a couple months.” The 30-year-old end also said he’d wait until after playing in the Pro Bowl to have the surgery on his injured shoulder.
“I’ve played with it all year, I’m going to at least enjoy the benefits of it right?” Allen said. “That’s like going to the ice cream shop and not getting any ice cream. I’ll at least enjoy the free trip to Hawaii.”
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