This is the first instalment in a series that will look at where the Vikings offensive and defensive units stand heading into the 2009 season. As the headline of this post so obviously states, Grant’s Tomb assesses the Minnesota defensive backs.
Did you hear the joke about the Vikings porous pass defence? The Vikings have - for the last three seasons. But the truth is, the Vikings had a very good pass defence in 2008.
Football Outsiders stats show the Vikings had the NFL’s fifth best pass defence last season. And in more conventional stats, the Vikings were much improved defending the pass compared to 2007. Passing yardage, touchdown passes allowed, completion percentage and passing yards per game were all down – in most cases significantly – from 2007. This improvement is what allowed the Vikings to field an elite defence for the first time since the early 90s.
How to account for the improvement? Two words: Jared Allen.
But the Vikings still have some good players in the defensive backfield and they’ll probably only be replacing one starter. The defensive backs still might be the weak link, but that’s different from saying the Vikings defensive backs are weak.
Antoine Winfield: The best tackling cornerback in the NFL is coming off his first Pro Bowl and this isn't a case of a guy getting a trip to Hawaii based on reputation. Football Outsiders stats rate Winfield highly.
Winfield will be 32 when the 2009 season starts. That’s old for a corner. But he played at a high level in 2008 and there's no reason to think he won't do so in ‘09. The Vikings have no worries here if Winfield stays healthy.
Cedric Griffin: It might be time to take back every F-bomb you ever directed towards Griffin. Over the final five games of the season, he played as well as any Viking defender. The 70-yard touchdown pass given up to Calvin Johnson aside, Griffin doesn’t give up many big plays. The main criticism of Griffin is that he does give up lots of little plays – little plays that allow opponents to kick field goals and score touchdowns anyway. He also doesn’t seem to have starting-level ball skills.
But he's a bit miscast as a Cover Two corner. Griffin's tall for his position (listed at 6'0) and he has long arms. He may be better suited to being an Al Harris-type press coverage guy. The good news is defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier seemed to play more press coverage and man-to-man in ’08 than in the past. That plays to Griffin's strengths. He also tackles well.
The Vikings massively improved pass rush makes all their defensive backs look better and Griffin was a beneficiary of that pass rush last season. But his play during the Vikings playoff drive at least suggests he is a player on the rise.
Darren Sharper: There’s no need to assess Sharper. The Vikings have made no effort to resign him and their starting strong safety in ’08 will be playing elsewhere next season. Let's move on.
Madieu Williams: He missed seven games with a neck injury but when he finally played he proved to be a much better tackler and run defender than advertised. He also solidified the back end on passing situations. The Vikings made an expensive but wise choice signing him away from the Bengals.
Tyrell Johnson: The best thing I can say about Johnson's rookie year is that I rarely noticed him. There were no real poor plays, but no real standout ones, either. He often looked like a player who wasn't sure what he was doing while starting for the injured Williams. Johnson was a rookie, so that’s understandable, but it still bothers me. Ready or not, he will take over for Sharper at free safety.
Johnson provides a different skill set than Sharper. He'll get fewer interceptions but he's also a player you can put close to the line of scrimmage to play the run and use on blitzes (see the New Orleans game). Some scouts felt he was the best safety in the 2008 draft. In 2009, he'll have a chance to prove those scouts were right.
As for the actual Vikings reserves at defensive back, the team has some problems. Backup safeties Eric Frampton and Husain Abdullah are special teams guys. The Vikings wouldn't want them playing safety in an actual regular season game, so management may want to find a backup safety that can play.
In other news, the top reserve defensive backs - Charles Gordon and Benny Sapp - are free agents. Gordon is a player who might have drawn some interest from other teams had a grotesque ankle injury not ended his 2008 season. That injury means other teams probably won't be interested in him now, and that makes it easy for Vikings management to bring him back. But they must see how he runs on his reconstructed ankle before offering him a new contract.
Sapp took some costly penalties in 2008 but played decently enough that he deserves to come back as long as the price is right.
The same can't be said for 2007 third round pick Marcus McCauley. Sapp beat him out for the dime back position and until Gordon got hurt, McCauley rarely dressed. Is he another guy ill-suited to be a Cover Two corner? Well, when I watch McCauley play, I often wonder if he's suited for any defensive system.
State of the unit
Note: The Ragnarok beat me to this today, so I encourage you to check out his take on this subject.
If the Vikings pass rush is as effective in '09 as it was in '08, the defensive backs should be fine. The concern is what happens in 2010.
Winfield and Griffin are both due to be free agents after next season. As good as Winfield is, he'll be 33 when the 2010 season starts, so don't expect the Vikings to bring him back unless he's willing to sign a one-year deal for reasonable money (he won't).
Depending on how Griffin plays, he might not be re-signed, either, leaving the Vikings with the prospect of having to find two new starting corners in 2010. They better hope they win the Super Bowl in 2009 if that happens.
Assuming the Raiders and Texans franchise Nnmadi Asomugha and Dunta Robinson, respectively, the free agent crop at cornerback is not impressive. The Vikings will have to address the cornerback position in the draft - perhaps in the first round.
In a draft top heavy in offensive tackles, if one falls to pick 22, the Vikes probably take a tackle. But several mock drafts have the Vikings taking a corner at 22 if they keep the pick (remember, trading for Matt Cassel is a real possibility). D.J. Moore of Vanderbilt and Vontae Davis of Illinois are some of the names being floated around. If the Vikings keep their first round pick, there’s a good chance they will take a corner who will succeed either Winfield or Griffin in 2010.