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13 Nov 2003

Guest Column: Minnesota's Defensive Woes

Guest column by Geoff Larson of VikesGeek.com.

In the past three weeks, the Minnesota Vikings have given up monumental totals in total offense and points, allowing 101 points and 1,360 yards in total offense. These totals are made all the more astonishing since the Vikings were favored in all three games -- and had given up only 104 points in the first six games.  Although nobody predicted that the Vikings would have a good defense this year, the expectations in the land of the North were for vast improvement over last year, and it seemed like things had gotten better.  Instead, the Vikings remain one of the worst defensive units in the NFL, a label even loyal fans do not dispute.

The Vikings' poor defensive play has been attributed to poor tackling, hesitant pursuit, and missed assignments.  These angles have been widely chronicled in the local newspapers and on the local sports talk shows. No question, all of these things are occurring, often multiple times on the same play.

What has received considerably less attention is the reason for such lapses over the long term. Vikings' coach Mike Tice stops short of saying that his defense simply lacks the talent to match up against other teams, but there is evidence to support this view, at least for the interim. And much of it has to do with the Vikings' drafting -- or, more specifically, inept drafting -- of pro prospects at the defensive positions.

From 1999 to 2003 the Vikings had 40 draft picks. What may surprise Vikings' fans is that the Vikings used 24 of those 40 picks (60%) to select defensive players. By way of comparison, Green Bay -- a team lauded for bulking up its defense through the draft in the past few years -- has had 44 draft picks in the same period. Of those 44 picks, Green Bay used only 21 (53%) to select defensive players.

Along with the sheer numbers commitment to selecting defensive players over the past 5 years, the position of the selection of many defensive players suggests that the Vikings should have a good, young defense by now. From 1999-2003, the Vikings used first round picks on defensive players, selecting Chris Hovan (2000), Kevin Williams (2003), and Dimitrius Underwood (1999). They also used 5 second round picks to select defensive players: E.J. Henderson (2003), Raonall Smith (2002), Willie Howard (2001), Fred Robbins (2000), and Michael Boireau (2000). Of these seven picks, five remain with the team.

With apologies for appearing to slight the selection of the troubled Dimitrius Underwood in the first round of 1999, the problem for the Vikings has been in drafting defensive players after the second round. Of the Vikings 24 defensive selections from 1999 to 2003, 10 remain with the team, four of whom started the game against the Chargers last Sunday: Kevin Williams, Brian Williams, Chris Hovan, and Fred Robbins. Of the 16 defensive players that the Vikings drafted after the second round between 1999 and 2003, only six remain with the team. Only one started against the Chargers.

One might expect that the chances of finding starters after the second round would significantly decrease, yet that is not necessarily the case. Of Green Bay's 21 defensive selections from 1999-2003, 15 remain with the team; Six of the 15 started for the Packers against the Eagles on Monday night. Several of these players were drafted after the second round-including Na-il Diggs, KGB, Mike McKenzie, and Cletidus Hunt.

The bottom line is that while the Packers have made good use of their draft picks to add quality to the defensive side of the ball through the draft, the Vikings have often made selections after the second round of the draft that have not panned out. This has forced the Vikings to compete for players on the free agent market, where the Vikings have found mixed success, but few if any stars.

The difficulty with stocking through free agency, be it for offense or defense, is that so few truly great players ever reach the market. Due to the NFL's free agency rules -- rules that greatly restrict player movement -- most players on the market are those with large salaries that teams are looking to dump, skill deficiencies, or both.

The classic example of the type of free agent that teams are likely to vie for is Chris Claiborne, who was released by the Detroit Lions after last season. Clairborne was a first round selection of the Lions who was paid well and did not live up to his billing. The Vikings believed that they had a steal when they signed Claiborne this summer, and his early play suggested they might be right.

Against the Giants, Packers, and Chargers, however, Claiborne looked aged beyond his years, as he was consistently out of position, slow to the point of attack, and left flailing with one arm at the passing running back. At first, Coach Tice stated that Claiborne was playing with several injuries, thus accounting for his defensive lapses.

On Wednesday, while still adhering to his story that Claiborne has been playing with injuries, Tice stated that Claiborne picked up some "bad habits" while playing in Detroit. These habits, Tice suggested, were the type that would take a considerable amount of work to correct. Tice's tone suggested that the Vikings and Claiborne are not long for each other, barring a miraculous turnaround by Claiborne.

The Claiborne saga is but one with which the Vikings must deal this year. There were also the much ballyhooed signings of Kenny Irvin and Denard Walker as free agents in the off-season. Neither Irvin or Walker has proved as effective as advertised, and both have been rotated in and out of nickel/starter packages in an attempt to find a true starter. The moves continue to bear little fruit.

The Vikings' problem on defense is not unique to them; all NFL teams face transition and rely on free agents to fill holes. But the Vikings' situation is magnified because of their lack of success in drafting defensive players after the second round. This is mostly the result of poor selection. How poor? In 1999, the Vikings traded away middle round picks to move up to take Dimitrius Underwood in the first round. The Vikes not only lost the first round bonus that they paid to Underwood, but the player himself, who went AWOL before receiving his release. By trading up to take Underwood, the Vikings also lost an opportunity to select Mike McKenzie and Cletidus Hunt, both of whom the Packers selected late in the 3rd round. Worse yet, in 2001, the Vikings could have selected Na'il Diggs and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila -- as well as Chris Hovan and Fred Robbins! Instead, they opted for Michael Boireau, Antonio Wilson, and Tyrone Carter.

As a consequence of their draft shortcomings, the Vikings are required more than many other teams to rely on free agents. Given the lack of talent in free agency to begin with, and the inability to sign many quality free agents due to salary cap restrictions and the high price tag on most such free agents, the problems for the Vikings are only magnified.

For Vikings' fans, the reality is that this defense is what it is. A few very good players mixed with several free agents that would be reserves on most other teams, all backed up by rookies and other very young players. This means that, for now, the Vikings defense is likely to continue to make the mistakes it is making. This also means that the Vikings will need to be near perfect on offense -- something that is actually possible with this team -- to make the playoffs.

On a more positive note, the Vikings appear to have had two consecutive, solid defensive drafts, while maintaining the offense through the draft as well. Of the eight defensive players that the Vikings have selected over the past two years, seven are still with the team, two have been starters for several weeks now, two have been on and off starters, and two others are likely to be full-time starters by this Sunday.

When Tice says that he believes that the Vikings' defense is "not far off," in his heart of hearts he likely believes that this is a matter of maturation of young players rather than a matter of current free agent pickups living up to expectations. His prediction about this being a rising defense may well be correct -- if only Red and the fans have the patience (and stomach) to weather the current bad times.

Comments?  Make them in our discussion thread, or contact Geoff by reading VikesGeek.com.  If you are interested in writing a guest column, something that takes a new angle on the NFL, please email us your idea at info @ footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: admin on 13 Nov 2003