Sat. Nov 28th, 2020

A Numbers Game on Defense and Special Teams

4 min read
A Numbers Game on Defense and Special Teams

This position group could lead to perhaps some of the toughest roster decisions, as Zimmer recently said they could keep more players at that spot than in the past two seasons.

“I think it’s the best group we’ve had since I’ve been here, depth-wise,” Zimmer said. “There’s a possibility of seven guys [making the roster] and all of them being up on game day.”

You can pencil in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, and third-year linebackers Ben Gedeon and Eric Wilson are valuable assets as well.

The rest of the group features players who could be contributors on special teams and fill in on defense if needed.

Kentrell Brothers is entering his fourth season and is a special teams weapon. Devante Downs played in 11 games as a rookie in 2018.

Zimmer has praised 2019 fifth-round pick Cam Smith, and Reshard Cliett’s play has been noticeable in the first two preseason games and practices.

Greer Martini has also made plays, including a pick-six in Wednesday’s practice.

The Vikings have kept double-digit defensive backs in four of the five seasons Zimmer has been at the helm in Minnesota.

“I don’t know that we’re real deep in the secondary,” Zimmer said a little more than a week ago. “We may keep an extra defensive lineman and one less in the secondary … I don’t know. It all will work out.”

You don’t need to worry about names such as Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Anthony Harris and Mackensie Alexander making the team. That’s the likely group when the Vikings are in their nickel defense.

And Jayron Kearse has improved each season since 2016, showing up in the preseason and also being versatile enough to handle the “big nickel” role.

Things are a little up in the air after that, especially since cornerback Mike Hughes is still on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and his status is up in the air.

Plus, cornerback Holton Hill is suspended for the first eight games of the season and won’t count against the 53-man roster.

Derron Smith has 38 games of NFL experience and has lined up next to Kearse at safety with the second-team defense. Marcus Epps, 2019 sixth-round pick, can play safety or move over to slot cornerback. Isaiah Wharton is another rookie safety.

And speaking of the slot, Zimmer said this week that spot behind Alexander is up for grabs.

Bené Benwikere has played in 54 NFL games and has three career interceptions, but is somewhat new to playing inside, a spot he has occupied of late.

Craig James spent part of the 2018 season on the Vikings practice squad, while the rest of the cornerback group features rookies Kris Boyd and Nate Meadors, as well as Duke Thomas, who has spent time with multiple teams since 2016 but is yet to play in a regular-season game.

Zimmer gave his honest assessment of the youngsters earlier this week, when he compared them to Minnesota’s group of young wide receivers.

“Kind of like the young receivers, kind of up and down. They have a good play or a bad play,” Zimmer said. “Speaking of the couple coverage busts, a couple of them were the young guys the other night too. They need to be more consistent like the receivers. I would probably put them in that category.”

This group appears to be three players — Dan Bailey, Kaare Vedvik and Matt Wile — battling for two spots, as Austin Cutting secured the long snapper job when the Vikings released Kevin McDermott earlier this month.

Unless of course, the Vikings tab Vedvik to handle both kicking and punting duties in 2019. Zimmer has sounded open to the possibility, which would create an extra roster spot for another offensive or defensive player.

“Yeah, if he’s good enough,” Zimmer said of Vedvik doing both. “I don’t have a problem with that, but I don’t know. I think everything is a possibility at this point.”

If the Vikings go the more traditional route, they will keep two of the three players who kick the pigskin for a living.

Bailey has made all five extra points and his lone field goal in preseason play, and was 6-of-6 in practice Wednesday.

The kicker joined Minnesota in Week 3 of the 2018 season, making 21 of 28 field goals.

Vedvik was acquired in a trade with Baltimore a little more than a week ago, and has done a bit of everything since arriving in Minnesota. He punted three times and added an extra point against Seattle, all while handling kickoff duties, too.

Wile punted twice in the preseason opener, the same game he cut his thumb. As a result, wide receiver Chad Beebe has done the majority of the holding for extra points and field goals in practices and games.

Wile was released by Pittsburgh and quickly picked up by Minnesota before the start of the 2018 season. He averaged 45.2 yards per punt.

Time will tell what the Vikings decide to do on special teams. But according to Zimmer, they won’t be making any decisions until they have to.

“I don’t think we have a timeline right now,” Zimmer said earlier this week. “I think it’s just, ‘Let’s see where it goes and make sure we’re right.’ ”

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