This is the sixth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze Minnesota's defensive line situation.
For years, the defensive line was the Vikings' bedrock unit. When Jared Allen was added to the Williams Wall — DTs Kevin and Pat Williams — it became the most complete foursome in the NFL. In 2009, both the pass rush and run defense were top notch.
Last season, although the numbers suggested that the group was still a very good one, the sack percentage dropped precipitously and the run defense was far more leaky than in recent memory. Age and potential personnel turnover now stand as major concerns to this one-time unquestioned strength of the defense.
Jared Allen: Typically a slow starter, Allen's early-season preheating took longer than in the past. The questions of whether his hell-bent playing style had taken its toll over the years were legitimate. He had only one sack through the first seven games and routinely was cleaned out of power run plays in his direction. But Allen rallied and finished with 11 sacks, right around his yearly average. And he made some big plays, as he has become accustomed to doing. Allen, who turns 29 in April, just isn't the every-down terror that he was two seasons ago. He's due to make almost $9 million in 2011 but is almost a lock to return.
Kevin Williams: He turned in a career-low one sack and missed some plays that he normally makes, but Williams was sturdy, solid and consistent — plus he remains on the field for 60 snaps per game. Leslie Frazier reportedly gave Williams a pep talk about his effort around midseason, and he responded with a stronger second half. He turns 31 years old in August and is not past the point of expiration, but he's no longer the best three-technique in the NFL as he once was.
Pat Williams: As a run stopper who played half of the snaps, Williams did an adequate job. He still can absorb big guards and centers and hold his ground. But the 38-year-old Williams is closer to the end than ever before, despite his saying he'd like to play another year or two. The Vikings will need to address this position because there's only a slim chance they would bring back an aging, non-playmaking nose tackle coming off two elbow surgeries the past two years.
Ray Edwards: Edwards turned in some big games and flashed the ability to be one of the NFL's top base ends, and teams will be interested in his services in free agency. He's just reaching his NFL prime and seems set to cash in. Team sources indicate that Edwards never was a serious candidate to receive the franchise tag, despite his youth (26) and upside. Although he has good, not great pass-rush moves and saw more double-teams this season than ever before, Edwards is not an end-all, be-all priority for the Vikings to bring back.
Brian Robison: Robison is a solid producer as a nickel end, and he can kick down inside in pass-rushing alignments. He has worked to get better against the run and usually is good for one or two strong performances a season when he gets extended snaps. A free agent, Robison could re-sign with the idea of competing for Edwards' vacated role.
Letroy Guion: He rose from Bustville to have a productive season despite not playing a lot. Many believed he would contribute little last season and perhaps even was in danger of not making the team at the outset, but Guion flashed the quickness for which he was drafted and became a good third-down option. His pressure from the interior helped compensate for the lack of it from other DL sources at times. But he's a rotational tackle at best and doesn't have the thump or mass to handle nose tackle.
Everson Griffen: His legal troubles are concerning, but the Vikings are preaching patience for this immature player. He struggled to see the field early in the season but came on by first making his impact felt on special teams, with which he had little experience coming into the season. Then he received some time on defense and at least displayed some NFL characteristics. Are the Vikes ready to project a Griffen-Robison rotation at left end next season? Risky, but possible. Teams that were scared off by Griffen's character must have smirked at his offseason incidents.
Jimmy Kennedy: He was a major disappointment, at least from the standpoint that the Vikings signed him to a new deal before last season with the idea that his role — and production — would grow. They did not. Critics might point to a big game against the Packers, but it was an aberration in an otherwise lost season. A possible cut victim if the Vikings can reload inside.
Fred Evans: Another Dudley Dolittle. He was inactive for half the games and barely made a dent when he did play. His career with the Vikings, and the NFL, perhaps, is not for long.
Outlook: The mighty have fallen. With Allen and Kevin Williams, there at least is a core in place that can anchor while the team goes through a transition to the next wave of defenders. But that overhaul should begin this offseason. Expect the team to target an end and a tackle in the draft, and possibly free agency (if there is free agency). Pat Williams is at the end of the line, Edwards is likely to bolt, and there is no young talent to safely hang their hats on. On a defense that is predicated on creating havoc with the front four with little blitzing (although Fred Pagac showed a little more willingness to pressure after taking over as defensive coordinator), this group needs a shot of youth and talent.