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Monday Morning Mailbag: Evaluating the Secondary, Cousins' Impact on the O-Line

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Depending on the analyst, I have seen the Vikings defensive line ranked anywhere from first to third. Where would you rank the Vikings secondary? -- Chris Kulak

I’d put it up against any secondary in the League and feel good about where I stood. It’s splitting hairs when you start debating who the best player is at a given position, but I don’t know a safety I’d rather have than Harrison Smith or a cornerback I’d rather have than Xavier Rhodes. It’s hard to do much better than Trae Waynes at CB2 and Andrew Sendejo has been a great complement to Smith at safety. The Vikings will see Terence Newman return, they added yet another first-round pick in Mike Hughes and they’ll wait to see if Mack Alexander can take a significant step forward in Year 3. It’s a pretty good group overall and I’d stack it against any other group in the NFL.

A lot has been made of the acquisition of Kirk Cousins and the return of Dalvin Cook, yet the success of the passing and running game is also dependent on a strong offensive line. I've read a lot of negative stuff about our depth on the line and it has been tagged as the weakest link of the team. What are your thoughts on this? I know it's pretty subjective at this point, but after the seasons we had two and three years ago, where our protection was suspect, I can't help but wonder about our chances. -- Jeff Nussbaumer

This is a group that was the most improved on the team last season, is returning five players who started at least seven games last season and has added talented pieces such as a second-round pick (Brian O’Neill) and a free agent (Tom Compton). Also, don’t shortchange what the addition of Cousins and the return of Cook means to the offensive line. Both players will help the offensive line look even better – Cousins because he can get rid of the ball quickly and deliver it to the right place and Cook because he can make defenders miss and help in the passing game as a blocker or receiver.

A lot of experts say that OT Brian O’Neill needs to put on weight before being a serious contributor. Why is that the case when it seems he’d be already bigger than most defensive ends anyway? Plus, extra muscle might hinder his quickness, cardio, etc. -- Brandon C. Rosemount MN

As is the case with a lot of things, it’s all about finding the right balance. In O’Neill’s case, it’s about adding muscle and strength without losing much athleticism or flexibility. Brandon is correct that O’Neill is already bigger than many linemen he’ll face, but he’s also still young and will naturally physically mature in the next couple years. Quickness as a big man matters in pass protection, but offensive tackles also have to run block and that’s where size and strength come into play. Starting-caliber offensive tackles need to have that blend of strength – to handle bull rushes and block in the run game – and athleticism – to handle speed rushers with quickness and mobility.

When it comes to helping out the offensive line, I haven't heard much about Aviante Collins. Where does he really stand and do you see him making the 53-man roster? -- Tory Hansen

I can definitely see him making the 53-man roster as a swing tackle or even with an outside shot to be a starter at right tackle. When the Vikings used an extra offensive lineman last year, Collins was often times the guy. He could maintain that role in 2018, fulfill a different part-time role or even push to be a starter. We haven’t really gotten to the part of training for the season where we can gauge the offensive line, so it’s hard to say for certain how much Collins has progressed. Once we get to training camp and the pads come on, we’ll start to know a lot more about Collins and his OL mates.

Do you think Andrew Sendejo will keep the starting safety Job again for the whole season or is there any talk about someone else who may steal that job? Maybe a guy that I really like – Jayron Kearse? What's the update on that? -- Eman

I would consider it a huge upset if someone unseated Sendejo as the starter. That is not a knock on the candidates competing for playing time because I think Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse are both quality players to have on the team both as defenders and as special teams players. It’s just that Sendejo has become such an important and effective complement to Smith and tool for Mike Zimmer. It will be difficult for another player to progress to the point where he is seen as a better option than Sendejo, at least between now and the early part of the regular season.

We have depth at a lot of positions on offense and defense. How is our linebacker depth looking and what can you tell us about Devante Downs? I see he is about the same size as Luke Kuechly. -- Travis J. Bolton Texas

There is a lot of opportunity behind the Vikings top three linebackers. Outside of special teams stalwart Eric Wilson, it’s a wide open race for a few roster spots and I would put Downs right in the thick of the competition as he continues to try to come back from a knee injury sustained during his final season at Cal. Downs is credited for being a big part of the Cal defense’s improvement last season because of both his on-field play and his leadership in the locker room. Had Downs not been injured, he likely would’ve been selected far earlier in the draft. But the Vikings had a chance to grab him in the 7th round because of that injury and now they’ll get to help him recover and see where he can fit in.

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