Quest for Roster Spots: A Numbers Game on Defense and Special Teams

EAGAN, Minn. — We’re less than two weeks away from the Vikings setting their initial 53-man roster.

But with two preseason games remaining, a lot can change for the dozens of players battling for roster spots in Minnesota.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on Tuesday described the evaluation process.

“I would say what we’re trying to do is figure out if the guys on our roster are good enough to play for us, first off,” Zimmer said. “Then, while we’re evaluating the other guys from other teams, it’s more about if we think this guy will get released, number one, and number two, is he better than the guys that we have on the roster that we think aren’t good enough.”

Here is a look at where things stand with the Vikings roster for defensive players and specialists as of now. (A look at the offense was posted Wednesday).

There is also a peek back at how Zimmer and Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman have set their initial 53-man rosters in the past five seasons together.

Defensive line

Number of players kept:

2018: 9

2017: 9

2016: 8

2015: 9

2014: 8

Roster breakdown

The starters are set up front, as Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen and Danielle Hunter make up one of the top defensive lines in the league. Fourth-year defensive end Stephen Weatherly has also is carving out a role for himself as an interior pass rusher on third down who can spell Griffen or Hunter on the outside.

If those five players are on the team, that likely only leaves three, four or five spots for the rest of the group, depending on how many linemen the Vikings keep.

Zimmer explained the potential thought process along the defensive line.

“But let’s say you want to keep 10 defensive linemen, but you only got nine that can play, so you’re going to take that extra spot and you’re going to put it at maybe the receiver spot or the tight end spot, quarterback or whatever it is,” Zimmer said Tuesday. “Or maybe we want to keep nine defensive linemen, but we think we have 10 really good ones, then we’re going to keep them.”

We’ll start with the defensive tackles, where the focus has been on three young players on the interior — Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson and Hercules Mata’afa.

Holmes and Johnson started for Joseph and Stephen in the first two games of the preseason, and Mata’afa has seen plenty of action as well. If they make the roster, all three players should have rotational and situational roles, whether it’s against the run or rushing the passer.

“I just want to see him in this next week, he’ll probably just be in on the nickel,” Zimmer said of Mata’afa. “I want to see if he can just pass rush. We’ll just kind of go from there, because I think that’s what his role will be this year, if that is his role. I got to find out if he can go in there and rush on third down.”

Sixth-round pick Armon Watts has also flashed at times, as has Curtis Cothran.

The defensive ends are a bit murkier due to injuries, as Tashawn Bower is currently on the Active/Non-Football Injury list and Ade Aruna hasn’t practiced in almost three weeks.

If there is a spot or two open, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Karter Schult could be candidates to make the roster. Stacy Keely and Anree Saint-Amour are undrafted rookies.

Odenigbo’s versatility to play both inside and outside could help his chances.

“I think he’s really improved a lot as far as understanding the concepts that he has to do it at defensive end,” Zimmer said of Odenigbo. “He’s a power player, really good physicality. He’s a guy that worked really, really hard last year when he was on the practice squad and this spring, and I think it’s starting to show.”

View exclusive black-and-white images from the Vikings game against the Seahawks at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Linebackers

Number of players kept:

2018: 5

2017: 6

2016: 7

2015: 6

2014: 8

Roster breakdown

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.

Defensive backs

Number of players kept:

2018: 11

2017: 11

2016: 10

2015: 9

2014: 10

Roster breakdown

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

Will the trend continue?

“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.”

Specialists

Number of players kept:

2018: 3

2017: 3

2016: 3

2015: 3

2014: 3

Roster breakdown

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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