2010 Vikings Review: Antoine Winfield grades out highest on defense
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Editor's note: This is the second installment in a three-part series grading the 2010 Minnesota Vikings. For grades on the offense, click here. For grades on specialists, coaching and personnel, click here.
The decline of the Vikings defense can be traced statistically to three places: red zone, third downs and pass rush.
In 2009, opponents scored touchdowns 45% of the time they got inside the Vikings' 20 -- the seventh-lowest percentage in the NFL. In 2010, that number rose to 56.5%, which ranked 23rd.
In 2009, opponents converted 34.5% of third downs, placing the Vikings third. In 2010, that number jumped to 40.8%, which ranked 26th.
In 2009, opponents gave up a league-high 48 sacks to the Vikings, who ranked second in pass-rush efficiency. In 2010, the Vikings had 31 sacks and ranked 20th in efficiency.
A confluence of factors -- most notable, the struggles of several established veterans and injuries in the secondary -- contributed to those failings. But no matter the cause, the deeper stats expose the Vikings' No. 8 ranking in total defense as at least a little misleading.
The following are individual grades for the 28 defensive players who finished the season on the Vikings' 53-man roster or injured reserve. Grades are based on observations of games and practice, weekly tape studies and interviews with NFL coaches and scouts throughout the season. Tackles and defended passes are unofficial statistics compiled by the Vikings. Other unofficial statistics such as quarterback pressures, missed tackles and targeted passes are compiled by ProFootballFocus.com, an independent research firm that charts NFL games.
Players are graded on a scale that designates "A" for elite performance, "B" for above-average performance, "C" for average performance, "D" for below-average performance and "F" for failure to perform at an NFL level. Any player spending fewer than six weeks on the active roster and/or appearing in fewer than three games is given an "I" for incomplete.
• Ray Edwards (B): With a potentially lucrative payday dangling in front of him, Edwards delivered another productive season, despite a high ankle sprain that hobbled him down the stretch. Led the team with 69 total quarterback pressures. Ranked second in sacks (eight). Recorded 50 tackles, including 28 solo and four for loss. Missed two. Played 697 of 1,001 gradable defensive snaps (69.6%). Was extremely active early against New Orleans and Detroit, totaling 17 pressures, but didn't get a sack until he had two on Oct. 11 against the New York Jets. Had interceptions against Miami and Philadelphia. Started getting doubled at Green Bay, where he trashed TE Andrew Quarless twice on fourth-and-inches. Racked up seven pressures at Chicago but also fell down in zone coverage, allowing a touchdown. Injured ankle on Nov. 28 at Washington, missed the next two games and then returned to get in on a sack in each of the final three, totaling 16 pressures. Committed four penalties. Racked up $32,500 in fines for a series of illegal hits beginning in the preseason. Got into a shouting match on the sideline with teammates during a blowout loss to Green Bay. The Vikings don't seem to have a great interest in retaining Edwards, 26, and he's made clear he plans to follow the money wherever it takes him.
• Kevin Williams (B): At age 30, Williams (896 snaps, 89.5%) proved he's still capable of playing at an elite level, although he didn't do it as consistently as coaches wanted. Recorded 65 tackles, including 49 solo and nine for loss. Missed five. Posted 36 total QB pressures but only one sack, a career low. Defended seven passes. Had a huge game in the win over Detroit with six pressures before his production sagged. Was so quiet in midseason losses to Chicago and Green Bay that new coach Leslie Frazier confronted Williams about effort. Responded with a dominant game at Washington, where he got G Artis Hicks benched with one of six pressures -- two of which set up sacks -- and broke up two passes. Forced a fumble at Philadelphia. Took seven penalties, including three personal fouls. There has been talk about Williams getting a new contract, but it's tough to imagine that happening anytime soon, with four years and $29 million (plus escalators) remaining on his existing deal.
• Jared Allen (B-): Another slow start ended later than usual for Allen, who nonetheless rebounded to lead the Vikings with 11 sacks -- all but one in the season's last nine games. Played 934 snaps (93.3%), leading the defensive line. Ranked second in total QB pressures (67), third in tackles for loss (eight) and sixth in tackles (77, including 54 solo). Flailed away against mostly single blocks from Miami's Jake Long, the Jets' D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Green Bay's Chad Clifton and New England's Matt Light before straightening out his technique. Also scuffled in the run game, getting swallowed on big plays against Miami and New England. Rebounded on Nov. 7 against Arizona for 2½ sacks and 13 total pressures, beginning a six-game sack streak. Had another huge day in an upset win on Dec. 28 at Philadelphia with a sack and six total pressures. Caught a gift interception into his facemask against Green Bay and another at Detroit, returning the latter 36 yards for a score. Did not commit a penalty. Became more active in the run game as the season wore on but was mediocre overall. Missed two tackles. At age 28, Allen should have plenty of good football left in him. But his performance the first half of the season had to be at least a little alarming for the Vikings, who owe him a team-high $8,979,438 in base salary for 2011.
• Pat Williams (C+): The decline continued for Williams in his 14th NFL season, although he remained serviceable in his limited run-stopping role (540 snaps, 53.9%). Recorded 42 tackles (30 solo), his fewest since 1998. Made one impact play, stripping Dolphins HB Ronnie Brown in the fourth quarter. Had three stops for loss. Still anchored and made some plays off double-teams, but also got knocked back and turned around with increasing frequency. Played 31 or fewer snaps seven times. Had elbow surgery for the second consecutive offseason. At age 38, Williams already was the NFL's oldest defensive player and he's said he wants to keep playing. With younger, cheaper, more versatile options in-house, the odds of him returning to the Vikings seem slim.
• Letroy Guion (C-): No one flashed more often in fewer chances than Guion, whose 261 snaps (26.1%) were enough for him to record two sacks, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Appeared in 15 games as a rotational backup and inside nickel rusher. Recorded 15 total QB pressures. Showed an extremely quick first step. Still needs to get stronger. Had one penalty. Made one special-teams tackle. Three seasons into his NFL career and still only 23 years old, Guion deserves a shot to compete for a starting job next season.
• Everson Griffen (D+): The rookie fourth-round draft pick was inactive for the season's first five games but made a positive impression once he got the chance. Recorded eight tackles (six solo) on special teams. Twice drew illegal blocks to wipe long returns against Washington. Got wiped out by a double team on Devin Hester's 68-yard kick return in Chicago. Penalized once. Added seven more tackles (five solo) and four QB pressures in only 64 defensive snaps (6.4%). Missed one tackle. Showed developing spin and power moves in addition to his speed rush. Griffen has the raw ability to compete for significant time in 2011, especially if Edwards is gone. How he develops through the offseason will be pivotal.
• Brian Robison (D+): Used more often than any other backup defensive lineman, Robison (319 snaps, 31.9%) was at his most productive during two spots starts in Edwards' place. Played in all 16 games. Recorded two sacks -- both clean-up jobs off teammates' pressure -- among 18 total QB pressures. Defended a pass. Saw some action as an interior nickel rusher in addition to playing end. Had three pressures against Buffalo, including a hit that caused an interception, and three more the next week against the Giants. Made 18 tackles (14 solo) and missed another. Lost contain on an end-around for 21 yards against Detroit. Otherwise was assignment-sure against the run. Robison turns 28 in April and could become a free agent. Depending how things shake out, he could return with a chance to compete for more time.
• Jimmy Kennedy (D): Re-signed in March for two years and $5 million, Kennedy did nothing to justify the investment. Missed the first two games following a knee injury and was inactive seven times overall. Played only 115 snaps on defense (11.5%). Finished with 11 tackles (seven solo), two tackles for loss, a half-sack and four total QB pressures. Missed two tackles. Showed no awareness while jogging lazily past a kick-return fumble Arizona's Michael Adams returned 30 yards for a touchdown. Had one startlingly impressive performance against Green Bay while playing a season-high 29 snaps in a blowout loss. Kennedy isn't getting any younger, and it'd be hard to justify paying him another $2.5 million for similar production in 2011.
• Fred Evans (D-): Getting destroyed on Saints HB Pierre Thomas' 1-yard touchdown run set the tone for Evans, who played only 73 snaps from scrimmage (7.3%) and was a healthy scratch eight times. Recorded five tackles, including four solo and two for loss. Missed another. Had one penalty. Didn't factor on special teams. Played the season under the $1.759 million restricted tender and probably won't get that type of offer again from anyone.
• Chad Greenway (B): The defense's most consistent player, Greenway (970 snaps, 96.9%) had his best season and pushed closer to elite status among 4-3 outside linebackers. Led the Vikings with 149 tackles, including 106 solo, 10 for loss and a sack. Missed eight. Also saw action on special teams, making five stops and recovering a muffed punt to set up a touchdown in the win over Detroit. Stayed on the field in most nickel situations. Allowed 62 completions in 75 passes thrown into his coverage (82.7%) for 505 yards (8.1 average), a touchdown and a 99.2 passer rating. Dropped would-be interceptions against Dallas and Arizona. Stripped Packers HB Brandon Jackson on the first play and made three tackles for loss at Green Bay. Took one holding penalty. Struggled at times handling bigger blockers at the point. Missed three snaps in the blowout loss to Green Bay after getting poked in the eye and never played at quite the same level again. Still only 28, Greenway is at the top of the list (along with WR Sidney Rice) of potential free agents the Vikings should try to retain.
• E.J. Henderson (B-): Just playing all 16 games constituted success for Henderson (946 snaps, 94.5%), considering the severity of the leg injury from which he was returning. Finished with 139 tackles, including 90 solo and seven for loss. Missed seven. Stayed on the field in most nickel situations and all dime snaps. Targeted on the season's first two passes and 34 times overall, with 21 complete (61.8 average) for 212 yards, five touchdowns and an 82.4 rating. Mobility seemed to improve drastically after the Week 4 bye. Intercepted two passes against Dallas, the second on an exceptional play while dropping out of a blitz to set up the winning field goal. Had two big tackles late in regulation against Arizona. Got run over by Packers RB Dimitri Nance on third-and-1. Got his lone sack and a third interception -- tying for the team lead -- off a deflection at Washington. Had a brutal outing against the Giants, missing chances to stop two big runs and getting beaten for a 6-yard TD throw. Rebounded a week later against Chicago, making two impressive stops for loss. Missed two plays with a sprained finger in that game but returned. At age 30, Henderson has proven he can play with a metal rod in his leg. He'll have plenty more to prove as he enters a contract year in 2011.
• Ben Leber (C+): Rarely seeing the field in subpackages, Leber played only 512 snaps (51.1%) but nonetheless had a hand in four turnovers. Recorded 58 tackles, including 34 solo and two for loss. Missed five. Gave up 18 completions in 25 targets (72%) for 138 yards (7.7 average) and a 68.4 passer rating. Defended four passes. Left with a lower-back injury against Miami but played in all 16 games. Made a great read for a late interception against Detroit. Couldn't wrap Cowboys HB Marion Barber on third-and-1. Against Buffalo, stripped FB Corey McIntyre and recovered another fumble off a botched exchange. Dropped an interception against Chicago. Made a fantastic play to strip Lions TE Tony Scheffler at the goal line in the finale. Leber's reduced role suggests the Vikings will look at other options in 2011. His play was good enough at age 32 that someone will pay him.
• Jasper Brinkley (D): The second-year pro led the Vikings with 15 solo tackles on special teams (17 total) -- up from 12 in 2009 -- but also was party to several breakdowns. Took two penalties for blocks in the back, the latter wiping out a kick-return touchdown against the Giants. Doubled to his knees on LaRod Stephens-Howling's 96-yard touchdown return against Arizona. Juked at the point on a 77-yard return touchdown at Washington that was called back. Played 18 snaps (1.8%) and made six tackles (five solo) in three relief appearances on defense, two of them in mop-up duty. Blew up Chicago TE Brandon Manumaleuna's lead to muddle a failed fourth-down run. Always at his best playing downhill, Brinkley might be worth a look on the weak side in the base defense if Leber departs. He still has a long way to go in coverage, though.
• Heath Farwell (D): A year after earning his first Pro Bowl bid, Farwell was relatively pedestrian. Led the Vikings with 19 total special-teams tackles (13 solo), his fewest since his rookie year in 2005. Made one excellent play to save a punt at the goal line against Arizona. Saw his only action on defense against Green Bay, playing 13 snaps (1.3%) when Greenway was out and again in mop-up duty. Recorded two tackles (one solo). Remains a valuable teams player, albeit one who might be overpaid at $1.75 million in 2011.
• Kenny Onatolu (D): Tied for third with 10 tackles (nine solo) on special teams, down from 24 in 2009. Played in all 16 games. Got nine snaps on defense (9.0%) in garbage time against Green Bay, recording one solo tackle. Was lucky to not get flagged for a cheap shot on Redskins WR Roydell Williams. At age 28, Onatolu will have to hold off younger players for his spot in 2011.
• Erin Henderson (D-): Replaced Leber against Miami, recovered a key fumble and dumped HB Ronnie Brown for no gain. Then, Henderson landed in the doghouse, getting deactivated six times in eight games before Brad Childress' firing on Nov. 22. Was active for the next five. Played 22 defensive snaps (2.2%) over five appearances on defense. Recorded two tackles (one solo), plus nine more (six solo) on special teams. False started on a punt against the Giants. Got doubled all the way to the bench on Hester's punt-return TD against Chicago. Deactivated for the finale because of a concussion suffered against Philadelphia. A restricted free agent, Henderson probably will be back and could land in the mix at weakside linebacker if he shows more discipline.
• Antoine Winfield (B+): Healthy again after battling a foot injury in 2009, Winfield (983 snaps, 98.2%) was on top of his game. Recorded 110 tackles (80 solo) and missed only five. Sealed a win against Detroit with an end-zone interception. Broke up red-zone passes against Chicago and the Giants. Got another interception against Chicago. Caused an interception with a hit against Chicago. Single-handedly changed the game at Philadelphia, turning 16 slot blitzes into two sacks and a strip-and-run touchdown. Did not commit a penalty. Allowed 59 completions in 84 targets (70.2%) for 463 yards (7.8 average) and 73.7 rating. Exclusively played the slot in the subpackages the Vikings used on more than half of all defensive snaps, so he wasn't challenged vertically the same way as outside corners. At age 33, Winfield doesn't have the speed to compete there consistently anyway. He's just so crafty and fundamentally sound he doesn't need to be fast to dominate in the slot.
• Husain Abdullah (C): The surprise starter at strong safety out of camp, Abdullah (873 snaps, 87.2%) had his share of mistakes but never relinquished the role. Tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including two at Chicago. Dropped another at the goal line against Green Bay, then allowed a touchdown on the next play. Ranked fourth with 98 tackles, including 60 solo and three for loss. Missed seven, one of them leading to a touchdown against Arizona. Added eight tackles (five solo) on special teams. Allowed 24 completions on 38 targets (63.2%) for 311 yards (13.0 average), three touchdowns and an 82.2 rating. Left the Dallas game with a concussion and sat out the following week. Also missed time against Washington (ankle) and the Giants (eye). A restricted free agent, Abdullah is virtually certain to return and is a good bet to start again.
• Madieu Williams (D+): In the third season of a $33.75 million contract, Williams (805 snaps, 80.4%) may have erased any chances he'll play a fourth with the Vikings. Ranked fifth with 96 tackles (59 solo), including a sensational diving stop on Dolphins HB Ricky Williams. Missed 11. Caught a tipped ball for an interception at Green Bay and took the first of many bad angles on a screen for 36. Faded fast after turning a sure interception into a 32-yard completion at New England. Allowed 18 completions in 28 targets (64.3%) for 281 yards (14.1 average), two touchdowns and a 114.0 rating. Benched the opening series against Buffalo for being late to the team bus after a win at Washington. Beaten on a 67-yard touchdown to WR Johnny Knox and missed three tackles in less than two quarters against Chicago before a concussion ended his season. Had one solo tackle on special teams. At 29, Williams is due to receive $5.5 million in 2011 and seems like a long shot to return at that rate. A pay cut could be a possibility.
• Asher Allen (D+): Twice forced into the lineup by injuries, Allen (718 snaps, 71.7%) ended up starting 11 games and was perpetually under siege. Targeted 69 times, yielding 41 completions (59.4%) for 555 yards (13.5 average), five touchdowns and a 97.2 rating. Beaten and bailed out on several occasions by penalties or misfires. Recorded 59 tackles (41 solo) and missed nine, including two in high-leverage situations at New England -- the latter on a late third-and-12 that sealed the decision. Also had a dreadful whiff on Packers WR Greg Jennings' catch-and-run touchdown, leading to the sideline blowup with Edwards. Did have interceptions in consecutive games against the Giants and Chicago. Followed the former by taking a spearing penalty and losing contain on a draw that went for 23. Flagged three times. Recorded five solo special-teams tackles. Guessed wrong on a long return against Arizona, was too wide on another at Washington and got wiped on a third by Hester. Missed one game with a concussion and the finale with an abdominal injury. Still a solid developmental player, Allen was miscast as a starter and is better suited to a subpackage role going forward.
• Chris Cook (D+): The second-round pick was a star in training camp before a torn meniscus in each knee slowed him down. Two surgeries later, Cook (233 snaps, 23.3%) was benched twice -- both against Green Bay, which torched him for eight completions and 179 yards in less than four full quarters -- and never regained his form. Finished with 24 tackles (20 solo), missing three. Defended three passes. Allowed 21 completions in 29 targets (72.4%) for 349 yards (16.6 average), a touchdown and a 124.1 rating. Flagged for an illegal block on special teams against Arizona. Made his first start in the base defense at Chicago and probably played his best game. Yelled back at Edwards during the Green Bay blowout. A full offseason to get healthy and improve his strength should put Cook in position to compete for a starting job. There's no question he has the talent.
• Frank Walker (D+): Signed off the street to a one-year deal on Oct. 13, Walker (234 snaps, 23.4%) was active for his first game, began sharing nickel duties in his second and acquitted himself relatively well. Allowed 11 completions in 23 targets (47.8%) for 159 yards (14.5 average), a touchdown and a 67.1 passer rating. Caused one interception at Green Bay by deflecting a jump ball in the end zone. Jumped a skinny post against the Giants for another. Broke up a pass on the goal line against Chicago. Dropped an interception at Philadelphia. Made 17 tackles (12 solo) and missed four. Had seven more (six solo) and a fumble recovery on special teams. Chased down Brandon Banks to save a touchdown at Washington. Committed two penalties. Walker is on his fourth team over eight seasons at age 29. He'll turn up somewhere next season.
• Jamarca Sanford (D): After falling short in his bid to start, Sanford (207 snaps, 20.7%) flashed some potential on special teams when he wasn't battling injuries. Recorded nine tackles (five solo) on coverage units. Regularly was on the spot as a gunner, downing several punts near the goal line. Took three penalties. Flattened at the point on an 86-yard kick return by the Jets' Brad Smith. Relieved Abdullah against Dallas and the New York Giants. Passed over for a start at Green Bay. Did start the final two games, had a hand in both touchdowns at Philadelphia and probably could have played one better at Detroit, too. Missed four games with hamstring problems and a concussion. Also had an ankle injury early in the season. It's tough to get a read on Sanford, whose strength remains in the run game. He has to stay healthy, though, and at this stage he doesn't look like more than a special teamer.
• Lito Sheppard (D): Signed to a one-year deal in April, Sheppard (248 snaps, 24.8%) showed why he was available. Held up well in the nickel at New Orleans before getting torched early against Miami, allowing a 46-yard completion and a 5-yard touchdown on the opening series. Was in coverage on all three touchdowns against Dallas. Made the best play of his season wrapping up Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald on third-and-10. Bounced in and out of the nickel role, getting deactivated three times while battling a hand injury. Reentered the nickel at Philadelphia and dropped an easy interception against his old team. Allowed 25 completions in 40 targets (62.5%) for 315 yards (12.6 average), five touchdowns and a 126.6 rating. Defended six passes. Recorded 20 tackles (16 solo) and missed six. Clearly has lost a step and tries to make up for it by bailing out anytime he's in man coverage. Sheppard turns 30 in April and probably won't be back.
• Eric Frampton (D): Tied for third with 10 special-teams tackles (six solo), his fewest in three seasons with the Vikings. Injured a hamstring at Chicago and missed two games. Played 34 snaps in relief of Madieu Williams at home against the Bears, almost immediately gave up a 32-yard touchdown that was called back on penalty and otherwise was OK. Recorded four tackles on defense, including two solo and two for loss. Played under the $1.101 million restricted tender and will have a battle to make the roster if he returns.
• Tyrell Johnson (D-): Demoted after 1½ seasons as a starter, Johnson (74 snaps, 7.4%) wasn't even active for five of the first eight games. Looked hesitant and rusty in a spot start for Abdullah at Green Bay. Played a series on defense in two other games, including a start against Buffalo. Finished with three tackles (one solo), plus two more on special teams. Spun at the point on Hester's long kick return at Chicago. Made the play of his season against Buffalo, blasting through TE Jonathan Stupar's block to force a fumble, only to sprain a knee on the play. Didn't suit up again. The Vikings still think highly of the former second-round pick's talent, but Johnson has a long way to go to rebuild trust with coaches and earn another shot at the starting job.
• Cedric Griffin (I): Back less than eight months after blowing out a knee in the NFC championship game, Griffin (132 snaps, 13.2%) blew out the other in only his second game. Played well in that limited action, allowing six completions in 14 targets (42.9%) for 46 yards (7.7 average) and a 51.5 rating. Recorded nine tackles (six solo), highlighted by a flying ankle tackle of Lions RB Maurice Morris in space. Made three plays in the end zone against the Jets, including a sensational breakup on a jump ball for WR Braylon Edwards, before getting hurt. The Vikings remain committed to Griffin, who signed a five-year contract extension last year that's set to pay him $3.4 million in 2011. But coming back from two knee reconstructions in the same year is tough for anyone.
• Marcus Sherels (I): Waived in final cuts on Sept. 4. Spent two stints on the practice squad before his promotion to the active roster on Dec. 31. Appeared on special teams in the season finale and did not register any statistics. Long shot to make the roster in 2011.