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Updated: May 6th, 2010 10:22pm
Pelissero: Questions along defensive line aren't limited to short term

Pelissero: Questions along defensive line aren't limited to short term

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
Thursday's developments in the neverending StarCaps case renewed questions about the Minnesota Vikings' short-term plan for their defensive line.


Here's another question: what's the long-term plan?

Scouts consider it a deep and talented group, with perennial Pro Bowl picks Kevin Williams (signed through 2014) and Jared Allen (through 2013) locked in for the long haul.

But four of the Vikings' other top defensive linemen -- starting nose tackle Pat Williams, starting left end Ray Edwards and rotational players Brian Robison and Fred Evans -- could hit the open market after the 2010 season.

Moreover, Pat Williams turns 38 in October, Edwards hasn't signed his restricted free-agent tender and the threat of a lockout in 2011 could discourage the Vikings from committing significant up-front money on extensions before the labor situation is resolved.

"On paper right now, they've got Allen and Edwards, who are two quality bookends," an executive in personnel for an AFC team said before last month's NFL Draft.

"But they've got to start thinking about the future, too, and they have a group of players who are coming into the last year of their deal. They have maybe four (core) players who are going to be unrestricted free agents at the end of this season. They may have to start thinking about some quality depth there."

Yet the Vikings' newest additions have included one drafted defensive end (fourth-round pick Everson Griffen), one undrafted end (ex-Gopher Cedric McKinley) and not a single defensive tackle among 26 rookies they've brought aboard.

Their most significant moves at the interior spots this offseason were using a second-round ($1.759 million) tender to keep Evans for 2010 and re-signing veteran defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy in March to a two-year, $4 million extension that didn't include a bonus.

Rick Spielman, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel, said after the draft there were only "three or four guys that were defensive tackles that we would have taken in the draft if other options weren't available."

Clearly, they felt good enough about Evans and Kennedy as spot starters to not target further protection in case the Williamses finally are forced to serve their suspensions for testing positive for the prescription drug bumetanide in July 2008.

What's unclear is just how much mileage the Vikings can get out of two guys who played fewer than 500 snaps combined last season -- less than one-third the total played by Kevin (987) and Pat Williams (570), according to ProFootballFocus.com.

"To be honest with you, we haven't even discussed (the Williamses' status) this week," Vikings director of college scouting Scott Studwell said during the draft.

"That's been an ongoing issue that we're almost immune to. I know it's ongoing, and it's certainly a concern. But we've got a lot of depth in our defensive tackle group right now."

If the Williams Wall indeed is torn down for four games, the Vikings would be left with a primary rotation of Evans, Kennedy and probably Letroy Guion, a former fifth-round pick who has played in only nine games over two NFL seasons but is so young (22) some scouts remain convinced he'll come on.

It would be a tall order for that group to handle the bulk of snaps against New Orleans (No. 6 in rushing last season), Miami (fourth), Detroit (fortified by first-round pick Jahvid Best) and the New York Jets (No. 1), even with temporary reinforcements on the 53-man roster. And as good as a trade for an established player such as Washington's Albert Haynesworth might look on paper, mortgaging a high future pick to ensure a four-game fix doesn't seem prudent -- especially since it could prove tough to keep everyone happy once the incumbents return.

Hennepin County Judge Gary Larson will consider a motion in the next couple of weeks to keep in place a restraining order that has allowed the Williamses to play while courts hear their appeals. Failing that, the Williamses would have to hope to win an appeal before their suspensions would begin the week of the regular-season opener Sept. 9 at New Orleans.

There also remains at least a chance the NFL would allow the Williamses to serve the suspensions consecutively, rather than at the same time. Asked generally about the league's stance on staggering such bans for a team facing more than one, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail, "Until Judge (Gary) Larson rules on the pending motion before him, we will withhold comment on the suspensions."

Then again, would weakening the interior partially for eight games, rather than completely for four, even be considered more palatable for the Vikings?

The short-term questions live on, and the long-term questions do, too.

Was Edwards' strong finish last season a sign he's on his way to being a dominant end?

Does Pat Williams have more football in him as he approaches age 40?

Can Evans and Robison ascend into more prominent roles on their second contracts?

Those answers aren't due by Sept. 9, but they're issues that will command plenty of consideration in the months to come.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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