Way Too Early Vikings Roster Projections: Defense and Special Teams

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Dec 28, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (50) jogs off the field after a 42-17 loss to the Michigan State Spartans in the 2017 Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 28, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (50) jogs off the field after a 42-17 loss to the Michigan State Spartans in the 2017 Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

We already took a shot at projecting how the Vikings’ offense would shake out come week one. Now it is time to look at Rick Spielman’s and Mike Zimmer’s preferred side of the ball, the defense. And just for good measure, we will predict the specialists, as well.

Defensive End

On Roster (As of May 6): Ade Aruna, Tashawn Bower, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Ifeai Odenigbo, Brian Robison, Stephen Weatherly, Jonathan Wynn

Prediction: DE1. Griffen DE2. Hunter DE3. Robison DE4. Weatherly DE5. Ade Aruna

The top-three spots are cut-and-dry, so it will be a race for the last two between a handful of guys. Weatherly and Bower held them down last year, but both had fairly limited production. Weatherly played in 15 games, so he gets penciled in for now. But Bower, Odenigbo and rookie Aruna all have a shot at the last spot. All three are long and athletic with decent pass rush upside, but all three are also projects. I would expect whoever misses out on the fifth end spot to get looks for practice squad, as Odenigbo did last year. For now, the pick to make the roster is Aruna, as he is the biggest and fastest, though also pretty raw.

Defensive Tackle

On Roster: Dylan Bradley, Cutris Cothran, Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, Linval Joseph, Caushaud Lyons, Sheldon Richardson

Prediction: DT1. Joseph DT2. Richardson DT3. Johnson DT4. Holmes

There is not much competition for these four, barring injury or Holmes failing to adequately make the move inside. Holmes and Johnson were both fourth round picks with high potential as interior pass rushers, so their value is likely too high for Cothran or Bradley to overtake them for the last two spots.

Linebacker

On Roster: Anthony Barr, Kentrell Brothers, Garret Dooley, Devante Downs, Ben Gedeon, Eric Kendricks, Hercules Mata’afa, Eric Wilson

Prediction: SLB. Barr WLB. Gedeon MLB. Kendricks LB4. Mata’afa LB5. Brothers LB6. Wilson

Without Emmanuel Lamur, the Vikings need a new fourth linebacker. Brothers would have been a fair choice, but his suspension will bump him down the depth chart, at least for a bit. In his stead, undrafted rookie Mata’afa could step in. Mata’afa was a wrecking crew at defensive tackle in college, but his lack of size or length means he will make the rare move from interior line to linebacker. Reports are that the Vikings love his play-making and will give him run at Sam to take advantage of his blitzing ability.

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7th-round pick Downs will be the odd man out in this scenario, as Wilson was one of the best kick coverage men on the team last year. Unless Downs blows Wilson and Mata’afa out of the water in camp, he will likely end up on the practice squad.

Cornerback

On Roster: Mackensie Alexander, Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, Terence Newman, Xavier Rhodes, Horace Richardson, Marcus Sherels, Trae Waynes

Prediction: CB1. Rhodes CB2. Waynes CB3. Newman CB4. Alexander CB5. Hughes CB6. Holton Hill PR. Marcus Sherels

That is a lot of corners to keep. But the first five are all virtual locks to not only make the team, but also see significant playing time. For now, Newman is primary nickel, as that was his role a year ago. However, it will not be long before more snaps transition towards Alexander and Hughes.

Hill was arguably Spielman’s best get in undrafted free agency. He was viewed by many as a day two talent who would fall to day three because of personal issues. Spielman was able to grab him without even using a draft pick. He and Zimmer have spoken glowingly of Hill in the days since his signing. As long as he shines in camp, Hill likely has a spot on the roster with his name on it.

Safety

On Roster: Anthony Harris, Jayron Kearse, Trevon Mathis, Tray Matthews, Andrew Sendejo, Harrison Smith, Jack Tocho

Prediction: FS. Smith SS. Sendejo S3. Harris S4. Kearse 

The 11th defensive back spot would be between Sherels and Matthews in this scenario. Matthews is an undrafted rookie with nice special teams upside, but Sherels has been a mainstay in Minnesota for seven years now. While he is getting up in age, Sherels was still a solid punt returner in 2017, so he gets the nod over Matthews. But look for Matthews to be a focus for a practice squad assignment.

As for the other four, their spots seem pretty locked in. Smith and Sendejo are one of the top safety duos in football, Harris is a solid reserve who can make big plays and Kearse was one of the Vikings’ best gunners last year.

Long Snapper

On Roster: Nick Dooley, Kevin McDermott

Prediction: McDermott

Dooley has no NFL experience while McDermott has been the guy three straight years. Barring injury, this one is pretty open and shut.

Punter

On Roster: Ryan Quigley

Prediction: Quigley

Running unopposed at the moment.

Kicker

On Roster: Daniel Carlson, Kai Forbath

Prediction: Carlson

The rookie better win the kicking job or Spielman will have some explaining to do.

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