As I blogged previously a couple of weeks ago, I don't like to write about the Vikings and the NFL draft when the team is fighting for a playoff berth. But my post on draft-eligible college wide receivers generated enough discussion and interest that I've decided to do another one – this time focusing on defensive tackles.
I don't think DT is as pressing a need as funding a split end in the next college draft, but it's a very close second. Kevin Williams will be 33 when the 2013 starts and his play has slipped from All-Pro level to OK level. He's also due big bucks next season (his salary cap hit will be $8 million). The Vikings probably don't want him back at that price. And at his advanced football age, they may not want him back at any price.
To Williams left on the interior is Letroy Guion, who signed a three-year contract extension in the offseason but so far has done little to justify it. His backup, Fred Evans, has actually played better than Guion. He has knack for blowing up running plays at the line of scrimmage, but he's inconsistent and not someone you want to be playing 50-60 snaps a game. The other DT on the roster is second-year player Christian Ballard, who in his two seasons with the Vikings has looked just like he is auditioning for the role of the Invisible Man. (But he is coming off the two best games of his career the past two weeks.)
Simply put, the Vikes need a talent infusion at this position. The run defense – long a strength in Minnesota – has gradually slipped. This year the Vikings are giving up 113 yards per game (13th in the league) and the team could use a bit more pass rushing juice from the DTs than they are currently getting. The good news is this year's draft is pretty deep in DTs. What follows is a few players who could interest the Vikings as they get into draft preparations after this season concludes. Some will quibble with the tiers I have the players in, but that's OK. The commentary and "rankings" aren't based on my scouting prowess (I've only seen one of the guys I mention – Johnathan Hankins – play). I'm getting my intel from reading scouting reports online and culling stats, and stats don't do the impact DTs have on a game justice in some cases. What I can say is that the names mentioned below have popped up in various mock drafts and draft boards I have read. So it's clear somebody thinks they can play. Maybe Vikings general manager Rick Spielman does as well.
* Denotes a junior who has declared he will enter the 2013 NFL draft.
Star Lotulelei (Senior – Utah) 6'4, 320 pounds
2012 stats: 42 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries
Lotulelei is probably the most recognizable name of this bunch. A massive guy, scouting reports rave about his brute strength and quickness, which allow him to get consistent penetration on both pass and run plays. I read opposing views on his effort and hustle. Some lauded his "high octane motor", but one report claimed Lotulelei didn't bring his A-game on every snap. Hmmm. No matter, Lotulelei is still considered the best DT in the draft and would fit in nicely on the Vikings defensive tackle rotation in 2013. One problem – the Vikings don't have a pick in the top three in 2013 like they did in 2012 and Lotulelei is a top three pick in this quarterback poor draft.
* Sheldon Richardson (Junior – Missouri) 6'4, 295 pounds
2012 stats: 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks, 7 QB hurries
Some November mock drafts had Richardson going to the Vikings. He's rated highly after a standout season in the SEC. But it was only one season and there's concern Richardson will be less motivated to play hard once he signs a big NFL contract. However, his positives are hard to ignore: big frame, quick off the snap, good short area burst and the better the opponent he faced in 2012, the better he played. He has pass rush ability, too.
* Johnathan Hankins (Junior – Ohio State) 6'3, 322
2012 stats: 55 tackles, 5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack
This season might be considered a letdown after he posted 67 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and 3 sacks in 2011. Still, Hankins is a load, yet rangy for his size. He's tough against the run and scouts highlight his strong hands that allow him to secure tackles and finish plays once he gets his mitts on you. He also eats up multiple blockers on the line, allowing teammates to make plays. On the downside, it's said he took dumb penalties at Ohio State and is known for blatantly taking plays off. Seems like a better fit at nose tackle for a 3-4 team, which the Vikings aren't right now, and the Spielman regime hasn't drafted character concern players until the fourth round or so. There's no chance Hankins slips that far.
Kawaan Short (Senior – Purdue) 6'3, 315
2012 stats: 42 tackles, 14.5 for a loss, 6 sacks, 4 blocked kicks
If you follow Big Ten football (and most Vikings fans living in the American Midwest do), then you are probably familiar with Mr. Short's work. I am not. But he has the wingspan of a condor, which allowed him to not only block four kicks this season but also to bat down 11 passes, which is J.J. Watt-esque. Scouts say he can be an immovable object in the middle and he obviously has pass rush ability. The debits on Short's ledger are – wait for it – streaky effort during games. I've also read reports calling out Short for lacking a mean streak and being too passive. Short sounds like an immense talent, but also a guy who could break a team's heart if his effort in the pros doesn't match his physical ability.
Sylvester Williams (Senior – North Carolina) 6'3, 305
2012 stats: 42 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks, 6 QB hurries
Williams is a guy who has set himself up to make a lot of money in April with the 2012 season he had for the Tar Heels. He barely played football in high school, went to junior college and then moved on to UNC in 2011. Scouting reports like his "violent" handwork in the trenches as well as his quickness off the snap and his burst in short areas. And he showed an ability to get after the quarterback and there were no issues (that I read anyway) about this effort. ESPN college draft talking head Todd McShay's recent mock draft has the Vikings taking Williams ahead of Richardson. (I know. I know. There's a long way to go here.)
Johnathan Jenkins (Senior – Georgia) 6'3, 351
2012 stats: 50 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 15 QB hurries
At 350-plus pounds, it will not shock you to hear that Jenkins is impossible to move off his spot without using a double-team on him. And for a nose tackle type DT, standing your ground and occupying multiple blockers is a big part of the job description. Jenkins does it well. Pass rushing is another matter. Other than an average bull rush, one scouting report claims Jenkins doesn't have any other go-to moves. Oh well. Guys with Jenkins' size, athleticism and effort don't come around very often. He'll go early.
The Second Tier
Jesse Williams (Senior – Alabama) 6'4, 320
2012 stats: 22 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 3 QB hurries
Some mock drafts have Williams going in the first round. That's quite possible, but Williams seems like a one-dimensional guy to me. Granted, his one dimension – clogging the middle – is a valued one in the NFL. Williams is the anchor of an Alabama defense that's given up just 75 yards rushing per game in 2012. Incredibly strong (he has a bench press of 600 pounds), he's learned how to use his hands to shed blocks despite being from Australia and only taking up the sport at 15. He's also known for his hustle. However, he doesn't seem like a good fit for a 4-3 team like the Vikings. He's shown no pass rush ability and doesn't do a good job getting his hands in passing lanes. But the same things could be said about former Vike Pat Williams.
Sharrif Floyd (Junior – Florida) 6'3, 303
2012 stats: 41 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 1 blocked field goal
Athletic enough that the Gators had him play DE in 2011 before moving him back to DT in 2012. Floyd's known for having a quick burst off the snap, good hand use and good power off the line of scrimmage. Expect to read about Floyd being a "character" concern is he declares for the draft, though. He was suspended by the NCAA for 2 games in 2011 for receiving impermissible benefits from a booster – who then adopted Floyd in 2012. Funny how that works.
* Akeem Spence (Junior – Illinois) 6'1, 305
2012 stats: 72 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry
Another big fella Minnesota Gopher fans and Big Ten followers will recognize. Spence is a tackling machine on the interior, racking up 141 of them the past two seasons. Spence is strong, quick off the snap and plays through the whistle, which helps explain his tackle totals. What Spence didn't show at Illinois was much promise as a pass rusher and one scouting report mentioned he takes himself out of plays. His height might be an issue for the Vikings as well. Minnesota doesn't have a DT on its roster listed under 6'4. Spielman seems to like his DTs tall and thick. Where have you gone John Randle, Jerry Ball and Tony Williams?
Jordan Hill (Senior – Penn State) 6'1, 292
2012 stats: 64 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks
Another draft-eligible DT from the Big Ten. Extremely active and relentless player in the interior, whose lateral quickness and burst allowed him to be productive despite not having the size you'd normally want from a DT. I've read that size is why he can't bully or overpower blockers at the point of the attack. NFL teams will hold that against him come draft weekend. He doesn't seem to have the size the Vikings have been looking for from their DTs of late. But he'll play somewhere.
Other interesting behemoths
Daniel McCullers (Junior - Tennessee) 6'8, 360
2012 stats: 39 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 2 QB hurries
Huge kid. Just huge. But he's only played one year of Division 1 football and hasn't declared for the draft yet. However, his stats were strong enough in his one year that with his Paul Bunyan body, if he does enter the draft, he will get snatched up early.
Brandon Williams (Senior – Missouri-Southern) 6'3, 325
2012 stats: 68 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles
Here is an intriguing DT prospect. Played in Division 2, but talk about productive. Is the school's all-time sack leader with 27, which is impressive for a DT even if you are playing in Division 2. Williams is someone who could be a steal in the 4-6 round range. But if his pre-draft workouts are impressive, he could shoot up draft boards like Dontari Poe did in 2012, and Poe was nowhere near as productive in college as Williams has been.
Montori Hughes (Senior – Tennessee-Martin) 6'4, 330
2012 stats: 42 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks, 13 QB hurries
Hughes was kicked off the Tennessee Volunteers team in 2011 and scouts have always questioned his drive and motivation. And along with the character questions, you wonder if Hughes' strong stat line in 2012 was a product of playing inferior competition all the time. But he does have the size NFL teams covet in a DT.