Backup battles: Defensive snap counts

Letroy Guion (Mark Cunningham/Getty)

Snap counts from last year could point to the backups most ready to take a step forward in 2011. One player stepped up at defensive tackle and could be relied on more heavily this year while injuries were the story at cornerback, allowing Asher Allen to become a bigger factor.

As the lockout approached 115 days old and labor talks continued, the value of the experienced player increases as the preparation time for the preseason and regular season decreases.

During the lockout, players haven't been able to work out at their team facilities and haven't been able to have contact with the coaching staff or any other team employees. But while the returning players are locked out, there is a group of free agents – both rookies and veterans – waiting to sign contracts, many of them with other teams. The longer they have to wait, the less they will know about the systems, schemes, strategies and tendencies of their new teams. That will give the advantage to the returning players, both in the starting ranks and backups vying for playing time and a roster spot.

The number of snaps and amount of experience last year could mean even more this year, so with that in mind we took a look at the snap counts at each of the positions for the Vikings and were sometimes surprised by the results. Two things stand out on defense: 1) Backup linebackers may be valuable on special teams, but when the starters are healthy the backups get almost no playing time; 2) Injuries played a huge part at cornerback last year, but the numbers produced a surprising beneficiary.

DEFENSIVE END – With Jared Allen playing almost 94 percent of the defensive snaps, most of the backup action came on the left side of the line. Ray Edwards was the starter there, with nearly 75 percent of the snaps played, but between filling in for Edwards and sliding inside on obvious passing downs, Brian Robison still played on 32 percent of the snaps. Rookie Everson Griffen played only 6.5 percent of the snaps. What does it all mean as the Vikings look to 2011? Edwards is likely gone via free agency and Robison should be the new starter at left end after signing a three-year, $14.1 million deal. Griffen will have to prove he can be reliable and stay out of trouble, and the Vikings brought in a raw rookie in seventh-round draft pick D'Aundre Reed. It wouldn't be surprising to see a veteran acquisition, just to be safe.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE – The Vikings will have to wait until after a new labor deal is reached to see if Pat Williams will return (he's a free agent) and how the NFL will mete out punishment to him and Kevin Williams (likely four-game suspensions). But no matter what happens there, the coaching staff has been priming Letroy Guion for a bigger role. Guion played 26 percent of the defensive snaps, almost twice as many as any other defensive tackle. Jimmy Kennedy, who struggled with injuries, played only 14.7 percent of the snaps, but the team also brought in fourth-round draft pick Christian Ballard, and he is likely to contribute early, especially if Kevin Williams is suspended.

LINEBACKER – No other position saw the starting stability of linebacker. Middle backer E.J. Henderson played nearly 95 percent of the snaps; Chad Greenway, the franchise player, was in for almost 97 percent (bested only by Antoine Winfield on defense); and Ben Leber, who came out on passing downs, played in only 51.4 percent of the snaps. The backups received almost no action, with Erin Henderson accounting for 2.2 percent of the work and none of the other backup backers getting in for more than 2 percent of the defensive plays. While Leber is a free agent, the fact that the team's weakside linebacker is only seeing action about 50 percent of the time could play into how the team prioritizes the position in free agency.

CORNERBACK – While Winfield dominated the playing time at cornerback with a defensive-best 98 percent of the snaps played, the second-place finisher at cornerback may be surprising. Asher Allen not only started more games (11) than Chris Cook (seven) and Cedric Griffin (two) combined, he played in 69 percent of the defensive snaps while Cook and Griffin limped through the season with knee injuries. Griffin played in only 13 percent of the defensive snaps and Cook was in for 23 percent of the action, about the same amount as pending free agent Frank Walker. Both Griffin and Cook should be ready for the start of the regular season, but in case they suffer more setbacks with their knees, the Vikings drafted Brandon Burton as insurance.

SAFETY – The Vikings reportedly showed a "serious interest" in O.J. Atogwe, who was released by the Rams and signed with the Redskins, but it's unclear how aggressive they will be in pursuit of any of the other free-agent safeties. What is clear is that if they decide to make a change internally, none of the candidates beyond starters Husain Abdullah and Madieu Williams really grabbed hold of their limited opportunity. Jamarca Sanford was in for 21 percent of the defensive plays and Tyrell Johnson only 7.8 after being a starter in 2009. Mistral Raymond was drafted, but he could be a developmental project rather than an immediate answer. Short of a veteran acquisition, the starting safety spots could remain largely the same.

Clearly, a look at the snap counts confirm that the defensive line is the place for rotational players to get experience while the playing-time statistics also show just how badly the cornerback position was affected by injuries.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board. Recommended Stories