When one thinks of the abysmal performance of the Vikings' defense this season, one of the first players to come to mind is Brian Russell. He of the one to two missed interception opportunities per game. He of the two missed such opportunities against the Eagles in the playoffs--one in the endzone. He of the comical missed tackle, pirouette, second missed tackle and backpedal toward his own endzone to avoid a third missed tackle on the same play against the Bears. He of the restricted free agent status.
The second name that comes to mind is Brian Williams. He of the ten to fifteen yard cushion. He of the oft-missed tackles. He of the no-sack blitz with the QB in his grasp. He of the defender who too often failed to turn to frame the pass and make the pick. He, also, of the restricted free agent status.
And when one thinks of these two Brians, one thinks of the life of these Brians next season. One thinks about how their lives might be different out of the NFL. Then one thinks about how the Vikings might perform on defense absent two of their most critical 2004 secondary liabilities.
In 2004, Brian Russell contributed 62 tackles and 1 interception to the Vikings' defensive cause. Brian Williams contributed 61 tackles and 2 interceptions in 2004. Lest we get too excited about the tackle numbers for Russell and Williams, a couple of items are worth noting. The first is that the statistic says nothing about defended plays. The fact that Russell and Williams made tackles merely denotes that they were able to stop a player before that player entered the endzone or ran out of bounds. The more lasting memory of Russell's and Williams' 2004 play is not of a game-saving tackle (or even of a tackle) but of a game-breaking breakdown in pass coverage, often to the tune of a touchdown for the opposing team.
It is also informative to consider the tackle statistic in the broader context. Russell's tackle total, for example, was only second best on the Vikings among members of the secondary. Williams' numbers were third best. Only Corey Chavous, among Vikings' secondary starters, had worse numbers, and only slightly worse at 59. And Russell, Williams, and Chavous all trailed the Vikings' secondary leader in tackles, Antoine Winfield, who tallied 70 tackles. Moreover, unlike Chavous, Russell, and Williams, who each started every one of the Vikings' 16 regular-season games, Winfield played only 14 of 16 regular-season games and played only in nickle packages in 2 of the 14 games. Prorating Winfield's tackle numbers puts him in the neighborhood of 84 tackles on the season.
While both the numbers and first impression support the contention that Russell and Williams have some catching up to do, that fact is even more evident when comparing Russell's and Williams' numbers to the rest of the league. Robert Griffith--the guy who was too expensive for the Vikings--tallied 118 tackles for the Cleveland Browns this season.
To put the tackle figures in perspective, at their 2004 pace Russell and Williams would need to play an additional 15 games to match the tackle total of Robert Griffith. Even to match the tackle total of Winfield (based on Winfield's 16-game projection), Russell and Williams would need to play an additional 6 games. That's an alarming statistic given that so many teams threw the ball against the Vikings and that the Vikings' linebackers were at the bottom of the league in tackles.
Which all bodes ominously for the brothers Brian, as starters for the Vikings next season.
What to Expect
Since mid-season, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice has intimated that he is unhappy with the performance of Brian Russell. As the season drew to a close, Tice's unhappiness with Russell's performance became more evident, with Tice unequivocally stating that the Vikings may have gotten what they could out of the undrafted free agent signee.
Tice's sentiments, along with Russell's poor performance nearly every week, virtually ensures that the Vikings will not tender Russell in the off-season. That means that the Vikings might be in the market for a free safety.
Williams is another matter, in part because the Vikings have more invested in him as a high-round draft choice and, in part, because Williams showed some signs of play-making ability this season. Against the Packers in the playoffs, for example, Williams, for perhaps the first time all season, looked back at the quarterback on a pass play and was able to adjust to the play to make an easy pick. Williams has also shown a propensity to hit hard. All of which suggests that the Vikings may still be interested in Williams. But that interest, given Williams' generally weak play throughout the season, is probably limited to having Williams serve as the nickle back.
Where the Vikings are Likely to Turn to Fill Gaps
The Vikings cannot afford, nor will they have the opportunity, to fill their secondary needs through the draft. Relying on the draft is what put the Vikings in their current predicament. On a team laden with young defensive players, the Vikings need a reliable veteran safety. And they may already have one on their roster.
After the loss to the Eagles, Tice spoke of the need for change in the secondary. Tice specifically made clear that the free safety position was up for grabs next season. And Tice intimated that the Vikings' 2005 free safety was already on the roster in the person of Ken Irvin. Irvin undoubtedly lacks Russell's speed, but cannot conceivably have worse tackling or interception abilities. That makes Irvin an upgrade at free safety. There are other options in free agency, such as the Ravens' Will Demps, but Irvin is a comparable player and probably cheaper.
Moving Williams to nickle creates a vacancy at corner that the Vikings cannot fill from within, however. And, while there are several cornerbacks who will be free agents this off-season, one should stand at the top the Vikings' list of free agent priorities, Washington's Fred Smoot. The Redskins have made it fairly clear that they do not plan to pursue Smoot and Smoot is precisely the type of tough-cover, heavy-hitting, tight-on-the-line corner that the Vikings need. Smoot won't come cheap, but he fits a dire need of the Vikings and should fit in under the Vikings' mandatory spending level. We'll look more closely at the other available corners as the free agency period revs up. But for now, suffice it to say that the answer to the Vikings' cornerback quandry is ripe for the signing. And the Vikings should have the inside track.
Up Next: Tuning Out? Plus, finding a linebacker.