In the last few weeks before the Minnesota Vikings begin training camp, we're going to take a look at a number of players on their roster with something to prove this season, excluding rookies. We will focus primarily on veterans or players being asked to assume a larger role this season. We'll kick things off today with defensive end Everson Griffen.
Why he has something to prove: Griffen signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract in March, effectively becoming the successor to Jared Allen at the left end spot, despite starting just one game in his first four years with the Vikings. He found enough snaps in a rotational role, lining up as an inside rusher in the Vikings' nickel package and spelling both Allen and Brian Robison, that the Vikings were willing to spend big money to keep Griffen off the free-agent market. He has the quickness and athletic ability to cause serious matchup problems at defensive end, and he had eight sacks in a part-time role in 2012. But Griffen disappeared too many times early last season, and the Vikings need to see him take the next step toward becoming a consistent force on the defensive line.
What he must do: Griffen's performance this year shouldn't be solely measured by his sack numbers, since he won't have the benefit of lining up in a wide alignment and charging upfield toward the passer as often as Allen did. In Mike Zimmer's system, defensive ends are often asked to line up directly over a defensive tackle and engage blockers before heading into the backfield, so Griffen should be evaluated on how he sets the edge against the run almost as much as how he pursues the quarterback. Griffen also has to prove he can be effective as his workload likely increases; he's never played more than 717 snaps in a season, and he could be asked to log 200 or 250 more than that in 2014, based on how much Zimmer used right end Michael Johnson in Cincinnati. Griffen looked noticeably bigger this spring after staying in the Twin Cities to work out in the offseason, and he'll have to hold up under what will likely be a more taxing workload this season.
Projection: Griffen's sack totals won't be extravagant -- pencil him in for six or seven this season -- but he'll be solid enough against the run to help the Vikings improve there this season under Zimmer. He seemed energized by his new contract and the Vikings' coaching change, and he'll get his chance to take off in 2014.