Why Griffen is on the list
Not all Making the Leap candidates are equal.
No other player on this list was just handed a five-year, $42.5 million contract with $20 million guaranteed. Some knocked the Vikings for furnishing a four-year, part-time player with one career start the type of contract that set the defensive end market this offseason.
Everson Griffen played a career-high 717 snaps in 2013, utilized as a sub for defensive ends Brian Robison and Jared Allen, then shifting inside in nickel situations. Last season's film doesn't jump off the screen and his stats in a vacuum are low for his new contract.
However, when I went back to watch the only start of his career -- in place of an injured Robison, Week 16 of 2012 against the Houston Texans -- it was evident why the Vikings are so high on the 26-year-old pass rusher.
Griffen displayed all the characteristics in that one start that indicate he has the tools to be a full-time starting defensive end. Combined with unquestioned athleticism, Griffen has multiple methods to attack offensive tackles. He can bend the edge, shows a good bull rush, can keep a blocker's hands off him, and the man loves his spin move (especially on the inside).
After seeing him excel down the stretch in 2012 replacing an injured Robison, the Vikings knew they needed to get Griffen on the field more, hence his abundance of plays on the inside of the line in passing situations.
However, Griffen was mostly miscast as an inside rusher in Leslie Frazier's defense and while productive from there at times, it's not where he will excel. He's much better suited outside in the defense Mike Zimmer imported to Eden Prairie.
You don't have to take my word for it.
"We attack now. Our coach lets us attack now," Griffen said recently, per KSTP-AM. "We make plays. I feel like we're go-getters. We're not waiting for them to strike. We're going to strike them before they strike us."
With Allen gone to the rival Chicago Bears, Griffen will finally be unleashed at a full-time defensive end position opposite Robison. The Vikings' new up-field attacking-style defense should be right in Griffen's wheelhouse. Scouts often say disruption is production, and in limited work Griffen was disruptive.
In a rotational role the past two seasons, one of Griffen's attributes that jumps out is his ability to cause havoc in the pocket. He consistently pushed the line forward in passing situations, whether from the outside or inside positions. In 2013, Pro Football Focus charted Griffen in the top 20 for 4-3 defensive ends in both total quarterback pressures with 52 and pass-rushing productivity with a 9.5 -- ahead of the likes of Lamarr Houston and Chandler Jones.
I should point out that Michael Johnson didn't break out until he became the Cincinnati Bengals' permanent starter in his fourth season under Zimmer, when he jumped from six sacks to 11.5 in 2012. It's safe to say Griffen's contract was another case of an NFL team paying for what a player will become, not what he has already done.
Griffen needs to prove that his production as a part-time player wasn't a fluke and he can remain consistent when asked to take on offensive tackles play-in and play-out.
Along those same lines, he must show he has the motor to rush quarterbacks on every down, not just in spot duty. Since his days at the University of Southern California, Griffen's drive has been questioned. While his quarterback pressure efficiency the last two seasons indicates he could produce at starter levels, he will have to prove he can help replace the 1,000-plus snaps that exited with Allen, a man whose motor never stopped.
There will also be questions surrounding Griffen's run defense entering 2014, mainly because as a sub and nickel lineman he wasn't consistently put in situations to identify and sniff out a running game.
Playing behind two established starters during the last two seasons, Griffen was like a sports car caught in traffic. In 2014, he gets the opportunity to open up his pass-rushing engine, which should pay dividends for his productivity.
We expect Griffen to thrive under Zimmer. Not only will the defensive end be unleashed in attacking positions, his time spent on the inside and experience occasionally dropping into coverage should aid a creative defense. It wouldn't be a shock to see Zimmer move Griffen around in tandem with rookie outside linebacker Anthony Barr to create mismatches.
The path on the edge is finally clear for Griffen to burst onto the scene. Given his results in limited roles, his athleticism and a new attacking scheme, it would be disappointing if he didn't light the lamp at least enough times to beat Allen's 11.5 sacks from last season.