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Vets still guiding Vikings 'D' but youth the fuel

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Vets still guiding Vikings 'D' but youth the fuel

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) There's plenty of experience left in Minnesota's defense, despite the rebuilding project that has turned over so much the roster in the last year.

If a mini-Mount Rushmore monument were made for this group, the faces of veterans Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield would certainly be featured. The older guys are still significant if not critical contributors.

Look closely at the first four games for the Vikings, though, and their youth is revealed -- in a valuable, age-defying way. Balance between the three position groups is important for good defense, as is a mix of old and young. The Vikings have enjoyed both.

``We just make plays when they need to be made. We haven't made that big mistake,'' Greenway said.

The tackling has been better, as has the pass coverage, and the defensive line has applied enough raw pressure that blitzes haven't been needed a lot. As solid as the holdovers have played, particularly Greenway and Winfield, the source of the improvement can be traced straight to the newbies.

Rookie Josh Robinson, who has the team's only interception, has provided an obvious upgrade at cornerback in the nickel package. Jasper Brinkley has taken over as the starting middle linebacker without much trouble. Another first-time starter, Letroy Guion, has defended the run well at nose tackle, recorded two sacks and even blocked a field goal.

Then there's utility lineman Everson Griffen, emerging as a secret pass rushing weapon in his third season, and rookie strong safety Harrison Smith, who has given the Vikings the hard-hitting, smart, ball-hawking player they haven't had in years at that position.

These two guys have been making as big of an impact as anyone.

After ending their experiment with Griffen as a linebacker in training camp, the Vikings moved the 6-foot-3, 275-pounder back to his home on the line. He gives Allen and Brian Robison an occasional break at the end spots and usually replaces Guion inside when passing situations call for the nickel group. Griffen leads the team with three sacks and is tied for second behind Allen with six quarterback hurries, quite the production for a part-time player.

``I like d-line. That's where I live. That's where I belong. It's doing me well,'' Griffen said. ``Whatever I can do to help this team win, that's the biggest thing.''

Defensive coordinator Alan Williams recalled watching video of last season on his first day on the job.

``There was a blur going across the screen and I was thinking, `Is that a linebacker? Is that a safety running across the field?' And I went back and forth a couple of times and got my program out and looked at it, and it was Everson Griffen. I looked at his height and weight and I was thinking, `Wow, we have something here,''' Williams said.

That's the same reaction Vikings coaches had when they first watched Smith in action during the practices leading up to the Senior Bowl in January. He hasn't disappointed, with 30 tackles, six passes defended and no glaring mistakes through his first four NFL games.

His best moment so far was probably last Sunday at Detroit, when he hit wide receiver Calvin Johnson so hard that the Lions star couldn't hang onto what would've been a touchdown catch late in the second quarter. The Lions had to settle for a field goal on that drive, and the Vikings won 20-13.

``We want people to have a second thought about us or not just think they're running free down our defense,'' Smith said.

Williams, paraphrasing his former boss in Indianapolis, then-coach Tony Dungy, called Smith ``the eraser'' for his ability to make up for other's errors in coverage or pursuit. Free safety Jamarca Sanford raved about his partner's instincts and intelligence.

``You get a lot of rookies, they might know their assignment but they don't know what other guys are doing,'' Sanford said. ``And he's one of the guys who really knows what everyone's doing on defense.''

That's legitimate leadership, regardless of age.

``I'm doing my job and working to get better every day. That's enough for me right now, and if that evolves into me leading or if people like how I play and kind of see that as leading then so be it,'' Smith said. ``But I'm not going to try to take over the room or anything.''

Notes: After sitting out the last two days because of a groin injury, Allen participated fully in Friday's practice. QB Christian Ponder (right knee) and WR Michael Jenkins (rib) did the same. Coach Leslie Frazier said all of them will be ``fine'' to play in Sunday's game against Tennessee. ... Marvin Mitchell, who has filled in for Erin Henderson at weak side LB, has a strained calf muscle and probably won't be available. Henderson will be back after missing the last two games with a concussion.

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What's next for Barry Trotz?

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What's next for Barry Trotz?

Barry Trotz is no longer the head coach of the Washington Capitals and, after resigning, he is officially free to pursue other opportunities. So what's next for the now former Capitals head coach?

For those who believe Trotz will simply retire, that seems unlikely. Trotz is only 55 years old. Plus, general manager Brian MacLellan indicated the main issue in the contract negotiations between him and Trotz was term. If Trotz was, in fact, seeking a five-year contract, that doesn't sound like someone who is ready to walk away from the game.

There is only one head coaching vacancy left in the NHL, that of the New York Islanders. New President of Hockey Operations Lou Lamoriello cleaned house after getting hired and fired both general manager Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight earlier in June. Now, suddenly, there is a Stanley Cup-winning coach on the market.

While it certainly makes sense for the Islanders to pursue Trotz, there's one big reason why Trotz, or anyone, would likely be hesitant to accept the job on Long Island and that is John Tavares.

New York's franchise player is a pending free agent and, until his contract situation is resolved, convincing anyone to take the head coaching job with the Islanders is a tough sell. If the Islanders re-sign Tavares, improve the defense and bring in a dependable starting goalie, then there is no reason to think they cannot be a playoff team.

But those are a lot of "ifs" and Tavares is a big one. If he goes, suddenly the situation on Long Island is much different. Tavares' decision could be the difference between the Islanders being a playoff team or getting a high lottery pick.

For Trotz to walk away from a team that just won the Stanley Cup to go to a New York team that may or may not have its best player back next season does not make a lot of sense.

But just because there may be only one head coaching vacancy open doesn't mean Trotz does not have any options.

The 2017-18 season saw no head coaching changes made during the season for the first time since the league expanded in 1967. Chances are jobs will begin to open up during the season especially if those teams believe they can land a Cup-winning coach as a replacement.

If you're Trotz, you just won a Stanley Cup. There is no reason to rush into another opportunity. Trotz will instantly be near or at the top of every wish list for teams in need of a head coach.

Don't just assume that Trotz will be on Long Island to start the 2018-19 season just because it is the only opportunity currently available. He can wait for the perfect opportunity to come to him.

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Cavaliers are gunning for Kawhi Leonard, though it's doubtful they have enough to interest Spurs

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Cavaliers are gunning for Kawhi Leonard, though it's doubtful they have enough to interest Spurs

With word out that Kawhi Leonard wants a trade from the Spurs, teams are lining up with offers to San Antonio and one of the NBA’s best teams has reportedly already made a call.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have contacted the Spurs about a potential Leonard trade, according to Cleveland.com. Terry Pluto wrote on Sunday that multiple teams have done the same. That is to expected, of course, as Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA. He's a two-time defensive player of the year and he's only 26.

Let's look at Cleveland as a potential destination. It should first be noted that it's questionable whether they have enough to land a player of Leonard's caliber. They have the eighth overall pick in Thursday's draft, but it may take a lot more than that to get Leonard.

They also have Kevin Love, who is an All-Star still in his prime. But if they gave him up, they would then need to seek more help to surround Leonard and LeBron James, if James decides to stay. Though James and Leonard are both top-five players in the NBA, they still likely wouldn't be able to beat the Warriors unless they had another running mate. Those two plus Love and then you're talking.

Whether the Cavs have the goods to land Leonard or not, it's no wonder why they are trying for him. Getting Leonard, a two-time All-NBA selection, would likely be enough to retain James, the best player in the game. If James were to look around the league for a top-shelf running mate, he would be hard-pressed to find one better than Leonard.

That is assuming Leonard is healthy, of course. He did miss all but nine games this past season with a quadriceps injury. That injury was central in a saga of discord between him and the team. Until he hits the court again, Leonard offers no guarantees. Still, he may be worth the risk for Cleveland, as the alternative is potentially seeing James walk. 

If the Cavs got Leonard, that would probably solidify their standing as the best team in the Eastern Conference, even if they lost Love in the process. Leonard is better than Love and they would arguably have the two best players in the East. They may not have enough to beat the Warriors, but that would likely give them the edge over the young teams like Boston and Philly that have been nipping at their heels.

Sending Leonard to the Cavs would get him out of the Western Conference and that might be enticing to the Spurs. If they send him to the Lakers, his reported preferred destination, that could come back to bite them much more often than it would if he was traded to the East. Though putting him in Cleveland would form another very good team, they wouldn't affect the Spurs directly but for two regular season games, unless they were to meet in the NBA Finals.

The Spurs haven't indicated they will actually trade Leonard, but it does seem to be heading in that direction. It sounds like Cleveland will at the very least give it a shot. 

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