By Dave Campbell The Associated Press, AP Pro Football Writer
The Mankato Free Press
---- — MANKATO — For Everson Griffen, becoming an established and productive player for the Minnesota Vikings was like the quarterback he's trained to chase.
The blocker across from him, impeding his path to the elusive passer, was his own lack of focus and discipline.
Last year, he finally broke through.
"I'm just trying to play football right now and get better, set my foundation like everybody else," Griffen said. "Show the coaches I can be accountable for their coaching, that they can trust me. It starts with trust in this league, and I would love to be that veteran guy they can count on for next season, but we're at this season right now, 2013."
He's in the final year of the rookie contract he signed in 2010, but starters Jared Allen and Brian Robison are also playing on expiring deals, like stalwart under tackle Kevin Williams. By far the youngest of those three, Griffen could be in line for a big-money extension by the end of the year if he picks up where he left off last season.
"I've matured. It takes time to mature. People have their problems that they have to overcome, and the setbacks that you have, you become stronger at the end of them when you push through it," Griffen said.
There was a time when coach Leslie Frazier wasn't sure Griffen would last this long in the league, let alone with the Vikings.
"I talk to him all of the time about being one of those guys that I hope one day will be able to stand up in front of a room and talk to the young guys about 'this is where I was, but this is where I am today.' He's come a long ways, and we're very proud of what he's been able to accomplish," Frazier said.
Griffen fell to the fourth round in the draft out of USC after his junior year, and Vikings director of college scouting Scott Studwell said described Griffen that day as a guy who "enjoyed the college life a little bit" when acknowledging the discipline concerns that caused him to slip down the board.
He played sparingly that first season, and shortly after it was over he was arrested for an alleged assault on a police officer in Los Angeles during a scuffle that ensued from a traffic stop, though a felony charge was not pursued by authorities. In 2011, Griffen's playing time increased as he became the primary backup to Allen and Robison after the departure of Ray Edwards. But he was still prone to untimely and costly penalties, and his main value remained on special teams.
Last year, while carrying the grief of the sudden death of his mother, Griffen collected nine of his 12 career sacks, including one in the playoff game at Green Bay. To get there, Vikings used the three sacks he had against the Packers the week before in that must-win regular season finale. Griffen had 28 quarterback hurries over those 17 games, and he also produced his first career interception and touchdown.
"He has been as dialed in as I've seen him right now and really was for the last half of last year," defensive line coach Brendan Daly said.
Said Robison: "I think we've all tried to help him. We've seen that he's going to be a great player in this league for years to come, so we want to help him come along. The better he is, the better we are as a group."
Last summer, the Vikings toyed with using Griffen at outside linebacker, intrigued by the athleticism in his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame. The experiment quickly ended when both sides determined there wasn't a fit.
"You have to be careful because you want to play him everywhere," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said, adding: "Then I think you water down what a guy does. ... Limit the stuff that he does and let him go out there and play and hone his craft."
They've settled on using him at nose tackle in the nickel package when Letroy Guion comes out in obvious passing situations as well as at both end spots to give Allen and Robison breaks.
"He has such a really special combination of speed and burst along with power, and it's rare to find guys like that," Daly said. "You'll find lighter guys who are explosive, fast, can turn the corner, can dip and can bend, but they don't always have the explosiveness and the powerful strength that he's got."
Griffen, who has a six-month-old son, Grayson, and is engaged to be married next summer, pointed to increased playing time as additional fuel for his improvement.
"The more reps you get in this league the better you're going to be," he said.
The Vikings will gladly keep giving them out.
"He's been a bright spot, the way he's practiced, the attitude that he's had," Frazier said. "Really looking forward to watching how he develops."
NOTES: LB Desmond Bishop (groin) and CB Xavier Rhodes (hamstring) each missed practice due to lingering leg muscle injuries. CB Josh Robinson (hamstring) and FS Mistral Raymond (hamstring) have been on that list but were back in the mix for drills Monday. ... Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson will be the kickoff returner. He's being evaluated as a punt returner, too, perhaps in the exhibition game Friday. Others in the mix behind incumbent Marcus Sherels are Stephen Burton, Bobby Felder and possibly Jarius Wright. Patterson happened to be there in practice Monday when rookie Jeff Locke's punt from the end zone soared over his head, about 65 yards in the air with a tail wind, and rolled after the landing to around the other 10-yard line. Yes, that's 90 yards.