Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Vikings Emphasize Interior Defensive Line Competition

Photo: Chicago Tribune

The Vikings needed to add more depth at the interior defensive line spots and they addressed this through the draft and free agency. Selecting Jaleel Johnson, along with signing Datone Jones and Will Sutton, crowd the room with competition. 

Updated: May 17, 2016 1:45 p.m.

By: Daniel House

video .gifs used courtesy of ACC Digital Network

If you are an NFL team, depth on the defensive line is important if your defense is predicated on getting after the quarterback. It's particularly critical if you're the Minnesota Vikings.

GM Rick Speilman and his staff made the defensive line a priority during the draft and free agency. They signed Datone Jones and drafted Jaleel Johnson to provide more depth at the three-technique defensive tackle position. Now, they can likely slide Shamar Stephen over to the nose tackle spot, where he is more of a natural fit. On Wednesday, the Vikings signed defensive tackle Will Sutton, another player who will likely provide depth at nose tackle.

Keeping in mind that Sharrif Floyd, Shamar Stephen, and Tom Johnson are entering contract years, the Vikings needed to add depth to prepare for the future. Mike Zimmer noted this during his draft press conference with the media. They now have two capable three-technique defensive tackles in Jaleel Johnson and Datone Jones, along with Shamar Stephen and Will Sutton as depth behind Linval Joseph. The competition for the spots in the interior of the defensive line will arguably be the biggest battle in training camp.

With 32-year-old Tom Johnson coming off a torn hamstring, the Vikings may favor youth at the rotational three-technique spot. Johnson isn't a complete lock to make the team, especially if the coaches are impressed with what Datone Jones can bring to the table. Jones was never used appropriately in Green Bay and needs to be played as a pure three technique defensive tackle because of his shear size and athleticism. It will come down to how many nose tackles the Vikings want to keep as depth. It feels like the coaches will keep more defensive tackles inside than in years past due to the recent injection of talent at the position.

The Vikings signing Will Sutton probably isn't a good sign when it comes to Sharrif Floyd's recovery from nerve problems in his leg. Sutton is a developmental player who hasn't reached his full potential. He was drafted in the third round by the Chicago Bears in 2014 and started 18 games, recording 60 career tackles. The Vikings and their staff must see potential in Sutton's skill-set within their defensive scheme.

Coming out of college, many people questioned Sutton's work ethic and his tendency to take off plays. Perhaps as a rotational player under the coaching of defensive line coach Andre Patterson and Mike Zimmer, Sutton can use his full athleticism and above average tackling ability in this scheme. Chicago potentially moved on from Sutton because of Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme not being a fit for an undersized defensive tackle. If he develops more consistent pass rushing moves, Sutton can be a rotational third down pass rusher at nose tackle for the Vikings.

The Vikings allowed a 106.9 yards per game average to opposing rushers last year and it appears the team is re-tooling their defensive line to improve this. Not to mention, Mike Zimmer loves to rotate defensive linemen inside to keep them fresh. Finding pass rushers who can get after the quarterback on third down has always been a priority with this coaching staff.

The battle during training camp for the interior defensive line spot will be very attractive with three interior spots likely open. The battle will occur between Tom Johnson, Datone Jones, Jaleel Johnson, and Will Sutton. The room will get even more crowded if Sharrif Floyd can recover from his injury.  It's hard not to be excited about the additions of Johnson and Jones inside because they can be immediate contributors in the rotation. Competition has been created on the defensive line, which is a great sign for a team that wants to consistently rush the passer and improve against the run.

This is only the beginning of the discussion regarding the defensive line. The position will be debated heavily as we enter the final stretch of the offseason and reach training camp.