With several free agent signings and draft picks joining the defensive line room, the Vikings will have decisions to make when roster cuts arrive. Find out why Daniel House says this is the perfect time for the Vikings to get more creative with their pass rushing strategies.
Updated: July 18, 2017, 5:10 p.m.
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
The Vikings have continued to inject talent into their defensive line as they scheme to create quarterback pressure. This offseason, the emphasis was placed upon bolstering the interior of the defensive line. The Vikings drafted Iowa product Jaleel Johnson in the fourth round to add a three-technique defensive tackle with run stuffing ability. They signed Datone Jones in free agency to likely become the starting defensive tackle next to Linval Joseph. Jones is moving back inside after standing up in Green Bay's defense. He is the perfect fit as a three-technique because of his blend of power and speed. During the final wave of free agency, the Vikings also added former Chicago defensive tackle Will Sutton. Sutton, an athletic pass rusher, will be placed in a system that fully maximizes his light feet, quickness, and blend of power/speed. He needs to develop a more consistent motor, but this coaching staff can get it out of him.
Shamar Stephen is the lone young player returning. A very fundamentally sound defensive tackle, Stephen is very methodical inside. However, he has battled injuries and isn't as versatile as an overall player. Stephen's fate will be determined by his growth this offseason and the production of others at the position.
In addition, undrafted rookie Dylan Bradley received buzz in mini-camp and OTAs. He was one player the Vikings coveted in undrafted free agency. He weighs just 265 pounds, but he has position flexibility. At the college level, he was extremely explosive and compact out of the stance. He won by staying low and being fundamentally sound. Bradley has a strong motor and is extremely athletic to chase plays down the field. He also has the flexibility to kick out to the edge and rush the passer too.
All of this young talent was injected into a group with veterans Tom Johnson and Sharrif Floyd in the fold. Johnson, 32, is returning after suffering a torn hamstring at the midway point of 2016. He has provided tremendous value as a rotational third down pass rusher in this defense. Johnson will likely be pushed in training camp if youth at the position stands out. Sharrif Floyd is battling nerve issues after undergoing leg surgery. He will likely be placed on the PUP list, barring a quick recovery.
This leaves the Vikings with decisions to make at the interior defensive line spot. The amount of interior depth the coaches keep on the roster will dependent upon the cuts at defensive end. As Zone Coverage analyst Luke Inman and I discussed on our latest podcast, the Vikings could elect to keep just three defensive ends on the roster. With Everson Griffen holding down one end spot and Danielle Hunter/Brian Robison rotating at the other, they Vikings could stash necessary depth on the practice squad. This is especially the case if they are really impressed with the talent they have inside.
They could place rookie defensive ends Tashawn Bower and Ifeadi Odenigbo on the practice squad to serve as depth. Not to mention, they may attempt to slide Stephen Weatherly into one of those slots, too. If the coaches keep Dylan Bradley at defensive tackle, they'd also have flexibility to use him in packages off the edge.
Nonetheless, the Vikings have kept at least four defensive ends in each of Mike Zimmer's first three seasons with the team. If they keep four, one of the young players will need to step up for the final spot. LSU product Tashawn Bower is an extremely athletic and raw talent. He needs to develop more pass rushing moves and become more compact/explosive as a player.
Stephen Weatherly is another developmental player the Vikings selected in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. In 2016 camp, he struggled to win consistently because he needed to develop more physical strength and pass rushing moves. The team placed him on the practice squad, but he was later signed to the active roster to prevent the Patriots from snatching him.
Another candidate, Ifeadi Odenigbo, is extremely quick off the snap and has above average lower body strength. He wins with a nice blend of power and speed, but must develop more pass rushing moves. All of the players vying for the final defensive end spot need work, which means the final spot is truly up for grabs.
No matter what roster moves the coaches make, this is the most talented core of defensive lineman Mike Zimmer has put together since joining the Vikings. The team can get more creative than ever with how they use their personnel. Moving Brian Robison or Everson Griffen inside on pass rushing downs and standing up Danielle Hunter might be worth exploring. Developing unique ways to get after the quarterback via sub packages would really take the Vikings' pass rush to the next level. Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards have found players to fit their system and can now tailor their scheme to the players' skill-set.
From a roster construction standpoint, the most logical move would be to keep five defensive tackles and four defensive ends on the roster. However, training camp and the preseason may change the direction Minnesota's front office and coaches decide to go.