EAGAN — Of the four spots on the Minnesota Vikings defensive line, they have three Pro Bowlers and one big question mark.
Aside from Shamar Stephen, a veteran D-lineman who returned to the Vikings after one season with the Seattle Seahawks, none of the candidates to play three-technique has more than a sniff of NFL experience. Last year’s starter Sheldon Richardson left in free agency following a strong season in which he posted 47 QB pressures. Where will that production be coming from in 2019? The Vikings hope from a pair of recent draft picks.
Jaleel Johnson, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, played 261 snaps last season and 2018 fourth-rounder Jalyn Holmes saw 58 defensive plays. Undrafted free agent (2018) Hercules Mata’afa has received praise from head coach Mike Zimmer but it’s difficult to say whether he will be in the race for a role before pads come on.
Johnson was receiving the majority of reps with the first team defense at minicamp practice on Tuesday — with Linval Joseph observing on the sideline and Stephen playing the nose tackle role.
“Jaleel [Johnson] has really done a nice job in this offseason,” Zimmer said. “He’s worked extremely hard, he’s gotten bigger and stronger. You look at him coming in from the weight room and things like that. He’s really improved in a lot of ways that way. I think he’s being more receptive to coaching. Sometimes, Jaleel is a little bit like a bull in a china closet, so he just wants to go, go, go. We have to get him to understand where his gap is, how he’s playing it, where his hand should be, and things like that and I think he’s done a much better job this spring.”
In his 261 plays on the interior of the D-line, the former Iowa standout picked up seven QB pressures, one QB hit and one sack, per PFF. In college he was an effective pass rusher, totaling 15.5 sacks over his final two seasons. Since being drafted the Vikings have bounced him back and forth between three-technique and nose tackle.
Likewise Holmes saw some time at defensive end last year when Everson Griffen was out. He played on the end at Ohio State but spent all of last offseason learning the defensive tackle position.
“It was a big adjustment,” Holmes said Tuesday. “With the NFL, things naturally got faster anyway. But I feel like now it’s kind of slowing down a bit more. You learn something new every day that helps slow it down. You have to be a student of the game every day and pick the vets’ brains. That has helped me out a lot.”
The Vikings drafted Holmes in part because of his 6-foot-5, 283-pound frame and explosiveness more than production in college. He managed only four sacks in two seasons as a Buckeye.
“I’m still learning,” Holmes said. “I just feel like this year it’s kind of slowed down a little bit. There’s still that adjustment. It’s different blocks and it’s a lot faster. But as every day goes by, you get a little bit better at it.”
Holmes and Johnson will likely get first crack at winning a rotational position alongside Joseph but the Vikings also drafted highly-productive DT Armon Watts in the sixth round. He had seven sacks at Arkansas last season.