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Idenigbo’s growth highlights Vikings developmental success stories on defense

The Minnesota Vikings defense was too much for poor Daniel Jones.

The promising New York Giants rookie quarterback made a number of good throws in Sunday’s 28-10 loss but was bombarded with pressure in a 182-yard performance in which he averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt. Of course Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen did a lot of the damage but project defensive Ifeadi Odenigo also picked up his first career sack, highlighting his impressive growth.

“He worked really, extremely hard in the offseason and I remember toward the end of last season when he was on the scout team, he was making those guys on the other side of the ball work really, really hard,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Wednesday. “He worked real hard in the offseason, kept getting stronger and more athletic. He came in here with a purpose of he was going to make this team and try to help us win. He’s done a nice job.”

Odenigbo was picked by the Vikings in the seventh round of the 2017 draft out of Northwestern, where he had 10 sacks in his final college season. With a deep defensive line in place, he spent the ’17 season on the practice squad. In ’18 the Vikings moved him inside to defensive tackle, where he showed flashes of progress but was cut again.

Looking for project players, Cleveland picked up Odenigbo but cut him 20 days later. Arizona then signed him only to release the 6-foot-3 D-lineman in 30 days. At that point the Vikings brought him back on the practice squad.

With the Vikings against the cap, they had to let Sheldon Richardson exit in free agency and didn’t have the space to sign a veteran edge rusher or interior player aside from Shamar Stephen, so the team’s depth up front was entirely reliant on development. Early in camp, Odenigbo showed that he had come a long way.

“I think he’s really improved a lot as far as understanding the concepts that he has to do it at defensive end,” Zimmer said in late August. “He’s a power player, really good physicality.”

Sunday’s game marked a career high in snaps for Odenigbo with 27. In total he’s rushed the passer 60 times in ’19 and created six pressures (per Pro Football Focus) and produced PFF grades above 65 in every game except the opener against Atlanta. His 83.0 (out of 100) against the Giants was the highest mark.

Odenigbo is hardly the only contributor who spent time working his way into a role. Starting safety Anthony Harris currently has the second best PFF grade at his position. He was undrafted and saw limited action between 2015-2017 until taking over as the starter because of an injury to Andrew Sendejo.

Vikings 2016 seventh-round pick Jayron Kearse has the seventh highest PFF grade among corners who have played at least 100 snaps. He’s mixed between a box safety and nickel corner role over the last two years.

Linebacker Eric Wilson, undrafted from Cincinnati, who has filled in admirably when either Anthony Barr or Eric Kendricks has been out over the last two years, has a 77.9 PFF grade, ranking him ninth among players at his position with at least 100 snaps.

Seventh-rounder Stephen Weatherly has become a consistent rotational player with six pressures in 91 pass rush snaps and Jaleel Johnson has 103 snaps with a solid 67.6 PFF grade.

“I think it’s with any young player, the more they understand the system, the more they understand what you’re trying to ask them to do, then they end up making more plays,” Zimmer said. “They’re athletic guys. (Jayron) Kearse has done a nice when he’s got in there. Eric’s (Wilson) done a nice job. Obviously, we’re going to need those guys.”

On Sunday we also saw the growth of a first-round pick on the defensive side. Cornerback Mike Hughes had three pass breakups in the game filling in for Mackensie Alexander. It would not be a surprise to see Hughes, who is returning from ACL surgery, saw more playing time going forward.

Among the concerns when the Vikings signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to an $84 million contract was that other areas would suffer because the team would not be able to add depth free agents. But on the defensive side, the pipeline of development driven by Zimmer and his consistent staff of coaches with Jerry Gray (cornerbacks), Andre Patterson (defensive line), Adam Zimmer (linebackers) and George Edwards (defensive coordinator) have brought along raw players and helped them become quality NFL role players.


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