As the Minnesota Vikings formulate their plot for the upcoming free agency period they will have more holes to fill than cap space to spend, even with the potential for players like Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph to be released and Anthony Harris and Everson Griffen to leave in free agency. That means they will have to rely on the young players they have developed over the past few years to fill spots. But which jobs can be taken by current players and which will have to be addressed in free agency? Let’s have a look…
At the NFL Combine Mike Zimmer made it very clear that he wants Everson Griffen to return.
“Everson played really well, especially early in the year,” Zimmer said. “As we’re going back through the cut-ups and watching some of the pass things, he’s still a really good pass rusher. There’s that as far as on the field. Off the field, number one, he’s got a great relationship with Andre [Patterson]. He loves the guys here in the locker room, and I think he understands that we’re going to do the best for him all of the time.”
Griffen had a solid year in terms of sacks but performed even better than his baseball-card numbers with a closer look. He created 66 QB pressures, ranking 14th among edge rushers, per PFF.
If the Vikings’ Pro Bowl defensive end elects to sign elsewhere that production will be difficult to replace but the Vikings have at least one player under contract who flashed the potential to be a dangerous pass rusher in 2017 seventh-round pick Ifeadi Odenigbo.
After getting cut twice out of camp by the Vikings, Odenigbo finally got his shot and made the most of it. In 273 pass rush snaps he racked up seven sacks and 25 total pressures. By PFF’s grading system he was the sixth highest rated Viking player on defense (min. 350 snaps).
Part of his success was based on circumstance. The Vikings used him largely in situations where the offense was very likely passing the ball. But Zimmer said he sees Odenigbo as someone who could play more.
“We use him in different positions because that’s how we use him…on third downs most of the time he went inside and he was able to get some things done in there because he’s a powerful, physical rusher,” Zimmer said. “He’s not a huge guy but in that down and distance he can go in and play. Do I think he could play full time at [defensive] end? Yeah.”
The market for Griffen may ultimately determine whether Odenigbo ends up as the starter across from Danielle Hunter next year. Only eight free agent defensive ends played more than 50% of snaps last year, per OverTheCap — and one of those players, Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue is expected to be franchise tagged. That could mean significant interest in Griffen from teams in need of pass rushing help.
It could also up the likelihood that Stephen Weatherly signs elsewhere. The Vikings’ 2016 seventh-rounder who produced 29 QB pressures on 297 pass rush snaps in 2019 is set to hit the market when free agency begins March 18.
Bringing him back could be among the options if Griffen leaves. Like Odenigbo, Weatherly took several years to develop under D-line coach Andre Patterson. He saw his first significant action when Griffen missed five weeks in 2018 and then settled into a rotational pass rusher role in 2019.
On the interior, former Iowa standout and 2016 fourth-round pick Jaleel Johnson started in Joseph’s absence at nose tackle last year, playing 408 total snaps. By PFF’s metrics he graded a 50.9, which was well below th standard set by Joseph during his time in Minnesota. However, it was the first time Johnson received regular playing time at nose tackle and he could see a jump in performance with a full camp at the position.
The Vikings were impressed by the play of 2019 sixth-round pick Armon Watts. He played 121 total snaps, picked up a pair of sacks, four pressures and had nine run stops.
At the three-technique position, Hercules Mata’afa received a good deal of attention in OTAs and training camp but struggled to produce with just four pressures in 90 pass rushing snaps.
Former fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes only played 73 snaps and did not register a pressure. Two years into his career, the Vikings were likely expecting more as he transitioned from a DE at Ohio State to DT in Minnesota.
At three-technique Shamar Stephen played the majority of snaps on first and second down, which may continue unless he’s jettisoned to create cap space. Stephen only created six pressures but the Vikings used rotating rushers inside and scheme to disrupt QBs.
“I think you can manipulate that differently with the push, like what we did against Brees in the playoff game,” Zimmer said. “We don’t always have to have those two guys on the end. Part of the reason we moved them was we thought that would be a good matchup, but our ends get chipped all of the time. It’s very seldom that they get 1-on-1 blocks. Danielle, a tight end is not going to block him by himself most of the time, so we can manipulate it.”
If the Vikings release Rhodes and do not re-sign Trae Waynes or Mackensie Alexander, they will be left with 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes, 2018 UDFA Holton Hill and 2019 seventh-rounder Kris Boyd and 2019 UDFA Nate Meadors on the roster.
Hughes tore his ACL in his rookie year, setting back the start of the 2019 season. By the end of the year he was part of a rotation, mixing in to replace the struggling Rhodes. Overall Hughes played 500 snaps and allowed a 93.2 rating on 65 throws in his direction.
Boyd impressed the Vikings with his special teams work and Hill showed potential in ‘18 but missed the first eight games due to suspension last year. Zimmer was asked if the younger players are ready to step in for the long-time starters who may be exiting.
“They’re still a ways away a little bit,” he said. “But one thing that I think especially those guys, Hughes and Hill and Boyd, they have the ability to do it. Like, during the season I gave them an assignment that I wanted them to do every single day and they did it. That tells me that they want to do it. I think that’s half the battle.”
One of the challenges faced by the Vikings in the secondary is the nickel corner position. Over the past few years the nickel position has become a full-time job instead of a rotational gig but the only one with experience there among the current group is Hughes, who would need to play outside corner should Rhodes and Waynes not return. That would mean finding a nickel corner in free agency because the complexity of the position makes it difficult for rookies to step in right away.
At safety the Vikings aren’t likely to retain Jayron Kearse, who was a 2016 seventh-rounder. He played a hybrid role at times but fell out of favor in the second half of last season and rarely saw the field. Had Kearse continued on an upward path — as it appears he was headed at the beginning of the year — he would have been the natural successor to free agent Anthony Harris.
Instead the Vikings will have to use the free agent market if Harris signs elsewhere because they have no other safeties on the active roster.
Of the remaining defensive linemen on the Vikings’ roster, Odenigbo, Johnson and Watts have an opportunity to see increases in playing time next season. Of the three, Odenigbo is the most suited for full-time duty if Griffen isn’t retained. The interior might require a veteran off the free agent market if Joseph is let go.
Hill and Boyd both have the potential to take steps forward and see significant playing time but it is improbable that the Vikings will rely on them without additional veterans.
At safety the Vikings could fill the job through the draft but there are also a number of quality veterans on the market who will cost less than Harris.