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The future of the Vikings, part 6: Defensive line

As the Minnesota Vikings head into a vital offseason, we will look at each position under a microscope. What worked? What didn’t work? What might change in 2019? What are the best and worst case scenarios? What options do they have going forward? Our series will lead up to the opening of free agency on March 13. We move on to part 6, defensive line…

Quarterbacks

Running backs 

Wide receivers 

Tight ends

Offensive line

DE, Danielle Hunter

What worked:

In training camp, defensive coordinator George Edwards said Danielle Hunter appeared ready to take the next step. He nailed that prediction. Hunter finished the season tied for seventh among defensive ends in total QB pressures (per Pro Football Focus) and fourth in the NFL in sacks. During Everson Griffen’s five-week absence, Hunter proved that he could carry the Vikings’ pass rush without Griffen manning the other side. He picked up 22 QB pressures in that five-week span.

Durability has been a plus for Hunter, who played in all 16 games for the third straight season.

Getting Hunter, 24, signed to a reasonable long-term contract before the season was a boon for the Vikings. He signed for about $9 million less per season than Chicago’s Khalil Mack.

What didn’t work:

Any criticism of Hunter’s 2018 season is nit picking, but the one area in which he was short by Pro Football Focus grades was run defense. He ranked 34th of 63 edge rushers who played at least 500 snaps.

Best case scenario for 2019:

Best case is pretty simple: That Danielle Hunter is the same player in 2019 as he was in 2018.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

Odds are against repeating his sack total next season, but his pressure numbers will tell the story more accurately. In 2017, Hunter had 68 pressures and only 7.0 sacks. He had 67 pressures last year and 14.5 sacks.

If teams start to make Hunter their focus up front, he could see some regression in pressure numbers. But it’s difficult to see a player in his young prime falling off much outside of injury.

DT, Sheldon Richardson

What worked:

Richardson did what he came to Minnesota to do: Put pressure on the quarterback. He ranked 14th among defensive tackles in total pressures and managed 4.5 sacks (and 12 QB hits, seventh among DTs). He added an extra layer of explosiveness to the defensive line, which helped make up for the absence of Griffen in the middle of the season. There were some concerns about his off-field issues of the past, but his time in Minnesota appeared to go swimmingly.

What didn’t work:

Richardson did not have as much success down the stretch as early in the season. He was shut out from QB pressures twice in the final five games, including Week 17 in a crucial loss to the Bears.

By PFF grades, he had an average season for a starting three-technique defensive tackle. He rated 40th out of 63 DTs with more than 450 snaps and 39th against the run. Richardson was 38th in run stops.

Best case scenario for 2019:

He may not be perfect, but Richardson is a proven starter who draws the attention of opposing teams’ offensive lines. If he can be brought back on a reasonable contract, repeating his 2018 season would be a win for the Vikings.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

If Richardson is looking for a long-term contract in the ballpark of the top paid DTs (around $15 million per season), it’s hard to see the Vikings being able to keep him.

Letting him walk is the lesser of the two worst case scenarios. The other is that the Vikings pay top dollar and Richardson’s production dips.

DT, Linval Joseph

What worked:

Joseph’s fumble return against the Philadelphia Eagles was probably the best moment of the 2018 season for Vikings fans. The Vikings’ run defense, which starts with Joseph, finished seventh in the NFL in yards per carry. The veteran nose tackle was durable, missing just one game — his first absence since 2015.

What didn’t work:

The 2017 Pro Bowler was not as dominant in 2018 as he had been the year before. He graded 27th against the run among defensive tackles by PFF, a drop from sixth in ’17. While he only missed on game, Joseph played through injuries for a good chunk of the year.

Best case scenario for 2019:

Joseph bounces back and gives the Vikings another elite NT season.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

Age begins to creep up on Joseph, who will be playing his age-31 season this year.

If he’s not as the top of the league, it becomes a poor investment to spend the seventh highest average annual dollars on a pure nose tackle.

Everson Griffen

What worked:

Griffen opened the season in typical form, creating eight pressures over the first two weeks and registering two sacks. The veteran pass rusher put together two excellent performances down the stretch, one against Detroit in which he picked up two sacks and then his highest graded game of the year against Miami in Week 15 (four pressures, one sack). He was solid in the run game overall, ranking 16th of 63 by PFF.

What didn’t work:

In 2017, Griffen graded as a top 10 defensive end — and that’s despite battling a foot injury down the final stretch of the season. In 2018, he ranked 40th of 63. Between 2014 and 2017, Griffen did not have a single game in which he failed to create at least one QB pressure. This year there were three such games. PFF grades in the 80s are generally considered top notch. He did not have a single such game last season. His QB pressure total was the lowest since 2011.

He never seemed to recover after missing five games dealing with an off-field issue. Griffen had just two games graded over 70 beyond Week 2.

Best case scenario for 2019:

The Vikings re-work his contract to create more cap space and then he returns to Pro Bowl form.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

The Vikings don’t feel like he will ever be the same and they release him this offseason. Or the Vikings bring him back and Griffen fails to bounce back, creating a difficult situation with his playing time and that of young defensive end Stephen Weatherly.

DE, Stephen Weatherly

After two years of special teams work, Weatherly finally got his chance to play on a regular basis. He flashed potential that should be exciting to the Vikings going forward. In 307 pass rush snaps, the former seventh-round pick picked up three sacks and 27 pressures. He totaled 14 of those pressures in the five weeks he spent starting over Griffen. At worst, he should be a rotational pass rusher in 2019. It’s possible his growth could influence the team’s decision on Griffen.

DT, Tom Johnson

Under some bizarre circumstances in which the Seahawks cut Johnson eaerly in the season with plans to re-sign him, the veteran pass rusher instead returned to Minnesota. In a situational role, he created 23 pressures and picked up 4.5 sacks in 222 pass rush snaps. It’s unclear whether the Vikings would bring him back for 2019, but he has been a consistent presence during Mike Zimmer’s tenure.

DT, Jaleel Johnson

The second-year defensive tackle out of Iowa got his first opportunity to see the field, playing 261 snaps. He managed one sack and seven QB pressures. The Vikings will be looking for him to take a step forward in 2019.

DE, Tashawn Bower

The Vikings had hopes for Bower as a situational pass rusher, but he struggled to get on the field, playing only five games. Next year’s camp will be make-or-break.

DT, Jalyn Holmes 

As is often the case, the Vikings picked a high-ceiling defensive end in the later rounds of the draft and didn’t play him much as a rookie. That player was Holmes this year. He saw just 58 total snaps. They will be looking for progress in next year’s camp.

Options

— The Vikings could release Griffen and try to fill the spot with another highly-paid pass rusher like Brandon Graham or Demarcus Lawrence or they could put Stephen Weatherly into the starting role and support him with a veteran situational rusher like Cameron Wake or Bruce Irvin.

— If Richardson walks, that would move defensive tackle up to the top of the Vikings’ draft needs. If so, there are some monster prospects at the top of the draft. Ed Oliver from Houston, Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons, Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and Ohio Stat’s Dre’Mont Jones all have a chance to be in play at 18.

— The Vikings could also look to the free agent market for a situational three-technique and a run stuffer. Former New England first-round pick Malcom Brown is known as a situational run stopper and veteran like Clinton McDonald (Oakland) or Darius Philon (Chargers) might fit the pass rushing role if Tom Johnson doesn’t return.

— Other notable defensive line free agents who played more than 50 percent of snaps last year: Frank Clark (Seahawks), Trey Flowers (Patriots), Margus Hunt (Colts), Grady Jarrett (Falcons), Alex Okafor (Saints),  Jonathan Hankins (Oakland), Bruce Irvin (Falcons)





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