In the lead up to free agency and the NFL Draft, we will look at what happened in 2019 and all the possible options of every Vikings position. Here we take a close look at the defensive line…(all stats via PFF and Pro-Football Reference)
Hunter’s domination (and contract)
The 2019 season will be remembered as the year Danielle Hunter officially became one of the elite players at his position.
The 2015 third-round pick had already developed into a force but this year he took his game to new heights, setting a career mark for PFF grade and QB pressures while tying his highest sack total (14.5) from 2018. In both grade and pressures, his numbers stacked up to the best in the NFL.
Hunter also continued his impressive streak of durability. He played all 16 games for the fourth year in a row en route to setting the highest sack total at the age 25 in history. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said earlier this year that he believes Hunter is still getting better.
Even if he was making top dollar, the star defensive end would be worth the price but Hunter is making below market value — and will be for awhile. He is under contract through 2023 with a cap hit no higher than $15 million. There are currently 14 edge rushers making more average annual salary than Hunter and that number is likely to go up with Shaquil Barrett and Jadeveon Clowney set to hit free agency.
When you factor in age, team controlled years, performance and health, Hunter is the best asset on the entire Vikings roster. Even with other positions on defense likely to turn over, the Vikings know they will be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks for years to come.
Griffen and Joseph’s future
The Vikings took a risk by bringing back Everson Griffen on a restructured contract and it largely paid off. He racked up 8.0 sacks and finished 14th among edge rushers in QB pressures and 21st in PFF grade. Over the course of the season, however, his play faded. After Week 10, the veteran pass rusher produced just one game with a PFF grade over 70 after posting high grades in eight of his first 10 games.
Despite the late-season slide, the Vikings might be interested in bringing back Griffen, who has 74.5 sacks in 147 games in Minnesota. He remains in the top quarter of all players at his position and has the drive and history of good health to continue to be an effective player. But they will not be bringing him back at his current price tag.
Griffen reached the plateaus in his contract that allow him the option of voiding his contract. If he doesn’t elect to do so, they Vikings can release him and create $13.1 million in cap space.
With a free agent market filled with quality veterans, the Vikings will have plenty of options. Beyond Clowney and Barrett, the free agent market includes proven pass rushers Yannick Ngakoue, Arik Armstead, Kyle Van Noy, Robert Quinn and Bud Dupree — all of whom ranked in the top 40 by PFF.
They could also look to draft their next long-term player at the position. Iowa’s AJ Epenesa, Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos and LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson are prospects who have been ranked in the ballpark of where the Vikings will pick at No. 25.
Of course, edge rusher might not be the only position they are looking for in free agency and the draft. Interior defensive line is a need as well, especially if the Vikings move on from veteran nose tackle Linval Joseph.
While it’s hard to see Zimmer parting ways with one of his most valuable players over the past six years, Joseph’s play has dipped and the Vikings can create $10.5 million in cap space by moving on.
The nose tackle position in Zimmer’s defense is vital and it isn’t easy to find someone of his strength inside. Houston’s 347-pound defensive tackle DJ Reader (26 years old) could be an option if the Vikings cut Joseph. OverTheCap projects he will cost around $13.5 million per season. Or they could look to save space to spend elsewhere with a veteran like Baltimore’s Michael Pierce, who is 340 pounds and estimated by OTC to make $5 million per year.
Considering his past with Zimmer, the most likely outcome might be re-working Joseph’s current contract using younger players like Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson more often to spell him.
Since Shariff Floyd underwent a career-ending botched surgery in 2016, the three-technique position has seen three different players — some more effective than others. In 2017, Tom Johnson played the majority of the time and consistently found ways to pressure the quarterback. But the Vikings went big-game hunting and signed Sheldon Richardson the following offseason. He posted a top-15 season in QB pressures in 2018 in his lone year in Minnesota. After some struggles to stop the run, they brought back Shamar Stephen and rotated young players Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo on third downs.
This wasn’t a particularly effective strategy as opposing QBs were routinely able to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush. Stephen finished the season with just six pressures on 350 pass rush snaps. Richardson had 47 pressures on 437 snaps.
The free agent market has some monsters at the three-tech spot. Kansas City’s Chris Jones is the biggest name. He is likely to be out of Minnesota’s price range but players like Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh, Leonard Williams, Mike Daniels and Jarran Reed could all make a similar impact to Richardson in 2018.
The draft also has a number of impressive interior prospects, including Senior Bowl week standout South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, who has been mocked to the Vikings by some draft analysts.
It’s unclear how the Vikings will get better in that spot but they must improve in order to get back to the dominance of the past from the entire D-line, not just the edges.
Next in line
If there’s one thing the Vikings know how to do, it’s develop defensive linemen. Over the course of the 2019 season, Ifeadi Odenigbo became a household name. Whether it was his stop against the Cowboys late in the game or his return for touchdown against the Chargers, it became clear that the seventh-round pick who the Vikings cut twice is in line to be a significant player for them going forward. Odenigbo finished the season with an impressive 26 pressures and seven sacks on just 299 pass rush snaps.
The question is whether the Vikings would feel comfortable with letting Griffen go and starting Odenigbo or using him as part of a rotation. His growth and history in college as a pass rusher suggests that his success in ’19 was no fluke but playing the edge on every down is different than mixing in in clear pass rush situations.
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The Vikings will have a decision to make on Stephen Weatherly, who is a free agent. He earned a role over the last two years, filling in admirably in ’18 for Griffen and holding down a third down rushing role in ’19. The former Vanderbilt standout ended the year with 31 pressures and five sacks on 318 snaps. He may look for other opportunities where he can potentially start but a similar role to last season in Minnesota is probably as much as Weatherly could ask for elsewhere.
On the interior, former fourth-round pick Jaleel Johnson filled the nose tackle role with Joseph out and showed enough to continue getting opportunities as a rotational player inside. The Vikings were impressed by Watts in a small sample. His size and strength could project to him eventually becoming a starter with more experience and development under D-line coach Andre Patterson.
Whether the Vikings would trust the young players to take roles of their stars will be seen this offseason.
The future of the franchise
There are a wide variety of potential outcomes for the Vikings’ defensive line. We could see the exact same line next season just with different contracts for Griffen and Joseph or there may be changes at every position except left defensive end. The front office will have to decide how they want to allocate resources. Would they rather draft another corner and develop young D-linemen? Would they go all-in and spend big to insure that they continue to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks? Would Zimmer allow cap space created by cuts to go into the offense?
It may come down to whether the Vikings see an improvement on offense as the key to getting deeper into the postseason or whether they believe in their own system of raising young players to fit into key spots. However, if they continue to be all-in on the chase for a Super Bowl in 2020, it’s hard to see the Vikings skimping on the D-line.