FREE AGENCY PRIMER: Interior Defensive Line
Welcome to the next installment in the Vikings Free Agency Primer Series: Interior Defensive Line. Check out our other primers on Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Defensive Ends, Cornerbacks and Safeties!
It is officially March, which means you have survived another month without Minnesota Vikings football; give yourself a pat on the back. More importantly, however, the turn of the month signifies that NFL free agency is right around the corner.
One week from today Adam Schefter will be blowing up your Twitter feed, ESPN will be pumping instant-reaction articles and countless football fans across the United States will be complaining about a decision their favorite team made. And that, my friends, is what makes professional football king of the world.
Rick Spielman and the Vikings are set to begin a critically important free agency period on March 9th (Bookmark this Link!). Minnesota has few holes across its depth chart, but the weaknesses Mike Zimmer’s club will aim to address are quite sizable, to put it kindly.Finding an offensive lineman or five is atop the Vikings’ to-do list, Adrian Peterson’s departure lends reason to running back representing a position of need
Finding an offensive lineman or five is atop the Vikings’ to-do list, Adrian Peterson’s departure lends reason to running back representing a position of need, the unresolved futures of Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn has created a bit of a stir and questions marks at linebacker have garnered headlines, but what about the interior defensive line positions?
The answer to this question largely keys on the health of one man: 2013 No. 23 overall pick Sharrif Floyd.
Football Outsiders‘ efficiency rating system ranked the Vikings as the No. 9 overall defense in 2016, but the interior defensive line was not a primary factor in this evaluation. Linval Joseph continued to destroy everything in front of him on a week-to-week basis en route to his first career Pro Bowl — and it realistically should have been his third, for what it’s worth — but the players charged with the reps alongside him did not exactly produce difference-making results.
The absence of Floyd, who totaled just 25 snaps in 2016, was largely to blame for a less-than-productive year for a 3-technique group comprised of veteran pass-rushing specialist Tom Johnson, Mankato favorite Toby Johnson and 2014 7th-round pick Shamar Stephen. Floyd, who was injured during the Vikings’ Week 1 matchup with the Tennessee Titans, failed to return to the field following multiple surgeries, which, if nothing else, certainly appeared to irk his head coach.
Zimmer has been quite vocal regarding Floyd’s inability to stay healthy, voicing his displeasure in a variety of ways throughout his tenure in Minnesota. The former Florida Gator has missed 19 games since the Vikings hired Zimmer ahead of the 2014 season, and his frequent appearances on the weekly injury report have clouded his future with the organization.
Johnson, who recorded two sacks before a hamstring injury cost him a complete 16-game season worth of appearances, shouldered 476 snaps in relief but was noticeably ineffective against the run. As a result, Stephen, a 6-foot-5, 310-pounder out of Connecticut, was forced into a unfamiliar role and one that he failed to find consistent success in. The third-year Viking finished the year with a career-high 551 snaps, but his lack of pass-rushing talent made the defense vulnerable in obvious passing situations.
Minnesota missed the multidimensional talent of Floyd, which was reflected by Football Outsiders ranking the Vikings at No. 16 across the league against the run from an efficiency standpoint.
Outlining the Vikings’ interior defensive line situation is a bit of a tall task. There is not a simple answer, as the best possible solution to their 3-technique woes is already on the roster — whether he remains on it is where the issue resides.
Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune lend reason for optimism regarding Floyd’s future with the Vikings, but nothing is set in stone with the talented defensive tackle still unable to pass a physical examination following his most recent knee injury.
Simply put, Spielman, Zimmer and Co. have a decision to make regarding Floyd’s future in Minnesota — is he worth paying just short of $7 million this season knowing his health remains very much up in the air still? Based on the Vikings’ head coach’s remarks this past season, one could argue the standing that Floyd has donned his last purple and gold jersey.
“We didn’t think it would be this long, to be honest with you,” Zimmer said this past November via Chris Tomasson of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. “We didn’t think it was going to be, like, six years worth of hurt.”
Fans will have their answer sooner rather than later, and when you cheer for the Vikings, it’s always best to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS
|PLAYER NAME||POSITION||2016 TEAM||AVERAGE ANNUAL||GUARANTEED||TYPE|
|Vince Wilfork||34 NT||Houston||$4.5 million||$5.0 million||UFA|
|Domata Peko||43 DT||Cincinnati||$4.5 million||$4.4 million||UFA|
|Paul Soliai||43 DT||Carolina||$3.25 million||$3.0 million||SFA|
|Nick Fairley||43 DT||New Orleans||$3.0 million||$3.0 million||UFA|
|Chris Baker||34 NT||Washington||$3.0 million||$3.95 million||UFA|
|Jonathan Babineaux||43 DT||Atlanta||$3.0 million||$4.0 million||UFA|
|Dontari Poe||34 NT||Kansas City||$2.83 million||$11.3 million||UFA|
|Alan Branch||43 DT||New England||$2.15 million||$700,000||UFA|
|Sean Lissemore||34 NT||L.A. Chargers||$2.0 million||$3.17 million||UFA|
|Sylvester Williams||34 NT||Denver||$1.89 million||$6.14 million||UFA|
|Karl Klug||34 DE||Tennessee||$1.875 million||$1.0 million||UFA|
|Courtney Upshaw||43 DT||Atlanta||$1.25 million||$390,000||UFA|
|Terrell McClain||43 DT||Dallas||$1.0 million||$300,000||UFA|
|Johnathan Hankins||43 DT||N.Y. Giants||$1.0 million||$1.89 million||UFA|
|Kedric Golston||34 NT||Washington||$1.0 million||$0||UFA|
|Tony McDaniel||43 DT||Seattle||$985,000||$0||UFA|
|Ziggy Hood||34 NT||Washington||$935,000||$20,000||UFA|
|Cam Thomas||43 DT||L.A. Rams||$760,000||$0||UFA|
|Sealver Silaga||43 DT||Tampa Bay||$760,000||$0||UFA|
|John Hughes||43 DT||Tampa Bay||$760,000||$0||UFA|
|Bennie Logan||43 NT||Philadelphia||$758,108||$684,092||UFA|
|Akeem Spence||43 DT||Tampa Bay||$661,106||$484,424||UFA|
|Dominique Easley||43 DT||L.A. Rams||$600,000||$0||UFA|
|Stacy McGee||43 DT||Oakland||$559,670||$78,680||UFA|
|Christian Ringo||34 NT||Green Bay||$450,000||$0||ERFA|
Salary figures courtesy of Over the Cap
DONTARI POE: There are very few players in professional football who possess the combination of size and speed of 2016 Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe. Poe, the No. 11 overall pick back in 2012, stands at 6-foot-3, 346 pounds, a mammoth frame that has allowed him to anchor the interior of Kansas City’s three-man defensive front. He has produced 13 sacks in four years with the Chiefs despite maintaining a role that is more responsible for eating up blockers than pressuring the quarterback. It is a near certainty that the former Memphis Tiger will receive the largest contract of any free-agent defensive tackle, but with Minnesota’s cap space continuing to grow and the potential to build an interior wall that would humanize the historic “Williams Wall”, Poe might just be worth the money.
If the Vikings are serious about winning games with suffocating defense, ball security and controlling tempo, the human tank that is Poe should be on Spielman’s radar. Additionally, bringing Poe in could hypothetically kill two birds with one stone, as he has recorded two rushes for two yards and two touchdowns in his career. Yeah, he has run the football at the goal line. Twice.
NICK FAIRLEY: Poe may be the most talented interior defensive linemen on the market, but his pairing with Joseph would admittedly be rather unconventional. Former New Orleans Saint Nick Fairley, however, is quite literally the picture-perfect 3-technique for Zimmer’s defensive scheme. Fans should remember the Auburn product from his days with the Detroit Lions, as he has logged four career sacks in six games against the Vikings. He is quick off the line, fundamentally sound and possesses more than enough strength to ragdoll offensive guards.
There is a catch — Fairley has run into trouble with the law on multiple occasions, which likely has played a role in him bouncing around from Detroit to (then) St. Louis and most recently New Orleans. He is not exactly a great locker room presence, but Zimmer’s hard-nosed coaching style should help in exorcising Fairley’s demons.
SYLVESTER WILLIAMS: Few athletes in the NFL even remotely resemble Poe with regard to size and weight, and former Denver Broncos Sylvester Williams is one of them. Similar to his AFC West counterpart, Williams has performed in a 3-4 nose tackle role since joining the Broncos as the No. 28 overall pick in 2013. He lacks Poe’s quickness — but then again, pretty much every human of his pants size does — but Williams can eat up blockers while offering enough push to pressure quarterbacks with some regularity. In 60 career games and 48 starts, the former Tar Heel has totaled 5.5 sacks in a low snap count “clogger” role.
Like Poe, Williams would be an unconventional signing given the presence of Joseph’s 6-foot-4, 328-pound body along Minnesota’s defensive front. But, once again, if the Vikings place significance on drastically improving their run defense, Williams would represent a good option at a much more reasonable cost to the soon-to-be very wealthy Poe. For what it is worth, Minnesota was often linked to Williams ahead of the 2013 draft — a time when Zimmer was in Cincinnati and Joseph was being a “Giant” in New York (sorry).
DOMINIQUE EASLEY: Spielman has been successful in a number of ways throughout his tenure in Minnesota, but one area that is rather unique in comparison to other upper-management executives with his level of power has been an ability to consistently receive impact-level results at a fraction of the cost. Look no further than Tom Johnson, who at 30 years of age totaled more sacks (6.5) in his first year with the Vikings than he had during his prior three-year tenure with the Saints (5.0).
Easley, however, has a much different background than Johnson, but he has likely found himself at a similar crossroad. The No. 29 overall pick in 2014, Easley has struggled both on and off the field during his relatively brief career to date. While he has shown flashes of the potential scouts noted when he was a top-tier prospect coming out of Florida, Easley has never sustained any level of consistency at the professional level.
Simply put, the former Gator could find himself on a couch sooner than rather than later if he doesn’t stop getting in his own way. His antics in New England were such a distraction that Bill Belichick and Co. decided cutting him just two years into his first-round rookie contract was better than him filling a roster spot.
Minnesota has a notable “rehabilitation” history, with potentially the most lethal wide receiver duo in NFL history heading the case the study. Zimmer’s style of coaching isn’t the only reason to believe Easley could put it all together with the Vikings while staying out of trouble; if signed, he could end up in the same positional group as one of his old Gator buddies — yes, all roads do in fact lead back to Floyd.
KARL KLUG: There is only one player in the above chart listed as a defensive end — and that is former Tennessee Titan Karl Klug. Klug, a fifth-round selection in 2011, represents a bit of a risky option for the Vikings. While his skill set is diverse in that he is capable of shifting inside and outside fluidly, Klug has played his entire career in a 3-4 scheme, primarily as a 5-technique. That said, it remains possible that he could emulate Brian Robison’s role in Zimmer’s nickel-heavy defense.
Doubting him as schematic fit in Minnesota is fair, but there is no denying that fans would certainly enjoy celebrating his on-field accomplishments … KLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUG.
The conclusion to all of this is very simple: Until the Vikings make a concrete decision regarding the future of Sharrif Floyd, attempting to specifically determine what “type” of interior defensive linemen the team should chase and how big of shoes need to be filled is a fool’s errand.
That said, Minnesota’s official state slogan is, “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” for a reason.
Yes, that is the official state slogan. Look it up.