After losing two star defensive linemen to free agency, and another to the Paul Allen-called Pandemic Purge, the Minnesota Vikings appear to have a drained defensive line. The unit will undoubtedly look and operate differently than those of yesteryear, but it is way too early to be concerned. In fact, it’s a time to be optimistic.
As all should know by now, the Vikings defensive line lost Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen to other teams via 2020 free agency. Experienced acquisition Michael Pierce was intended to plug one of those holes, but he opted out due to COVID-19 before training camp was even underway. With these three happenings, many fans are now concerned about the state of the front four, but the situation is far from dire.
Exhibit A: Danielle Hunter
There is almost no explanation needed here, as Hunter’s stats speak for themselves. Youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 sacks, 58 sacks in 83 career games, and the list goes on. With those gaudy achievements, don’t forget he was a third round pick considered by some to be a reach in the 2015 draft. He’s the perfect man to mentor the new-era Vikings defensive line, which consists mostly of mid to late-round picks. Yes, he has earned the label “man,” even at only 25 years of age… have you seen him lately? He is truly a man among boys with some NFL competition, both in stature and maturity.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) December 8, 2019
Exhibit B: Potential Breakout Players
Those who say the Vikings are short on exciting, young players have not been following the team closely or really taken a look in Minnesota’s cupboards. Since hitting it big with Hunter, GM Rick Spielman has spent a healthy dose of draft capital on developmental linemen. Many of these players are coming into the final years of their rookie contracts, a time when they tend to shine (based on experience in the system, and interest in a new and potentially lucrative contract).
Ifeadi Odenigbo has steadily shown improvement and is one player to watch this season. Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, and Hercules Mata’afa have all seen enough action to warrant higher expectations this year. With new draftees competing at training camp, these returners have plenty of incentive to put it all on the table. If you’re looking for a sleeper, reports say ex Buffalo Bill Eddie Yarbrough has practiced with the first team defense here and there throughout training camp. From the sounds of it, there is some good competition going on, and regardless of who makes the team and who doesn’t, it will be the most youthful group fans have seen in years.
Ifeadi Odenigbo scoop-and-score after Danielle Hunter forces the fumble pic.twitter.com/raJqKwhjoM
— Arif Hasan, in like a lion🦁 (@ArifHasanNFL) December 15, 2019
Exhibit C: Non-Traditional Tactics, and a Rotation
Head Coach Mike Zimmer has talked about it for years, and fans truly got a taste of it last season… a rotational defensive line. It makes perfect sense, as you can’t expect even pro athletes to attack offensive linemen down in and down out without getting tired. Rotating starters with backups last year kept the unit fresh, produced pressure, and it gave the young guns an opportunity to become less green while trying to accrue experience playing for the Purple.
As for non-traditional tactics, observant fans (or those who listened to commentators) noticed some interesting “looks” deployed by the Vikings defense in the 2019 playoffs. Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter sometimes switched to playing defensive tackle, and the results were intriguing. The move created an instant mismatch for interior offensive lineman and also an overall element of surprise. It’s safe to assume the team will test that look out some more this year, hopefully with a larger sample size.
Exhibit D: Andre Patterson
Perhaps another area, or person who needs little explanation, is defensive line coach turned co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson. It would simply be wrong to not call him out. What a breath of fresh air to see him get a well-deserved promotion, even during a pandemic. Patterson has bred, influenced, and unleashed consistently above average defensive linemen and entire front units. It is genuinely surprising that some of his lines over the past decade didn’t spawn names like the Purple People Eaters or William’s Wall, but don’t put it past him and his up-and-coming group to earn one this year.
Exhibit E: Everyone Else
“Everyone else” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the Vikings defense truly is blessed with depth and versatile talent at all positions. You never know when Zimmer will task a linebacker, safety, or even corner with rushing the quarterback, but you can be certain that his men are more than capable of doing so. If there somehow end up being deficiencies with the defensive line this year, perhaps even because of a COVID related situation (hopefully this never happens, but it’s important to be realistic), they can be covered up with some crafty play calls and re-assigning of other players.
— PFF (@PFF) September 8, 2019
These are all optimistic takes, but likely ones that the coaches and front office personnel are counting on. This year’s defensive line will feature different names than those that fans are used to watching, but hopefully it is one that produces the same or even better results.