Armon Watts Is 2021’s Pleasant Surprise on Defense

Armon Watts
Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Armon Watts (96) warms up before the game against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Armon Watts went from “he did a pretty good job for a backup” territory to “my God, this guy can play” in a matter of weeks.

No Michael Pierce? No problem.

Vikings starting nose tackle Michael Pierce hurt his elbow a couple of weeks ago, leading most Vikings fans to believe Dalvin Tomlinson would slide over from his three-technique spot to nose tackle while Sheldon Richardson assumed his organic 3DT job.

That didn’t happen.

Head coach Mike Zimmer stayed the course for Tomlinson at 3DT, inserting Armon Watts at nose tackle in Pierce’s absence. Heads were scratched over the wisdom of the move, but it turned out Zimmer knew more about defense than fans. Whoodathunkit?

Armon Watts
Jun 9, 2021; Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Armon Watts (96) participates in drills at OTA at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Watts is playing maniacally good. Usually when reservist players fill in for stars, one hopes for a competent, mistakes-minimized showing. But Watts is showcasing considerably more than that. He’s started two games and played about 40% of all Vikings defensive snaps so far in 2021. What does he have to show for it? Only the NFL’s sixth-best Pro Football Focus score among interior linemen. Watts’ current score is 81.5 — higher than Vikings players through six games like Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Adam Thielen, and others. Of course, PFF grades have flaws but interpret Watts’ grade as a sign something is going right for the 25-year-old.

The Arkansas alumnus was even credited with a forced fumble in Week 6, sacking Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold while his teammate Dalvin Tomlinson hopped on the football. And the Vikings needed every bit of every turnover and every goofy thing to go right on Sunday. Minnesota won after a walkoff touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to K.J. Osborn — the fifth game in 2021 to end on the final play of the contest.

Watts will likely transition back to DT2 when Pierce has fully rehabbed his elbow. But because of Watts’ commendable performance, Pierce can take all the time he needs to heal the injury up right. Watts, so far, is not a significant step back from Pierce when he played as he did versus Carolina. He’ll continue to share the workload with Tomlinson and Richardson, music to ears of Vikings after most were skittish about Watts-over-Richardson in the immediacy of Pierce’s injury.

Something is clicking for the Vikings defense. Each week, the unit jells a bit more, and the ferociousness upticks. The defense still has moments and stretches where they don’t quite look like an elite group, but the baby steps are evident. Through six games of 2021, the Vikings and Chicago Bears are tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 21.

Last season, the Vikings ranked as fifth-worst in the league for sacks. In retrospect, the downtrodden tendencies of the 2021 defense seem to be a one-year outlier because of injury.

And thanks to production from dudes like Watts, the defense this year stays afloat when injuries hit.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).