For Vikings 2021 Defensive Line, Why Not Justin Houston?
In mere days, the Minnesota Vikings will own about $15 million to utilize on free agents. The post-June 1st calendar date hits, and Minnesota’s cap balloons by $7.9 million. While the Vikings depth chart does not outwardly display droves of deficiencies, the team could stand to find some depth. Some spots on the roster — like wide receiver, safety, and arguably cornerback — can be considered paper-thin if an injury besets one of the starters.
Expect the Vikings to use some or all of the cap money.
Never mind the depth argument, the Vikings are slim pickings for talent at defensive end — at least in terms of bonafide starters. Danielle Hunter is expected to return in September, assuming his contractual situation with the team doesn’t hit any speed bumps. But on the opposite side of the line, it’s hodgepodge territory. The Vikings would allow Stephen Weatherly, D.J. Wonnum, and Patrick Jones II to battle it out for the starting RDE gig if no other EDGE free agent is signed. One of those men might thrive with the revamped defensive line that includes Hunter, Michael Pierce, and Dalvin Tomlinson, but that leaves a lot to chance. Most folks hope that Hunter returns to his normal terroristic form. That is not a given, however. It could take a while for the LSU alumnus to hit his stride. Even more spooky is the prospect of a holdout — then what for the Vikings defense? The EDGE portion of the depth chart would spurt 2020 vibes.
To combat either of these potential outcomes, free-agent defensive ends are marinating on the free agent wire. One of them is Justin Houston. Spending eight seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and two with the Indianapolis Colts, the veteran pass rusher needs a new home. Why not Minnesota?
Age is a valid mini-concern. Houston is 32 and fits the proverbial “past his prime” billing. Yet, age 32 is not a graveyard. Since the start of 2010, ten EDGE rushers have tallied north of 10 sacks in their respective age-32 seasons. Players like Robert Mathis, John Abraham, Terrell Suggs, Julius Peppers, and Cameron Wake even had more than 11 sacks in their age-32 campaigns. Opposite Hunter, Houston might thrive — especially with the tutelage of Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson.
Houston fits the Vikings “type,” too, for stature. He’s virtually identical to Everson Griffen’s size, an EDGE rusher that spent a full decade in Minnesota. At 6’3″ and 270 pounds, Houston’s resume gets him in the door for size. His Pro Football Focus grade in 2020 was average, a 63.5, balancing run-stopping and pass-rushing acumens. The year before, 2019, he notched an 87.1 score.
The Colts employed a 4-3 defense during his two years in Indianapolis, so Houston can “put a hand in the grass” as the Vikings tend to fancy. On ProFootballReference.com, Houston’s official position switched from linebacker to defensive end for 2019 and 2020 when he joined the Colts. During the pandemic season, Houston played on 59% of all Colts defensive snaps. For comparison, Everson Griffen was on the field for 78% of defensive snaps for the Vikings in 2019 — his last season with the franchise.
Houston entered the pros in 2011. From that point on, he registered 97.5 sacks, which is third-most in the business behind Von Miller and J.J. Watt. As a younger man, he notched 22 sacks in a single season. That was 2014 — the same year that Mike Zimmer and Teddy Bridgewater joined the Vikings. Even as Houston ages, he manages to sack opposing quarterbacks. He and four other men are the only five players to tabulate 8+ sacks in every season since 2017: Aaron Donald, Yannick Ngakoue, Khalil Mack, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Houston. So, the consistency is still there.
If the plan is not to audition Houston but general manager Rick Spielman still wants one more reputable EDGE rusher, other free agents are available. Melvin Ingram, Everson Griffen, Ezekiel Ansah, Vic Beasley, and Ronald Blair offer varying degrees of name recognition.
And the price should be reasonable. He last played for an average annual salary of $12 million with Indianapolis. The appraisal will be less than that at this juncture of the offseason.
Otherwise, it’s Weatherly-Wonnum-Jones and hope for the best.