One Free Agent Pass Rusher Could Help the Vikings

Olivier Vernon
Olivier Vernon

Danielle Hunter will miss the remainder of the 2021 season due to a pectoral muscle tear, so the Minnesota Vikings need help with the pass rush.

Reinforcements could’ve arrived via trade – the deadline for such transactions was Tuesday – but general manager Rick Spielman could not execute any moves. About two weeks ago, Spielman traded away his pass-rushing depth – named Stephen Weatherly – to the Denver Broncos.

As it stands, Minnesota is stuck with “what they got,” a hodgepodge of EDGE rushers in Everson Griffen, D.J. Wonnum, Kenny Willekes, and rookie Patrick Jones II. The team also signed Jonah Williams yesterday to the practice squad. Either one of those men emerges to help offset the pandemonium delivered by Hunter on Sundays, or the Vikings will retreat to their 2020 tricks when the pass rush was dreadful by a typical Mike Zimmer standard.

Otherwise, the Vikings could glimpse at the free-agent wire and explore the addition of one more name.

And there is a player who adds up for the gig. That is Olivier Vernon.

New York Giants linebacker Olivier Vernon (54). Nygvchi 36

Vernon is a free agent, spending the last two seasons (2019 and 2020) with the Cleveland Browns, plus the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins before that. He’s 31 years old and ruptured his Achilles tendon 10 months ago. To date, no NFL team has signed the former Miami Hurricane.

In his nine-season career, Vernon has tallied 63.5 sacks in 127 games. He has not played a full season since 2016 but generally plays more than 10 games per year. If his Achilles is mended, he could bolster the Vikings pass rush, especially if Wonnum, who is slated to start for Hunter, is ho-hum for production.

Here’s Vernon’s Pro Football Focus grade history:

  • 2012: 69.7
  • 2013: 63.6
  • 2014: 72.8
  • 2015: 83.7
  • 2016: 75.3
  • 2017: 77.2
  • 2018: 86.3
  • 2019: 80.4
  • 2020: 74.8

That is a string of consistency entailing no down years. If he’s healthy, a Vernon stint with the Vikings checks out.

Currently, the Vikings rank first in the NFL for sacks per game. That will dip soon without Hunter in the mix. Thankfully, Michael Pierce is scheduled to return in Week 9 versus his old team, the Baltimore Ravens. His presence is welcomed. But Vernon would give the Vikings a little more oomph.

He’d also quell the noise from the camp that believed the Vikings should’ve made a trade for a defensive end on Tuesday. Getting Vernon “for free” is more advantageous than sending 6th and 7th-Rounders elsewhere for pass-rushing rentals.  

The next step is to see how the Hunter-less Vikings perform. If the return of Pierce – who is an apt pass-rushing nose tackle – keeps the ship afloat sans Hunter, maybe Zimmer’s trenches will be fine.

If not, Vernon is available.

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).