Ex-College Star Defender Could Be Vikings X-Factor

Nov 14, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle James Lynch (92) tackles Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings need some contributions from players who were just backups in recent years. Minnesota has drafted many players, especially along the defensive line, in the last years of Rick Spielman’s tenure as the general manager.

Pass-rusher DJ Wonnum was drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 draft on the same day as former Michigan State walk-on Kenny Willekes. Both defensive ends have gotten some playing time, however, the level of play wasn’t always pretty.

Wonnum ranked among the worst edge defenders in the NFL in 2020 and 2021, per PFF. The part-time starter recorded eight sacks in his second season. Willekes, meanwhile, had some impressive showings. But for some reason, he didn’t get more time on the field. Both of these guys could end up as the odd man out on the cut day and as meaningful contributors in defensive coordinator Ed Donatell’s unit.

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Ed Donatell

Just like in the 2020 draft, Rick Spielman selected two edge defenders in the draft. Patrick Jones was one of four third-round picks, and Janarius Robinson was a fifth-rounder. Jones played about 100 snaps, most without big impact. Janarius Robinson missed his entire rookie season on injured reserve. Like Wonnum and Willekes, Jones and Robinson could end up on the practice squad and as meaningful contributors. It’s hard to predict who of the group will step up and win the primary backup roles of the star pass rushers, Danielle Hunter and Za’darius Smith.

Jaylen Twyman was an interior defensive lineman out of Pittsburgh when Rick Spielman selected him in the sixth round during his last draft. Twyman was his last selection as Vikings GM. He modeled his game after another former undersized Pittsburgh defender, Aaron Donald. Sadly, Twyman missed his rookie campaign with injuries he suffered when he was shot while visiting his family in Washington DC. He is fully recovered and ready to compete in 2022.

One year before the Twyman selection, Spielman picked another defensive lineman — a true college star available in the fourth round.

Can James Lynch Become Vikings X-Factor?

Nov 21, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (19) and Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle James Lynch. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Lynch was born in Round Rock, Texas, where he grew up. He played punter and defensive line when he attended Round Rock High School. In his final two seasons there, he was named lineman of the year in his district.

The Texas native had turbulent times as a recruit. Lynch committed to TCU and then changed his mind to play for USC. However, during his senior season, he reconsidered once more and decided to play for Baylor. The three-star recruit spent all three of his college seasons playing for Matt Rhule, who is the head coach of the Carolina Panthers now.

In his first two seasons on the Baylor campus, Lynch played a rotational role as an interior defensive lineman. He was named Freshman All-American by ESPN after making 20 tackles, five tackles for loss, and three sacks. No other Big 12 freshman had more sacks. His five and a half sacks as a sophomore were the most of all Baylor defenders. For his play, he was named to the AP first-team All-Big 12.

In his third and last college season, Lynch rose to stardom. Matt Rhule moved him from the inside of the defensive line to the outside. He became a full-time edge rusher. Lynch recorded 16 sacks, 19 run stops, and 13 quarterback hits. The incredible stats resulted in a big haul of awards. First-team All-Big 12, unanimous All-American, Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

Draft Process

In the draft process, teams weren’t sure if he was an edge rusher or an interior lineman. His play outside of the tackle opened eyes. However, there are no 295-pound edge rushers in the NFL, a league that’s trying to get faster at every position and, therefore, lighter. Lynch is a tweener and requires a creative defensive coach to find the right spot for him.

NFL analyst Lance Zierlein had the following to say about the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year before the draft:

Active, powerful defensive lineman with some moldable upside still to be had. Teams who view him as an even front three-technique may not view his gaudy, high-impact production as translatable to the pros, but his snap quickness and power to displace at the point of attack are important traits for interior success. Lynch played in a team-oriented upfield scheme and flashed potential to handle read-and-react duties if asked to slide out to five-technique. He should come into the league as a scheme-independent, rotational defender with the tools to challenge as an eventual starter.

Lance Zierlein about James Lynch

The Vikings have to unlock these tools. If the coaches can develop him to reach his potential, he can be a big impact player for the team — the same impact he had on the Baylor defense in 2019.

New Scheme

The 130th selection of the 2019 draft played 304 snaps on defense. He recorded 30 tackles, one sack, and two tackles for loss. However, the Vikings played a 4-3 defense. After the hiring of defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, the team switches to a 3-4 defense, among a lot of changes. That is noteworthy because 3-4 defensive end is probably his best chance to flourish in the NFL. He played primarily nose tackle in 2021 but didn’t possess the size for that role. Lynch is much better suited to be a defensive end.

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller stated in his draft profile of James Lynch:

Lynch was impactful on the Baylor defensive line and stood out weekly against Big 12 offenses. He might get tagged as a tweener, but we see him as an ideal 3-4 defensive end with the tools to kick inside on rushing downs. He might not be a rookie starter, but Lynch should be a rookie contributor and future anchor.

Matt Miller about James Lynch

Lynch was a contributor in 2021, but it’s time to slowly turn him into the anchor Matt Miller was talking about. James Lynch is too talented for his production so far. Ed Donatell has to find a role for him to reach his potential, and he’ll make a significant impact if that happens. At the very least, he should be an important rotational player in the defensive line since he’s the only player on the roster with his combination of size and athleticism. He’s a perfect fit for the new scheme and can be the X-Factor on the defense.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who has a fable for numbers and stats. He chose the Vikings as his favorite team, despite Christian Ponder being the quarterback at the time. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Arguing about the Vikings on Twitter is one of his favorite things to do. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt