2 Rookies Balling Out at Top 5 Clip for Vikings

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Via every credible metric — Pro Football Focus, EPA/Play, DVOA, and points allowed — the 2023 Minnesota Vikings defense has evolved into a Top 5 unit.

When the season began, Vikings fans desired merely an average bunch to help remedy the ills of 2022.

2 Rookies Balling Out at Top 5 Clip for Vikings

But thanks to Brian Flores, just one year on the job, Minnesota’s defense is more than that, and rookies have played a crucial role.

In fact, per PFF, the Vikings employ two Top 5 rookie defenders in the sport.

1. Mekhi Blackmon (CB)

Blackmon arrived to the Vikings from the 3rd Round of the 2023 NFL Draft, the second pick of the event after Jordan Addison. Minnesota elected to part ways with oodles of veteran corners last offseason, including Patrick Peterson, Cameron Dantzler, Duke Shelley, Chandon Sullivan, and Kris Boyd. Folks didn’t know if Blackmon would play a prominent role out of the gate.

2 Rookies Balling
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But he has — and then some.

His 80.6 PFF coverage score is remarkable for a rookie — or anybody —and ranks 10th-best in the NFL among everyone, not just rookies. In fact, Blackmon’s coverage grade is notably better than Jalen Ramsey’s and Derek Stingley Jr.’s, if that can be believed.

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On the whole, Blackmon is considered the NFL’s 10th-best cornerback and second-best among first-year players, topped only by Seattle Seahawks’ CB Devon Witherspoon.

Blackmon’s production to date would be commendable for a 1st-Rounder, let alone a 3rd-Round commodity. His 89.0 passer-rating-against isn’t too shabby, either.

2. Ivan Pace (LB)

The man of the hour, Pace aided in the Vikings’ dinky 3-0 triumph last weekend. Minnesota needed only a field goal to down the Las Vegas Raiders and struggled to find it.

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But with the game on the line, the Raiders attempted to mount a game-winning or game-tying drive. Pace had different thoughts, intercepting an Aidan O’Connell pass and back-flipping into the endzone for the turnover celebration.

All told at Las Vegas, Pace banked 13 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a QB hit, and the aforementioned pick. The game served as his 2023 signature to date, and that’s especially notable because Pace has performed wonderfully all season.

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According to Pro Football Focus, Pace is the NFL’s 13th-best off-ball linebacker through 14 weeks, notably outpacing defenders like Bobby Wagner and Foyesade Oluokun. He’s also PFF’s top rookie linebacker — by a mile.

Pace was supposed to be drafted anywhere from Round 3 to 5 last April, but NFL general managers were evidently turned off by his size — Pace is about two inches shorter than a normal off-ball linebacker.

Thankfully, the Vikings pounced on the UDFA market, and the rest is history. Pace is on, well, pace for 89 tackles as a rookie.

Overall, here’s the PFF rookie defender pecking order:

  1. Jalen Carter (83.8)
  2. Devon Witherspoon (83.3)
  3. Will Anderson Jr. (80.5)
  4. Mekhi Blackmon (80.4)
  5. Ivan Pace (80.2)

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Vikings obsession dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ Basset Hounds, and The Doors (the band).

All statistics provided by Pro Football Reference / Stathead; all contractual information provided by OverTheCap.com.