When everyone on the Minnesota Vikings roster is healthy, the team’s deepest position is arguably defensive tackle. Of the seven defensive tackles listed on their roster, five have starting experience and the other two are practice squad players.
The team’s starters, Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd, form one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the NFL, due in large part to Joesph being ranked as the third-best defensive tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus this past season.
Even though the Vikings’ roster is loaded with talent at defensive tackle, the position was really tested in 2015. Shamar Stephen had a promising rookie year and seemed to be improved during training camp and the offseason, but injuries kept him from receiving any significant playing time.
He was first forced to miss time during training camp, as the coaches were being cautious with him. And then he was placed on the injured reserve in October with a toe injury, effectively ending his season.
Joseph was also forced to miss time – four games – because of a toe injury. That then meant that Floyd was forced to fill in as the team’s nose tackle – he’s normally a three-technique player, and Tom Johnson was forced to become the starting three-technique.
While Johnson thrived in that role and continued to prove that he has revitalized his career in Minnesota, he is 31 years old and in the final year of his contract.
As a way to help deal with the injury bug that plagued the team’s defensive tackles last season, and to help them in contract negotiations with Johnson next offseason, do not be surprised to see the Vikings take a defensive tackle in this year’s draft.
“Best interior defensive line I’ve seen maybe since I’ve started doing this,” said NFL Network Draft Analyst Mike Mayock. “We’re seeing with the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos what started about five years ago, which is all the NFL teams are talking about: We’ve got to find people on defense that can affect the pass offense because it’s a pass-first league. So what you saw with Von Miller in that defensive front of Denver is what teams have been trying to build for the last four or five years. And I think the good news is we’re so deep on defense, so defensive tackles and the corners especially, it’s going to be a good year for those groups.”
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman agrees, calling the defensive line one of the positions of greatest depth in the draft. He has mentioned on multiple occasions that he often looks to draft the best player available instead of focusing strictly on needs. It creates competition and depth throughout the roster and it helps keep the team young. You also can never predict injuries, so by drafting players at positions you do not necessarily need help at keeps you covered if one of your starters goes down.
Both Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer have proved the last two drafts that they want to build one of the most dominating defenses in the NFL. That’s why it would make sense for them to draft a defensive tackle this year, because there is so much depth that they could get a first-round talent in later rounds.
“I think what you’re going to see happening with that interior defensive line group, and when I’ve had this discussion with a lot of people, and this is how good it is, OK,” Mayock explained. “You could wait until the third or fourth round this year and get a defensive tackle that in past drafts was a first- or second-rounder. I mean, I’ve heard first-round grades on plus or minus 10 to 12 defensive tackles this year from various feeds. So a lot of teams are going to wait until the third or fourth round to get that defensive tackle they need because he’s still going to be on the board, and you’re going to get a second-rounder instead of a fourth-rounder.”
Even though defensive tackle is not a pressing need for the Vikings, do not be surprised if they draft one in the first two rounds. Last year proved that you can never have too much depth at the position and with this year’s draft the team will be able to get a quality player late.
That is the type of thing that Spielman loves to execute, getting the most bang for his buck in the draft, so the move makes sense. It is a pick that might leave fans scratching their heads at first because of the other needs the team has, but it could pay dividends down the road.