When Mike Zimmer took over as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, the team already had a solid foundation along their defensive line. Brian Robison was an established veteran, Everson Griffen was ready to take the next step in his development and Sharrif Floyd was a first-round talent ready to bounce back from a disappointing rookie season. Zimmer then signed Linval Joseph in free agency, which shored up the front four.
The only thing for Zimmer to do in his first draft as head coach with regards to the defensive line was to provide some depth and rotational players. The Vikings took defensive end Scott Crichton in the third round of the 2014 draft, but he rarely saw the field as a rookie. Even in his second year, his playing time on defense was very sparse, but he did see his role on special teams increase before he was injured.
Crichton is viewed more as a left defensive end, which means he could see his role in the defense continue to increase as Robison gets older.
The team also drafted defensive tackle Shamar Stephen in the seventh round of the 2014 draft and he was able to fit himself into a fairly big role his rookie season, a solid showing for a seventh-round rookie. He became one of the key rotational players on the interior of the defensive line and even got a few starts when the starters were out with injury.
Stephen seemed primed to take a big step forward in his second year, but injuries kept him out of a good portion of the team’s training camp and he ended up being placed on injured reserve with a toe injury following the team’s Week 6 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The 2015 draft was the same as the 2014 draft in terms of the defensive line. The Vikings had all their starters returning and had also created some solid depth after Zimmer’s first year at the helm. The only thing for them to do was to continue to add that depth, create some competition and prepare for the future.
They did that by drafting defensive end Danielle Hunter in the third round, the second year in a row the team took a defensive end in the third round. He had great size and athleticism coming out of college, but for some reason never put up the numbers one would expect him to in college. The Vikings’ coaches saw that he was making a couple mistakes in his technique on a consistent basis and felt as though he could make a big impact if they got him to fix those. They were right.
Hunter ended the season with six sacks, which was second on the team. That is rather impressive since he was only a rotational player. What’s even more impressive, though, is that 3.5 of those sacks came during a three-game span at the end of the season. Hunter clearly has a lot of upside and might become one of the better pass rushers in the league if he continues to improve his game at this pace.
The Vikings also drafted defensive end B.J. Dubose in 2015, taking him in the sixth round. He did not have much of a rookie season, though, as he spent the year on the practice squad, never cracking the active roster.
Zimmer and the rest of the Vikings coaching staff and front office are clearly happy with the talent they have along the defensive line because they did not do much this offseason to add new pieces. They re-signed defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis and defensive end Justin Trattou, but those were the only defensive linemen dealt with through free agency.
They also only drafted one player and that was defensive end Stephen Weatherly in the seventh round and he isn’t even a pure defensive end. Some people believe he would be better off playing as an outside linebacker and it is possible that the Vikings move him there after some time with him, but for now they like his length and athleticism lining up as a defensive end.
The Vikings did sign a couple undrafted free agents along the defensive line this offseason in Denzell Perine and Theiren Cockran, but it will be hard for them to crack the 53-man roster this year because of the depth the Vikings have created at their positions. Instead, their best option may be to spend a year on the practice squad and then compete for a spot on the active roster next season.
Defensive line was one of the few spots on the Vikings roster where Zimmer did not have to do much work through the draft to improve it. The key players were already in place, he just had to implement his scheme and add some players for depth. He did just that and now the Vikings’ front four could be one of the best in the NFL when they are all healthy.