The Minnesota Vikings defensive line has really turned things around since Mike Zimmer took over as the team’s head coach in 2014. They decided to part ways with Jared Allen, signed a couple free agents and continued to build the group through the draft. Now they appear set and even have the depth necessary to handle any unforeseen injuries or mishaps.
On the Roster: Theiren Cockran, Scott Crichton, Kenrick Ellis, Sharrif Floyd, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Toby Johnson, Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph, Denzell Perine, Zach Moore, Travis Raciti, Brian Robison, Shamar Stephen, Justin Trattou, Stephen Weatherly
Expected starters: Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, Brian Robison
When the Vikings decided to part ways with Allen, it was Griffen who was dubbed the heir apparent. The Vikings signed him to a five-year deal worth $42.5 million. This was a little surprising to some because Griffen had never been a full-time starter on the Vikings defense, though he did show plenty of promise during the playing time he did receive. But he went out in 2014 and proved to be worth the big, new contract by recording 55 tackles, 12 sacks, one forced fumble and three pass deflections.
Those numbers dipped down a little last season, but he still recorded 10.5 sacks and was listed as the 20th-best edge defender in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, a sports analytics site that grades players based on their performance on the field. He received a grade of 83.3.
While Griffen played well last season, he might not be considered the Vikings’ best defensive lineman. That honor would go to Joseph, who was listed as the No. 3 interior defender by PFF, receiving a grade of 94.4. Zimmer raves about Joseph’s play on the field comments about how unselfish he was and how he always did the dirty work necessary so his teammates could succeed.
Joseph was one of Zimmer’s first free agent signings and he has recorded 104 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two pass deflections since arriving in Minnesota in 2014. The defensive tackle was forced to miss four games last season with a toe injury and you could tell that he still wasn’t the same player that he was earlier in the season. If he can fully recover, and stay healthy for the entirety of the season, he is a difference maker right in the middle of their defense.
Floyd is the player that shares the interior of the line with Joseph and appreciates what the nose tackle does for their defense more than anyone else. Last season, with Joseph forced to miss games and Stephen, Joesph’s backup, on the injured reserve, Floyd was forced to play as the team’s nose tackle instead of his normal spot as the three-technique defensive tackle.
He was clearly uncomfortable playing as the team’s nose and his play reflected that, as he ended the season with a PFF grade of 75.4, making him the No. 50-ranked interior defender in the NFL, according to PFF. In total, Floyd recorded 34 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and one deflected pass during the 2014 season.
The final starter up front for the Vikings is expected to be Robison. He is the veteran of the group, entering into his 10th season, and he may still be the most versatile. Zimmer has shown that he likes to have Robison line up as the left defensive end, but will sometimes line him up as a defensive tackle and even put him back with the linebackers. Moving him around allows Zimmer to bring in other players and create a lot of mismatches that work in their favor.
Last year, Robinson recorded 34 tackles, five sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and three pass deflections. While he is expected to be the team’s starter this season, his snap count will likely decrease, which will also lead to a decrease in the numbers he produces.
Hunter is an up-and-coming player along the Vikings defensive line and he already began to cut into Robinson’s snap count last season. He is big, athletic and proved to be able to get to the quarterback, which is important for any defensive end. Hunter recorded 33 tackles, six sacks and one forced fumble last season working as a backup. If he is able to duplicate that this year, his snap count should only increase, which could mean fewer snaps for Robinson.
Keep an eye on
Health of the interior line: Both Joseph and Floyd missed all of the Vikings’ organized team activities and minicamp with undisclosed injuries. Zimmer said that he will not be worried about them unless they begin to miss time at training camp and the preseason, and with that starting later this week the health of these two players will be something to watch. Each of them said last week they will be ready to go.
Both of them play key roles along the defensive front and it is a different defense if even one of them is forced to miss time. They both have struggled with some injuries the last couple seasons, which doesn’t help give anyone a peace of mind.
Hunter’s sophomore season: It will be interesting to see how Hunter continues to develop into his second season. It looks like he has gained some weight and muscle mass, but still has the same speed and athleticism that made him successful last season. There are still a few mechanical things he needs to clean up, but things appear to be moving in the right direction for the 21-year-old defensive end.
What happened to Crichton? Crichton was a third-round pick by the Vikings in 2014, but got very little playing time on defense during his first two seasons. He rarely saw the field as a rookie, but did see his role on special teams increase in 2015 before he was placed on injured reserve.
He only has two years left on his rookie deal and if he doesn’t turn things around this training camp, his roster spot could be jeopardy.
Griffen, Floyd, Joseph and Robison will likely be named the starters coming out of training camp and Hunter will work as a player who rotates in and out along the line as a way to give the defense an extra pass-rushing presence. Stephen and Tom Johnson will also be used to rotate in and out along the interior of the defensive line to give Joseph and Floyd a breather.
The talent along the Vikings defensive front is solid and they have the chance to be one of the more dominating units in the NFL. The big question is their health because they are just a different unit if one or two of their players are missing from the equation.