The Minnesota Vikings have one big decision to make at defensive tackle in free agency and the rest will play itself out from there.
Sharrif Floyd was given a fifth-year option, but they will have to decide whether to honor that after Floyd only played in the 2016 regular-season opener, then missed the rest of the season with a knee problem that head coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings front office clearly didn’t believe would cause him to miss that much time.
One question is whether the knee issue guarantees Floyd’s fifth-year option or whether the Vikings could argue it was a degenerative issue rather than a specific injury that would guarantee his option year of 2017. It’s a potential sticking point if the Vikings would want to release or renegotiate with Floyd.
Floyd played in just 25 snaps in the opener and without much confidence that his knee will be anywhere close to 100 percent for the 2017 season it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Vikings wanted to walk away from the fifth-year option of more than the $6.7 million and either part ways with Floyd altogether or try to renegotiate a contract built largely on incentives. The old saying, “you can’t make the club in the tub” still rings true and might even apply to former first-round picks that haven’t been as available as his bosses anticipated.
But, while Floyd play less than 3 percent of the defensive snaps, former seventh-round draft pick Shamar Stephen was given the opportunity to become a full-time starter. He played in 53 percent of the defensive snaps, second on the team among defensive tackles, but the results were mixed. Stephen’s strength is stopping the run and the Vikings were 0.24 yards better than the NFL net average against the run when Stephen was on the field. However, they were almost a full yard worse in passing situations when Stephen was in the game – easily the worst of any of the defensive tackles on the team. Perhaps that is why the analytics site Pro Football Focus gave Stephen a poor overall grade of 41.7 on the 2016 season.
His fellow starter, Pro Bowler Linval Joseph, received much better marks … and more playing time. Joseph played in nearly 70 percent of the defensive snaps and showed improvement in his pass-rushing ability despite being known as a run stuffer. He tied a career high with four sacks and had the best run-stuffing net average of the Vikings’ regular defensive tackles, with teams gaining 0.32 fewer yards on average than in similar situations across the NFL in the last six years. That was his primary role and PFF gave him a strong 83.3 grade.
Although injury eventually landed interior pass-rush specialist Tom Johnson on injured reserve on Dec. 20, he was having another good season before then. He ended up playing in over 45 percent of the snaps and had a positive passing differential, according to NFL stats (.37 yards better than average per play), although run stopping was a negative for him at minus-0.49 yards compared to the NFL average. Even so, he garnered a respectable 72.2 grade from PFF.
With that, the Vikings have their hailed run stuffer intact with Joseph and a complement to him in Stephen, as well as a part-time pass-rushing specialist in Johnson. What they don’t have is a jack-of-all-traded defensive tackle next to Joseph if Floyd doesn’t return.
It makes for an interesting decision. If Floyd plays under the fifth-year option, it’s a risk with the $6.76 million he is scheduled to make. If they don’t, they will need to find a replacement on at least a part-time basis.