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Vikings Defensive Line: Poised for Greatness?

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Houston Texans v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

If there is one position group that has always been a strength, or relative strength, of the Minnesota Vikings going back to the Purple People Eaters of the 1970s - it’s the defensive line. From Alan Page and Carl Eller in the 70s, to Chris Doleman and John Randle in the 80s and 90s, to more recently Kevin Williams and Jared Allen, the Vikings defensive line has been anchored by what would later be Hall of Famers. And the supporting cast was pretty good too. Jim Marshall, Doug Martin, Keith Millard, Henry Thomas and Pat Williams, to name a few. For most of that span between the 1970s and today, the defensive line has been one of the better position groups on the team.

That is the legacy of the Purple People Eaters.

Starting Near The Top

And today is no different. Last year the Vikings defensive front seven (which includes LBs, so isn’t a perfect measure) was rated the 6th best in the league by Pro Football Focus. That rating was brought down by LB Anthony Barr’s performance, so absent that the defensive line alone would have ranked higher. And that ranking also came largely without the services of starting DT Shariff Floyd, who only played 25 snaps all season.

The reason for the #6 ranking is largely due to the play of Linval Joseph and Everson Griffin, having emerged as the top-rated defensive linemen since the departures of Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. But part of it also comes from the performance of backup left-end Danielle Hunter, who has emerged as a potential superstar, already performing at the same level as Joseph and Griffen. Brian Robison has been a leader on the defensive line, but his performance has been eclipsed by Hunter’s and this season Hunter will become the new starter at left-end.

Another big reason for that #6 ranking is defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who is one of the best, if not the best, defensive line coach in the NFL. He has played an important role in the high level play of Griffen and Joseph- who’s had the best years of his career since coming to Minnesota- and also the development of Danielle Hunter. Here is a great story about Patterson- who was also the defensive line coach for the Vikings in the late 90s - and how he learned from past Vikings HoFers like Doleman and Randle, and has been key in developing the Vikings defensive linemen.

Getting Even Better

Hunter will be an instant upgrade. He had about 40% of the snaps last year, and that number could nearly double this year.

Beyond the upgrade of Hunter to the starting line-up, there is the question of who will take over for Sharrif Floyd at 3-technique, who’s future status looks very much in jeopardy at this point, due to the nerve damage suffered during his knee surgery.

The answer to that question is Datone Jones. Jones was taken 3 picks after Floyd in the first round of the 2013 draft by the Green Bay Packers. But Jones struggled to find a fit in Green Bay’s 3-4 defense, and was likely miscast as first a DE (5-technique) and then an OLB in that scheme.

One comment from his nfl.com draft profile suggests the same:

Knocked off his pass rush route by a strong punch when lined up outside, also lacks great bend and agility to be an elite edge rusher or to redirect his path.

Jones’ strength is in getting off the ball quickly and with power, and:

Uses active hands to disengage quickly. If he cannot disengage, he keeps his arms extended. Maintains the line by keeping his body leaning forward. Difficult for running backs to avoid him in tight quarters

Those strengths are better suited to an interior lineman. Jones is not big enough to play nose-tackle at 6’4”, 285lbs., so 3-technique could be his best fit.

In any case, after the Packers declined the 5th year option on Jones’ contract, and he finished his rookie deal last season, he was looking elsewhere. And Andre Patterson had a big influence on his signing with the Vikings, as Sid Hartman revealed:

Jones said the Packers didn’t really become interested in re-signing him until they realized he might be coming to the Vikings. A year earlier, the Packers had declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, making him a free agent this offseason.

“I don’t think they really made a strong effort until I took a visit to Minnesota,” he said. “I think once I came to Minnesota, my mind was actually made up. Once I sat down with Coach Patterson, I think my mind was made up right then and there.

“Me and Coach Patterson talked a lot,” Jones said. “They really said they can see me and utilize me as a three-technique... Coach Patterson trusted in me that I could actually make that adjustment.”

And so Datone Jones signed with the Vikings to become the new 3-technique. We’ll see if Patterson’s trust was well placed, but clearly he’s had plenty of experience working with defensive linemen to recognize skill sets and where they may work best.

That being the case, and with Jones’ NFL talent and experience, he should be an upgrade over the tandem of Stephen and Tom Johnson last year, particularly in run defense, where both of them struggled. Last year Jones earned a 70.0 pass rush rating from PFF, and a 61.3 against the run as a somewhat miscast DE/OLB with the Packers. If he were to repeat those numbers as a 3-tech with the Vikings, he would improve that position. But hopefully in a role more suited to him, those numbers will improve.

But speaking of Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson, their job security looks particularly at risk given the players the Vikings drafted. In particular, Jaleel Johnson looks to be a replacement for Shamar Stephen, and Dylan Bradley (a UFA) for Tom Johnson.

Shamar Stephen has PFF ratings in the 40s for both run defense and pass rush, which is to say he’s been poor at both- and for the past 3 years as well. Stephen has a $1.8m salary cap hit this year, and only $16k in dead cap, so the writing is on the wall there.

Tom Johnson has had some great plays at key times in the past, but overall his pass rush has been very inconsistent, and his run defense poor. Last year, which was better than 2015, he had a 49.3 PFF run defense rating, and a 73.4 pass rush rating. He turns 33 in August, and with a $2.35m salary cap hit this year, with no dead cap, his roster spot is very much at risk.

But by upgrading both Stephen and Tom Johnson (I also doubt Toby Johnson is on the roster either, having been signed and waived a couple times already), along with promoting Hunter to starting left-end, the Vikings should be able to improve their run defense in particular, as all three of the upgraded players (Stephen, Tom Johnson and Brian Robison) earned poor ratings against the run. Last year the Vikings allowed 4.2 yards per rush, which was 17th in the league. Making these upgrades should help get that number under 4.0, and into the top 10 in the league.

The Vikings were 6th in sack %, 5th in total sacks, and 2nd in sack yards.

A Look at the Upgrades

While Danielle Hunter has been demonstrably better than Brian Robison, earning his ‘upgrade’ status, the other two players have never played in the NFL, so they’re being ‘upgrades’ is a projection at this point, but not an ill-considered one.

JALEEL JOHNSON

At Iowa, Johnson played both nose-tackle and 3-technique in roughly equal measure judging from the film I watched. I strongly suspect Johnson will be used primarily as a backup in rotation with Linval Joseph at nose-tackle (typically 1-tech), as there really isn’t anybody else built for that role apart from Stephen, who he may displace. He may come in more often on passing downs, where he has been more effective in college. Here are some college PFF stats:

  • 2016: 81.2 overall rating vs. Michigan. 77.1 Senior Bowl. 78.2 Outback bowl vs. Florida.
  • 2015: 15th highest among all defensive tackles in run grade in 2015 (couldn’t find 2016, but looks to be similar based on other PFF comments)
  • 6th in pass rush productivity w 43 combined pressures in 330 snaps.

Looking at Johnson’s game film, he can be a little up and down- had a bad game against Penn State, only to rebound with one of his best against Michigan the next week, for example, but generally finished 2016 very strong, including Senior Bowl and Outback Bowl against NFL caliber competition.

But overall Johnson is more disruptive as a pass rusher than a run defender- he’s much more likely to generate a QB pressure than a TFL, for example. This PFF comparison vs. other top interior linemen in the draft is a pretty good one :

Grade-wise, Johnson does not stand out, but his dependability is a feature of all quality interior defensive linemen. He is one of the best in the class at avoiding negative plays, even if he is also one of the least likely to make a play in the backfield. For some schemes, a run defender who consistently holds his ground and plays his gap, despite occasional double-teams, will be ideal. In contrast, Johnson can be relied upon to make splash plays as a pass-rusher. He fires off the ball, and then reaches into a bag of moves so varied it is the envy of the class. Once Johnson reaches full speed, he can deliver the full force of his frame, demolishing centers on stunts, in particular.

What you notice in Johnson’s game film vs. the run is that often he fills his gap, occasionally gets some penetration, forcing the back outside, but doesn’t make the tackle. Other times he pinches the gap/crease and makes the tackle/assist, but for a short-to-average gain, often times. I didn’t see him just get beat though, and have the back run through his gap for a sizeable gain. He’s pretty disciplined that way, which could lead to an early rotational role behind Joseph, along with his more disruptive, penetrating pass-rush ability.

Johnson will still need to get stronger, and improve his technique, particularly keeping his pads down along a few more minor issues. Here is his PFF scouting report and his nfl.com draft profile.

DYLAN BRADLEY

Bradley was a UFA the Vikings signed out of Southern Miss - same school as Tom Johnson interestingly. The Vikings had worked him out prior to the draft, and he was one of the first UFAs reported to have signed with the Vikings, leading me to believe it may have been the Vikings plan that if he wasn’t drafted, he’d sign with the Vikings. In any case, that’s what happened.

Bradley played all over the line at Southern Miss, generating 37 pressures on 350 pass rush attempts in 2016, including 8.5 sacks. He also had 15.5 TFLs. Of course this wasn’t against NFL caliber competition in Conference USA, but he did have a good game against LSU too:

Had impressive tape against LSU. Played nose, three-technique and defensive end spots and had several reps where he tossed LSU guards and tight ends around like rag dolls. - Lance Zierlein

But other than questions about the level of competition he faced, generally the biggest downsides mentioned in his draft profiles (PFF draft profile here and nfl.com draft profile here) is his being a ‘tweener’ not big enough to play interior defensive line in the NFL, and maybe not the talent to be an edge rusher either. That was based on his weight last year- 265lbs. (6’1”). But at his pro day in early April he was 286lbs., which is big enough to play 3-technique, as guys the same size like John Randle and Geno Atkins- draft profile here- haven’t had any trouble with it in the past.

The better pre-draft comparison is John Randle, who was 6’1”, 287lbs. when he came out for the draft- and like Bradley went undrafted. Randle also played at a small school in college- Texas A&M at Kingsville. And like Randle, Bradley plays with a high motor. It’s interesting Bradley made the comparison himself in a recent interview:

Bradley... has heard the knocks against him. The most prevalent being he’s not big enough to play in the NFL. Bradley, who points to Hall of Famer John Randle and Pro Bowler Aaron Donald as prime examples of smaller defensive linemen overcoming the odds, doesn’t see it that way.

“I just play with a (high) motor. With a mindset that nobody’s going to block you,” he said. “I hear (Donald and Randle) talking about not being the biggest in high school, college or (the NFL). But at the end of the day, (they’re) going to give you something nobody will ever see.

“I know I go against guys bigger than me, faster than me. But (they’re) not going to beat me to the ball every play. I’m going to outwork (them).”

I wonder if Andre Patterson- who coached Randle when he was DL coach for the Vikings in the late 90s - and Mike Zimmer- who coached Geno Atkins when he was at Cincinnati - noticed any parallels with those players. Aaron Donald- the top 3-tech in the league in recent years- also goes 6’1”, 285lbs. - Donald’s draft profile here.

Obviously these comparisons with the best DTs in the league are highly optimistic to say the least- comparing a UFA with a HoFer and two of the best DTs in the league right now- but the traits and measureables from their pre-draft profiles are remarkably similar. We’ll see how he does in training camp. For any UFA to make the roster is a long-shot, and even practice squad is an achievement. But Bradley looks like he could surprise in camp and be one of those guys to make the team and replace Tom Johnson at 3-technique initially, and compete for more reps over time.

Best of the Rest

Looking at the starters and upgrades along the defensive line, the following rotation could emerge this season:

Left End: Danielle Hunter, Brian Robison / BJ Dubose

Nose Tackle: Linval Joseph, Jaleel Johnson

3-Technique: Datone Jones, Dylan Bradley/J. Johnson

Right End: Everson Griffen, Stephen Weatherly/Odenigbo/Bower?

Stephen Weatherly was a 7th round pick last year and a developmental project at DE. See his draft profile here. Competing with Weatherly will likely be other developmental DEs in 7th round pick Ifeadi Odenigbo - draft profile here - and UFA Tashawn Bower - draft profile here. I’m guessing between Weatherly, Odenigbo and Bower, only one makes the roster and the other two are practice squad candidates. You can see from their draft profiles that these are developmental guys that show promise, but have yet to put it together.

Lastly there is BJ Dubose, a 6th round pick in 2015, who could eventually replace Brian Robison as a backup at left end - draft profile here. The jury is still out on that, but Robison could play this year and next yet, so if he doesn’t work out, there could be a future draft pick dedicated to that need.

Elite Defensive Front

Overall, with Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter already playing at a high level, and Hunter now assuming the starting role at left end, the remaining piece to the puzzle is replacing Shariff Floyd at 3-technique.

Datone Jones looks ready to be an upgrade over the tandem of Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson last year, and could be helped by Dylan Bradley and Jaleel Johnson in that role. If one or more of those players can reach the level of Griffen, Hunter and Joseph at the other defensive front positions, the Vikings defensive line will become an elite unit with top-tier performers at every position.

Beyond that, Hunter and possibly one of the 3-technique players could emerge as a truly disruptive presence which opposing offenses will have to game plan around, like JJ Watt, Aaron Donald or Von Miller. That combination of strength at every position, with one or more truly disruptive players is what makes an elite defensive front.

The Vikings look very close to reaching that status this coming season.

Poll

Who will lead the Vikings in sacks this year?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Everson Griffen
    (476 votes)
  • 81%
    Danielle Hunter
    (2266 votes)
  • 1%
    Someone else
    (54 votes)
2796 votes total Vote Now