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Handicapping the Vikings Defensive Linemen

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Who will grab the backup spots on a loaded defensive line?

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Now that training camp is under-way, at least for rookies, it’s a good time to take a look at some of the competition for roster spots, backup spots, and starting jobs for the Vikings.

Let’s begin with the defensive line.

Seventeen Defensive Linemen

Of the 90 men on the Vikings roster entering training camp, nearly 1 in 5 are defensive linemen. Seventeen in all- the most of any position group. Using last year as a guide, seven of those seventeen will be looking for work come September, and another will find his way to the practice squad. Nine will make the 53-man roster.

But the real question is who makes it, and who doesn’t.

We do know with some certainty that Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Stephen Weatherly, and Shamar Stephen are pretty good bets to make the 53-man roster.

That leaves twelve guys competing for 4 roster spots and a practice squad spot.

Those twelve include Jaleel Johnson, Jalyn Holmes, Hercules Mata’afa, Tashawn Bower, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Armon Watts, Ade Aruna, Anree Saint-Amour, Karter Schult, Tito Odenigbo, Curtis Cothran, and Stacy Keely.

Of all these players, only Johnson has seen over 200 regular season snaps on defense. Holmes and Bower have seen about 50. Ifeadi Odenigbo had 9 defensive snaps last season. None of them have really distinguished themselves with their on-field play as of yet.

So, from that perspective, previous experience may not be a big factor in who makes the roster and who doesn’t. Familiarity with the defense will likely be a factor, however. And despite comments to the contrary, I expect higher drafted players may get some extra consideration, everything else being equal.

Be that as it may, most of these guys don’t have substantial NFL experience and/or are rookies this year, so you’re really looking at develop-able traits and what they’ve been able to do in college, when it comes to handicapping their chances of making the roster.

Measuring Explosiveness

Perhaps the most desired trait for a defensive lineman, whether defensive end or tackle, is explosiveness off the snap. In the continual battle in the trenches, getting the early jump is a significant advantage, along with having the power to push and slide, and can often lead to success on a given play. Of course there are other traits as well, that become more specific for each position, but for pretty much every defensive line position, explosiveness is top of the list for desired traits.

With that in mind, there are a set of measurables that help measure explosiveness, or potential explosiveness, long-time NFL coach, scout, and analyst Pat Kirwan put together many years ago. It combines the player’s broad jump, vertical jump, and bench press number from the Combine into to one ‘Explosion Number.’ [Broad Jump in feet + Vertical Jump in inches + bench presses]

When you think about it, exploding off the ball is essentially how fast and how powerful you’re initial jump off the snap is, which is similar to both a broad jump and vertical jump - how much power do your legs have to move you from a standstill position?

The other measure - bench press reps - is a measure of upper body power and being able to push and wrestle your opponent to defeat his block. The overall idea is that a guy who can explode off the snap and also has the upper body strength to battle his opponent is going to win his share of battles in the trenches.

For Kirwan, he said that while the ‘explosion number’ is not decisive or infallibly predictive in terms of who is successful and who isn’t, any player with a number above 70 draws his attention.

As a reference, here are some ‘explosion numbers’ for some well known players:

Aaron Donald: 76.7 | Khalil Mack: 73.8 | Linval Joseph: 79 | Danielle Hunter: 72.0

Everson Griffen: 75.5 | Geno Atkins: 74.75 | JJ Watt: 81.0 | Ndamukong Suh: 76.25

Justin Houston: 77.0 | Joey Bosa: 70.0 | Von Miller: 68.5 | Kawann Short: 64.25

Fletcher Cox: 65.0 | Gerald McCoy: 63.0 | Damon Harrison: 66.75 | Stephen Weatherly: 63.75 | Shamar Stephen: 64.0 | Kevin Williams: 62.5 | Nick Perry: 84

I included those last two in particular just to show that the explosion number, with around 70 being a rough dividing line, isn’t always predictive. But generally you can see that many/most of the top defensive linemen had at least around 65 or higher explosion number, and only one (Perry) that I could find who wasn’t all that good (in part due to injuries) despite having the highest number of all.

Among the Vikings defensive line hopefuls, here are the explosion numbers available:

Karter Schult: 72.5 | Anree St Amour: 71.1 | Ifeadi Odenigbo: 67.0 | Ade Aruna: 67.0 | Hercules Mata’afa: 66.5 | Jalyn Holmes: 57+ BJ | Curtis Cothran: 64.4 | Tashawn Bower: 61.5 | Stacy Keely: 41.75+ BP | Armon Watts: 20 + BJ+VJ | Tito Odenigbo: 56.5 | Jaleel Johnson: 55.5

I was able to get pro day results to fill in numbers for most of these guys, but a few didn’t perform the full set of drills, so there is some guess work. Jalyn Holmes, missing only the broad jump, likely would come in somewhere between 65-67, assuming an 8’-10’ broad jump, which just about everyone at the Combine is in that range. Watts is likely in the low 60s with that bench press number, assuming a low 30s vertical and 8-10’ broad jump. Keely could be anywhere from around 60 to over 70 depending on his bench press number.

Overall, this first screen may do more to cast doubt on those at the low end of the range rather than spotlight any standouts on the upside. Jaleel Johnson and Tito Odenigbo especially.

Production Ratio

Another key measure for young players is their production in college. Guys that weren’t that productive in college raise a red flag, although in some cases there is a viable explanation. But at the end of the day, you want guys that perform on the field in full pads, not just in shorts and t-shirts.

For defensive linemen, their production ratio is their combination of sacks and tackles for loss divided by the number of games played. [Sacks + TFLs / Games Played]

In general, a good number is anything over 1.00.

Hercules Mata’afa: 1.96 | Karter Schult: 1.83 | Ifeadi Odenigbo: 1.35 | Anree Saint Amour: 0.97 | Jaleel Johnson: 0.92 | Armon Watts: 0.86 | Ade Aruna: 0.81 | Tashawn Bower: 0.67 | Curtis Cothran: 0.67 | Jalyn Holmes: 0.56 | Stacy Keely: 0.475 | Tito Odenigbo: 0.46

Obviously it doesn’t look good for Tito Odenigbo to be at the bottom of both of these lists, but for guys like Karter Schult, Hercules Mata’afa, Ifeadi Odenigbo, and Anree Saint Amour, who are near the top of both lists, it looks more favorable.

Jalyn Holmes production ratio isn’t that compelling, but in his case he was mixed with the Bosa brothers and one or two other guys that were drafted pretty high, and was competing for playing time, so that is a somewhat compelling explanation there.

On the other hand, Karter Schult had a pretty high college production number, but playing at Northern Iowa raises a question about the level of competition. But, beyond Northern Iowa he also racked up some good production in the AAF before it folded, which is probably why the Vikings acquired him.

Beyond that, guys like Tashawn Bower, Jaleel Johnson, and Stacy Keely don’t look as compelling relative to the rest of the field.

Johnson has the most regular season snaps, and longest tenure, of any of those players not virtual locks to make the roster, but he was also the lowest rated defensive player for the Vikings last season according to PFF, and his pre-season grades weren’t any better.

Bower was graded about the same as Weatherly last year, but only on 53 snaps. Still, that’s a relative positive - particularly if he’s able to build on it.

Filling the Position Spots

With three veteran defensive ends virtual locks to make the roster (Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly), along with two defensive tackles (Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen), that leaves two DT spots and one DE spot available. Beyond that, one other roster spot that could be either, or perhaps someone who could play both if need be. Another practice squad spot for a defensive lineman seems likely as well.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Competing for the two defensive tackle roster spots are Jaleel Johnson, Jayln Holmes, Hercules Mata’afa, Armon Watts, and Curtis Cothran. Of those, using the two screens above to handicap the Vikings’ defensive tackles, Hercules Mata’afa, Jayln Holmes and Curtis Cothran emerge as the top three candidates.

Mata’afa has been the surprise of the off-season according to Mike Zimmer, and has a lot of momentum going into training camp to back up his explosion and production numbers, which are tops among defensive tackles. He came into the off-season at 276 pounds according to Andre Patterson, greatly reducing size concerns to play 3-tech. Based on all that, he has to be among the favorites for a defensive tackle roster spot.

As for Jaleel Johnson, beyond his explosion and production numbers, normally you’d think a 4th round pick entering his third year may be a little more established as a backup, but for Jaleel Johnson, he really hasn’t shown much to date. The problem it seems for Johnson is that he’s not big and strong enough to play nose tackle, and not quite athletic enough to play 3-tech. He’s got the most NFL experience, and presumably knows the system as well or better than the competition, but he’s facing some real threats to his job security in training camp.

Curtis Cothran has been on and off the practice squad for the Vikings since last year, mostly on, and appears to have some develop-able skills as a 3-tech. Based on scouting reports, Cothran has the desired initial burst, but lacked the length and strength to get off blocks after that.

Meanwhile Jalyn Holmes is reportedly around 300 pounds now, up from around 280 when he was drafted. That gives him enough weight to potentially sub at nose tackle on passing downs, which increases his versatility, and therefore value, particularly relative to Cothran.

That leaves Armon Watts, who has generated some positive buzz during the off-season. Watts is a bit trickier to screen based on the explosion and production number, because he didn’t do all the required drills for the explosion number (and 20 bench press reps is on the low end of the range for a DT), and his college production was last season - he hardly played before that. Given his inexperience, it would seem unlikely he’d earn a roster spot over the competition.

Based on all that, and allowing some favoritism toward longer tenure and draft status, I’d handicap the competition for the open defensive tackle spots as follows:

1. Hercules Mata’afa

2. Jalyn Holmes

3. Jaleel Johnson

t4. Curtis Cothran

t4. Armon Watts

DEFENSIVE END

There is plenty of competition for the one (likely) defensive end spot available, although it’s not out of the question that the Vikings’ 9th defensive linemen is a defensive end, given Everson Griffen’s contract status after this year. Or it could be someone who could play both end and tackle if need be.

In any case, the competitors at defensive end are Tashawn Bower, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Karter Schult, Ade Aruna, Anree Saint Amour, Stacy Keely, and Tito Odenigbo.

Once again, using the explosion and production numbers, Karter Schult, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Anree Saint Amour, and Ade Aruna emerge as leading candidates, while Stacy Keely and Tito Odenigbo look like long shots.

Only Tashawn Bower and Ifeadi Odenigbo have had any regular season reps for the Vikings, and Bower did reasonably well in only 53 reps, and Odenigbo only had 9 reps. Both did well in pre-season games, however. Additionally, in Bower’s case, his production number was likely reduced as he was mixed with some higher-level line-mates at LSU - he had only 7 starts in 4 years. Given that, his NFL tape will likely have more weight now than his college production number.

Given all that, and that Odenigbo can move inside if need be, I suspect Bower and Odenigbo may be early favorites for roster spots entering training camp, but that status is far from secure. The fact that the Vikings increased Odenigbo’s salary last season to keep him from being poached by Philadelphia also says something about his status.

Ade Aruna, Karter Schult, or (less likely) Anree Saint Amour have the potential to displace them, based on their explosion and production numbers.

Of all the defensive ends in this competition, only Ade Aruna has the desired length (6.5”, 34” arms) for a defensive end, to go along with his explosion and production numbers. He was very raw last season, however, and will need to show a lot of improvement to displace anyone for a roster spot.

Karter Schult may be limited to a base defensive end spot based on his measurables, but he may also be a candidate to move inside, given his strength and power.

Anree Saint Amour is similar in many respects to Ifeadi Odenigbo, but perhaps better against the run in college than Odenigbo was. His explosion and production numbers are compelling as well, particularly relative to the competition.

All this makes it pretty difficult to handicap the defensive end competition. The only thing that seems easier to handicap at this point is that Tito Odenigbo and Stacy Keely may be last in the rankings, and unlikely to gain either a roster or practice squad spot.

Beyond that, it looks like a tight competition, but I give some added consideration to the longer tenured players here, who have done well in pre-season last year, but also some to younger players when it comes to practice squad.

1. Tashawn Bower

2. Ifeadi Odenigbo

3. Ade Aruna

4. Anree Saint Amour

5. Karter Schult

6. Stacy Keely

7. Tito Odenigbo

Bottom Line Prediction

Overall, based on all of the above, and subject to particularly strong or weak performances in training camp, here is my prediction for defensive line roster spots:

Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen, Everson Griffen

Stephen Weatherly, Hercules Mata’afa, Jalyn Holmes, Tashawn Bower, Ifeadi Odenigbo.

Practice squad: Ade Aruna, Anree Saint Amour

Cut: Jaleel Johnson, Stacy Keely, Tito Odenigbo, Curtis Cothran, Armon Watts

Jaleel Johnson may seem like a surprise cut based on his draft status and tenure, but he looks to be eclipsed by Jalyn Holmes, who can serve a similar role, while bringing back Shamar Stephen and the emergence of Hercules Mata’afa leave him on the outside looking in. I suspect Johnson may be picked up by a 3-4 team looking for a DE, or another 4-3 team without the depth the Vikings have.

The final spots at defensive end are going to be a real battle, and I could see any of the top five candidates making the team, or not, depending on who shows up the most the next six weeks.

The practice squad spots will also be a real battle, and may also come down to who doesn’t get poached after initial cuts.

Bottom line is this is a tough position group to crack, and competition here may be the most intense of any position group in training camp and preseason games.