Remember the last few games of the 2020 regular season when opponents of the Minnesota Vikings would run the ball basically whenever they wanted for however many yards they wanted? It was definitely something different for Vikings fans to witness after years of watching guys like Linval Joseph hold down the middle of the defense. Now, as we head into the 2021 season, it appears that the Vikings have done quite a bit to address that problem going forward.
Pro Football Focus has put together their list of the 32 best interior defensive linemen in the NFL, and the Vikings now have three representatives on that list. They all appear on the second half of the list, but being among the best 32 players at your position in the league is still pretty good.
The Vikings’ big free agent acquisition, Dalvin Tomlinson, is the highest-ranked Viking, checking in at #17.
Michael Pierce’s absence last season highlighted that Minnesota had a clear need on the interior, and they addressed it by signing Tomlinson in free agency. Tomlinson isn’t quite the penetrating 3-technique that made sense for the Vikings on paper next to Pierce, but he is a very good football player. He ranks in the 83rd percentile in PFF run-defense grade since 2017 and showed some ability to get after the quarterback as a pass-rusher from nose tackle alignments in 2020.
Pierce himself checks in on the list at #26, likely slotting in so low because of last year’s absence.
Pierce’s role as a run-stuffer is well defined, and there are few better than him in that role. The undrafted free agent out of Samford earned a 91.1 run-defense grade across the first four seasons of his career in Baltimore, ranking fifth among all qualifying players at the position. Minnesota missed that ability from Pierce after he opted out last season, stumbling to a 30th-place finish in expected points added allowed per run play.
The last of the three is new addition Sheldon Richardson, who PFF has listed as a free agent for some reason but signed with Minnesota a couple of weeks ago. He’s on the list at #31.
Richardson is one of the notable veteran defensive tackles still on the market following his release from Cleveland. It takes little projection to see him making an immediate impact as a starter. Richardson has played at least 600 defensive snaps and recorded a PFF grade of at least 68.0 in every season since joining the league in 2013. PFF WAR ranks him as the eighth-most valuable interior defender in the league across those seven years. He should generate interest in the post-draft free agent market leading up to the 2021 season.
You know that Mike Zimmer was ticked off about watching his defense be almost completely unable to stop the run in 2020. Through a lot of salary cap magic, the Vikings were able to shore up the interior of the defense, and they’ll be getting Danielle Hunter back to help against the run as well. Add it all up, and the Vikings look to be ready to be a force against the run once again.