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Vikings Camp Battles & Roster Projection Part III: Defensive Front

Part III in a series on the competition for Vikings’ roster spots

In Part I of this series, I looked at the offensive skill positions, and in Part II the offensive line. Part III is focused on the defensive front- both linemen and linebackers. This may be the most difficult to evaluate in many respects, as the Vikings are moving to a 3-4 front that has subtle differences in trait and skillset requirements. There are also quite a few players with not much to form an evaluation on in terms of NFL regular season experience, so that will make the roster projections for the back half of the depth chart more difficult too.

Defensive Front (15)

Ed Donatell said he will go with a 3-4 base defensive front employing ‘gap and a half’ principles in run defense. Donatell worked under Vic Fangio for many years and employed this scheme, which looks like this:

Pro Football Journal

The above illustration is a nickel formation with a 3rd cornerback on the field, replacing one of the two linebackers. In a base formation there would be a second linebacker. But that aside, the idea in a nickel formation is to have only six players in the box, or basically the space just outside the tackles and within five yards or so from the line of scrimmage. This is considered a ‘light’ box, with one less defender than normal. It can be referred to as either a 5-1 alignment (5 defensive lineman and 1 linebacker) or a 33 nickel alignment, where the edge rushers, or outside linebackers, are grouped as linebackers instead of defensive linemen. But either way, it’s the same thing.

The gap-and-a-half principle means that each of the defensive linemen are responsible for a primary and a secondary gap in run defense. They occupy their primary gap first, and using typically an arm technique, they get off their block to defend their secondary gap once they’re sure the ball carrier is not going there. The exception is the nose tackle, who has a two-gap responsibility- the ‘A’ gaps on either side of the center, but with help from both of the other defensive tackles (aka defensive ends in a 3-4), who have the ‘A’ gap on their side as their secondary gap responsibility. Their primary gap is the ‘B’ gap between the guard and tackle. The nose tackle typically plays a ‘0’ technique, which is head up on the center, while the defensive tackles/ends typically play a 4i technique, where they line up on the inside shoulder of the tackle.

The edge rushers’ have the ‘C’ or ‘D’ gap (outside the TE) typically, with their secondary gap the one next inside. On the TE side, another player, either a linebacker or a defensive back, can help the edge rusher with gap responsibilities in run defense as well. Additionally, the edge rushers in run defense look to ‘set the edge’ or force the ball carrier inside, typically by maintaining outside leverage, or absent that, forcing the ball carrier to ‘bounce it outside’ creating a favorable angle for a linebacker or defensive back to make the tackle outside for little or no gain.

The idea behind this run defense is to at least slow down the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage, allowing enough time for the support to arrive- secondary gap defenders, linebackers, defensive backs- to help make the tackle for little or no gain.

What that means from a personnel standpoint is that you need a big nose tackle (310+) and long enough to handle two-gap responsibilities, and the other defensive tackles/ends that are also typically around 280-300 pounds with length as well.

Salary Cap Situation

Note: red numbers are void years

Spotrac
Spotrac

Contractually, the Vikings are committed to Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Tomlinson, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, and Za’Darius Smith. In terms of draft pick status, the Vikings are committed to Brian Asamoah, and marginally to Chazz Surratt and Patrick Jones as third-round picks last year. That’s not a lot out of the 26 players in this group. Eric Kendricks would be a $9.5 million cap savings this year if he were cut or traded, but that seems a remote possibility at best.

When it comes to defensive tackles, run defense will be the uppermost qualification in the new scheme. Among the presumed starters - Phillips, Tomlinson, and Watts, they could be better- especially Watts. For that reason I would not be the least bit surprised if the Vikings added another veteran DT/DE that is better against the run. Otomewo is the only prototypical DT/DE among the younger players on the roster, and I like his upside. Janarius Robinson was touted as a Danielle Hunter type (excellent traits, poor college production), but was injured shortly after being drafted (an undisclosed leg injury) and missed his rookie season. He’s been training with Hunter in the off-season, which hopefully will help him prepare for a good training camp. He has some potential versatility as a DT/DE in passing situations as well as an edge rusher. Luigi Vilain and Patrick Jones are also significant projections, as there isn’t much to go on for either except their college stats and traits, but Vilain looks to be much better than his UDFA status would suggest. He had knee injuries that caused him to miss his first two seasons at Michigan after being a high recruit, but that resulted in his taking a back seat to Kwity Paye, Aiden Hutchinson, and David Ojabo. But he showed what he can do after transferring to Wake Forest and had an excellent season last year. He showed some good technique in setting the edge and as a pass rusher at Wake Forest as well, so I like his chances.

Not giving DJ Wonnum a roster spot- who’s had a lot more playing time than the three other backkup edge rushers I gave roster spots to- seems unlikely for that reason, but he didn’t really play as well as his sack stats (8) last year suggest. He wasn’t good against the run, and his pass rush productivity (weighted pressure rate) was only 4.6, which is mediocre. After two seasons, he may have reached a plateau. We’ll see what happens in training camp, but the upside on the younger guys looks more promising, and they may be better run defenders too.

Roster Projection

I have the Vikings rostering five edge rushers and five defensive tackles. Normally I’d think they’d keep six defensive tackles and four edge rushers, but I suspect Janarius Robinson may be able to play both edge and a DE/5-tech role. I do not think the Vikings should be satisfied with their defensive tackle group, however, and I would not be surprised if the Vikings acquired a veteran defensive tackle, perhaps Sheldon Richardson, in lieu of James Lynch.

Cut: Jullian Taylor, TY McGill, Kenny Willekes, DJ Wonnum

Practice Squad: Tyarise Stevenson, Jalen Twyman, TJ Smith

Linebackers

The new coaching staff appears to be all-in with modern 3-down linebackers- guys with speed, range and can cover- over the traditional two-down thumper types. Hardly any of the linebackers on the roster are 240 pounds or more, with most around 230. They’re counting on a stout defensive line to protect those smaller, more athletic linebackers and allow them to fit and flow freely.

Contractually, I suspect Jordan Hicks is a one-year rental. If Asamoah adapts well early on, he could take reps from Hicks this season at some point, but we’ll have to wait and see. But overall among the depth linebackers, athleticism, upside, and special teams ability will drive their value.

I have the Vikings keeping five linebackers on the roster, in part for special teams value. The first three spots are pretty well taken, but the last two are up in the air. I have Blake Lynch taking one spot based on a having both a decent season last year at LB, albeit on limited (218) snaps, and being a decent core special teamer. Surratt I have making it more based on a combination of being a 3rd round pick, higher upside, and ability to be a core special teamer as well. Troy Dye was also an elite graded core special teamer for the Vikings last year, but more mediocre as a linebacker. Still, could go either way between Lynch, Dye, and Surratt depending on who has a better camp/pre-season.

Cut: Ryan Connelly, William Kwenkeu

Practice squad: Troy Dye, Zach McCloud


Poll

Will the Vikings acquire a veteran defensive tackle/end before training camp begins?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    Yes
    (412 votes)
  • 66%
    No
    (808 votes)
1220 votes total Vote Now