In Part IV of this series on building a championship roster for the Vikings (Part I, Part II, Part III links) we turn to the defensive front seven.
In today’s NFL, the key for the defensive front seven is versatility. At every position the goal is having a player who can stop the run and disrupt the pass. Gone are the days when linebackers could focus primarily on stopping the run. And when edge rushers could focus primarily on rushing the quarterback. Even the big ‘run stuffers’ in the interior defensive line are expected push the pocket and pressure the quarterback- and the best pass rushing interior linemen increasingly command contracts equal to the top edge rushers.
Edge rushers are often the overall most athletic player on defense, and sometimes the whole team, and the top players at the position are now commanding contracts that are exceeded only by the top quarterbacks. Meanwhile linebackers are becoming increasingly athletic and top linebackers are landing $20 million AAV contracts now. The premium skill for inside linebackers being pass coverage.
The problem for general managers is that fielding a championship caliber defensive front seven on veteran contracts could easily cost $100 million in salary cap- nearly half the total and not counting premium defensive secondary positions. And so getting good performance from guys on non-premium contracts is key- not to mention having some high-impact players at premium positions.
Evaluating the Vikings Front Seven and What Remains To Be Done
The Vikings have been active so far in free agency when it comes to the defensive front seven. They’ve reduced LB Jordan Hicks’ contract (as yet undisclosed) and Ross Blacklock’s, released Eric Kendricks, acquired DT Dean Lowry, and EDGE Marcus Davenport. There is speculation that Za’Darius Smith may be traded as well.
For a championship caliber defensive front seven, a team typically needs two top-tier pass rushers and at least one linebacker that can cover well. Beyond that, solid interior run defenders with some ability to push the pocket, and another linebacker that is a solid run-defender and not a total liability against the pass.
Assuming for the moment that the Vikings don’t retain Za’Darius Smith, that would leave the Vikings with Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport as edge rushers. Both are top-tier, prototypical edge-rusher talents, and have had top-tier production in the past, but both have had injuries too. Davenport has never played more than half of his team’s defensive snaps in a season and has missed an average of four games per season due to injury over his first five years in the league. For comparison, Hunter has played nearly a season-worth more snaps than Davenport over the past five seasons, despite being out for a year and a half during that time. So the concern with Davenport isn’t only his injury history, but whether he can shoulder a full load as a starting edge rusher. He’s never come close to that in the past.
If Hunter and Davenport can shoulder a full load at each of the edge rusher positions, that would likely check the box for having two top-tier pass rushers, although Hunter and especially Davenport would need to step up a bit.
In run defense, the Vikings are in pretty good shape. The defensive interior trio of NT Khyiris Tonga (a great pickup during last season), Harrison Phillips, and James Lynch are solid as run defenders, as are both Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport on the edges. LB Jordan Hicks is also an excellent run defender- second only to Lynch in run stop percentage last season. Brian Asamoah, who played only limited snaps last season, did well in the few run snaps he had.
Against the pass, I would imagine the Vikings would substitute Dean Lowry for James Lynch and rush Hunter, Phillips, Lowry, and Davenport in passing situations. This has the potential to be a top pass rushing unit, and potentially better than the Hunter, Tomlinson, Z Smith, DJ Wonnum combo of a year ago, but Brian Flores will likely augment this group with more frequent blitzes to press the issue- and potentially lead to a more effective pass rush overall.
While a blitzer could come from a safety or cornerback position, one lesser-known aspect of LB Jordan Hicks’ game last season was his productivity as a pass rusher. Hicks ranked 6th overall in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity stat last season among linebackers, and graded 14th overall in PFF’s pass rush grade. He had 14 pressures on 50 pass rushing attempts and two batted passes. He may get more snaps as a pass rusher in Brian Flores’ scheme. He blitzed on just 7.8% of his pass-play snaps last season, which ranked 54th in the league. Hicks is more of a liability in coverage, so it would make sense to send him more as a pass rusher.
The Vikings appear to be going with Brian Asamoah as a replacement for Eric Kendricks as the three-down linebacker. Asamoah didn’t have a lot of coverage snaps last season (just 63), but he ranked 14th in the league in PFF’s coverage grade (78.1) among all linebackers in the snaps he had. He was targeted just three times in those 63 coverage snaps, which made him the least targeted linebacker in coverage last season by coverage snaps/targets ratio. These are promising stats for Asamoah’s ability, along with his elite speed and agility for the position, to be effective in coverage this season on a full-time basis. If Asamoah is able to rise to that level in coverage (he was a good run defender in limited (49) snaps), he could help the Vikings check another box needed for having a championship caliber defensive front seven.
Overall, the Vikings are within range of having a championship caliber defensive front seven, but they’ll need players that are not proven as full-time starters- Davenport and Asamoah in particular- to become the high-quality full-time starters they have the potential to be. For the rest of the starting front seven, the Vikings will need them to perform at the high-end of their range this season to really have a championship caliber group.
Defensive Front Seven Depth
There are more question marks among backups in this group than anything, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings spent some draft capital here at the end of April. DJ Wonnum is the primary backup at edge rusher but he’s a significant drop-off and not the ideal player in that depth position. It would be nice if players like Pat Jones II and Luigi Vilain were able to step up into that role and provide an upgrade which would allow the Vikings to move on from Wonnum- who’s a nearly $3M cap hit this season.
Esezi Otomewo has promise as a pass rushing 3-tech DT, and perhaps could challenge Lowry for some snaps this season, and James Lynch has developed into a good run-stopper DT. The Vikings could use another bona-fide nose tackle behind Khyiris Tonga, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a draft pick is used there, or another low-level free agent acquisition.
Depth at linebacker behind Asamoah and Hicks is a real question mark. Troy Dye has been around a few years now and is a top special teamer but has played less than 100 snaps on defense over the past two seasons and has been mediocre with those. Kevin O’Connell mentioned William Kwenkeu as a linebacker he liked and he’s a similar athletic profile as Brian Asamoah- small but fast and agile- but played only 13 snaps on defense last season. Kwenkeu was a UDFA signing from Temple last year and was one of the better special teamers for the Vikings last season. Whether he can step up and solidify a backup role at linebacker remains to be seen. Spending another draft pick at linebacker makes some sense either way.
But at the moment, and assuming Za’Darius Smith is traded or released, the Vikings are fielding a pretty good group given their overall salary cap expenditure here. Hunter and Davenport are $13M cap hits, Phillips $7M, and just about everyone else around $1M and nobody else over $3M. Whether that’s good enough to get them to a championship remains to be seen.
The Vikings have the players in place now to field a championship caliber defensive front seven, but they need those players to play at the upper end of their range, particularly new starters Marcus Davenport and Brian Asamoah. They also don’t have much depth, so an injury to a key player could result in a significant drop-off in performance. That makes the prospect of them being a top-tier group more tenuous, but not outside their capability. The group could be helped by Brian Flores’ more aggressive blitzing scheme, but that will put more pressure on the defensive secondary- which I’ll discuss in the next installment.
Which player is more likely to be an upside surprise this season?
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