Of all the Minnesota Vikings offseason stories, one has flown mostly under the radar: the defensive line.
That leaves Danielle “Da-quarterback” Hunter and Ifeadi “Spell-check” Odenigbo, who combined for 21.5 sacks last year, to rush the edges. Hunter is on a record-breaking trajectory, and Odenigbo was named the Viking’s best-kept secret by Bleacher Report. The national media has been fretting about a Griffen-less defensive line, but those who read MSF know better.
On the inside, the Vikings made a big splash in free agency by signing 6 foot, 345 pound nose tackle, Michael “Nickname-pending” Pierce from Baltimore. (Think of how big a splash that man would make!) Pierce will fill the hole Linval Joseph left, and fill multiple holes a ball-carrier might try running through. His highlight videos aren’t quite as fun as, say, Adrian Peterson’s, but they will get you excited about what he could do as a Viking. Also, he can squat the combined weight of Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury and myself.
Developing young guys
Next, we turn to the rookies. Of the 15 selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, three are listed as defensive ends, and all three bring tremendous potential in their own ways.
South Carolina’s D.J. Wonnum was selected 117th overall, with measurables nearly identical to Danielle Hunter’s. Baylor’s James Lynch (130th) was the Big-12’s Defensive Player of the Year. Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes (225th) is a pure heart-and-hussle type of player.
Those names don’t mean much now. The name that does matter is Andre Patterson, who has been the defensive line coach since Mike Zimmer arrived. Patterson’s ability to draft and develop rookie defensive linemen is unbelievable.
Since his first year in Minnesota (2014), the Vikings have drafted many defensive lineman on days two and three of draft who’ve become a regular contributors on the field:
2014: Shamar Stephen (7th round)
2015: Danielle Hunter (3rd round)
2016: Stephen Weatherly (7th round)
2017: Jaleel Johnson (4th round), Ifeadi Odenigbo (7th round)
2018: Jalyn Holmes (4th round)
2019: Armon Watts* (6th round)
*Watts’ development is still in progress
Coach Patterson has never had three late-round defensive linemen to mold, until now. A betting man would wager that at least two of them will be good, and one of them might even become great.
Learning from experience
If Zimmer has learned anything during his time as head coach, it’s the value of having a deep and talented defensive line. Each of the last three years, the Vikings season has ended due to the superior D-line of the Eagles, Bears, and 49ers. Zimmer got in on the action this year in the wildcard round, by lining up Hunter and Griffen inside to get after Drew Brees. Now he wants more.
This offseason, so much attention has been paid to the secondary, the O-line, and replacing Stefon Diggs, but don’t sleep on what Zimmer and Patterson are doing with the defensive line. It might just win us a lot of games this year.