Vikings Rookie Ivan Pace Jr. Proved Worthy of Preseason Hype vs Bucs
One defensive player stole the show at Minnesota Vikings training camp this summer/fall. Every day of camp, it seemed rookie (LB) Ivan Pace Jr. was impressing someone or making a highlight play that reached social media. Undrafted out of Cincinnati, Pace made the final 53 man roster easily, even though all odds were stacked against him when he first arrived at TCO Performance Center back in the spring.
By the time training camp rolled around, Pace was the inside linebacker taking most of the 1st team snaps in the base 3-4 scheme, as projected starter Brian Asamoah dealt with injuries. When the Vikings released their first official depth chart of the season, leading up to their week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pace was listed as the backup behind Asamoah.
Ivan Pace Jr takes advantage of opportunity
Still, head coach Kevin O’Connell gave him a real opportunity to show that he wasn’t all hype and Ivan Pace Jr. took full advantage. When the final whistle blew, Asamoah tallied just two snaps on defense, compared to Ivan Pace Jr’s 46. Why the Vikings continued to put Pace on the field, in favor of Asamoah, is obvious when you look at the game’s PFF grades.
Pace finished Sunday with a 75.5 overall grade, the second highest of all Vikings defenders. The top 5 PFF grades among Vikings defenders were Camryn Bynum (82.5), Pace Jr., Josh Metellus (72.2), Harrison Phillips (71.6), and Jordan Hicks (70.6).
Against Tampa Bay, Pace showed the same aggressiveness that made him stand out during camp. He is a great fit for defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, because the Vikings new defensive coordinator is notorious for his aggressiveness. Here you can see Ivan Pace Jr. track the Bucs running back, on an outside handoff, and make a clean solo tackle.
Ivan Pace Jr lead the team in solo tackles in his NFL debut with 6 pic.twitter.com/g0TfBikZSi— MSN (@mnspnews) September 10, 2023
Rookie mistakes hinder otherwise good performance
Of course, Pace had rookie moments, too. One mistake that cost the Vikings came late in the 4th quarter, with Tampa driving. On 3rd and 2 with, with less than 4 minutes to play, Bucs QB Baker Mayfield rolled to his right and quickly decided to tuck the ball and run for the first down.
Pace hesitates for just a split-second, which was enough of a pause for Mayfield to round the corner hard and lunge for the first before reaching the sideline. To pour salt on the wound, instead of lowering his shoulder and plowing into Mayfield, in an effort to knock him out of bounds before the marker, Pace wrapped his arms around the QB’s shoulders and twisted him to the ground, eliminating any chance he had at keeping Baker short of the yard to gain.
Yes, this missed play proved costly. Instead of giving the ball back to a hungry Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson, for another chance to tie or win the game, the Buccaneers were able to run out the clock and line up in the victory formation just a couple minutes later. But rookie mistakes are to be expected, from an undrafted free agent getting starter reps.
In the play above, Pace had coverage responsibilities he didn’t want to abandon too early. When lining up the tackle, he was worried that lowering his shoulder on a QB near the sideline would result in a devastating 15-yard penalty.
It’s a situation you hope he operates through differently, in the future, but moments of weakness like this should not take away from the amazing game he played overall. There were far more positives to outweigh this costly play, or any others he may have failed to make.
How did Ivan Pace Jr. go undrafted?
Ivan Pace Jr.’s journey from college star to undrafted NFL player is primarily attributed to his physical attributes, particularly his smaller size. He is only 5-foot-10 and 231 pounds, with relatively short 30.25-inch arms, Pace’s size falls significantly below the average NFL linebacker’s.
It’s likely NFL Scouts and evaluators in the foresaw challenges in dealing with larger and more powerful blockers at the next level. His size and frame more closely resemble that of an NFL running back like Eddie Lacy or Trent Richardson, making him an unconventional pick as a linebacker.
Furthermore, Pace faced hurdles during the pre-draft process. His Pro Day results yielded a Relative Athletic Score of just 5.71 (out of 10.00), far from the impressive numbers other linebackers carry. Micah Parsons (Cowboys), for example, carries a 9.59 RAS. This raised concerns among NFL teams about his ability to compete at the highest level.
Despite his remarkable college achievements, including accolades like MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 and AAC Player of the Year in 2022, his lack of size and low testing numbers led to Pace going undrafted back in April.
Although Pace’s path to the NFL has been fraught with challenges, his tenacity and skill on the field was clearly underestimated. While he may have gone undrafted, he’s proving an ability to excel in the right defensive scheme. And Coach Flores’ defense seems like exactly that.
Dom Clare | Minnesota Sports Fan