As the NFL prepares for training camp this summer, it is important to recognize where things stand now. The Minnesota Vikings are built through their defense as we all know. After looking at the secondary and linebackers, it is time to dive into the Vikings defensive line.
The Minnesota Vikings Defensive Line at the Moment
The Vikings defensive line is loaded with talent. The starting four up front are phenomenal. Danielle Hunter is one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL, and he is on a great contract. At just 24 years old, Hunter already has 40 sacks, 52 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles. The Vikings locked him up on a team-friendly deal compared to recent deals for pass rushers. Hunter was signed to a five-year extension worth $72 million last summer. Hunter hasn’t even hit his prime yet and he is already of the scariest rushers in the league. His counterpart isn’t too shabby either.
Everson Griffen has been chasing quarterbacks for a while now. In nine seasons, Griffen has 66.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, and has batted 14 passes at the line. He has a plethora of rush moves that let him get into the backfield with ease. Griffen has made his way to the quarterback 152 times to disrupt the play. After a brief departure from the team last season, Griffen is back and ready to prove himself once again in 2019.
The interior of the defensive line is great in its own right. Linval Joseph is an immovable object up the middle. Yet he still moves well and wreaks havoc against both the pass and the run. Joseph has 44 tackles for loss in his career, to go with 21 sacks and seven forced fumbles. He has been named to two Pro Bowls since coming to Minnesota in 2014.
The final starting spot on the interior is up for grabs. Shamar Stephen, who left Minnesota for Seattle, is back with the Vikings and will battle with some young guys. Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes each have a chance to win the spot in camp, and it will be a battle to keep an eye on. The two have very different skill sets, but each work in the NFL. As we will see a bit later, the Vikings have a ton of options on the interior.
The Vikings have a great front four, but the talent extends beyond the starting unit. Years of drafting depth has put them in prime position. While they may not have a ton of developed talents on the bench, they have a wealth of guys who can contribute in one way or another. Let’s take a look.
With Hunter and Griffen holding down the edge, they need guys to spell them out. Veterans such as Tashawn Bower and Stephen Weatherly have some experience at the NFL level, but not a ton. Weatherly has played the majority of his snaps on special teams and in garbage time. Weatherly’s only extended action came in Griffen’s absence last season. As both step into larger roles in 2019, expect to hear their names more. Hercules Mata’afa, an undrafted free agent in 2018, returns from injury prior to his first full camp. Ade Aruna is in the same boat, as he tore his ACL in the 2018 preseason. Ifeadi Odenigbo is another name to keep an eye on outside. He is a big rusher that can add some versatility to the line throughout the season.
The Vikings have depth inside as well. We don’t know who will start between Stephen, Johnson, and Holmes, but that is good news. Regardless of who wins the job, he will have plenty of help behind him to keep fresh legs in the game. Add in rookie Armon Watts and Minnesota is in business. The Vikings are notorious for playing their starters more than almost anyone else in the league. However, the line is getting a little older and they need to develop young talent.
A Closer Look
Hunter is an athletic freak. He is an absolute stud of a rusher with long arms and great speed. Hunter blends speed and power to drive tackles back and get to the quarterback time and time again. His inside rush move is one of the best in the league. He uses his strength and long arms to utilize his swim move and get in the backfield consistently.
Welcome to the 2017 sack sheet Danielle Hunter pic.twitter.com/sao0HcmYOZ
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) October 2, 2017
When Hunter hits his next gear, he can drive the tackle back. This next clip shows Hunter shrug the tight end’s chip and lower his shoulder into the right tackle. He drives him all the way into the quarterback’s chest and blows the play up.
Danielle Hunter sacking Rob Havenstein and Jared Goff together. Unbelievable play pic.twitter.com/26xVxU9jc3
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) November 20, 2017
Watch here as Hunter mauls the left tackle and proceeds to blow by the helping guard. This play alone put his raw power and speed on full display. Defensive ends shouldn’t move like this.
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) July 21, 2017
Is that not enough? Well, check out this play. Todd Gurley is one of the most explosive running backs in the NFL. Hunter was able to run him down in the open field. Although he didn’t finish the tackle, he slowed Gurley down enough to allow a play to be made. At 6’5” and 252 pounds, Hunter is scary.
Watch DE #99 Danielle Hunter chase down Gurley on this play…damn pic.twitter.com/Vy2wxtFMHd
— The Lefkoe Show (@LefkoeShow) September 28, 2018
Griffen is one of the most exciting and explosive pass rushers in the league when healthy. Like Hunter, he presents a problem with both his power and speed. While he has taken a small step back in the last year or two, he is still a very good defensive end. In this first clip, Griffen exhibits a speed-to-power conversion that is just unfair. He manipulates the rush to threaten speed off the edge before turning back into the tackle and driving him into the turf.
Terron Armstead is currently the second-highest-graded offensive linemen in the league, per PFF.
Here's Everson Griffen flattening him last year in the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/itETV3bleN
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) October 23, 2018
He also owns a lethal spin move that leaves linemen stunned and quarterbacks on their backs. In this clip, Griffen uses a spin to propel him inside and avoid two blocks. Most players lose speed when changing direction, especially on a spin. But Griffen actually gains speed here and collapses the pocket.
Everson Griffen is playing at an extremely high level right now. Already has 3 sacks this season. pic.twitter.com/5PQLdHapI5
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) September 19, 2017
When the spin works, offensive linemen prepare for it. Then Griffen changes his technique and moves. For instance, he pulled out a half-spin fake here. His half rotation made the tackle bite inside, leading Griffen to an easy sack around the edge. With this type of arsenal, he is almost impossible to shut down.
This move by Everson Griffen 😍😍😍 pic.twitter.com/QU5nElAqMl
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) May 12, 2016
This final clip simply shows the pure speed that Griffen can generate. His timing and first step are incredible. When he is locked in, Griffen can get to the quarterback before the tackle even knows the ball is snapped.
Everson Griffen vs. Andrew Whitworth on Sunday is going to be fun to watch. This Griffen guy is v good. pic.twitter.com/8QUcBrSzVs
— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) November 16, 2017
Interior rushers have become more and more important in today’s NFL. Joseph is a big man but he can move well. Watch here as he bounces into the B-gap, then busts out the swim move twice to get to the quarterback. Most interior guys are bull rushers that offer nothing but power, but versatility is key.
Linval Joseph, everybody pic.twitter.com/PFpMHfZMsN
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) May 14, 2018
This next play is a power rush from Joseph. He only gets to unveil his power because of his quick feet and timing on the snap. Linval gets the early leverage and drives the center into the ground in the blink of an eye. His hands get into the chest of the center. There is no way to stop a man of that size when he gets his hands up like that.
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) November 9, 2015
Continuing the theme of power, Joseph does a great job of consistently getting his hands in position to strike. Here he is using his back foot to drive while his hands hit high and push the lineman back. He squares up the blocker and completely wrecks the pocket off the snap.
— Willie Cashmore (@WillieCashmore) March 28, 2019
Holmes is a flexible piece on the line. A former defensive end, Holmes has moved inside for the Vikings. He has a tall frame with long arms that give him leverage not only when shedding blocks, but also in batting balls. His experience as a defensive end gives Minnesota an extra option on the edge and up the middle. This first clip offers a glimpse of Holmes as a defensive end. He spins inside and gets to the quarterback for the sack, an impressive feat for a man that is 6’5” and 283 pounds.
Ohio State DE Jalyn Holmes with the SACK pic.twitter.com/qLOyaTUeBo
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) January 27, 2018
This play is Holmes as an interior rusher. Holmes (#11) is lined up between the left guard and tackle. His bull rush is on display here.
Ohio State’s Jalyn Holmes and Tyquan Lewis will have some added value by being able to rush off the edge or kicked in at 3tech in subpackages… Both win here at 3T (also never seen 4 defenders meet at QB like this)..
Lewis reminds me of Brandon Graham in flashes… pic.twitter.com/CfqeyM2dPU
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) April 22, 2018
When Griffen left the team last season, Weatherly was called upon. He made a handful of solid plays in his brief playing extension. Weatherly plays a little stiff and still has some development to do, but the flashes are there. He is another freakish athlete, standing 6’5” but with good speed. If there is a theme to take away from this, it is that Vikings defensive ends love to break out the swim move. Watch here as Weatherly does just that on his way to forcing a fumble.
Damn, Stephen Weatherly have yourself a game. Only two active DE’s yesterday and the 7th round draft pick from Vanderbilt stepped up. Nice swim move here and very quick of the snap was a key contributor for the Linval TD pic.twitter.com/xkzrIijDBW
— Matt Anderson (@manderson92) October 8, 2018
Look for Weatherly to see more time as a rotational pass rusher in 2019 as he prepares to take over as the starter down the line.
Depth is crucial along the defensive line. The more quality pieces, the better. Bower will compete for a final roster spot as a rusher. While he may not have a huge impact in 2019, he can bring depth and bodies to the position. At the very least, Bower will give his full effort each and every snap that he is on the field.
Tashawn Bower was unblockable all night and he was still making an impact. Was constantly getting held too. He's good. pic.twitter.com/wlsaKi81fT
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) August 19, 2017
Johnson is a block-eating force up the gut. He takes up blockers and uses his strong lower body to generate a rush. In the plays here, Johnson continuously drives with his lower half to cause trouble. He can be a stud on run-stopping downs that subs out in passing situations.
Jaleel Johnson isn't Sheldon Richardson, but he's flashed enough for a shot at taking Richardson's place on the #Vikings' starting line.
Relentless motor, technician with his hands, chain combos his pass rush moves, great lateral speed on zone runs & stunts. He's earned this: pic.twitter.com/RCQGNKVdbf
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) February 12, 2019
Johnson is a former fourth-round pick. He will be expected to make an impact in 2019 as time is running out. As a two-down interior lineman, he has value for the Vikings. He can allow the other pass rushers to rest while he fills gaps and uses his power to wear out offensive linemen. He will not get much credit, but Johnson could play a vital role next season.
Stephen returns to the Vikings system after a year with the Seattle Seahawks. He has familiarity with Coach Andre Patterson and the defensive line. He also has the most experience outside of Linval Joseph on the interior. Stephen is a great run-stopper that tends to drive low and make plays from low points of attack. Despite being almost the same size as Joseph, Stephen plays much differently. He lacks speed but plays smart and understands the game. Getting him back on the line is a huge bonus for the Vikings.
Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter stop the run on 3rd down. Shamar Stephen bursts into backfield on 4th down. pic.twitter.com/t5rW7lExlM
— #InZimWeTrust (@loyalvikesfan) August 19, 2016
There are a handful of unknowns remaining on the Vikings roster. Whether players are unproven due to experience or injury, a few guys need to perform in training camp. As the battle for depth ensues, roster spots will slowly disappear. Here are a few guys that can catch some eyes.
Aruna tore his ACL last preseason after showing flashes. He is a prototypical Mike Zimmer guy: high upside talent with a ton of length on the edge. He is still learning football. Aruna’s first season playing football was his senior year of high school. As he returns from injury, Aruna will have a real opportunity to make a name for himself. His injury ended his first NFL camp and season, but he now has a full offseason to develop his craft.
— Footballzone (@UReady4Football) February 24, 2019
Mata’afa tore his ACL prior to training camp in 2018. He fits the mold of versatile weapons on the defensive side. He played a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role in college, and that is how the Vikings should plan to use him. Mata’afa is quick and explosive when attacking the ball. If healthy in 2019, he should be a key piece to the special teams.
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) February 22, 2018
Finally, there’s Watts. Watts was selected by the Vikings in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He is a slim defensive tackle with great hand usage. With the veterans ahead of him, Watts will be able to sit and learn in 2019. However, if he is asked to fill in at any point, Watts can make an impact.
Armon Watts, DT #90, would garner much more attention in most IDL classes but this year just has so many dudes.
– Needs to get a more consistent get off but when it hits, it's nice
– Long arms, 1st contact
– Swipes n clears effortlessly
– + body control
– Can turn tight corner pic.twitter.com/YOzMZogLOs
— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) February 7, 2019
Watts has potential as an interior pass rusher that can sub for Joseph in passing situations. With a strong camp, Watts can emerge as a role player in one of the league’s best defenses.
I think Armon Watts is the day 3 IDL that you want. Limited athlete, but legit pass rush plan, good at POA, terrific hands…rotational contributor who can do a little bit of everything pic.twitter.com/AqDAV6pIeF
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) February 13, 2019
Last Word on the Minnesota Vikings Defensive Line
The Vikings have one of the best defenses in the NFL. The defensive line anchors it all. The front four is loaded with talent, from Pro Bowlers to depth pieces. The Vikings are set in the trenches. As the team heads into training camp, they have comfort in knowing they will have a top defense.