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The future of the Vikings, Part 5: The defensive line

“The Future of the Vikings” is a series of articles looking at everything from strengths and weaknesses to draft and free agent options to schemes and trends heading into 2017 and beyond. Read Part 1 on quarterbacks herePart 2 on the running backsPart 3, the wide receivers, for Part 4, the offensive line and Part 5, the defensive line…

The rise of Danielle Hunter

When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Danielle Hunter in the third round, fans and media who Googled his college stat sheet were confused. Why would they pick a pass rusher who only managed 1.5 sacks during his junior year at LSU?

Potential.

Hunter ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, the fastest mark of any defensive lineman. His height and wingspan combined with amazing speed for the position were reminiscent of former Titans pass rusher Javon Kearse, who ran a 4.58.

The physical freakishness was evident, but even the Vikings may not have been aware that Hunter is a diligent worker and fast learner. He made a good first impression with six sacks in limited duty in his rookie year, then took a huge step forward in  with 12.5 sacks, which tied for the third most in the NFL.

Hunter’s 2016 was impressive, but even more so when you consider his age and draft status. Only five other players since the NFL began counting sacks have had more during their age-22 season than Hunter. Also, only one of the other nine best age-22 seasons by a pass rusher came from a player that was not drafted in the first round.

 

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How did he make such a big improvement? Veteran defensive lineman Tom Johnson looks toward Hunter’s commitment to his craft.

“Honing the things that [defensive line coach Andre Patterson] teaches us every day,” Johnson said. “Going out and finding things that were his weaknesses from the year before and building on them…he’s a guy that pays attention. He’s coachable. He’s a guy that doesn’t mind doing the things that he’s uncomfortable doing and you see how it progresses on the field.”

Johnson also pointed out that Hunter has learned to use his long arms to create space between himself and the blocker tasked with slowing him down. Then he can make a move at the proper time and separate from the linemen quickly.

“I think the technique that [Patterson] teaches is a little difficult because it’s unconventional from anything that you’ve ever do,” Johnson said. “Most coaches tell you to throw your hips out, but in Danielle’s situation, he has long arms, he has a long wingspan, he moves well, he bends well. Instead of running around a guy, [Patterson] is teaching him to use his abilities, using his long arms, make the opponent feel threatened by the space in between them, then make a move off it.”

Here is an example against the Dallas Cowboys (right side).

Because Hunter was used more often in pass rush situations than on first downs, there is a perception that he is a one-dimensional edge rusher. However, Pro Football Focus ranked him in the top 20 against the rush this season.

Chicago Bears head coach John Fox talked about Hunter’s development on a conference call before the Bears-Vikings Week 17 matchup and mentioned how experience has played into his improvement.

“He was a guy that I liked coming out of college,” Fox said. “I think what happens with players, especially on defense, especially up front… that you’ve got to be right really fast. Recognizing the difference between run and pass, though it sounds very simple, is not as easy as it seems. It has been my experience that when guys can understand situational football, understand stances, and the tips that tell you they’re passing, that definitely helps those sack totals.”

On locker clean out day, veteran defensive lineman Brian Robison told the media that Hunter deserves to be the full-time starter instead of mixing in and out. No doubt that will be the case for the foreseeable future as the Vikings have a special player – one who deserved a Pro Bowl nod this year, but will certainly see his fair share of honors over the next decade.

The Sharrif Floyd conundrum 

When defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is healthy, he can do it all. The former first-round pick can explode into the backfield to blow up a run play or make a swift move to toss a guard aside and bring down the quarterback. In 2014, he was ranked as one of the best DT’s in the NFL by Pro Football Focus and was still solid in 2015 despite battling injury.

Floyd’s struggles to stay on the field seemed to get underneath the skin of head coach Mike Zimmer. After the 25 year old suffered a significant knee injury Week 1, Zimmer had this to say when he was asked about Floyd:

Q: With Sharrif Floyd, is this kind of a disappointing start to only have him only play 20-something snaps and have to sit out?

Zimmer: I don’t know. I’m kind of used to it.

Instead of coming back after six weeks, which was the initially reported timetable, Floyd missed the entire season.

The Vikings have the option this offseason to either pay Floyd $6.7 million or cut him loose.

If not for his chronic injury issues, it would be a no-brainer to have the 6-foot-3, 297-pound D-lineman on the 2017 roster. The combination of nose tackle Linval Joseph and Floyd makes for a difficult challenge for opposing interior offensive linemen. Joseph often demands two blockers, leaving Floyd with a mismatch against many guards.

On this play, Floyd is lined up over the left guard and tosses him aside to make a tackle on Tampa Bay running back Bobby Rainey.

The task of replacing Floyd turned out to be a tough one as fill-in defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, a former seventh-round pick out of UConn, was unable to handle the heavy workload.

In his Pro Football Focus profile, you can see both how much Stephen struggled and how often the Vikings played him in Floyd’s spot.

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In pass rush situations, the Vikings were able to use Tom Johnson, who did not post the same sack numbers as the previous two years but was effective at pressuring the quarterback.

If the Vikings do walk away from Floyd, there are options in free agency. Carolina’s Kawann Short has 17 sacks over the last two seasons and is an unrestricted free agent. Jacksonville DT Abry Jones and New England DT Alan Branch, who are both quality starters, will also be on the market.

The decision will not come down to whether the Vikings believe Floyd is good, but if he can stay on the field. If they do choose to keep him, Minnesota will need a better just-in-case option then they had this year.

Griffen and Joseph forever

While there is uncertainty at the defensive tackle position, the Vikings are blessed with All-Pro caliber players at three of the four defensive line positions.

Everson Griffen has displayed consistent excellence over the length of his career, which includes a transition from pass-rush specialist to all-around D-end. Over the last three seasons, he averages just over 10 sacks per year and is often ranked among the better run stuffers in the NFL at his position.

Here are his career Pro Football Focus grades:

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The only concern the Vikings should have with Griffen is his age. While he is only 29, many quality pass rushers historically have begun to slip around 30 years old. In 2016, only four defensive ends in the NFL had more than 5.0 sacks (one of them was Vikings DE Brian Robison).

That does not guarantee that a fall off is coming any time soon.There have been 52 double-digit sack seasons by over-30 pass rushers since 2000 and 91 of more than 8.0 sacks. But once you get past 32, the drop off is huge, with only 10 players posting 10 more more sacks. So Griffen, who has had an excellent bill of health during his career, could certainly be effective for years to come.

As for Linval Joseph, he is simply one of the premier players at the nose tackle position. He ranked 15th amongst all defensive tackles in PFF rankings this season and was even higher last year.

Read more about Linval Joseph’s impact here with comments from his teammates and position coach:

Linval Joseph is a superstar and he doesn’t care if you know it

The Vikings’ defense revolves around Joseph’s ability to take up multiple offensive linemen at once. He is one of the strongest players in the NFL and can drive guards and centers into the backfield on a consistent basis.

Like Griffen, his body of work suggests that Joseph will continue to rate toward the top of the league for years to come.

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Depth?

Brian Robison provided the Vikings with 7.5 sacks this season, which is quality production for a 33-year-old defensive end. He has been one of the most reliable D-ends in the NFL since becoming a starter in 2011.

With that said, if Robison does not agree to take a pay cut, the emergence of Hunter would allow the Vikings to move on and create a big chunk of cap space. Robison is set to have a $5.3 million cap hit in 2017, but the team could make $4.6 million in space if they release him, according to the website Over the Cap.

The Vikings do not have a next-in-line young player for the spot. They selected Stephen Weatherly in the seventh round in 2016 and he played one defensive snap.

Free agency and the draft are both options to fill Robison’s  role if the sides part. However, if the veteran were willing to take a pay cut, he can still be effective on the field and act as a respected leader in the locker room.

The takeaway:

The Vikings have a lot of work to do in free agency and the draft this offseason, but along the defensive line, they would enter the 2017 season as one of most well-stocked teams in the NFL even if they didn’t make a single upgrade.

  • David Prestin

    Agreed

  • Talltales08

    This is where the teams greatest trade chips lie. Joseph & Griffen could both bring much needed 1st round picks plus extra. I love defense so this should tell you how much I’d like to see Bradford operate, and with his accuracy that’s just what it would be to opposing defenses, with a real NFL offensive line in front of him. Our line on the other hand was merely offensive to watch.

    • linus

      Terrible idea.

      • Talltales08

        It was a terrible idea to allow the OL to waste away to the sorry sight they are now. What’s the most important position on the team, the QB of course. We just used a #1 pick to get a damn good one, so why not spend resources to protect him before it’s to late?

        Hunter has to be a full time player in 2017 and the trade of Griffin would enable it.

        • Jordan Musser

          I think you only trade Griffen if it is a 1-1 to get Joe Thomas. Proven player for proven player. I would never trade Griffen for a pick, especially with this years stock of OL in the draft.

          • Matt Coller

            It certainly is an interesting idea. The emergence of Hunter would make it not crazy, as great as Griffen is

          • Talltales08

            If you have the time to play Devils advocate: Lets say your the Browns (sorry, someone has to be the Browns), your leaning towards taking Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M with the 1st overall pick. The Vikings come calling offering a proven pro bowler in Everson Griffen straight up, do you make the trade or pass?

            P.S. Thanks for the article.

          • Jordan Musser

            If I am the Browns I make the trade and use the 1st round pick to trade and get multiple picks. I then use the multiple picks to build the defense and oline. I then take a couple of QB’s and bring in a couple vet’s to compete in training camp for the strating QB job.

            I would also look at trading some more picks for another veteran as well most likely on offense.

            There is a lot to do in Cleveland and Joe Thomas starting at left tackle while you draft young guys who need to learn how to play is not the solution.

          • Talltales08

            My thoughts also.

          • linus

            As stupid as the Browns have been, even THEY would pass on that deal. Griffen would be past his prime by the time the Browns could compete for even a division title, let alone the Super Bowl.

          • Talltales08

            To mention the Browns and Super Bowl on the same website brings tears of laughter to my eyes.

          • Talltales08

            Joe Thomas is a fine player and pro bowler as well, but I think we’d have to get more back in the deal because of where the two players are in they’re careers. And, your dealing with the Browns who continue to be the laughing stock of the NFL.

          • David Prestin

            I agree….I’ve never understood why people love draft picks so much. We traded a 1st for Jared Allen and it turned out great. And our trade for Bradford was a good move as well. I rather trade my picks for proven vets. Is Joe Thomas worth our 2nd and a 4th? I’d do it.

          • cka2nd

            I could launch into a long history of the debate over draft picks versus trades, with conflicting references to the the great Steelers teams of the 70’s and the 1981 49’ers, etc., etc., etc., and point out that the Vikings’ two trades involving Fran Tarkenton proved that both strategies can work for SMART teams, but instead I’m going to resort to a cheap, simplistic and utterly unfair gambit since we’re both Vikings fans, and mention just two words:

            Herschel. Walker.

        • linus

          So you’re gonna trade away a proven All Pro who is still in his prime and plays one of the three most impactful positions on the field… for a rookie? Remember how Kalil was supposed to be a sure thing? How did that work out? Terrible idea.

          • Talltales08

            You must have forgotten that Kalil made the pro bowl in his rookie year. Also keep in mind that you’d command more back in the trade than just a first round pick.

            The Vikings have proven they can find gems on the DL in later rounds and only busts in on the OL in the later rounds.

          • linus

            And you have obviously forgotten that Kalil was in the Pro Bowl that year as an alternate after two or three other players dropped out. He was hardly a dominant player… and he was also the #4 overall pick. There is absolutely NO WAY the Vikings could get that much back for Griffen. The only players who net much more than a single first-round choice in a trade are QBs.

          • Talltales08

            As long as the Browns are in Cleveland you have a chance at getting the better of them. After all, they don’t call it the mistake by the lake for nothing.

          • cka2nd

            John Sullivan (2008) and Brandon Fusco (2011), before their injuries, were hardly busts, and since Robison (2007) and Griffen (2010), the “later round” defensive linemen have not been gems, and third rounders have been spent on one bust (Crichton) and one gem (Hunter). Methinks this whole storyline that Spielman and/or the Vikes can’t draft offensive linemen but can draft defensive linemen has been wwwaaaayyyyyyy too widely accepted without being nearly closely examined enough.

          • brian199511

            Kalil made the pro bowl five years ago. He is worthless and trading a proven player like Joseph for a first round pick is absolute idiocy. You must be drinking lead infused water.

    • Matt Coller

      Trading Griffen or Joseph for a great tackle is an interesting idea. I’ve always been surprised by how few trades get made in the NFL. It seems like hockey and baseball teams are always wheeling and dealing. Moving Griffen is intriguing because he is getting toward the age where players at his position start to slip, but he’s probably too good right now to let go, even if it is for a big tackle improvement.

      • Talltales08

        Griffen is a beast and paired with Hunter full time, plus a young DT to replace Floyd, we could be looking at a new team sack record.

  • cka2nd

    I’d rather save the free agent money for the offensive line than dump a relatively inexpensive Floyd, and I’d just as soon keep Robison and Johnson. As I’ve been saying for two years, the Vikings need a back-up nose tackle who can stuff the run and since that does not appear to be Shamar Stephen, they should use one of their third-rounders to draft one.

    • linus

      $6.7 million is not “relatively inexpensive,” especially for a guy who can’t stay on the field. I agree that Robison should be back, though. Even if he’s not technically a starter, he does so many things (DE, DT, and even LB) that he should be valued like one. Frankly, he gives them the kind of flexibility that they should be getting from Anthony Barr.

      • cka2nd

        If Floyd can play in 13 or 14 games, starting all but one or two of them, as he did in 2014 and 2015, then yes, $6.7 million is relatively inexpensive. Kawann Short may command an average annual salary of over $18 million, according to spotrac.com, so someone closer to Floyd’s level could be expected to cost in the $12 million range. And Stephen and Johnson have proved that they are not adequate replacements for Floyd.

        • linus

          $6.7 million is more than Joseph made this year… and you want to give that much to a guy who sits in a tub? Floyd will be released, and he won’t get near that much from whoever signs him as a free agent, unless most of it is tied up in incentives based on playing time.

          • Jeeves

            Joseph will barely surpass that this year at $6.85M. He’s quite a bargain!
            I rooted for Floyd, but like many others on IR, I pretty much forgot about him this year.

    • Matt Coller

      I agree with you on a backup NT. It would be pretty helpful if they could give Joseph a rest occasionally in run situations or have a guy that can competently fill in if he gets hurt.

    • Gordon Guffey

      If a good NT is there in the 2nd that Zimmer likes I would not be shocked if thats not the pick ~ I dont see the Vikings reaching of a OL if he does not match the BPA ~

      Just a gut feeling here on my part ~ I believe most of the OL fixes will come in FA ~

    • MC

      No, the next underappreciated giants tackle is a free agent this season, hes a guy i wanted the vikings too draft and has a lot more to do with the giants defensive play this last season than he got credit for . Jonathan Hankins, the guy that replaced linval in New York

  • Lester Stkl

    Get rid of the GM or all this is irrelevant.

  • GordonGekko

    Bring back Page, Eller, Marshall, and Southerland.

    • cka2nd

      Gary Larsen, a two-time Pro Bowler, was better than Sutherland.

  • Gordon Guffey

    1) One thing use fans and media reports should keep in mind in 2017 ~ Do be disappointed if he doesn’t match these numbers of 2016 ~ Teams now know he is for real and they will show him they know he is special next season and beyond ~ Much like they have Griffen ~ The good thing is the Vikings will have both on the field ((( baring injury ))) and it will be hard for teams to key on both ~ While I love Robison he is not the same kind of players Hunter can be ~ Hopefully he will return and if he does he will still get lost of playing-time ~ It sure seems that Hunter is a stud in the making ~

    2) Floyd significant knee injury ~ When did this happen ~ ??? My understanding based on all the media reports and Zimmer in his PC the injury was not seen as a season long setback ~ And no he is not a bust because of injuries ~ People need to get over that ~ Injuries were never a issue before he came to the pros ~ However he did play DE in a 3~4 in college ~ I’m not sure about high school but that almost never matters ~ I could see the Vikings bring him back on a prove~it kind of deal ~ I believe he has earned that ~ Even if the Vikings used his 5th year option they still have 43 million to spend in FA so its not like money is a issue for 2017 ~

    3) While Griffen will be 29 the thing we have to remember is he was a parttime player for his first 4 year ~ Hopefully that lack of wear and tear on his body will extend him beyond the age of 32 ~ Well one can hope ~

    4) Linval Joseph is a stud when he had a healthy Floyd beside him ~ However in someways he was even better without Floyd because OL have been keying on him and he still stood up well for a man who had little help on the inside ~

    5) Brian Robison provided the Vikings with 7.5 sacks this season ~ This is outstanding IMHO for a 33 year old DE ~ Like Griffen he was a part time players his first 4 years and it seems to have really payed off for him and the Viking ~ I saw no dropoff in his play and hope the Vikings bring him back ~ Again this would not effect the 43 million they have to spend in FA ~ Plus if something happened to Griffen or Hunter Robison could set in and the defense would miss very little ~ Robison also still plays the run very well ~

    6) Stephen is a fine backup as long as he isn’t starting for a while season ~

    Finally I would not be shocked if it was a DT ((( if there is someone they feel really good about ))) that was the pick in the second round and hopefully no latter that the top pick in the 3rd ~ Teams ran far to well up the middle and it hurt the team late in games ~ Close games were lost ~ If not for the injuries to the OL I feel this team could have won 10 game or more even without AP playing in two of those ~ I look for most of the OL help to come in FA so that it might make a instant impact ~

    • Topgunn

      Good points Gordon. Well thought out. As always, FA really helps determine what you do in the draft. If the Vikings are able to effectively plug a couple of holes along the O-Line (singing 2 O-Lineman) it just gives them more flexibility moving into the draft. Also, with 2 #3’s and 2 #4’s, Spielman has the draft capital to wheel and deal if he chooses. I agree, a better 3-tech is needed because I think Zimmer will elect to move on from Floyd.

      • Gordon Guffey

        Thank you Topgunn ~ I agree that Floyd will be gone ~ However if he can’t get the kind of deal he feels he is worth the Vikings might get him back on a prove it kind of contract with a easy out for the team if he cant stay healthy ~ Say two year to prove to the rest of the NFL he can stay healthy and on the field in hope of getting anything close to the 6.5 million he would have got in 2017 from the Vikings on that 5th year option ~ He will be lucky to see 2.5 million from the Vikings and I don’t think anyone else would offense him more than a 1 year deal after missing the 15 games with a injury that ((( coaches say )))

        But in the end I agree ~ Zimmer and Spielman will just say no to Floyd ~

  • brian199511

    Floyd and Kalil are little better than bank robbers for taking the money they have taken for doing nothing. Any other job in the world and they would be fired long ago.





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