Everson Griffen was in a bad mood.
A foot injury kept the Minnesota Vikings’ pass rusher out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday and he was only allowed to work with the team on a limited basis on Friday. On two different occasions, he barked at reporters who were looking for an interview with the NFL’s premier defensive end.
“He just loves to play the game,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said chuckling. “Yesterday he was mad that he didn’t practice. He was grouchy all day.”
During practice warm-ups, he gingerly hopped over square blue foam thingys while the others double-stepped between them like high-powered machines. Griffen only wore a Nike baseball cap while the rest of his defensive line brothers had their helmets on. The look on his face made it pretty clear Griffen was not keen on missing reps.
Before the end of the day on Friday, he apologized for skipping out on interviews. One person pointed out that in the past, he might have talked despite his foul disposition and said something regrettable.
Everson usually doesn’t mind talking. Prior to a matchup with the Detroit Lions, he called left tackle Greg Robinson lazy. Leading up to a game with the Packers, he said the Vikings needed to hit Green Bay like Mike Tyson. Before he faced off with the Cleveland Browns, Everson noted that their left tackle should probably be playing guard because he’s slow. He would have rather faced Joe Thomas, but the future Hall of Famer got hurt the week before.
Griffen sacked Detroit’s quarterback. Griffen sacked Green Bay’s quarterback. Griffen sacked Cleveland’s quarterback. In fact, Griffen has sacked every quarterback he’s faced this year. Judging from his mood, he’ll be darned if a stupid foot injury keeps him from smacking Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins in the mouth too.
Over the past four seasons, only Denver’s Von Miller and Kansas City’s Justin Houston have brought down more quarterbacks in the backfield than Griffen – and Houston’s up on him by a half sack. Griffen has 40.5 sacks in 56 games during that time span.
His 2017 season so far has been artistry – the quarterback-crushing version of Purple Rain or Tangled Up in Blue. Like any great piece of art, it’s the culmination of a long journey. Over his first four years, Griffen only started one game and had 17.5 sacks in 58 games.
Griffen’s road to NFL superstardom makes him the perfect poster boy for the Vikings’ defensive line.
There are zero first-round picks on Minnesota’s D-line. Every member started at the bottom and now they’re here, so to speak. As the Vikings head into Washington, they rank as the NFL’s third best team in points allowed, third best against the run, eighth in QB sacks, and fifth in Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt, if you’re into “advanced” stats.
To build this group up front, it has taken years of patience and development. It’s also taken a special set of humans.
When Griffen was the top recruit in the state of Arizona, University of Southern California coach Pete Carroll said he was the only player he’d ever seen who was physically ready to play in the NFL out of high school. During his senior year, Griffen had 77 tackles, 16 sacks as a defensive end and as a running back gained 1,251 yards on just 159 carries and scored 20 touchdowns. He was a champion in shot put and discus events and first-team all-region basketball player. In 2006, Rivals.com reported that Griffen had run a 4.46 40-yard dash at a summer camp in Arizona – at 266 pounds.
His first two years at USC didn’t live up to the high school hype. Carroll rarely started Griffen, using him mostly as a situational pass rusher. After two college seasons, he’d only picked up 10 sacks and 39 tackles. In 2009, Griffen was arrested in Nantucket, Massachusetts with a group of friends on breach of the peace charges. Not that it was a serious offense, but things weren’t looking up.
Griffen’s USC career didn’t take off until he met defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, who had worked in the NFL with the Packers, Buccaneers and Texans before joining Carroll’s staff. Franklin reached Griffen in a way that others had not.
“For all the guys that I coach, the most important thing is building a great relationship with him to understand the team concept,” said Franklin, now the D-line coach with the Raiders. “I always say, ‘Get them to do what they don’t want to do so they can become what they always wanted to be.’ He took to that.”
What Griffen found in Franklin was a coach who tried to reach him as a person, not just a pass rusher. The experienced D-line coach became someone he could trust.
“Any conversation we had, whether it was football related or off-field related, just letting him know that I was concerned about his well being and his success on the football field,” Franklin said. “That’s probably the most important thing. Him knowing that I have an interest in him away from football as well as when it comes to football.”
Griffen picked up four sacks in the first five games of the 2009 season. Then USC faced Notre Dame. At the time quarterback Jimmy Clausen was considered a top NFL prospect and the rivalry was still reverberating from the days of Reggie Bush and Matt Leinhart. On the biggest stage, Griffen sacked Clausen three times in a 34-27 win in South Bend.
“I remember the Notre Dame game,” Franklin said. “He had a big sack in that game and I remember he flexed his muscles with both arms. The official threw a penalty on him, but it was a very emotional moment and a very big moment. He came up big in a big-time moment. That’s what great players do. So I knew then he was definitely special.”
Franklin may have known Griffen was special, but scouts were skeptical. ESPN’s Todd McShay said he couldn’t see Griffen as a double-digit sack guy in the NFL and NFL.com’s draft profile had questions about his commitment and ability to sack quarterbacks at the next level.
“Griffen is a solid pass rusher that anticipates well off the edge but not an impact player in this phase of his game,” the profile read. “Griffen is a good football player that doesn’t always play with great intensity or consistent effort which may hurt his 2010 draft status.”
In a stacked 2010 draft, teams in need of pass rushers picked Brandon Graham (13th overall), Jason Pierre-Paul (15th) and Derrick Morgan (16th) at the top and let Griffen fall all the way to the fourth round, where he was picked by the Vikings – right behind short-lived Rams receiver Mardy Gilyard.
Griffen picked up only 4.0 sacks over his first two years. He was also arrested twice in a 72-hour span in 2011, once for assaulting a police officer. On the depth chart he was behind sure-fire Hall of Famer Jared Allen, who led the NFL with 22.0 sacks that year.
With off-field issues and no clear path to a starting gig, it wasn’t clear that Griffen would be part of the long-term plan. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman looked at it differently.
“He came in here and saw the success Jared was having and I think watching [Griffen] you always saw the physical skill set there,” Spielman said during the team’s bye week.
With only one start in his first five seasons and one season of more than 5.0 sacks, Spielman signed Griffen to a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension. On the outside, it came across as a puzzling deal for a player who hadn’t proven yet he could be an every-down player.
“I think when you believe in someone as a person – and even though some of the maturity things had happened – you knew deep down what kind of person he was and the type of passion he has for the game of football,” Spielman said. “Usually you can get a good read on a player that has that passion and you know even though they’ve made a mistake or two, that they have a good heart. That’s everything that Everson has.”
Mike Zimmer’s arrival and Allen’s exit in 2014 changed everything. Griffen became a full-time starter and immediately got to work harassing quarterbacks. He blew by opposing left tackles for 12.0 sacks in Zimmer’s first season.
Franklin points to maturity and points out that everyone works on different timelines. Griffen was a player who took a little bit longer than others to mature, but he was forced to do so after going through some grown-man stuff. Along the way, his mother passed away, he got married and had two sons of his own.
“As you mature and get older, the things that were once funny aren’t so funny anymore,” Franklin said. “Things are a lot more serious now.”
By the end of last season, Griffen proved that he was among the better players in his position and the Vikings signed him to another contract extension.
But this year has been different than the previous three. He’s been more dominant, more technical. Like when LeBron James perfected his jump shot – great before, yes, but now there are no weaknesses. Opponents are keying to stop Griffen and it doesn’t matter.
“If you watch, teams are chipping him or doubling him, sliding protection his way,” Spielman said. “[He’s] learning that, OK, offenses are going to account for you, but how can you still be productive? [Defensive line coach Andre Patterson] is teaching him different things about being patient, when to make his move, how to handle a chip and not get frustrated because you’re getting chipped or double teamed. This is how you handle that.”
“He’s bought into everything that’s been taught to him.”
This offseason, we all wondered how the Vikings planned to replace Sharrif Floyd. Should they make a splash signing? A trade? Draft someone? The Vikings did both, signing Datone Jones, a former first-round pick from Green Bay, and drafting Jaleel Johnson out of Iowa. We all underestimated Tom Johnson’s ability to adapt. Jones is gone and Tom Johnson has started every game this year and played close to 70 percent of the defense’s total snaps.
A decade ago or so, Johnson was looking at the classified ads for jobs.
“When I got hurt and left Indianapolis, I was like, alright I’m thinkin about getting a 9-to-5 regular job and move on,” Johnson said last week.
Undrafted, he joined the Colts in training camp in 2006, but was released at the end of camp and wasn’t able to find another opportunity until January 2007 when the Colts signed him and sent him to play in the World League. In late-August 2007, they cut him again.
In 2008, Johnson had stints with two Arena League teams. One night in Philadelphia, he picked up three tackles, recovered two fumbles and was named defensive player of the game. Then the team waived him.
By the time Johnson signed in the Canadian Football League with the Calgary Stampederes, there was no reason to believe that he’d ever make it to the NFL. But every underdog story has its turning point and its mentors. Canada was the turning point. Cornell Brown, a former NFL player and second-year coach at the time, was the difference maker.
“My second year in Canada was the moment of clarity,” Johnson said. “I think being more focused, being a student of the game, learning about how you actually excel in it.”
If you told players on the Vikings that there was a time where Johnson didn’t understand the game that well, they would be stunned. Ask him about an opposing player and he’ll give you the scouting report without hesitation. Ask him about a play, he’ll point out which direction he was shaded, the blocking scheme and on and on. It’s like when you watch Jeopardy and you can’t believe the contestant knows the president of Tanzania, only with football.
He attributes that to Brown.
“It’s crazy because I never would have thought I was getting through to him at the time,” said Brown, now the defensive line coach at Marshall.
“I was pretty young in the coaching business,” Brown added. “I had gotten done playing and been doing graduate assistant work, but I was only in my second year full time as a position coach. I think the combination was a good one that he was open enough to listen and I was young enough and animated and wild enough for him to want to follow.”
The CFL is full of wannabes, has-beens and never-weres. Brown calls it a “mixed bag” of freakish athletes who need technical work and players who had their time in the NFL but didn’t want to give up the game just yet. The CFL’s tweaks seem to be different just for the sake of being different. Defensive linemen have to line up one yard off the line of scrimmage. The field is wider. Receivers can start running forward when they’re in motion, so they get a head of steam to chip good rushers. But if you’re good, you’re good.
And everyone knew Johnson was good at rushing the passer, but Brown focused on him becoming a better all-around player.
“I harped on him that if he did the other small things of playing the position, he would get his opportunity,” Brown said. “He had to play hard all the time. He took notice to it after a few setbacks. That was the biggest thing.”
In his second year in Calgary, his team ranked No. 1 against the run and Johnson landed on the West Division All-Star team.
“Success is very contagious,” Johnson said. “So once you start having a little success, it starts building, the hype starts building, and it either excels you or it crushes you. There’s a moment that I took it and ran with it. By the time I got back in the league in New Orleans, I’d seen what you had to do to stick around.”
Here’s the thing about NFL teams: If you’re out there, they know about you. The Vikings had their eye on Johnson in Calgary.
When Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014, he laid out to the front office his wish list for the defensive line. Not in name, but in concept, Tom Johnson was on it.
“The coaching staff described to our scouts, this is what we need: We have a defensive tackle who can be a little undersized, but can rush the passer,” Spielman said. “We knew him because we tried to sign him out of Canada and he signed with New Orleans.”
Things didn’t work out for Johnson as he’d expected when he signed a three-year deal with the Saints in 2011. Coaching staff changes, scheme changes, bad defenses. With zero starts and only 5.0 sacks in three years, Johnson felt that he hadn’t gotten enough of an opportunity to truly show his talent. He liked the fact that Zimmer was new in Minnesota, so he signed with the Vikings and made an immediate impact, picking up 6.5 sacks in his first year.
With first-round pick Sharrif Floyd in place, Johnson mixed in as a situational pass rusher in 2015, but a botched surgery has sidelined Floyd since the beginning of 2016. Again Johnson was asked to learn and improve.
“He was signed to be a nickel pass rush specialist, but he’s gotten much better against the run, playing the technique,” Spielman said. “He has to face a lot of scoop blocks, combo blocks and double teams in there. He struggled with that at the beginning. Technically at his age, he’s still didn’t have a lot of playing experience coming in. It was taking an older player who hadn’t played a lot and teaching him. And he’s absorbed everything that’s been taught to him and has taken full advantage of his opportunities.”
Brown was thrilled to find out that his work with Johnson had turned things in the right direction, calling it, “the ultimate compliment.” But he credits Johnson’s openness to coaching and smarts for his success.
“We all must be open to accept knowledge, especially information about things that can help improve us in that job and in life and everything we do,” Brown said. “The people who are open to listen become more productive…the guy had true dedication and perseverance.”
Every defensive-minded coach in the NFL knows if you have a mauling nose tackle, you win. Only a handful of them have ever become famous because a NT’s big-time plays aren’t as noticeable as edge rushers or cornerbacks, but good ones control the middle of the field. When opponents need two players to stop one guy, everyone else has an advantage.
So maybe you’d never know that Casey Hampton was one of the MVPs of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense that won two Super Bowls in the 2000s or Gilbert Brown stuffed opposing centers and guards for years in Green Bay, but they were every bit as valuable as James Harrison or Reggie White.
That’s Linval Joseph to the Vikings. Mike Zimmer knew if he didn’t find a beast to line up over the center, he wouldn’t accomplish his goal of building the league’s best defense in Minnesota.
“Coach Zim always wanted a big, physical nose tackle,” Spielman said. “Linval had a lot of flashes of Pat Williams. He’s big, no one can move him off at the point and he shows power as a pass rusher.”
Many years before Joseph signed a $50 million contract extension, before he won the Super Bowl as a member of the New York Giants, before he was a second-round draft pick, all the Vikings’ NT wanted to do was represent his home.
Growing up on the island of St. Croix, Joseph would see a billboard that said, “Welcome to St. Croix, home of Tim Duncan.” He wanted that.
Joseph’s parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Florida, where he became a state champion weight lifter and three-star recruit. It sounds funny that he was the 44th ranked defensive tackle coming out of high school since he’s made a case for being the No. 1 ranked DT in the NFL.
“Every time I got mad, I took my frustration out of the weights,” Joseph told CBS during Super Bowl week in 2012.
When he won the Super Bowl, he didn’t get a billboard, but he was acknowledged by his home.
“The Virgin Islands is justifiably proud of Linval Joseph and his participation in Super Bowl XLVI and we want to congratulate him and his family on the New York Giants’ victory,” Donna Christensen, the USVI delegate to the US Congress, said in 2012. “Our young people continue to inspire us with their accomplishments and achievements.”
Spielman said the Vikings have gotten even more from Joseph than they expected. He’s big and physical, yes, but he rushes the passer like few others and tracks down skill players in space. Had Pro Football Focus existed in the 1990s, you wouldn’t have seen Gilbert Brown ranked 14th in NFL at his position as a pass rusher as Joseph is. You also wouldn’t have seen a player like Ted Washington running 10 yards downfield after a running back.
“The thing that I related to was when you watch tape on him, his ability to make plays outside the tackle box,” Spielman said. “I remember Pat, thinking: How can a guy like that run and make plays?”
“You can see some big nose tackles that play A-gap to A-gap, but there’s very few guys of that size that can play outside the tackle box. I remember when Pat was here, as you sit there and chart their production, you say, geez, not only can he make plays at the point, he can make plays [outside the box]. You see Linval making plays just like Pat did.”
Pro Football Focus rankings are often scrutinized by players and coaching staffs – and they can be flawed – but they do a better job at telling the story for nose tackles than sack or tackle stats. Joseph is currently ranked sixth overall in the NFL with Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, DeForest Buckner, Damon Harrison and Geno Atkins being the only interior D-linemen rated higher – and just barely. Joseph’s 90.7 (out of 100) rating is the highest of his career.
At 28, he’s just hitting his peak. Rookie Jaleel Johnson has noticed the impact that Joseph’s intelligence has on his play.
“Talking to him and watching him play, you see that not only is he using his athletic ability, but what’s very important at the professional level is how he goes about things mentally – how to play a certain block or knowing where the ball is going to be,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing I’ve taken from Linval.”
During training camp, Joseph taught Jaleel how to play the card game Uno. By taught I mean showed him the rules then whooped him for weeks – though Jaleel confidently says he could win a game or two now.
Johnson made it his goal to study everything the Pro Bowl nose tackle did. When did he arrive at the facility? How did he work out? How did he always seem to have a matching color card in Uno? Johnson has learned a lot.
“Wherever the ball is going to be, get there before he does,” the rookie said. “Don’t chase him. That’s why I feel like he’s very productive as a nose tackle. He may not always get plays at the line of scrimmage, but what I see is he’s giving you 110 percent all the time, that’s where he gets all those tackles from. If it’s a screen play, the ball goes out and you can see him, a 330-pound man, running chasing a screen down and making a play. As a defensive tackle, as a rookie, that’s one of the things you should admire.”
When the Vikings selected Danielle Hunter in the third round, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, “I don’t think he was anywhere near ready to come out.”
But he didn’t need to be. In 2015, the Vikings were in good shape at defensive end with Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. They had plenty of room for a project.
Hunter didn’t sack anybody in college. At LSU, he managed just 4.5 sacks between his sophomore and junior seasons – though he did have 13.0 tackles for loss as a junior.
His production wasn’t good, but his measurables were outrageous.
In the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL draft you can look for low-ceiling, high-success-rate players or high-ceiling, low-success-rate guys. Hunter was the latter.
The Vikings knew if he figured out pass-rushing technique, he could be a star. And people close to Hunter knew he had the mentality to figure it out. Leading up to the draft, NFL.com quoted a former LSU coach familar with Hunter who said:
“If he walked into your living room, your eyes would pop out of your head. He looks that good on the hoof. He’s going to blow up the combine, and then ace all of the interviews and NFL teams are going to fall in love with him. He still needs someone to unlock all that talent, though.”
The Vikings unlocked that talent. They knew Hunter would be a a good student for two of the best defensive minds in the NFL – Zimmer and Andre Patterson. They taught Hunter to create space between himself and offensive linemen by using his long arms and strength. Instead of lining up with his hand on the ground, he stood up off the edge like a 3-4 linebacker, allowing him to get a full head of steam.
“It goes back to the common theme: If they are high character guys that are smart football players that are truly passionate about what they do, then we can work with someone like that,” Spielman said. “We can teach him, so long as he’s willing to put in the time and effort and is willing to learn and willing to pick it up and listen.”
In Year 1, Hunter played 392 snaps and picked up 6.0 sacks. By the end of Year 2, he’d put up one of the most impressive seasons in the “sack” era for a player his age.
With only 3.0 sacks over the first half of this season, there might be some questions about whether Hunter will be able to repeat his fantastic 2016 season, but the numbers point toward a a breakout. Football Outsiders’ charting data has tracked 23.5 individual pass pressures. That ranks fifth in the NFL behind only Aaron Donald, Melvin Ingram, Carlos Dunlap and Khalil Mack. Pro Football Focus has also graded Hunter higher this year because of his increased success against the run.
“This is the first year he’s starting instead of coming off the bench – and he’s learning things as a starter now, which he didn’t have to do,” Spielman said. “Before he’d come in on third downs and all he’d have to do is go get the quarterback. Now he’s playing on first and second down so it’s not the same. It’s not a pass on every down he’s out there.”
Rookie Tashawn Bower is trying to follow Hunter’s path. He only managed 5.5 sacks over four years at LSU, but flashed enough pass-rushing potential during training camp to win a job on the 53-man roster.
“He’s very coachable,” Bower said. “I’ve known him since LSU and he’s always been very coachable.”
There is a culture within the D-line room. Each player passes along what he knows to improve the next man. Even at 23, Hunter is already becoming a teacher.
“A lot of stuff is mental that we talk about on and off the field,” Bower said. “Our bodies are kind of similar, so I can do a lot of the same things he does in practice and be successful at it….he keeps me under his wing and gives me the tips that he’s learned from Everson, B-Rob and all those guys.”
With offenses flying up and down the field at a high tempo and using a multitude of personnel packages, defenses have to be able to have fresh bodies and adapt to different situations. The Vikings’ distribution of snaps demonstrates their versatility.
Everson Griffen: 87.1%
Danielle Hunter: 78.2%
Tom Johnson: 66.5%
Brian Robison: 63.3%
Linval Joseph: 61.2%
Shamar Stephen: 39.4%
Zimmer uses Robison both as a fill-in edge rusher for either Griffen or Hunter and as an interior rusher in passing situations. While Robison only has one sack this year, he racked up 7.5 last season and has 7.0 or more sacks in four of the last six seasons.
Stephen has taken a big step forward as a run stuffer. Last season he rated toward the bottom of the NFL by PFF standards, but this year he’s 48th of 117 defensive tackles against the run. The Vikings found Stephen in the seventh round out of UConn and have worked to develop him over the last three years.
Jaleel Johnson and Tashawn Bower have not been active very often this season, but the Vikings hope they will follow the same road as Stephen – getting increasingly better, then when their time comes, they learn quickly on the job.
“Zim says, ‘I can never have enough pass rushers or corners,’’ Spielman said. “So we’re always going to try to keep the cupboard pretty stocked with those guys. Even when they don’t have to play yet, their turn is eventually going to come. Without having to rush them in, it gives them an opportunity to get their feet wet, start learning the system, start learning the technique, sprinkle them in there to get them some playing experience and let them mature as it goes along.”
In different ways, Johnson, Bower and fellow D-lineman Stephen Weatherly, who was a 2016 seventh-round pick all fit the character that the Vikings were looking for when they remained patient with Griffen or drafted Hunter despite low production or sought out Tom Johnson in Canada or signed Joseph from New York.
“You can hypothesize about this or that, but I truly believe if you love to play the game and you love to do what you do, you’re going to excel at that,” Spielman said. “Regardless of background or height or length, first-round pick, fifth-round pick or a guy they found on the street, as long as they have that passion and that drive that we’re looking for, it seems to have had good results.”
Yes, it sure has.