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Bleacher Report – Vikings

The future of the Vikings, part 6: The defensive line

By Matthew Coller

Following their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game, the Minnesota Vikings are now officially in offseason mode. Throughout the coming weeks, we will look at the future of each position, what changes may come in free agency, the draft or trades and which direction players are trending. For Part 1, we looked at the quarterbacks, for part 2, the running backs, the wide receivers for part 3, for part 4, the tight ends, for part 5, the offensive line, and for part 6, the defensive line…

The Minnesota Vikings defensive line was the driving force of the NFL’s No. 1 defense. They may not have ranked at the top of the league in sacks (17th) but the Vikings created pressure at the same rate (on 32.2 percent of snaps) as the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles, according to Football Outsiders. Against the run, the Vikings finished fifth in yards per attempt allowed (3.7).

Last offseason, Minnesota’s front office made sure they would keep two of the most valuable pieces of the D-line in place by signing Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen to long-term contract extensions. But there are still questions to be answered….

The results

Everson Griffen

How a group of underdogs became the best defensive line in the NFL

At 30 years old, Everson Griffen had the best year of his career. The Vikings’ top pass rusher finished the season with 13.0 sacks (fourth) and 41 pass pressures (13th). He opened the season at a torrid pace, picking up at least one sack in each one of his first eight games. But the second half of the season was less fruitful. Griffen only totaled 3.0 sacks over the final seven weeks of the season. The drop in production was likely a combination of teams ramping up their gameplans to slow him down and a foot injury that the veteran defensive end suffered against the Cleveland Browns. Even with a dip in the second half, Griffen still ranked as PFF’s 11th best DE (of 106).

Linval Joseph

Linval Joseph also finished 11th at his position by PFF standards, but most of the top defensive tackles play the three-technique spot. Among nose tackles, only Damon Harrison and DeForest Buckner rated higher. Joseph was the Vikings’ most important player in shutting down opponents’ rushing attacks, especially in key situations. The Vikings ranked fifth in the NFL at stopping third or fourth and short rushes – many of which came at Joseph. Minnesota’s massive defensive tackle might be known more for eating up blockers than getting after the passer, but he ranked as the 16th best defensive tackle against the pass.

Tom Johnson

Vikings DT Tom Johnson proved in 2017 he’s every-down player

The veteran defensive tackle played the second highest snap count of his career with 67.6 percent of total plays. While Tom Johnson only picked up two sacks of his own, he was a key part of the Vikings’ pass rush, totaling 23 pressures, according to FO. Overall, PFF ranked him 40th against the pass and 67th against the run, but Bleacher Report had a higher opinion, rating Johnson the 15th best DT this year. Johnson held his own against the run, which was a concern coming into this season, and was often a mismatch for the opposing team’s interior linemen because of his quickness.

The Vikings’ PFF grades show they were all rated highly

Danielle Hunter

The sack numbers went down from last year to this year for Danielle Hunter, but he still had a very good season. PFF rated him 29th (of 106) and Football Outsiders credited him with 40 pass pressures, just one behind Griffen. Hunter was asked to go from a situational pass rushers to an every-down player. In 2016, he was on the field for just 58 percent of snaps. That number increased to 78 percent this year.

Shamar Stephen

The former seventh-round pick showed a great deal of improvement, albeit in the right role. Last year, Stephen was asked to take over for Sharrif Floyd. He played 53 percent of snaps and was ineffective. This season, his snap count dropped to 40 percent and he was a solid run stuffer.

Brian Robison

The Vikings’ veteran played the fewest percentage of snaps since becoming a starter in 2011 at 60 percent. He created 21 pressures and 4.0 sacks.

Tashawn Bower

After winning a job in the preseason, Bower rarely saw the field in 2017. He picked up one sack against the Rams. As a lanky prospect, he may have more opportunities to slide in next season.

Stephen Weatherly

In camp it appeared Weatherly might rotate in more often than in the past, but he only played a total of 92 snaps.

The options

— Signing Danielle Hunter to a long-term contract extension is the No. 1 priority on the defensive line. He is set to be a free agent after 2018.

— The Vikings will have to decide whether to bring free agent Tom Johnson back at the three-technique spot. He is 33, but showed no signs of age this year.

— If the Vikings do not sign Johnson, they will be on the hunt for starters at the position. On the free agent market, there are some good options. Atlanta’s Dontari Poe, Buffalo’s Kyle Williams and Philadelphia’s Beau Allen and Kansas City’s Chris Jones are among the players who are proven starters and are affordable. Seattle’s Sheldon Richardson would likely cost too much for the Vikings.

— Defensive tackle is certainly in play with the No. 30 overall pick. Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne is a long shot to still be available, but other quality prospects like Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, Florida’s Taven Bryan, Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle and Miami’s RJ McIntosh could be in the mix in the first round. Plugging in a quality player on a rookie contract could be big for the longevity of the Vikings’ D-line.

— Whether Robison retires or not, the Vikings should look for another proven rotational pass rusher. Unless they feel Bower or Weatherly is ready to take on 20 or 30 percent of snaps, it would benefit the Vikings to give Griffen and Hunter a little more rest next season. The Eagles signed Chris Long last offseason despite having quality rushers. They benefited greatly from his presence.

The bottom line

The Vikings’ defensive line was among the elite in the NFL in 2017. They created pressure, giving an advantage to their secondary, and shut down opponents’ running opportunities. With three players coming back and an opportunity to add another high-quality starter, the Vikings should be at the top of the league again. They should keep looking for more depth, even if it means paying a veteran.

The post The future of the Vikings, part 6: The defensive line appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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