As one of Minnesota Vikings’ three seventh-round picks in 2014, defensive tackle Shamar Stephen was already a long shot to play meaningful reps as a rookie, just by virtue of being the 220th pick in the draft. Practice squad seemed like his best possible outcome heading into that summer.
The Vikings had already signed nose tackle Linval Joseph to a sizable free agent contract, and their top selection a year earlier, Sharrif Floyd, played the defensive tackle position as well. Free agents Fred Evans and Tom Johnson were also poised to compete for reps. It was a full defensive tackle group.
Yet after facing an apparent logjam during his rookie training camp, Stephen proceeded to play over 400 snaps in 2014 – more than last year’s standout rookie Danielle Hunter, for reference.
Linval Joseph on #Vikings DT Shamar Stephen last year as a 7th-round pick “For a rookie player he was like a sixth- or seventh-year player’’
— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) July 26, 2015
So how did Stephen, the quiet run-stopper from Connecticut, work his way up?
In some way, a near tragedy, combined with head coach Mike Zimmer’s defensive line philosophy, helped Stephen make a splash in his rookie season. Joseph, after his first preseason game in Minnesota, suffered a bullet wound to the leg in a random shooting in downtown Minneapolis that sidelined the behemoth nose tackle. Fortunately, Joseph was able to rebound to play in the 2014 regular season opener, but Stephen received the benefit of getting extra work with the first team for the majority of the preseason, including 42 snaps in a contest against Arizona. The additional practice for Stephen allowed him to enhance his technique at the nose tackle and in the 3-technique.
It was that sort of flexibility that Zimmer, the first-time coach, was looking for in his defensive line. After cutting veteran Fred Evans, the Vikings settled on a four-man rotation at defensive tackle with Joseph, Floyd, Johnson and Stephen. Each of them would go on to play at least 400 snaps, rotating more often than Leslie Frazier did with his defensive tackles in the previous regime.
Fast forward two seasons and Stephen finds himself having to climb the ladder again. After missing 11 games in 2015 with a toe injury, Stephen required a full offseason of rehab that got him to OTAs close to 100 percent. With Sharrif Floyd currently missing time due to an injury, Stephen has been elevated to the first team alongside Joseph, or, as Stephen calls him, “L.J.”
The third-year defensive tackle is a student of George Edwards’ techniques and fundamentals.
“I just kept working on my craft, getting my footwork down, angles and all that stuff,” Stephen told Cold Omaha.
The third-year defensive tackle is a student of George Edwards’ techniques and fundamentals. “The one thing about Shamar is he’s very consistent,” said Edwards on Monday, a week after he referred to Stephen as “money in the bank” in Mankato. “He has had to play the 3-technique; he has had to play the nose. He has done a good job of handling that as we’ve progressed through camp.”
The nose tackle typically plays over the center and helps in the run game while also occupying blockers to open up pass-rushing lanes. The 3-technique plays on the guard’s outside shoulder and acts as more of a pass rusher.
Stephen has already been instrumental in the run game. “We can see when he’s in there and the different positions that he has been in, he has been very successful for us, helping us out inside,” said Edwards.
Zimmer, Edwards and Stephen himself concede that he needs to improve his pass rush. He’s yet to record a sack in his young NFL career and has been working with his cohort Johnson to hone his rushing.
But once Floyd gets back to full health, the Vikings should have an easier time putting Stephen in more run-stopping positions where he excels. “Shamar is a strong, big guy that hangs in there and does a lot of dirty work,” Zimmer said on Monday afternoon.
Stephen was superb in Friday’s preseason opener, his first live action since Oct. 18, 2015. In the first quarter alone, he made four excellent plays, some of them truly Linval-like in the way he took on multiple linemen and was able to finish the play. GIFs are courtesy of our very own Arif Hasan.
In the one below, Stephen is at the nose. Watch him take his blocker with him (Russell Bodine), gain the angle on the ball carrier and shed Bodine to wrap up Giovani Bernard.
The next one shows Stephen freelancing. It looks like he got free as a combination of his own quick recognition of the play, as well as the left guard (Clint Boling) failing to put a hand on him. Still, this is mainly Stephen getting off the ball swiftly and sniffing out a tackle.
Good determination on this next play as well. Stephen gets double teamed and pushed back, but while the center and guard may have sensed the play going the other direction and loosened their grip, Stephen stuck with it, split his blockers and caught Jeremy Hill trying to switch directions.
And this is the dirty work to which Zimmer refers. Stephen, out of the 3-technique, can’t fully escape from his block, but he muscles his way onto the ball carrier to at least make this 3rd and 1 attempt a close measurement. Good field awareness and strength.
After starting his career as an often-forgotten seventh-round pick, Stephen has a chance to outlast the majority of the 2014 Vikings draft class and be a major contributor toward transforming the Vikings’ rush defense. “We missed him a year ago,” Zimmer said glowingly after Monday’s practice.
The Vikings are in an enviable situation of having four above-average defensive tackles to continually give offensive lines fresh looks, and that’s not even including the newly-unveiled subpackage that puts Brian Robison on the inside with Danielle Hunter to his left.
On a team packed with depth, Stephen is part of possibly the deepest position group from top to bottom. “We try to be just as good as the first group,” Stephen told Cold Omaha. “Like if Sharrif or if Tom and L.J. are in, I come in, we’re trying to produce the same way. We’re trying to play at the same level we’re all playing. We’re coming in, we’re trying to just dominate.”
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