The role of the defensive end in the Mike Zimmer defense is distinct from what it is in most 4-3 defenses, but that difference is critical when it comes to evaluating the Vikings roster. They don’t always lead the league in edge rusher sacks, but they’re certainly talented and worth getting excited about. They will help prevent edge runs and scrambles, and as such keep the offense from making unpredictable, big plays. As it stands, both starters are potentially on the verge of career years if healthy and the surprisingly exciting crop of late-round and undrafted talent might be able to rejuvenate the rotation.
[expand title=”EVERSON GRIFFEN”]
Coming off of an incredible year, Griffen might hope to repeat what he did in the first half of the season before a foot injury derailed what should have been a career-setting second-half. Unfortunately, without much time to recover, he had to enter the postseason with limited explosion and it hurt the Vikings. After an offseason of rest, he might be able to return to early-season form; that might not necessarily mean a sack a game, but could mean incredible productivity.
Strengths: Griffen has a large array of pass-rushing moves he’ll deploy and the savvy to know when to use them. His athleticism allows him to get burst off the snap, and he demonstrates flexibility to get underneath opposing offensive tackles. He can long-arm to protect himself from offensive linemen and maintain pressure on the quarterback. He also defends the run excellently and can maintain a consistent edge. Long-arming works both in pressure production and run defense, and it allows him to disengage blockers and attack the running back. He’s a second-effort player that either finds another way to get past the blocker if the initial move doesn’t work or find a way into a passing lane and clog it. Griffen has a lot of lane discipline and can read the play well.
Weaknesses: Lower body explosiveness doesn’t quite match testing numbers or his upper body strength. His speed has slowed down over time, though he still does an excellent job in pursuit. His moves are not fluid, even if they are technically sound. When rushing, he doesn’t take the inside option as often as he should. He doesn’t have the dip he needs for a truly effective speed rush, so he gets by with speed and less flexibility, limiting its impact. At age 30, Griffen is now on the other side of his peak and could fall off a cliff soon or begin to decline right now.[/expand]
[expand title=”DANIELLE HUNTER”]
With a five-year extension to his name, Danielle Hunter carries big expectations for the Vikings – expectations similar to those he entered this year with as a first-year starter. While some may reasonably argue that he didn’t meet those expectations with ‘only’ 7.0 sacks during the regular season, Hunter actually exceeded his pressure total from the previous year with 61 (55 the year prior). While his pressure rate did drop, it should be noted that he was on the field for a good chunk of first and second-down snaps, where sack and pressure rate on passes drops in half compared to third down. Generally speaking, Hunter’s overall performance was quite good.
Strengths: Great at long-arming opposing tackles and using length to shed blocks in the run game. Vastly improved technical ability, with a powerful punch. Powerful upper-body allows him to overcome losing the initial battle. Often wins the first punch. Excellent at jumping gaps for twists or stunts. His athleticism scores are astounding, and they show up on the field in flashes, which is one reason the Vikings were enamored with him. Showed a quick learning curve of the scheme at LSU and now with the Vikings, and has added pass-rushing moves to his arsenal. Has shown fantastic awareness and has turned into one of the better run defenders at the edge for Minnesota, replicating his strengths from LSU. The Vikings measured his arms at 35.5 inches, an astonishing length—the longest in the class. At the same time, he has the fastest 10-yard split of players who attended the combine.
Weaknesses: Hasn’t demonstrated that he has a pass-rush plan that will allow him to make waves on third downs, instead relying on improving technical ability and impressive athleticism – needs to find ways to bait tackles and take advantage of it. Has some hand placement issues at times and still lacks a full array of pass-rush moves. Can be tricked out of gaps by savvy play design or playfakes and can be a liability on zone-reads – though usually makes up for that liability with athleticism. Needs to stay square to the line of scrimmage a little more often.[/expand]
[expand title=”BRIAN ROBISON”]
Brian Robison will likely end his career as a historically underrated Viking, but he’s just about at the end of that fantastic career. His capacity to produce pressures has certainly fallen off. He used to regularly be among the league leaders in pressures despite low sack production and might still have the Pro Football Focus record for batted passes in their 13-year dataset. Now Robison may be in a role that sees him as primary depth both as an edge rusher and potential third-down interior rusher.
Strengths: Robison’s speed off the snap as a rusher is pretty good, though his timing has never been among the best in the NFL. Robison made his way initially in the NFL off his burst and lower body strength, but as that has waned, he’s relied on his natural flexibility – something he’s still demonstrated that he has. He combines it with advanced handfighting technique that allows him to take advantage of any marginal advantages he gains. Understands his assignments as a contain player and has mostly acted as a classical strongside end, even without playing over a tight end. He does a very good job of deflecting passes at the line. High motor, second-effort player that can clean up on coverage sacks. Good technique to shed blocks in the run game and a solid backside defender.
Weaknesses: Though Robison generally plays with good leverage, he doesn’t always seem to have functional field strength, which is somewhat unusual in a player tasked with his responsibilities. Has a power rush, though it’s become less effective than other rushes even though it is probably one of the better ways for him to marry his multiple assignments. His long-arm has lost a lot of its punch, though he still can use it to his advantage when necessary. Robison can be moved off the point of attack by relatively strong offensive linemen. His pass-rush still generally overpursues and he needs to choose better aiming points; savvy right tackles can force him to ride the arc out of the pocket.[/expand]
[expand title=”STEPHEN WEATHERLY”]
Weatherly may have had an inside track to a depth position as a fourth defensive end, but with the Vikings, there’s always another edge rusher waiting in the wings. He’ll have to hold off a favorite in Tashawn Bower as well as Northwestern alum Ifeadi Odenigbo for a shot, and will still have to contend with Ade Aruna in the meantime.
Strengths: Longest wingspan at his position in his draft class, and only second to Josh Sweat in this year’s class. Uses his wingspan well; consistently created space with an excellent long-arm both when rushing the passer and setting the edge. Does a very good job keeping offensive linemen out of his chest. Tested athleticism is phenomenal, and fits with other successes at the position in the league and on the team (others who have met the standard that the Vikings acquired: Jared Allen, Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Danielle Hunter and Scott Crichton). Assignment-sound run defender. Good upper-body strength. Excellent at shedding blocks – consistently disengaged Trent Brown, Dion Dawkins, Jordan Mills and Ethan Pocic in preseason.
Weaknesses: Had issues in college running himself out of plays and that appeared in the preseason. Poor finishing tackles and sacks – tackle radius doesn’t turn into production. Very inconsistent get-off and timing from the snap. When his timing is good, he looks like he’s shot out of a cannon, but this is pretty rare. Poor anchor and can get washed out when moving laterally. Seemingly limited to a long-arm/swipe combination, though occasionally deploys swim and a counter. Pad level can rise too quickly.[/expand]
[expand title=”TASHAWN BOWER”]
Perhaps the best chance the Vikings have at rounding out a depth chart that sees an aging Brian Robison playing a critical role as a third pass-rusher, there’s quite a bit of pressure on Bower – especially after an excellent preseason showing with 12 total pressures, including two sacks.
Strengths: Shows dropback capability as a coverage defender and moves easily in space. High motor player. Good intuition against the run, including leverage and angles of attack. Excellent frame, with long arms and the ability to add weight if need be. Assignment-sound. Improved hand technique from 2017 over 2016 college tape, especially with respect to hand placement. Showed excellent, consistent, burst off the line of scrimmage in the preseason.
Weaknesses: Despite good agility scores, showcased limited, or at least inconsistent, flexibility in the preseason. Strength is functional but not enough to win on its own against larger tackles. Play in preseason was more sensitive to opponent quality than other depth edge rushers. Limited array of pass-rushing moves. Despite pursuit willingness, lacks acceleration to close down on the backside of running plays.[/expand]
[expand title=”IFEADI ODENIGBO”]
A pass-rushing specialist for four years at Northwestern, Odenigbo finally took over the starting defensive end role at Northwestern and led the team in sacks. After a year with the Vikings, Odenigbo might be turning into reasonable depth and overperforming what he did in college. With an excellent showing in his second preseason game, there’s reason to believe he can shore up the otherwise worrisome front four depth for the Vikings.
Strengths: Explosive through his lower body. Consistently runs through offensive tackles. Good understanding of leverage and length and can use tackles’ balance against them. Developed a good spin move to overcome flexibility concerns and has a keen understanding of when to use it. Good hand technique; solid long-arm into chest or higher of opposing linemen. Great pad level. Good at shedding blocks and disengaging; can control the point of attack and slide off to tackle ballcarriers. Generally solid ability to read or anticipate plays.
Weaknesses: Injury concerns, with injuries to multiple body parts in college. Doesn’t demonstrate flexibility to bend the edge. Only one good preseason game in his resume, doing well against the worst OL – Seattle. Not enough moves in the arsenal; primarily a bull-rusher. Had issues in college containing the edge in the running game. Has issues disengaging when he loses the initial strike at the snap. Speed not translating into NFL – difficult for him to get to the edge of opposing offensive tackles. Explosion off snap in college not showing up at next level; seems to have average get-off.[/expand]
[expand title=”JONATHAN WYNN”]
A virtual nonentity in predraft media, Jonathan Wynn doesn’t show up in the vast majority of available draft guides or internet scouting resources. Nevertheless, the Vikings’ choice to sign Jonathan Wynn tells us that there’s probably something there. Though not one of the workout wonders the Vikings typically find at the position, Wynn nevertheless has decent workout metrics and pairs that with a surprisingly sophisticated game as a pass-rusher. Without production, Wynn had to impress with his traits, and those traits aren’t necessarily physical like they are for other high-upside, low-production prospects.
Strengths: Showcases upper-body strength. Some lateral movement ability on twists. Mixed workout metrics; good three-cone and short-yardage splits. Very high motor. Wide array of pass-rush moves, including swim, club-rip, hump, long-arm, etc. Seems to have a plan. Flashes good burst off the line of scrimmage.
Weaknesses: Extremely limited production at Vanderbilt, especially for a fifth-year player – 4.0 tackles-for-loss and 2.0 sacks in his final year. Most of that production comes from late, hustle plays or being unblocked because of play design. Even after accounting for the odd system he played in, it’s poor. Very poor explosion metrics and a poor short shuttle. Pad level pops up too high at snap. Playstyle doesn’t seem to match workout; relies on technique and upper-body strength but doesn’t showcase bend or flexibility. Needs better anchor. Poor run presence.[/expand]
[expand title=”ADE ARUNA”]
The Vikings find a mid-to-late-round pick at defensive end every year, and this year it’s Ade Aruna, a 24-year-old rookie who posted an astounding 38.5” vertical and 10’8” broad jump while weighing 262 pounds. His age might scare off a lot of teams, but the Vikings were apparently comfortable with it. Aruna was raised in Nigeria and moved to the United States to pursue a college basketball dream.
Strengths: Incredible length and frame, with room to add more weight without losing coherence. Fantastic explosiveness, both in the workout room and on the field. Surprisingly good hand placement despite inexperience. Can decrease contact area. Excellent flexibility, though it didn’t show up in the combine. Great play diagnosis and instincts. Experience across multiple alignments, inside and outside.
Weaknesses: Age 24 rookie and limited experience, to boot. Limited production, even if it’s explained by a scheme change. Lacks power despite impressive frame. Limited lateral agility and quickness. Poor pad level, which robs him of power. No plan as a pass rusher, and doesn’t counter well. Issues as a tackler and poor pursuit angles. Lacks consistency.[/expand]
Check out the rest of the training camp guide:
Sam Ekstrom’s Position Battles
Sitting Brian O’Neill: Have “Developmental” Day Two Offensive Linemen Succeeded?
Pay Attention to Tryout Players
How to Watch Training Camp Drills
Can Kirk Cousins Be the Savior? (COMING SOON)