While a strong secondary has been the stamp of Mike Zimmer defenses, they’ve also featured strong front seven play anchored by a fantastic group of defensive tackles. But, unlike in Cincinnati where he had one elite player and a rotational-level player at nose tackle, he seems to have found two Pro Bowl quality tackles to do the job. One, Linval Joseph, is in contention for being the best 4-3 nose tackle in the league. The other, Sheldon Richardson, may be looking for a career revival and hit big money in next year’s free agency – but he really had an underrated year with the Seahawks. The concern with this unit lies in its depth and whether or not it’s fourth-round rookie or some unlikely additions can fill out that depth chart.
[expand title=”LINVAL JOSEPH”]
The nose tackle has been losing significance throughout most of the NFL, but Linval Joseph has been critical to the Vikings defense, playing a big part in their historically great third-down defense by setting up favorable third-down distances on first and second down. As one of the best pure nose tackles left in the NFL, Joseph may be the last of a dying breed.
Strengths: Incredibly strong in both upper and lower body. Uses upper-body strength well in generating incredible punch of the snap as well as the ability to throw linemen aside. Lower-body strength evident not just in explosion but in anchor. On the field, his lateral agility is great for jumping gaps and his ability to read the backfield makes that a great asset. He has a speed rush, a power rush and some pass rush moves that rely mostly on technique. Great handfighter in the trenches. Solid anchor and good leverage. Great stamina and drive—he can keep up with the constant no-huddle from teams like Philadelphia. Very good pass-rusher for his size and position. Joseph is actually one of the more athletic players on the roster for his size, with a dominant bench press, great explosion scores and above-average 40-times for a 323-pound nose tackle, and average quickness, to boot.
Weaknesses: Occasionally too aggressive. Dropped off a little in productivity in 2017, though not much. Limited long speed prevents elite pursuit.[/expand]
[expand title=”SHELDON RICHARDSON”]
Sheldon Richardson seems to have fallen from grace after a standout rookie year where he earned 2013 defensive player of the year honors – and it’s been easy to lump him in with Muhammad Wilkerson as stars that flashed bright but faded fast, whether that’s because of attitudinal, schematic or other issues. In all honesty, however, Richardson has been an above-average-to-great defensive tackle for the past several years and should be able to unlock even more with the Vikings.
Strengths: Like Jaleel Johnson, Richardson has 1-tech and 3-tech versatility. Should the Vikings suffer from injury problems with Linval Joseph again, shifting their pass-rushing specialist to a run-stopping role won’t be the same problem it was last time. As a 3-technique, Richardson shares the first-step explosive power of previous Vikings defensive tackles—like Sharrif Floyd and Tom Johnson. This comes from a combination of natural athletic talent and good snap anticipation. Very often the first off the snap of the defensive line, even when surrounded by other talented linemen. Pairs that explosiveness with surprising fluidity and lateral agility, which allowed him to play some edge snaps in New York. That fluidity allows him to set up a wide array of countermoves that aren’t always available to other defensive tackles. Good punch strength, timing and interior hand placement. Those physical skills and long arms (34 1/2″ arms) give him a very large tackle radius and his excellent strength and form allowed him to complete nearly every tackle attempt last year – with one of the best tackle efficiency metrics in the league last year. Despite talk that he’s “fallen off,” Richardson ranked 7th in the NFL among defensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ Pass Rushing Productivity with 36 total pressures despite a heavy tackle rotation. Ranked top 15 in run stop rate.
Weaknesses: Sometimes sacrifices leverage for his explosiveness off the snap, popping up and losing pad level in order to get into the backfield faster; that can rob him of power and makes it difficult for him to execute some countermoves. Long pursuit speed is an issue and might be part of the reason his sack conversion rate is a little low compared to his total pressures. Doesn’t deal well against offensive linemen who have strong grip – usually if he doesn’t win at the snap, he has issues disengaging from those linemen.[/expand]
[expand title=”JALEEL JOHNSON”]
There’s a lot of opportunity available for the Vikings’ fourth-round pick from 2017. Jaleel Johnson was a sack leader in college, but has been forced to fit into a hybrid defensive tackle role as a bigger nose tackle/run-stuffer to pair with his pressure production/three-technique work. While that versatility is certainly an asset as a backup, it limits his development as a defensive lineman. It took some time before he could be on the active gameday roster, but for those worried about whether or not he can step into a role, the good news is that he had an excellent preseason.
Strengths: Fantastic at reading offensive linemen; doesn’t get pulled out of plays because of misdirection. Excellent hand placement, pairs well with pad level and inherent strength to win. Lower-body strength translates into burst off the snap and power at the point of attack. Despite size, knows how to get skinny through gaps. Excellent balance against cut blocks. Showcased burst against good offensive linemen and could bull-rush them into the quarterback. Anchors well against double-teams. Good quickness for his size, changes direction in the backfield easily. A weapon on twists.
Weaknesses: Limited athleticism, especially in pursuit. Athletic testing brings up concerns about translation of burst or quickness into the NFL, though he has shown, for the most part, that he has a strong lower body, even if his get-off was a little slow at first in the preseason. Reads offensive linemen well but misses the running back. Overruns the play, and sometimes aggressiveness opens up run lanes.[/expand]
[expand title=”JALYN HOLMES”]
As a hybrid defensive end/defensive tackle for Ohio State, Holmes represents another in a long line of hybrid defensive linemen for the Vikings – players like B.J. Dubose, Christian Ballard and, to some extent, Scott Crichton. While none of those players took off, we have the examples of Michael Bennett and J.J. Watt to see what it looks like when that experiment succeeds.
Strengths: Has incredible length for his position. Good flexibility and bend. Pairs bend with balance; can attack offensive linemen from multiple angles. Good instincts to suss out play and play design. Good tackler, uses length well to secure tackles. High character – voted team captain before logging any starts. Good on the edge as a run defender and can blow up zone-running plays.
Weaknesses: Has flexibility but not agility or lateral movement. Limited athletic capability, including burst and long pursuit. Upper body strength limited, killing a number of pass-rush options. Limited moveset as a rusher, and doesn’t approach with a plan or good hand placement. Poor leverage. Loses advantage against the run when playing tackle. Gets moved off the spot as a run defender. Doesn’t do a good job shedding blocks or keeping narrow when necessary.[/expand]
[expand title=”CURTIS COTHRAN”]
There was some debate about whether or not Curtis Cothran would lose weight and become an edge rusher in the NFL or add weight to become a pass-rushing interior defender. Given his flexibility issues, it made sense for him to be picked up as a defensive tackle.
Strengths: Good explosion metrics; 9’11” broad jump should translate well for defensive tackles. Film shows flashes of explosion and get-off from the snap. When doubled, does a good job splitting. Great motor. Can demonstrate lateral quickness, particularly on stunts. Good disengage when locked up, especially on the run. Solid hand movement. Decent balance allows him to consistently present a threat.
Weaknesses: Poor college production – 7.0 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks in best year. Poor pressure and run-stop production in final year as well. Other forms of athleticism aside from explosion aren’t there, and if he doesn’t win from the snap, it’s difficult for him to find another way to impact the play. Really poor agility scores (7.72 three-cone). Lacks upper-body and lower-body strength, which might be resolved when he adds weight. For now, gets washed out in the run game. Flexibility problems and doesn’t square his shoulders to the LOS. High pad level makes him lose leverage.[/expand]
[expand title=”DAVID PARRY”]
A series of offseason incidents diminished David Parry’s value to the Colts, who saw the field in 2015 and 2016 but was waived right before the 2017 season started. He signed with the Saints afterwards, saw action in one game and then was put on injured reserve to end his season. Parry didn’t play particularly well for the Colts, so this may be a last gasp for him.
Strengths: Has some extraordinary workout numbers for a bigger tackle; with a shockingly good 7.50-second three-cone and 4.43-second short shuttle. In college, showed good bull-rush that takes advantage of lower-body and upper-body strength. Great leverage and pad level when anchoring. Active first step and explosion that can create pass-rush pressure, even when doubled in the A gap.
Weaknesses: Needed to gain weight to play in the NFL, and it looks like it robbed him of much his movement ability. A player his size shouldn’t be pushed out of the gap overall – a lot of it has to do with his poor overall technique and inability to deal with better punch timing and length from interior offensive linemen. Poor tackle radius; missed a high number of tackles as a run defender in the NFL. Workout numbers and athleticism haven’t shown up on the field in the form of agility; can be washed out and has little flexibility to effectively shed blocks and make plays.[/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)