Coming one game away from the Super Bowl stings.
The 2017 Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars are the latest members of that fraternity, and as they meet this week for a pair of joint practices, it’s easy to see other commonalities between the two franchises that were oh-so-close a year ago.
Both clubs were carried by their defense. Jacksonville had the top pass defense and second-best overall defense last year. They came in second in sacks, tied for third in fewest touchdown passes allowed and tied for fifth in the take-give.
Minnesota was the top overall defense — second against the pass and second against the run. It allowed the fewest passing touchdowns, fifth-fewest yards per rush and lowest percentage of third-down conversions in recorded history.
By virtue of reaching their respective conference championship games, the Vikings and Jaguars selected adjacently in April’s draft.
Jacksonville picked 29th; Minnesota 30th.
Both proceeded to go against the popular draft-for-need philosophy.
The Jags’ approach
The Jaguars needed receiver help after losing Allen Robinson in free agency, linebacker help because of Paul Posluszny’s retirement and offensive line help after Patrick Omameh left for the New York Giants. Instead, they selected Florida defensive lineman Taven Bryan, an inside-outside hybrid to add depth to an already-ferocious defensive line.
How ferocious? Pro Football Focus graded Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue as two of the top nine edge rushers in football, combining for 143 total pressures and 26.5 sacks. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson was also considered a top-10 pass rusher at his position. Jacksonville used nine different defensive linemen for over 100 snaps — seven of them for over 250 snaps. Their deep and talented unit sacked Tom Brady three times in an AFC Championship Game that the Jaguars came half a quarter from winning.
Of the nine players that played over 100 snaps for them last year, eight are still on the roster with only role player Sheldon Day departing.
“They’ve got names, they’ve got experience, they’ve got production,” said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. “Certainly that’s where a lot of great defenses are founded is on the defensive line.”
Bryan, the rookie, has been limited recently with an abdominal injury, but he’s listed as Campbell’s backup at defensive end on Jacksonville’s depth chart. While he hasn’t seen the field much in training camp, he demonstrated his potential in spring practices, as well as some rookie growing pains.
“Taven’s a great player,” Ngakoue told Zone Coverage. “He has a lot of room to grow. He’s in the same predicament I was my rookie year, just trying to learn the scheme and playing full speed, and each and every day he’s getting better and better. Taven, he has a lot to come for him, and he’s a great asset to the defensive line.”
Looking back at the draft, the Jaguars eventually addressed their perceived needs by taking receiver D.J. Chark in the second round, offensive tackle Will Richardson in the fourth round and linebacker Leon Jacobs in the seventh round.
Time will tell if Jacksonville regrets passing on areas of need in the first round. In their eyes, getting a player like Bryan was worth it.
The Vikes’ approach
Head coach Mike Zimmer declined to comment on Bryan when asked Wednesday, saying he didn’t want to talk about opposing players. It’s conceivable, though, that the Vikings could have been interested. Defensive tackles Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson had departed for Seattle and the Vikings could have stood to bolster their rotation along the defensive line. Their eventual selection of Jalyn Holmes in the fourth round indicates they were interested in a versatile player of Bryan’s ilk.
With Bryan off the board, Minnesota took cornerback Mike Hughes out of Central Florida, giving the Vikings four first-round picks and one second-round at the cornerback position. With established starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes occupying the outside corner spots and Terence Newman and Mackensie Alexander splitting nickel reps, Hughes was a pick of luxury rather than necessity.
While Bryan has struggled to stay healthy this summer, Hughes has flourished, earning rave reviews after his first preseason appearance.
“Mike did very well for the first time out,” said Zimmer. “We were talking about some of our other corners and how their first game out was a little bit different compared to his. I thought that he played really well.”
Early indications are that Hughes is ahead of schedule in his development, but it hasn’t stopped the discussion over whether the Vikings should have selected an offensive lineman with the 30th pick instead.
Minnesota didn’t expect to lose starting left guard Nick Easton for the year with a bulging disk, but they did know that right guard Joe Berger would retire. Pundits assumed the Vikings would select a guard early on, but the Vikings waited until the sixth round to address that need. The Vikings took offensive tackle Brian O’Neill in the second round, but he may not play much as a rookie barring serious injury to Rashod Hill.
To complicate matters, Pat Elflein (ankle/shoulder) and Mike Remmers (ankle) have missed most or all of training camp. The Vikings have entrusted greater responsibilities to free agent acquisition Tom Compton and journeyman Cornelius Edison on the interior.
On one hand, Hughes’ presence on defense gives the Vikings security when veteran Terence Newman retires — or maybe even an immediate impact player. On the other hand, the offensive line needs help ASAP.
It may be years before anybody can lay down a verdict on the two teams’ decisions at Pick 29 and Pick 30. The evidence may come, not from how Bryan and Hughes perform, but the size of the holes left at other key spots.
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