Nose tackle Michael Pierce is the most notable addition made to the Minnesota Vikings roster during this offseason.
However, he will not play for Minnesota in the 2020 season after electing to exercise the NFL players’ opt-out option due to COVID-19 concerns. Instead, Pierce will first suit up for the Vikings in 2021.
Pierce’s addition was set to be a big one — literally and figuratively. The 340-pounder was set to replace Linval Joseph as the space-eater in Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme. Of course, Joseph filled that role beautifully for six seasons and was a key factor in the success of Minnesota’s defense over the past several years.
With Pierce now out for the 2020 season, that role is wide open, and it needs to be played effectively if the Vikings defense is to maintain its performance from the past several seasons.
The Vikings certainly don’t lack bodies at the defensive tackle position, and it presents a silver lining to this unfortunate scenario. Between Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Jalyn Holmes, Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa and James Lynch, the Vikings’ roster includes several high-potential players who will have the opportunity to earn significant snaps in place of Pierce.
Stephen is the favorite to land the majority of the work created by Pierce’s absence. He’s the most experienced and perhaps the most versatile, filling in at both the 3-tech and the nose tackle positions throughout his six-year career. He has started 29 games the past two seasons, most of which have come as the 3-tech alongside Joseph. Stephen has also rotated in at nose tackle for Joseph and filled in as starter in games where Joseph was inactive.
The 6’5″, 305-pounder doesn’t quite have the nose tackle physique and thus hasn’t been quite as effective in that role. But he will likely be the favorite to land that role heading into training camp and the regular season of this chaotic 2020 season.
In terms of experience, Johnson is the next-best defensive tackle on the Vikings roster. The former Iowa Hawkeye was a fourth-round pick in 2017 and played his most snaps last season. He started three games and recorded 3.5 sacks and five total tackles for loss.
Johnson began the 2019 season playing more a nose tackle role but shifted to more of a rotational 3-tech role as the season went on. While his size more closely translates to the nose tackle position than anyone else on the Vikings roster, his skill set seems to fit the 3-tech role a little better.
Holmes, a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft, initially entered the NFL as a defensive end. But he has increasingly become more of a 3-tech defensive tackle. The former Ohio State Buckeye has not had much of an opportunity to shine yet at the NFL level. For what it’s worth, he recorded a fumble recovery in the playoff win at New Orleans.
One of the intriguing things about Holmes as a draft prospect was his versatility and the possibility that he wasn’t used properly at Ohio State. Perhaps this opportunity to start as a 3-tech defensive tackle will be what lets Holmes thrive.
Watts might be the fan favorite to assume a heavy defensive tackle snap load in 2020. He was given a small window of opportunity as a rookie in 2019 and seemingly made the most of it. The former sixth-round pick out of Arkansas made his presence felt in what was a small sample size last season.
Watts has flashed the skill set to play either defensive tackle role. At 6’5″, 295 pounds, his size profile appears to fit 3-tech a little better. However, he could turn into a nice piece at nose tackle if that became his primary position.
Mata’afa is easily the biggest wild card of this group. He entered the NFL at just 254 pounds and didn’t really have a position to play. That’s certainly too small to play defensive tackle at the highest level, but it was enough for him to make an impact at Washington State. Mata’afa appears to have been putting in serious work to gain weight, however, and will measure in close to 300 pounds at camp.
The athleticism is there for Mata’afa: He recorded a 4.76 40-yard dash time and 26 bench press reps at the combine in 2018. If he can maintain some of that quickness with the added weight and develop some pass rush moves, Mata’afa will be a sneaky bid for a large defensive tackle role in 2020.
Lynch has perhaps the most upside of any player in this group. The rookie fourth-round pick from Baylor won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2019 thanks to 13.5 sacks. He displayed a wide array of pass rush moves and rarely left the field for the Baylor defense, part of the reason he was able to record a high sack number.
Will that production translate to the NFL? Perhaps not. Competing in a high-octane Big 12 Conference likely led to a high amount of sack opportunities and inflated that number. But Lynch has a solid skill set that could turn into something special, especially with this new opportunity in front of him.