Great defensive line play has been the cornerstone of the Minnesota Vikings franchise since it was founded in 1961. The Purple People Eaters defensive line that included Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, Alan Page and Gary Larsen spearheaded Minnesota’s elite defense in the late 1960s and 1970s that earned four Super Bowl berths.
Perhaps Minnesota’s defensive line isn’t as important today as it was then, but the Vikings have consistently produced stars along the defensive line over the past several years, specifically at the defensive end position.
Head coach Mike Zimmer and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson have been key in this development process. However, it started well before the Zimmer era began in 2014.
With that said, Ifeadi Odenigbo has an opportunity in 2020 to join a long list of Vikings defensive ends who became stars after playing a rotational role in their early years as pros.
Brian Robison is the first example of this. Drafted as a fourth-round pick in 2007, Robison did not become a full-time starter until the 2011 season. He started just seven games in his first four seasons as a pro, but did accumulate 13.5 sacks during that stretch, rotating in for Jared Allen and Ray Edwards.
Then, when Robison stepped into a full-time starting role in 2011 opposite Allen, he recorded eight or more sacks in three consecutive seasons.
Meanwhile, Everson Griffen had taken over Robison’s old role as the rotational pass rusher. Griffen, also a former fourth-round pick, showed flashes of brilliance in his limited snaps, tallying 17.5 sacks from 2011-13, including eight sacks alone in 2012.
Griffen impressed so much that he was rewarded with a five-year, $42 million contract prior to the 2014 season when Allen departed and left a starting role open for Griffen — on the opposite side of Robison.
The next player to take over the rotational pass-rushing role was Danielle Hunter. Minnesota selected Hunter in the third round of the 2015 draft and it didn’t take long for him to show that he would be a star in the NFL. He tallied six sacks in his rookie season and followed that up with 12.5 sacks in 2016, all while coming off the bench behind Robison and Griffen.
Hunter, of course, has since become the youngest player in NFL history to record 50 sacks and is one of the best defensive ends in all of football. However, Griffen’s tenure with the Vikings appears to have come to an end, leaving a starting spot open on the other side of Hunter.
Minnesota selected Odenigbo in the seventh round of the 2017 draft. He was doubted quite a bit in his first two seasons as a professional, cut by the Vikings, the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals. Minnesota eventually brought him back onto the practice squad for the 2018 season and he remained there for the rest of the year — despite an offer from the Philadelphia Eagles to join their 53-man roster.
Odenigbo got his chance to produce in 2019, grabbing hold of that rotational pass-rushing role that turned Robison, Griffen and Hunter into stars. The Northwestern alum took advantage of the opportunity, tallying seven sacks and even taking a fumble back for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers in a Week 15 win.
At 6’3″, 258 pounds, Odenigbo has the frame to be a stellar pass rusher. He showed it in 2019, especially down the stretch of the season as his snap count increased. Six of his seven sacks were made in the final nine games.
Odenigbo has seen first-hand how Zimmer and Patterson can develop superstar pass rushers. Griffen and Hunter both became household names during the Zimmer era, and neither one of them was granted a starting role immediately in their careers. Both of them had to earn that opportunity.
Now entering his fourth year as a pro, Odenigbo has certainly earned his opportunity. Now, he can take everything he’s learned over his NFL career and carry it into his first full season as an NFL starter — just as Robison, Griffen, and Hunter did before him.
Vikings fans should be excited about this pattern that has unfolded over the last decade or so at defensive end. Fortunately, there’s no signs of it ending soon.