Over the past couple weeks, Sam Ekstrom has dug into some of the biggest Vikings offseason talkers at each position.
Just stop for a moment to consider the front-seven defensive talent the Minnesota Vikings assembled within two years of Mike Zimmer’s arrival.
They took a gamble on Everson Griffen, committing big money to a potential wild card, who turned into a legacy at defensive end. They drafted Anthony Barr in the first round, who became a four-time Pro Bowler. They signed Linval Joseph, who spent six productive years stuffing running backs between the tackles. In consecutive rounds of the 2015 draft they selected Eric Kendricks, who became an All-Pro in 2019, and Danielle Hunter, who is on pace for a Hall of Fame career.
Alas, that core is unlikely to look the same moving forward with a pair of bloated contracts on the defensive line, where the Vikings are scheduled to spend the third-highest dollar amount in 2020 until they slash costs. Will either Griffen or Joseph return? Let’s dig in.
WILL EVERSON GRIFFEN REMAIN A VIKING?
This is not a Xavier Rhodes scenario where a release seems likely based on age, salary and declining play. Griffen, 32, seems to have some tread left on the tires. For the first 11 weeks of the season, Griffen had the second-most pressures in the NFL behind his teammate Danielle Hunter. But as we’ve seen from Griffen in recent years, his impact fell off toward the end. In his four games after the bye week, Griffen generated just eight pressures, 60th in the league over that span.
By reaching his playing time and sack incentives last season, Griffen is allowed to void his contract and hit free agency. But if he opts into his existing deal, he carries the fourth-highest cap hit on the Vikings roster at over $13.8 million, behind Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Hunter. With less than $1 million of that sum guaranteed, the Vikings would still have the leverage to ask for a restructure. Griffen could seemingly cash in most lucratively on the open market, but if he wants to remain a Viking and accept a pay cut, there may be a chance of arranging something.
Based on his age and production, Griffen’s true value probably falls into the category of Carlos Dunlap (30), Jerry Hughes (31) or Justin Houston (31), who are paid between the 14th- and 18th-highest salaries at defensive end next year, counting between $9-11 million against the cap. Hughes and Houston recently inked short-term contracts, both for two years at $23 million and $24 million, respectively. That’s probably the mark to hit if the Vikings are negotiating with Griffen’s camp. Could the Vikings finagle Griffen’s cap number down to, say, $9 million in 2020, and would a $4-5 million savings help the Vikings complete other offseason business? If the Vikings cut ties completely, they’d save over $13 million.
Keep in mind the team is fond of Ifeadi Odenigbo, who recorded seven sacks last year in a part-time role and is locked up next season at $660K. If Odenigbo is the future, then a $13 million savings could be worth it, assuming the Vikings don’t see the drop off from Griffen to Odenigbo as too steep.
WHAT TO DO AT DEFENSIVE TACKLE?
Joseph is the other big piece to consider on the defensive line. After generating 25 or more pressures in seven straight seasons, Joseph put together two straight seasons with 18 and 16 each. In those two seasons, his total run stops sunk to 26 and 28, respectively, after he averaged 35 over a three-year span. The magic of Joseph early in his Vikings tenure was his ability to impact passers while, at the same time, remaining an impermeable presence against the run. Those days seem to be behind the big nose tackle, who has undergone upper-body and lower-body operations over the previous two years. At age 31, and carrying nearly a $12.9 million cap hit, it could be time to move on and save the Vikings over $10.4 million. Veterans like Al Woods, Danny Shelton and John Jenkins played at a similar level to Joseph last season at a fraction of the price. If the Vikings believe they can get comparable production at less than 10 percent of Joseph’s salary, that becomes an easy move to make to free up cap space.
Joseph certainly carries with him inherent value that can’t be quantified by stats. His size gives offenses a large body for which to account in their blocking scheme and opens things up for linebackers and edge rushers. If the Vikings deem Joseph a priority, a restructure could be negotiated, but Joseph would likely have to take a significant pay cut. Furthermore, second-year tackle Armon Watts impressed in his limited action last season and may be a young, cheap alternative to the aging Joseph.
Then there’s the 3-technique spot. Minnesota’s interior pressure declined sharply in 2019 without an impact inside rusher like Sheldon Richardson. Shamar Stephen is signed for two more seasons, but the former seventh-round pick has struggled to find reliable pass-rushing moves since he started with the Vikings in 2014. Stephen registered six pressures last season in 315 pass-rushing snaps — tied for last amongst defensive tackles who saw 50 percent or more of reps. Richardson had 47 pressures the year prior.
Jaleel Johnson, Jalyn Holmes and Hercules Mata’afa are useful depth pieces, but it’s unclear if any possess the ability to be a three-down player. The Vikings opted to use ends Stephen Weatherly and Odenigbo on pass-rushing downs last year, which may be an effective workaround going forward — whoever their backup ends happen to be — if Minnesota doesn’t have the means of adding more tackle talent.
It may not be the right year to make a major investment in a free agent defensive tackle on the market. Finding a player like Richardson in 2018 was unique because he was coming off a down year in Seattle, had recently been traded and was looking to rebuild his stock. Most tackles of his caliber aren’t hitting the market anyway, leaving either older veterans or younger players with flaws. But there’s no shortage of options if the Vikings are savvy evaluators and want to find a rotational piece. Maybe someone like Jarran Reed, a former second-round pick with the Seahawks who’s two years removed from a 10.5-sack season in Seattle. He finished 2019 with only two sacks after being suspended the season’s first six games for a 2017 off-field incident.
Of course, there’s always the draft, where interior pass rusher could be a high priority. Derrick Brown, Neville Gallimore and Javon Kinlaw will be highly sought-after.
In summary, the Vikings have avenues to get younger and cheaper at defensive tackle, and if those avenues can match last year’s productivity, that’s a win for the organization.
WHO WILL START AT BASE LINEBACKER?
With Barr and Kendricks still locked up as the team’s nickel tandem, there remains the question of whether Ben Gedeon will renew his role as next year’s base linebacker. Gedeon was a three-year starter before concussions ended his 2019 season. Eric Wilson filled in nicely for Gedeon, having improved his tackling while remaining stout in coverage.
Wilson is a restricted free agent, though, and could command a second-round tender, which would be worth over $3 million (official figures will get released in about a month). That would guarantee the Vikings a second-round draft pick in the unlikely chance another team signed Wilson to an offer sheet.
The former UDFA Wilson is a more versatile choice, but also more expensive. For what amounts to a part-time role, the Vikings have cheaper alternatives.
Gedeon enters the final year of his four-year rookie contract, while last year’s fifth-round pick Cameron Smith is an exclusive rights free agent since the Vikings waived him on cutdown day last year. Smith’s ERFA status is basically a free-roll for the Vikings to bring Smith back to compete for the starting base role or a depth/special teams spot.