While many believe the Vikings’ defense’s biggest weakness was in the secondary last season, another reason for its downfall was the lack of a presence in the trenches. Although Everson Griffen (eight sacks), Danielle Hunter (14.5 sacks) and Ifeadi Odenigbo (seven sacks) provided pressure from the outside, it didn’t seem like the Vikings had the same effectiveness in the middle of their defense.
In fact, things got so dire that the Vikings moved Griffen and Hunter to the middle of the line during their playoff victory in New Orleans just to get some interior pressure. To put things mildly, the group of Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen and others was disappointing.
That leads to the question of what the Vikings are going to do to make this year different. Michael Pierce came over in free agency with hopes of being a younger, more effective Linval Joseph at nose tackle, but the Vikings void at 3-technique has been evident ever since Sharrif Floyd was forced to retire early.
Stephen’s reunion tour with the Vikings didn’t turn out as many had hoped. However, Stephen provided exactly what the Vikings and now co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson wanted from the position. With the ability to simply do his job, Stephen basically validated Patterson’s words in an interview prior to last season.
“Shamar Stephen is the real deal,” Patterson said while looking into the camera. “Those of you that know me know that I don’t blow smoke, this guy is for real. It’s a great thing that we have him back on our football team. Shamar makes all the guys around him better…he was a big reason we had the No. 1 defense in the league [in 2017]. …He’s going to be where he’s supposed to be, he’s gonna play great technique and he frees those guys up.”
In relation to Eric Kendricks‘ play alongside Stephen, specifically, Patterson’s assessment proved to be true. After a 2018 season where he seemed to take a step back, especially in coverage, Kendricks returned to form with Stephen back in the fold and became an All-Pro linebacker.
|2018 (PFF Ranking)||2019 (PFF Ranking)|
|Overall Grade||64.6 (73rd)||90.2 (1st)|
|Run Stop Percentage||6.4 (61st)||9.0% (23rd)|
|Attempts per Missed Tackle||14.6 (22nd)||13.4 (25th)|
|QB Rating Allowed||104.7 (39th)||83.9 (11th)|
|Pass Rusher Productivity Rating||8.7 (74th)||12.5 (5th)|
While Kendricks took off with Stephen back in the mix, he seemed to be the only player who benefited. Griffen and Hunter virtually had the same output on the outside while Anthony Barr and Linval Joseph both seemed to take a step back from what they had done in previous seasons.
To make matters worse, PFF was not kind to Stephen’s performance on the field. Stephen ranked 114th in overall grade (61.2) and 162nd in run-stop percentage (3.8 percent) and 183rd in pass-rushing productivity (1.2).
Much like a lot of PFF stats, however, it appears the Vikings did not care about Stephen’s lack of splash plays, putting him on the field for 580 snaps. That number ranked 38th in the league, and even if the Vikings do find a pass-rushing specialist behind him, it appears that Stephen is going to remain in this lineup as long as he’s in the right spot.
PREDICTION TO START: 82 PERCENT
Stephen will go into training camp as the favorite to start, but what if one of the new faces pushes for time behind him? Looking at the incoming draft class, the best bet to do that is fourth-round pick James Lynch.
Lynch was a force during his junior season at Baylor, where he racked up 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss for a surprising Bears team that was looking to crash the College Football Playoff. When Matt Rhule departed to become the head coach of the Carolina Panthers, Lynch decided to leave and might have found a solid landing spot with the Vikings.
Lynch primarily played on the outside with Baylor, but was also used all over the formation in a three-man front. Although he measured 6’4″, 268 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, he is currently listed at 289 pounds on the Vikings official website, which usually signals a shift to the middle of the defense.
The analytics on Lynch’s performance last year suggests he could be an upgrade on what the Vikings have in Stephen. His 5.4 percent run-stop percentage wasn’t great, but his 70 total pressures ranked second in the nation behind James Madison’s John Daka.
The latter number shows that Lynch has some pass-rushing chops but may need to work on refining his work stopping the run. That can be a job for Patterson to correct, and while Lynch is most likely to be the latest apprenticeship in the way Jayln Holmes and Jaleel Johnson have been for the past several years, Lynch has the ability to break through in case of a Stephen injury or severe performance issues.
PREDICTION TO START: 10 PERCENT
A fourth-round pick out of Iowa in 2017, Johnson was in a similar spot that Lynch finds himself in at the moment. Johnson put up 7.5 sacks during his senior season with the Hawkeyes, and while he was blocked by situational pass-rusher Tom Johnson and Sheldon Richardson, Vikings fans had been waiting to see more from him entering last year.
Johnson didn’t suddenly turn into Aaron Donald, but showed signs of improvement from his first two seasons in the league. His 3.5 sacks were an explosion compared to the 0.5 sacks he put up in 2017 and 2018, and his 3.2 pass rusher productivity rating was an improvement from 2.9 in 2018.
Those numbers are far from elite, but Johnson is at least heading in the right direction. At this point, it would be a victory for the Vikings if Johnson can become a version of his predecessor, Tom Johnson. A quality rotation piece in the middle would be a good depth piece for Zimmer’s defense and can protect them if something goes wrong.
PREDICTION: 5 PERCENT
Holmes was another pick that the Vikings had hoped to bring inside after a college career spent on the edge, but it doesn’t appear this gamble is going to pay off. Holmes has played in just 11 games in two seasons, and those appearances have only amounted to seven tackles and one sack.
Year 3 will be a pivotal season for Holmes as he looks to show something on tape. As was the case with Johnson entering last season, Holmes will have to show major improvement just to make the roster and even then making his way into a starting spot is a long shot.
PREDICTION: 1 PERCENT
Zettel is a free-agent addition to the Vikings this season and has spent the majority of his career on the edge. Perhaps the Vikings would like Zettel to back up the combination of Danielle Hunter and Ifeadi Odenigbo, but showing flexibility would be a good way to make the roster out of training camp.
Zettel’s breakout season came in 2017 when he recorded 6.5 sacks as a starting end for the Detroit Lions, but hasn’t found the same success after signing with Cleveland in free agency. The Vikings are betting on him finding that form, but with just six games played between Cincinnati and San Francisco his shots of even making the roster — let alone at a new position — are awfully slim.
PREDICTION: 1 PERCENT
The hype train for Mata’afa was speeding along as he made the team coming out of training camp, but the sleeper role never seemed to materialize once the games started to count. Mata’afa appeared in six games for the Vikings last season, but only made one tackle, which led to another year of development.
The good news is that 2019 was Mata’afa’s rookie season after tearing his ACL shortly after signing in 2018. Since then, Mata’afa has bulked up from 254 pounds coming out of Washington State to 289 pounds. The weight should help him hold up in the trenches, and he’ll probably make the roster as a depth piece. However, he’ll need to put something official on the field before claiming a starting spot.
PREDICTION: 1 PERCENT