The 2018 season was approaching an end, and Ifeadi Odenigbo had a choice.
Cut twice by the Vikings after relatively successful training camps, and cut twice more by other NFL teams that had claimed him off waivers, Odenigbo was at a crossroads. The Philadelphia Eagles were offering him a chance to leave the Vikings practice squad and join their 53-man roster in the final month of the season, but there was no guarantee Odenigbo would last beyond a single game. Should he continue bouncing from roster to roster or stay with the organization he knew best in Minnesota?
After brief stints with the Browns and Cardinals earlier that season that resulted in Odenigbo hitting waivers, the Vikings’ former seventh-round pick opted for stability — and leveraged the Eagles’ offer into a raise that kept him on Minnesota’s practice squad. Now with the benefit of hindsight, Odenigbo recognizes the significance of that choice. After two seasons of professional uncertainty, and undeniable patience, Odenigbo broke through as a critical Vikings reserve in 2019, recording seven sacks as a third-down pass-rushing specialist. Now he is the heir apparent to Everson Griffen with a chance to set himself up for a major payday next offseason.
“I could have gone to the Eagles back when I was on [practice] squad, but I decided to stay with the Vikings,” Odenigbo said on a Zoom call with reporters. “The next year I was fortunate enough, I made the team and had a breakout year. So my Pops always tells me, ‘Hey man, son, I am proud of you. You are a man now. What you did was a man’s decision.’ I think in hindsight, it was an excellent decision.”
Odenigbo’s trouble was not his talent but the players in front of him. The Vikings clearly had a vision for Odenigbo, having signed him to the practice squad two consecutive years, but Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen had strangleholds on the defensive end spots, where Odenigbo was most comfortable. The Vikings tried to make him a 3-technique in 2018, which didn’t suit the Northwestern grad as well, but that practice as an inside rusher came into play in 2019 when he thrived in a situational role. Over a quarter of his 2019 snaps came from the inside, not to mention four of his seven sacks.
“I think it just kind of clicked,” Odenigbo said. “Also, I was given an opportunity, and I made the most of it. But obviously, having guys like Everson Griffen and Linval [Joseph], who kind of set the mark and how to act like a professional. Having guys like Danielle [Hunter]. My time when I was on practice squad for the first couple of years, I kind of very slowly took notes, saw how Coach ‘Dre was coaching them, saw the preparation and I really took mental notes. I was fortunate enough to have a good year because I was buying in. That’s the most important thing as a young guy, you have to buy in, get rid of your old ways and embrace the new ways.”
TURNING THE CORNER
By the end of 2019 season, Odenigbo had earned a significant role on a team that was playing for its playoff life. In the final four weeks of the season, Odenigbo played 42, 30, 31 and 68 snaps, respectively. In those four games he recorded three sacks, recovered two fumbles, scored a fumble-return touchdown and had another return touchdown overturned upon review. It culminated three years of Odenigbo’s development in the proven Vikings’ system.
The Vikings’ top four edge rushers last year were Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Stephen Weatherly and Odenigbo, and each had defensive line coach Andre Patterson to thank for their ascent. The Vikings awarded Griffen with a big contract in 2014 when Zimmer and his staff arrived, and he became a four-time Pro Bowl pass rusher. Hunter was drafted in the third round of 2015 and has since turned into a star on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Weatherly, like Odenigbo, was a seventh-round gamble who became a productive piece on the Vikings’ defensive line.
In Odenigbo’s mind, Patterson’s track record was unimpeachable. His position coach’s history of turning unlikely prospects into productive players made his 2018 decision to stay in Minnesota easier.
“As a rookie, you get in and Coach ‘Dre is teaching pass rushing, run stance, all that stuff, so it’s kind of an overload to the brain,” Odenigbo said. “So you’ve got to take it in bits and pieces. I was fortunate enough that Coach Patterson is patient, because it takes time. Initially when I got there, I know I looked kind of slow or hesitant because of all the information, but as I became more and more comfortable, I started playing with more confidence … Coach ‘Dre’s got an impressive resume. He’s been doing it forever. … To be honest, there’s really no point in ever doubting him because you see Danielle Hunter. Danielle had three sacks his collegiate career; now he’s one of the best in the business. So he kind of sets the bar, too. You look at Danielle, ‘I’ve gotta be like that.’ Just do exactly what Coach ‘Dre says, and he’ll get you right.”
Hunter may be the poster child for what Patterson can do with raw talent — and Odenigbo tries to model his work ethic — but when it came down to nuts and bolts, Odenigbo was more similar to Griffen as a player. After viewing Griffen as a mentor figure for three seasons, it’s Griffen’s place along the defensive line that Odenigbo is planning to assume after Griffen voided his contract to become a free agent.
“For guys like me, I’m 6’3″, a little shorter for defensive ends, so having a guy like Everson and I being the same size, I got to really watch his game,” Odenigbo said. “There were two or three years in a row where I got to watch him play. My rookie year, where he had 10-plus sacks, I really got to study his mechanics. Everything about Everson and how he goes about it, there’s no wasted movement. For the most part, as a vet now, I know the technique and fundamentals. It’s just working on the mechanics and fine-tuning the details.”
Odenigbo still has more benchmarks to hit if he’s going to become the next entrenched starter at defensive end. He’s preparing to play upwards of 40 snaps per game, something he only did twice last season, while playing primarily on the edge in a comprehensive role that will include more run-stopping responsibilities.
“I’ve seen my development from the preseason [of 2019] when I was pass rushing to Week 14 when I started to get in the groove,” Odenigbo said. “What I’m watching now is making sure — I had a ‘breakout year’ — but my approach this year is being more efficient. This is my fourth year in the league now, so I’ve learned quite a bit. Now, I can really coach myself. The Zoom meetings have been kind of hard, but I’ve been doing my own training. Fortunately, it’s not my first year, and I’ve been with Coach ‘Dre for some time, so I know what to expect when we eventually report.”
Griffen’s tenure spanned the entire 2010s. With the 2020s beginning, Odenigbo hopes for a similar career arc. Thanks to his 2018 decision to stick around, he’ll have an opportunity.