At this time a year ago, now co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson was being interviewed for a defensive preview for the Vikings website. When the topic of Shamar Stephen came up, Patterson became excited, looked for the camera and put Vikings fans on notice.
“Shamar Stephen is the real deal,” Patterson said. “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.”
One year into a three-year, $15 million deal and Stephen has brought nothing to the Vikings defense outside of 15 tackles and a sack. Because of the lack of production, Stephen was rumored to be on the chopping block for the capped-out Vikings, but as we head into training camp he still remains on the roster.
For a franchise that has enjoyed John Randle, the Williams Wall and Linval Joseph, Stephen has been in the middle of the Vikings defense for five of his six years in the NFL and doesn’t have much to show for it. As the defense’s version of Pat Elflein, many fans want to see Stephen replaced, but there are no signs that’s going to happen.
The Positives About Shamar Stephen
To start the quest of why the Vikings staff loves Stephen, I started looking through some of his best games. Normally, you would see a barrage of sacks and pancakes against offensive linemen, but some of Stephen’s highest-graded games by PFF come without a peep on film. Heck, his one sack last year came when Ted Larsen whiffed on a block in Chicago.
But it’s the second half of Patterson’s quote that makes sense when turning on the tape.
“Shamar makes all the guys around him better,” Patterson said. “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.”
While most of the big plays from Stephen occurred when he was off the field, he mainly does his job on the field. Stephen doesn’t look like the second coming of Alan Page by any means, but he takes on a blocker, rarely gets pancaked and takes one lineman out of the play so the rest of the defense can make the headlines.
According to PFF, Stephen’s best game came against the Detroit Lions in Week 14. A look at the boxscore wouldn’t justify that as Stephen had just a batted down pass and an assist on a tackle. But he rarely gets thrown to the ground, which in turn frees up space for the guys around him.
The other thing to note about Stephen is that while he doesn’t penetrate into the backfield often, he rarely lets players get by him. In the early part of the season, Stephen did a good job of disengaging from blocks to make stops in the running game. Stephen was one of 19 defensive tackles that didn’t have a missed tackle last season and only Grover Stewart and Ed Oliver played more snaps than Stephen’s 561.
Long story short, if Stephen gets his mitts on a running back, he’s a safe bet to be taking him down, even if it’s not behind the line of scrimmage.
Why Stephen should be upgraded
While it was tough to dissect Stephen’s strengths, his weaknesses are much easier to diagnose. As most teams attempt to get pressure from every possible angle, Stephen’s game of just running into a blocker and latching onto them isn’t great for the stat sheet. With the continued struggles of Joseph in 2019, Stephen’s lack of splash plays was amplified.
In Stephen’s biggest area of strength, he proves to be mediocre with a 3.8% run-stop rate that ranked 119th among defensive tackles. In addition, Stephen’s 10 run stops ranked 88th, and he didn’t have a stop in the final six games of the season (with Week 17 being thrown out as a glorified preseason game). It’s a good reason why Stephen is getting thrown out of the top of the screen during this quick pass against Green Bay in Week 2.
Even more maddening is that while Joseph was asked to be the hog in the middle, Stephen couldn’t make up for the loss of Sheldon Richardson. In 2018, Richardson’s run-stop percentage of 6.6% was nearly double of what Stephen put up in 2019 and a 6.9 pass rusher productivity rating was an added bonus that created more interior pressure.
Stephen’s 1.2 PRP rating wasn’t even in the same universe as Richardson’s the year before, and with no penetration whatsoever, splash plays were harder to come by even as Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter combined for 22.5 sacks in 2019.
Sure, Stephen being in the right spot may free others to do their job. But having a guy who can blast through the defensive line and make the quarterback run for his life gives players around them a better chance to do their jobs as well.
How can the Vikings improve at 3-Tech?
If there’s a silver lining to Stephen’s role, he’s usually not in on passing downs. In such situations, the Vikings opted to use Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly in the middle, which created a better chance to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. With Weatherly gone and Odenigbo kicking to the outside this season, the Vikings will need someone to step up.
You could choose an optimistic route with Stephen thanks to the addition of Michael Pierce. Although his stats aren’t much better than Joseph’s, the hope is that in an expanded role, he can provide the much needed penetration that could get the best out of Stephen.
But entering the seventh year of his career, we already know what to expect from Stephen. In other words, their best chance for more flash plays will probably come from somewhere else.
If guys like Armon Watts or James Lynch can’t raise their game to at least challenge Stephen, the Vikings won’t be in major trouble as Stephen has at least been functional on Zimmer’s defense. But like every other position, it’s never a bad time to trade things in for an upgrade.