In the 2020 preseason, James Lynch was genuinely in danger of entering the dreaded Willie Beavers zone. Not since Beavers has a Vikings fourth-round pick been so bad that he failed to crack the active roster, despite the size of that investment. Even agreed-upon fourth-round failures like Jaleel Johnson managed to make the 53-man and rotate in. But James Lynch was a healthy scratch for most of last season. He seemed to be a quick disaster, betraying the potential we were all excited about.
Leading up to the draft, Lynch was an exciting prospect with versatile experience and explosiveness to match. Baylor moved him around their fronts, but he mostly played the 3-4 End role. In a 4-3 like the Vikings’, that’s closest to the 3-technique position (aka a pass-rushing defensive tackle). That role did not work out well for Lynch, and he moved to nose tackle in the 2021 preseason.
From the beginning of the preseason, there were signs that Lynch may have turned a corner. Zimmer had high praise for Lynch, and he rose up the depth chart. After a tenuous roster cutdown day, Lynch made the team. More importantly, he earned himself a rotational job that he couldn’t lock down last year (save for injuries to the real starters).
Lynch has increasingly rotated in over the last several weeks and has displayed the skills that Zimmer was alluding to in August. He hasn’t been particularly productive in the passing game, apart from some unblocked opportunities that are more a credit to blitz design than anyone’s execution. He’s not a part of the Vikings’ pass-only packages, so they don’t expect much from him there. Lynch has been chiefly a run defender who rotates in for a few drives per game. He played extra against the Baltimore Ravens’ run-heavy attack, so let’s focus on his run defense for now.
Run defense can get pretty complicated, but for now, all we have to focus on is the idea of “holding your gap.” Whatever gap you’re responsible for, offensive linemen will try to push you out of it. Whether by reach blocking, driving you out, or just trying to push you down the ground, the challenge is to get into your gap and stay there. If you’re successful, the running back will try to run elsewhere. The best run-defense plays can be ones where the defender didn’t get a tackle.
Sift through Lynch’s (admittedly limited) tape, and you’d struggle to find him lose this battle. There’s nothing defensive coaches love more than reliability. James Lynch is reliable in the run. That’ll get you a rotational role in the NFL like the one Lynch has. But we always want more than that. What about the plays Lynch makes outside of his gap? It’s one thing to force a cutback; it’s another to chase it down and tackle. Lynch has consistently posted those plays.
Let’s break a few of those down, shall we?
For the level of athlete Lynch was during his pre-draft process, his functional athleticism is massively impressive. Lynch’s technique had to become impeccable to keep up with the talent jump from the Big 12 to the NFL. Like many rookies, once you’re no longer an elite athlete among your peers, you have to learn to do things the right way. This play against the Detroit Lions shows Lynch playing physically but also precisely.
Lynch has also shown lightning-quick processing ability. Here, he reads that the center is going to try and reach block him and employs the perfect counter. Winning your gap is one thing, but getting into the backfield can cut off multiple gaps.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to the Vikings’ coaches would be Lynch’s tenacity. Lynch has shown quite a bit of fight in his limited action thus far. It may seem counterintuitive to praise a player for imperfect reps, but those are gut-check moments. When things are messy in the heat of the play, how much drive do you have?
Because of Lynch’s limited athletic profile, he may top out before becoming a bona fide starter. But there is a beauty to players who can do just enough to earn a role. Lynch, a rotational nose tackle, will not get many glamorous assignments. He won’t often be chasing down the quarterback or knifing into the backfield. But he’ll do just enough to earn his keep. Lynch is appropriately a rotational player. But if he can take something from each opportunity that earns, perhaps someday, he can grow into something more.