If you hopped into a DMC DeLorean and accelerated 88 miles per hour back in time to the year 2020, asking fans what their opinion on Everson Griffen is, everyone would tell you the same thing.
Who could blame them? At the time, Griffen had been with two different NFL teams in the same year, and he failed to make much of an impact during his time with the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions. To make matters worse, he tweeted some unsavory things about Kirk Cousins and took offense when Mike Zimmer called him a good player (“I am a great player,” he insisted). In Everson’s mind, good is the enemy of great, so this seemingly innocuous remark by Zim displayed a lack of respect and a mark of betrayal.
Pundits thought all the problems on and off the field would mark the end of Griffen’s NFL career. After all, the 33-year-old mustered a total of six sacks last year and struggled to find a consistent role after leaving the Twin Cities.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, 2020 was not a great year for Zimmer and his defense. Minnesota was missing key pieces like Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Michael Pierce. That year they finished fourth in points allowed and gave up 6,292 total yards, sixth-most among NFL defenses. As a result, Rick Spielman went on a manic spending spree this offseason, signing Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Xavier Woods, Sheldon Richardson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander, Nick Vigil, and Stephen Weatherly. On top of that, the Vikings drafted three pass rushers in Patrick Jones, Janarius Robinson, and Jaylen Twyman.
The training camp roster may have been full, but Zimmer was craving some dessert. So with nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Vikings scooped up Griffen. The coaching staff made it clear that he was guaranteed nothing — all playing time would be earned. However, out of all the places Griffen could revive his career, Minnesota would be the best place to do so.
So far, Griffen looks like his old self. His pass-rushing moves are as sharp as ever, he’s still quick enough to fly by offensive tackles, and he can use his speed and generate it into power. The contagious energy is still there, as is the No. 97 on his back, and of course, the Sack Daddy dance. Everything seems so familiar.
He may not be the Vikings’ starting defensive end, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be. Taking a look at D.J. Wonnum and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Weatherly, a troubling truth becomes apparent. Neither player has been effective through the first four games. Wonnum and Weatherly have yet to register a sack in the regular season. Meanwhile, Griffen has two sacks this season.
Granted, the amount of pressure a player generates can sometimes tell a different story. Weatherly has five pressures so far this season, while Wonnum has four. Everson Griffen has 10, more than Wonnum and Weatherly combined.
Additionally, both have struggled in stopping the run, something they’re supposed to be good at. Weatherly has a mediocre PFF run-defense grade of 63.1, while Wonnum has been even worse against the run with a grade of 45.4. Although Griffen has never been known as a great run defender, he’s performed well against the ground game so far this season. His PFF run-defense grade is 70.3, which is stellar.
Simply put, Griffen offers more than Wonnum and Weatherly as a pass rusher and run defender. Griffen also has had success starting opposite Hunter in the past. From 2017-19, Griffen had the most sacks on the team outside of Hunter. No one else has complemented Hunter more effectively than Griffen.
Throughout what I consider to be his prime (2014-19), Griffen tallied 57 sacks through six seasons, averaging 9.5 sacks a year. His best statistical season was in 2017 when he finished the year with 13 sacks and his worst season was in 2018, when he posted 5.5. Currently, Griffen has two sacks on 105 total snaps. That means he averages a sack once every 53 snaps. The average amount of snaps he played each year during his prime is 826.
If you took the number of snaps Griffen has averaged each season in his prime (826) and divided it by how many snaps it’s taken for him to register a sack this season (53), it would put him at an insanely unrealistic rate of 15.5 sacks this season. That would be Griffen’s absolute ceiling and be a career year for him if he reached that figure. That’s how well he’s been playing lately.
A more realistic estimate would be to assume Griffen gets a sack every other game. That would put him at 8.5 sacks in a 17 game season, which matches up with his eight-sack year in 2019 in a 16-game season. In both seasons, he averaged or is averaging a sack every other game.
The notion that Griffen can’t contribute as a starting defensive end is misguided. Although other teams didn’t use him effectively, Griffen and the Vikings go together like peanut butter and jelly. In a critical year where Zimmer’s job could be in jeopardy, relying on a player like Griffen, who’s always been effective, rather than a young player with questions like Wonnum might keep him off the hot seat.