Olson's Mailbag: Who Starts at DE, Scheme Evolution, Free Agency Targets and More

Photo Credit: Vasha Hunt (USA TODAY Sports)

Welcome to the weekly Zone Coverage Vikings mailbag, where I try to answer all your burning NFL and Vikings-related questions, submitted via Twitter to @NickOlsonNFL.

In a draft press conference after drafting Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis, Minnesota Vikings director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson noted, “There was pretty much a directive from Zim going into scouting this fall and throughout the season — ‘Let’s get bigger up front.’” As much as finding undersized athletes helped the Vikings in their wide zone running game, Zimmer knew they needed to add some beef and find guys who could not only move but also anchor to hold up in pass protection, rather than being walked into the quarterback.

What’s encouraging about that directive is not just that Zimmer recognizes that the inability to anchor was an Achilles heel for the team’s pass protection, but moreover that Zimmer was willing to sacrifice some athleticism in the run game to upgrade the team’s pass protection. For a coach who has been criticized for overvaluing the importance of the run game, it’s a welcome shift in philosophy.

But as far as other offensive schematic evolutions, it’s tough to say. It’s notable that following Gary Kubiak’s retirement, the team simply promoted Klint Kubiak to offensive coordinator for the sake of continuity and declined to add a passing game coordinator or any other offensive assistant. It’s also notable that outside of adding Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the fifth round of the draft, the Vikings did not seem to try to improve offensive weapons. So it’s unlikely that they are going to dramatically change personnel groupings or start running more three-receiver sets, given that they largely failed to upgrade the WR3 position.

So other than shifting philosophies on the offensive line, the Vikings largely seem to be taking the approach that their offensive scheme isn’t broken, so why fix it? And largely, I think that’s a reasonable position, given the success and proliferation of play-action, wide-zone-based schemes in the NFL.

Still, this recent draft class might point to a couple of ways in which Zimmer and Klint Kubiak will bring new wrinkles to that schematic foundation. The Vikings drafted a few intriguing offensive skill players, including most notably Kellen Mond. The former Texas A&M signal-caller is the first Day 2 quarterback Rick Spielman has ever drafted, and it’s worth noting that both Kubiak and Vikings quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko attended Mond’s pro day. Given that Mond offers 4.56-second 40-yard dash speed and has plenty of experience executing zone reads and option plays in Jimbo Fisher’s offense, could we perhaps see some package plays for him? It could make a lot of sense, especially in the red zone where forcing defenses to play 11-on-11 could open things up.

Or perhaps the Vikings reached to draft Kene Nwangwu in the fourth round this year because they have big plans for the 210-pound über athlete who ran a 4.29-second 40-yard dash at Iowa State. Maybe they envision Nwangwu as a potential jet sweep option like the Packers do with Tyler Ervin? Or maybe the Vikings want to incorporate more jet motion into their offense generally after seeing how much success it has given the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams and see Nwangwu as an elite jet motion threat? It’s all speculation at this point, but using those early draft picks on these unique offensive skill players does give them options if they want to continue to innovate their scheme.

Can I bet on a veteran free agent?

The truth is I don’t think any of these three players are ready for a full-time role on the defensive line. Janarius Robinson is perhaps the easiest to eliminate from the list. As much as he might look the part with his elite size and length and great athleticism, he is still learning how to use any of it. Robinson might have a better shot of landing on the practice squad than starting.

D.J. Wonnum is an intriguing option given that he’s similar to Robinson with his great size, length, and burst, except Wonnum is already one year along in his development. But his rookie tape didn’t give us much reason to be confident in his ability to start this year. Wonnum needs to bulk up and substantially improve his technique in the pass rush game and especially in the running game if he wants to earn a starting role. And while I know the team is high on Wonnum’s future, I would not bet on him making that big of a leap this early. After all, even Danielle Hunter took three years to earn a starting role.

Stephen Weatherly is another option, as he did well as the Vikings’ third defensive end in 2018 and 2019 racking up eight sacks and 58 over nearly 1,000 snaps. He performed much worse in Carolina, however, going without a sack last year. And at 27 years old there is less reason to believe in his upside. Weatherly provides a nice floor with his length, scheme familiarity, and solid athleticism but ideally, he’s more of a rotational rusher.

So that leaves Patrick Jones II, who doesn’t have the type of ceiling that Robinson or Wonnum provides. Outside of a very good 10-yard split (a good sign of his burst), he did not test exceptionally well. He could also stand to put more than 261 pounds on his nearly 6’5″ frame. But Jones racked up over 20 sacks and over 30 tackles for loss in the last three years at Pittsburgh thanks to great size, leverage, and explosiveness, and at least Dane Brugler thinks Jones projects as a potential starter. He’ll need to learn how to better put his burst to use at the top of his rushes, and without elite athleticism, he may not be a long-term starter. But with Coach Patterson, I like Jones’ chances best.

That said, if I were the Vikings, I would go out and sign a stopgap veteran pass rusher to a one-year deal like Everson Griffen or Ryan Kerrigan to start and give the youngsters more time to develop.

Interestingly I never studied Davis too closely because I figured the Vikings would not see him as a scheme fit given his lack of athletic testing and issues climbing to the second level and staying balanced blocking in space. But now that Zimmer wants to find guys with the mass to hold their own in space, Davis makes a lot of sense. Setting aside stunts and blitz pickups, Davis did not allow a single sack or QB hit over the last two years at Ohio State. I think his physicality, strength, anchor, and technique all project well and expect him to be a solid 1-on-1 pass protector in the NFL. Davis’ level of play did take a step back last year, in part due to a knee injury sustained in March and reaggravated against Alabama, but he should be fully healed now.

I do think Davis may struggle a bit in the run game when he’s not able to quickly get his hands on a defender and may not have the athleticism to wind up as a Pro Bowl guard. He might continue to struggle with blitz pickup and stunts. I think there’s a good chance he ultimately winds up as “just a guy.” That would match how some scouts described him in Bob McGinn’s article in The Athletic: “[Davis] kind of is what he is. I don’t feel he necessarily slipped (in 2020). Just maybe was overrated in some people’s eyes” and “This year, man, he looked unathletic. He’s a worker, he’s a pro, but it’s hard to get on the table for him.”

“Just a guy” might be disappointing for a player once hyped as a potential first-round talent. But for Vikings fans used to Dakota Dozier, Dru Samia, and T.J. Clemmings, “just a guy” could still be a major upgrade.

Prior to the draft and free agency, I wrote about the Vikings’ most pressing needs, and while a lot has changed, the aging veterans and expiring contracts have not.

Notable free agents for the Vikings entering 2022 include Harrison Smith, Brian O’Neill, Anthony Barr, Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, and Xavier Woods. O’Neill will likely receive an extension, and I would expect Smith to sign an extension as well before the season starts. But that still leaves some big question marks in the secondary: Smith will be 33 next year and Peterson will be 31, while Woods and Alexander may or may not pan out after their one-year deals. I am excited about Camryn Bynum’s future, but the safety position will be an important one to keep an eye on this year at camp given the long-term uncertainty at the position.

Replacing Anthony Barr will be particularly tricky, assuming the Vikings cannot afford to re-sign him, as currently Troy Dye and Chazz Surratt more closely resemble an undersized weakside linebacker like Eric Wilson. They probably aren’t up for the task of crashing down and setting the edge against offensive tackles or blitzing offensive guards.

And while Adam Thielen is still under contract for another four years, he will be 31 next year. The team may want to start thinking about investing in a wide receiver a year early rather than a year late.

So those are the positions I would be most concerned with. If they can re-sign a few members of the secondary and replace Barr with Surratt by shifting a few things around schematically, none of those needs above may necessarily be immediately pressing. But then again, things move so fast in the NFL — players get hurt, people have down years — such that it’s hard to say confidently how things will look a year from now.

As I wrote earlier this week in my 53-man roster projections, the Vikings are coming off a year in which they recorded the third-worst special teams DVOA over the last decade. Newly-promoted special teams coach Ryan Ficken has the tall task of fixing that unit without the team spending any money or draft capital on any replacement specialists.

Last year, Dan Bailey was the lowest-graded kicker in the NFL, missing six of his 43 extra-point attempts and only making 68% of his field-goal attempts. So Greg Joseph has a low bar to clear and likely will clear that bar given his career 92% conversion rate on extra points and career 86% field goal conversion rate. Joseph has a good leg but could stand to be more consistent — something Coach Ficken will hopefully be able to help fix.

Britton Colquitt will have to beat out a couple of punters in camp after grading as the third-worst punter in the NFL last year — a strange development after posting the fourth-best punting grade in 2019. More stability at long snapper and improved punt coverage after the additions of some very athletic rookies should help, so a bounce-back year seems possible even with Colquitt recently turning 36. But if not, the Vikings did sign Brugler’s fifth- and seventh-best punter prospects, so it’s also possible either of the rookies provides an upgrade over last year’s punting.

Between Smith-Marsette and Nwangwu, who each had a lot of success returning kicks in college, the kick return position should be improved, but I am more concerned with whether anyone on the roster besides Chad Beebe can return punts. Neither Smith-Marsette nor Nwangwu has punt-return experience, and muffed punts could be a real concern with both rookies given that they both struggled with drops in college.

So overall I have a lot of question marks and expect the unit to be below average. But given all the young rookies who can contribute and with hopefully more stability and better coaching, I’m optimistic that this year the special teams will be merely mediocre.

After adding two starting offensive linemen in the draft, three rotational defensive linemen plus a receiver and safety, I actually don’t think the Vikings need to go out and sign anyone. As outlined above, I think they could really use a veteran defensive end to start opposite Hunter, but they could get by with a rotation so long as Hunter stays healthy.

If I could pick just one veteran free agent, it would probably be reuniting with Everson Griffen, who might be available for around veteran minimum. Griffen is not only extremely familiar with Zimmer’s scheme but offers the size and power to hold up as the five- or six-technique opposite Hunter, taking on strongside double teams and setting the edge against left tackles. It might make for an awkward locker room after Griffen’s now-deleted tweets about Kirk Cousins earlier this offseason, but these are professionals and I wouldn’t keep that from addressing a need. And Griffen’s pass-rushing has not seemed to decline much even at his age — his 73.6 pass-rush grade last year was about in line with his career average and ranked 22nd among 63 starting edge defenders.

The Vikings could also stand to upgrade at WR3, but for a team that runs the least three-receiver sets in the league and wants to give snaps to C.J. Ham and their tight ends, I wouldn’t hate rolling with just Beebe, Smith-Marsette, and Bisi Johnson. Beebe is great at uncovering underneath and can be a reliable chain mover on third-and-medium, while Smith-Marsette can be a great vertical option for two-minute drills. Johnson has a solid all-around skill set and has performed admirably when asked to start — he racked up 154 yards on 11 catches in the three games he started last year. I would still want to add a veteran like Dede Westbrook, Golden Tate, or Alshon Jeffrey, but I would understand if the Vikings wanted to stick with what they have given their scheme and the current rotation.

And of course, depending on how Jeff Gladney‘s legal troubles play out and Mike Hughes‘ health, the Vikings could always use more cornerbacks, as Zimmer himself knows all too well. That said, if the team believes Hughes is finally fully healthy and is comfortable with Harrison Hand as a backup, I don’t see any need to add any more corners at the moment.

The Vikings currently have about $7.6 million of current cap space, which does not include the additional $7.9 million that will accrue once Kyle Rudolph is formally released on June 2. The Vikings will need to set aside $6-7 million of that to sign the draft class, practice squad final 53-man roster, and to save funds for IR.

And they may choose to save additional cap space to roll over to next year. That said, if they wanted to use some of that cap space now, I would prioritize a strongside edge rusher with the pass rush juice to take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups assuming Hunter will get most of the double teams. I would also think about adding another receiver and potentially a kicker or punter.

Zimmer loves his cornerbacks, as almost no one has invested more draft capital into the cornerback position over the last decade. So I am sure Zimmer would love to continue to invest in the position, as he understands not only are games won and lost in the passing game, but moreover that pass defense is a weak-link system: having two great first-round corners doesn’t help much if the nickel corner can get picked on all year.

That said, I am certainly not confident that Gladney’s career is over. As I wrote about last month, Gladney will likely face a six-game suspension for the domestic violence incident, but it’s still entirely possible (even likely) that he plays and even starts games this year for the Vikings. And it’s also possible the team may wish to re-sign Peterson or Alexander if they perform well this year.

And even Hughes may still have a future with this team. The team believes he’s healthy and ready to play this year; if he were still injured they would have waived him by now. He may not be worth a fully guaranteed $10 million fifth-year option, but if he plays well and stays healthy this year, they may try and re-sign him as a good rotational corner or backup.

So while it’s possible cornerback could very well end up a glaring need this time next March, as things currently stand I would not be shocked if it were not the team’s most pressing need.

There is no data that I am aware of other than the anecdotal data: sitting early obviously worked out well for Patrick Mahomes behind Alex Smith recently, as well as Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre, Tom Brady behind Drew Bledsoe, and Drew Brees behind Doug Flutie. But then again starting early seems to have worked out very well for the Buffalo Bills with Josh Allen and the Baltimore Ravens with Lamar Jackson.

Giving a developmental quarterback time to sit and rework their mechanics can make a lot of sense, but often the best way to accelerate a quarterback’s development is by throwing him into the fire. Moreover, regardless of whether a quarterback is good or not, playing him early gives you the advantage of knowing what you’ve got in that player. If you’re going to fail, fail early so that you can more quickly replace that quarterback. Right now the Green Bay Packers are in a bit of a bind with Jordan Love, given that Rodgers may not be returning while the Packers’ organization cannot be confident in Love’s ability to start after not activating him once in his rookie year.

Cousins and Mond are dissimilar quarterbacks in a lot of ways, in that Cousins is a fantastic processor with great accuracy but lacks Mond’s natural arm talent and athleticism. If Cousins can teach Mond how to more quickly read the field and throw with more consistent accuracy, that would obviously be fantastic. Mahomes himself credits Smith for much of his own success, so having a quarterback who can teach Mond how to develop from a mid-round rookie into a franchise QB would be great, but it’s probably more of a job for Klint Kubiak and Janocko.

As you may have seen, the Bears recently announced they will be releasing starting left tackle Charles Leno, which will free up $9 million. That should be just enough to sign the draft class and get through the rest of the offseason, but it will also mean rookie Teven Jenkins switching sides and Germain Ifeadi continuing to start at right tackle, where he has struggled.

So his name is Zach Von Rosenberg. He grew up in Louisiana and punted for Zachary High School before being drafted as a pitcher by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009 straight out of high school. After six years in the minor leagues, Von Rosenberg retired from baseball and eventually returned to school back home at LSU, walking on as a tight end given his athleticism and size — LSU listed Von Rosenberg at 6’5″ and 245 pounds — which means that between him and Zach Davidson, the Vikings have found a way to roster both a punter/backup tight end and tight end/backup punter.

Von Rosenberg is a left-footed punter with a big leg and offers additional experience as a placeholder. Dane Brugler listed him as his seventh-ranked punting prospect, giving him at least a decent shot of competing for the starting punting job with Colquitt and Oscar Bradburn out of Virginia Tech.

Admittedly I didn’t love the Surratt pick, but I do think he could be ready to start sooner than later. He’s rangy, instinctive, and fluid and could make an early impact in coverage and as a blitzer. Like Dye (and Eric Kendricks before him), he’ll want to bulk up and better learn how to take on and shed blocks, but with Wilson departing in free agency and Barr set to be a free agent soon, he will have a chance to earn a starting role very soon.

Nick Vigil is less of a sideline-to-sideline linebacker and more of a downhill thumper/special teams contributor. He’ll likely make the roster given the guarantees in his contract, but Surratt figures to have a better chance to eventually earn a starting role, particularly given that despite his age he still offers a lot of upside as he’s only played linebacker for two years.

As detailed above, I think Patrick Jones has a solid shot at winning a starting role outright or at least playing heavy rotational snaps next year. Jaylen Twyman is tougher to predict as it seems he would do best as an undersized penetrating under tackle, but Twyman is not currently in shape for that kind of work after opting out and adding some bad weight in an effort to prove to teams he could be a full-time starting defensive tackle. For a sixth-round pick, I’m actually really optimistic about his chances to contribute as a rotational interior pass rusher, not entirely dissimilar from Tom Johnson, but we’ll have to see if Andre Patterson and the Vikings agree and can mold him into that kind of player in the NFL.

Via DM: Say everything goes right for the players the Vikings drafted — they actually get two day 1 starting OL, a starting edge and rotational interior rusher, enough special teams help, etc.— are the Vikings contenders?

Pro Football Focus previewed the Vikings’ projected pre-draft starting lineup below:

“Contenders” might be overstating it, but if the Vikings indeed wind up with three rookie starters, plugging every hole in the trenches, then there’s a good case to be made that they would have one of the most complete rosters in the NFL. The majority of the starters would be above average, leaving opposing offenses with very few weak points to target while leaving opposing defenses with too many threats, on the ground and in the air, to slow down.

If things pan out well, I think this is a team that can easily win the NFC North and is more than capable of going on a run in the playoffs. It would require a lot of luck, particularly good injury luck given this roster’s limited depth. But in the offseason where hope springs eternal, it’s fun to dream about.

Submit your questions to the next mailbag via Twitter to @NickOlsonNFL.

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