In the spring of 2008, the Minnesota Vikings were tasked with finding an edge rusher. That year’s draft class had some exciting prospects, but the Vikings needed someone to put their defense over the top. Instead of drafting Derrick Harvey or Lawrence Jackson, the Vikings decided to trade for Jared Allen.
Trading for Allen is one of the most significant moves in franchise history, but it’s one of the few times the Vikings went big on finding an edge rusher. They haven’t selected an edge rusher in the first round since 2005 (Erasmus James), and instead of signing a big-name free agent, they’ve opted to mine for gold in the later rounds of the draft.
Their method isn’t without merits. Brian Robison (third round, 2007), Everson Griffen (fourth round, 2010), and Danielle Hunter (third round, 2015) were all taken late in the draft. But their pipeline of elite talent ran dry last season.
The Vikings drafted three defensive linemen this year, but Patrick Jones II, Jaylen Twyman, and Janarius Robinson were all selected in the third round or later. Minnesota’s track record of developing these prospects is impressive, but it’s fair to wonder if they will regret not being more aggressive in fixing the problem.
The defensive line was a disaster last season after Hunter went down with a season-ending neck injury. The Vikings tried to soften the blow by trading for Yannick Ngakoue, but a six-game trial didn’t work out, and Minnesota was left to rely on the players they had developed.
Ifeadi Odenigbo collected just 3.5 sacks after registering seven in 2019, and Jalyn Holmes’ return to the edge didn’t produce a single sack in 14 games. Developmental players like Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson didn’t give the Vikings anything on the interior, and Minnesota ranked 28th in total sacks (23) and 29th in quarterback pressure rate (19.6%) last season.
These numbers contributed to the worst defense Mike Zimmer has ever had and made the defensive line a top priority heading into this offseason.
They kicked the process off by signing Dalvin Tomlinson. The former New York Giants defensive lineman received a two-year, $22 million contract in free agency but will most likely be used at nose tackle. Tomlinson also ranked 29th among interior defenders last season with 28 total pressures, and his pass-rushing productivity ranking (7.2) ranked 47th among qualifiers.
He will be placed beside Michael Pierce, who was signed last offseason but opted out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pierce managed 11 pressures in 13 games with the Baltimore Ravens in 2019, and his pass-rusher productivity rating (6.1) ranked 66th among qualifiers. Unless the Vikings decide to bring in Sheldon Richardson or Jurrell Casey to be a situational pass-rusher, they’ll have to rely on their edge rushers to get to the quarterback.
The easy answer is that the Vikings will get Hunter back. He collected 14.5 sacks each during the 2018 and 2019 seasons and remains one of the game’s elite pass-rushers. But he comes with a lot of questions heading into this season. Hunter’s neck injury could potentially alter his career. While they have said all the right things regarding his rehab, they could be keeping their options open for a trade.
That scenario would have seemed far fetched a year ago, but Hunter’s contract situation has cast a cloud over Minnesota’s outlook. While Rick Spielman and Zimmer have both acted like things are fine, previous reports over Hunter’s desire to become one of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive players and his discontent with the team over that issue opens the door for a late-summer trade.
The haul of draft picks they would get for him could be worth it in the long run, but the Vikings are desperate to win now. If they had planned on trading Hunter, they could have added Kwity Paye or Jaelan Phillips in the draft to give them a blue-chip prospect who could contribute right away.
Instead, the Vikings are relying on D.J. Wonnum. Labeled Andre Patterson’s “pet cat,” Wonnum had a decent rookie season with three sacks. If he can build off that effort, it’s not a stretch to believe he could progress to the starting lineup next year. But other factors should keep us from anointing Wonnum the next Danielle Hunter. Wonnum’s PRP rating of 7.8 ranked 78th among qualifying edge defenders, and his 13.1% win rate on pass-rushing snaps ranked 97th.
Wonnum’s athletic profile is also impressive but not on the same level as Hunter’s. While Hunter crushed the combine to draw comparisons of Jadeveon Clowney, Wonnum’s profile mimics that of Odenigbo, who proved to be a rotational player in Minnesota.
The Vikings have hedged their bet on Wonnum by bringing back Stephen Weatherly. After one year as a free-agent bust with the Carolina Panthers, Weatherly has returned to Minnesota in hopes of reviving his career.
Like Odenigbo (and potentially Wonnum), Weatherly was a nice rotational piece but shouldn’t be relied upon as a starter. In 2019, Weatherly recorded three sacks but his PRP rating (6.6, 96th among qualifiers) and win rate on pass-rushing snaps (12.6%, 96th) left a lot to be desired.
The Vikings could hope that more tutelage from Patterson will result in more production from Weatherly. But he can only do so much. When given an athletic freak like Hunter or Linval Joseph, there’s a better chance that Patterson can get the most out of them. When given an average player such as Wonnum, Weatherly, or anyone who played on the edge last year, you get average results.
That’s what takes the luster off this year’s class. While Jones, Robinson, and Twyman all have traits that could translate under Patterson’s coaching, there’s a better chance they turn out to be the next Odenigbo, Holmes, or Johnson.
This would be an awful scenario for the Vikings that could worsen if the Hunter situation doesn’t play out in their favor. Using more resources on the defensive line would have increased their chances of being an improved unit next year, but instead they’ll have to sprinkle fairy dust and cross their fingers that an average talent will become an elite one.