The Vikings iDL Is Set For the Future

Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire (USA TODAY Sports)

In one offseason the Minnesota Vikings have transformed their interior defensive line from the team’s biggest weakness to its biggest strength. What’s more, the group not only has a high floor for the next season but also a mixture of young talent that gives them the potential to excel in the near future.

The Vikings have never had a great interior defensive line during Mike Zimmer’s tenure. The best unit played on the 2017 squad, which touted Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson as starters with Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson as backups.

Things devolved so quickly that by the time the Vikings got to 2020 after their shiny new nose tackle Michael Pierce opted out, they were left with Stephen and Johnson as the starters.

Defensive line coach Andre Patterson justified the Vikings’ lack of prioritization of interior linemen at the time, saying, “All the time I hear, ‘Oh, they need a penetrating 3-technique, they need a penetrating 3-technique.’ Well, when we had the No. 1 defense in the league, we didn’t have a penetrating [DT]. We don’t ask our 3-techniques to do that. So why would we go out and get something we don’t use?”

It’s safe to say the Vikings’ priorities have shifted. Amid the flurry of news on Monday, Minnesota announced they were interested in a reunion with Sheldon Richardson, the former Cleveland Browns DT who played for the Vikings in 2018 — a season in which Richardson totaled 47 pressures and 4.5 sacks.

After signing Richardson, the Vikings’ interior looks like this:

This group of players gives them a blend of studs and developmental players. More impressively, Richardson, who would’ve easily been Minnesota’s best lineman last year, won’t even crack the starting lineup.

Tomlinson signed a two-year deal with the Vikings, and Pierce is slated to be in Minnesota for the next three years. Beyond that, the Vikings did add two voidable years on Richardson’s contract, suggesting an incentive, likely sack- or pressure-based, that gives Richardson $10 million in base salary in 2022 — an indicator that they hope to have him around beyond next season.

Having most of the fixtures signed for multiple years offers a chance for the younger players like Armon Watts, Jaylen Twyman, and others to develop. For example, Twyman has a similar role projection to Sheldon Richardson.

Twyman is primarily an interior pass rusher who uses his speed and strength to get to the quarterback. He was very disruptive for the Pitt defensive line in 2019 before opting out. He totaled 10.5 sacks and 36 pressures, and before opting out, there was some buzz around Twyman being a high-round draft pick.

Twyman doesn’t have the best run defense, and some of the bigger, stronger defensive linemen seem to overpower him, but Patterson and Richardson can help him learn to counter that.

Additionally, Armon Watts was arguably the only DT on the Vikings’ roster last year who showed any potential. He had impressive burst and size, displaying pass-rushing ability for much of the season. Watts’ run defense also seemed to get better. The only real gripe with Watts was consistency: He struggled to string together a series of good plays.

With the multitude of injuries on Minnesota’s roster, the second-year player got in 392 snaps, almost quadruple the amount from his rookie year in 2019. However, Watts posted a run-defense grade of 56.3 and an abysmal tackling grade of 44.1. For him to take the next step, he must be more consistent.

Throughout last season, Watts showed his potential to make plays all over the place, but other times he performed worse than Shamar Stephen or Jaleel Johnson.

With another year under his belt and additional development under the tutelage of Michael Pierce and Co., Watts will hopefully find that consistency.

“He’s got really good strength. He plays with really good contact balance. He’s got quick feet,” Andre Patterson said. “He’s a physical football player, but the one thing that Armon can also give you is he does have some natural feel in transition on his pass rush. He was able to make some plays in games and make the quarterback feel him. So I’m just hoping that he continues to improve in his progression. I was very pleased with how far Armon came at the end of the season.”

The Vikings not only have three very legitimate interior defensive linemen for the 2021 season and a few years beyond, but they also possess multiple younger players with loads of potential, giving this defensive line room a brand new aura — one that signifies a shift from that being one of the team’s least impressive position groups into one of the best.

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