The Vikings Are Making A Massive Gamble On the Interior Defensive Line

Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

It’s very difficult to construct a perfect roster in the modern NFL.

The salary cap and limited draft assets make roster construction a never-ending series of cost/benefit analyses and value propositions. Even the best teams have holes on their roster, and it’s naïve to think that a team can seemingly plug all of them in one offseason — especially when they entered the offseason with as many holes as the Minnesota Vikings defense did.

Minnesota needed help at corner so they could play Byron Murphy more at his natural position in the slot. They needed a replacement for Jordan Hicks at inside linebacker. They needed help at the edge position even before they let Danielle Hunter walk, and that became an even bigger need once it was clear he was on his way out. To the front office’s credit, they at least attempted to address all of those needs one way or another through free agency and the draft.

Shaquill Griffin and Blake Cashman are not franchise stars but have starting experience in their respective position groups. Jonathan Greenard, Andrew Van Ginkel, and Dallas Turner are reasons for hope that Danielle Hunter’s presence won’t be sorely missed. The front office can at least hold their heads high and say they tried to get better at those positions.

And then there’s the interior defensive line.

Harrison Phillips is one of the unsung heroes of this Vikings defense. He’s a good player and has been a rock-solid addition to this defensive front from the day he signed with Minnesota two years ago. However, the rest of that defensive interior is cause for concern. Outside of Phillips, that room has been underwhelming, unproven, or a gross disappointment thus far. Of all the possible liabilities on this defense, their biggest may be up the middle.

Second-year DT Jaquelin Roy, veteran journeyman Jonathan Bullard, and former first-rounder turned castoff Jerry Tillery are the most likely starters alongside Phillips on the defensive interior. These are far from inspiring, but perhaps not completely devoid of upside. Throw in a few other bodies that could earn snaps, like seventh-round pick Levi Drake Rodriguez, former Los Angeles Rams DT Jonah Williams, and the recently re-signed James Lynch. It feels like a room full of guys who’ll be lucky to pull above a 70 rating when Madden releases this summer.

Luckily for Brian Flores, the game isn’t played with Madden ratings. I’m sure the current state of the interior defensive line feels less than ideal to Minnesota’s DC, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make it work. The Vikings managed to overcome their defensive deficiencies last season through various wacky and exotic play calling, and their defensive personnel feels better suited to survive without throwing the kitchen sink at opposing offenses than they did last season.

It seems even more likely to me that internally, they’re simply more confident than we’re giving them credit for. We may have been largely unmoved by Jaquelin Roy’s rookie season, but the coaching staff seems to be betting heavily on the prospect of his development. Roy may never be an effective every-down starter, but his size and strength profile could translate into a solid first/second-down player capable of being stout in the run game and eating up blocks for Flores’ myriad blitz packages. If the second-year beefeater from the Bayou can take the next step into a more consistent player, it could change the entire complexion of the defense.

Adofo-Mensah also seems to have a penchant for investing in high-pedigree, former first-round picks after they flame out. It could be a major development if that becomes the case with Jerry Tillery. It is also possible that Tillery’s fate is no better than that of other former first-round castoffs like Jalen Reagor. Still, even contributions as a valuable rotational player would greatly improve. Coming out, Tillery was billed as a high-upside disrupter on the interior capable of generating a pass rush and shedding blocks in the run game by leveraging his elite length. He may never live up to that billing, but perhaps he can provide a portion of that perceived pre-draft potential in a rotational role.

Any way you spin it, IDL is likely Minnesota’s biggest deficiency on defense. The lack of depth is just plain scary, as an injury or two could put this team in a serious bind — and even that assumes the starters alongside Phillips play above replacement level.

Time will tell whether this turns out to be a reconcilable weakness or an Achilles’ heel.

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