One of the best and brightest in all of football. It is time to take a look at the most recent vintage of the Purple People Eaters: the 2018 Vikings defensive line.
The Vikings already arguably had a top-three defensive line unit. Then they added Sheldon Richardson. As such, this group now has elite talent up and down the line with Pro Bowlers past, present and future at each position. There is no weak link in the chain as far as the four starters go. Along with the Eagles, Rams and Jaguars, one has to consider the Vikings’ starters among the very best in the game.
And for at least three of the four starters, it seems they will be in purple for a long time to come. Griffen and Joseph are under contract through 2022. Hunter, who has yet to turn 24, just signed an extension through 2023. What is more, all three are have team-friendly deals well below what their market value will be in the near future. Richardson is the only one not locked in long-term as his contract is only for 2018. And with Hunter’s extension and the ongoing contract talks of Stefon Diggs, it is likely Richardson’s time in Minnesota will be short-lived.
Regardless, in a Super Bowl-or-bust year, the Vikings have a starting line that will be the focus of every offensive coordinator’s gameplan. While the Vikings of 2017 actually performed slightly below reputation in the pass rush department, finishing with the 15th-highest opponent protection index in the league, the combination of pass rush threat and run-stuffing prowess makes them an elite corps. Plus, the upgrade of Richardson over Tom Johnson cannot be overstated. Though Johnson was a decent pass rusher, Richardson recorded 33.5 hurries/knock downs last year as opposed to Johnson’s 24.5.
It will take a lot for this line to match 2017’s performance. But with a new addition inside and further development on the edge, the Vikings are poised to get even more out of their starting four.
There is simultaneously an embarrassment of riches and a lack of options once you get past the starters. Outside of Robison, there is not one guy who fans can pencil in to be an effective contributor. But on the other hand, there are a number of exciting players who could surprise at the back end of the rotation. Odenigbo, Bower and rookie Aruna are big, athletic ends with lots of upside. Same goes for Weatherly, who was the fourth end in the rotation last season. The other rookie, Holmes, has intrigue after bumping inside to tackle. Jaleel Johnson is a question mark, but an exciting one.
However, all of that depends largely on hope, not proven track records. The one tackle with a history of production is Parry, but he is coming off a season-long injury. All told, the same issue that largely hampered the line down the stretch last year could rear its ugly head again. The Vikings are stacked up top, but a dearth of depth could sap the energy of the starters come playoff time.
Robison will be a solid third end/passing down three-technique. But he is also 35. His time is coming up sooner rather than later. Much of the Vikings’ rotational success could come down to the development of the two young tackles, Holmes and Johnson. Johnson had some playing time last year with minimal success. Holmes has a history of playing three-technique on passing downs like Robison, but he spent most of his college career on the edge.
What all of this means is that, for the time being, the Vikings will be pretty reliant on its top four. Now, that is not an awful place to be. That top four is one of the best in the business. But they would benefit from being able to cycle more players in, and it seems that will not be an option in 2018.
Five guys are locks to make the Vikings roster out of camp: Griffen, Hunter, Joseph, Richardson and Robison. How many more linemen the Vikings keep is another story. Last year, they kept nine for the 53-man. So if we assume they do the same this season, that would likely mean four tackles and five ends. As fourth-round picks in the last two drafts, one would assume Holmes and Johnson will be priorities to make the roster. Though a more proven veteran, Parry seems like the odd man out in the tackle group.
The ends, on the other hand, are much more open. There are no fewer than four names fighting for two spots. The rest would most likely be prime candidates for the practice squad. All have cases. Weatherly played in 2017. Bower made the roster last year over Odenigbo. Odenigbo and Aruna were both draft picks while Bower was undrafted. Aruna has the best physical traits. But at the end of the day, preseason production will likely have the biggest say in who ends up where.
But regardless of the back end of the roster, the Vikings’ defensive line will almost certainly perform among the league’s best. They are too talented at the top to do otherwise. As much as the lack of depth may hurt down the road, the starting four will take 75 percent of the snaps as a group. The defense will thrive based on their success more often than not.
Final Spring Evalutation
It is tough to give the Vikings’ the best possible grade when teams like the Jaguars and Rams are shuffling in dangerous pass rusher after dangerous pass rusher. That is something the Vikings cannot do right now. That said, their front four are still relatively young, athletic and productive, so it would be foolish to not label them as a major asset to Mike Zimmer’s defense. How the lack of depth will hurt late in the season is to be seen. For now, this group is about as dangerous as it gets up front.