Vikings 2019 Roster Preview: Defensive Line

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Nov 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Everson Griffen (97) and defensive lineman Danielle Hunter (99) celebrate a sack in the third quarter against Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Everson Griffen (97) and defensive lineman Danielle Hunter (99) celebrate a sack in the third quarter against Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

This week, we are taking a look at the makeup of each position group on the 2019 Vikings. That means who returned, who is new and who departed that needs replacing. Next up, the defensive line.

Returning Full-Time Starters: Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph
Returning Significant Rotation Players: Jaleel Johnson, Stephen Weatherly
Returning Depth: Ade Aruna, Tashawn Bower, Curtis Cothran, Jalyn Holmes,  Hercules Mata’afa,
Veteran Additions: Ifeadi Odenigbo*, Karter Schult, Shamar Stephen
Rookies: Stacy Keely, Anree Saint-Amour, Tito Odenigbo, Armon Watts

*Idenigbo returned to the Vikings after brief time in other stops last year, so he is technically an addition. But he was also a 2017 Vikings draft pick and has been in Vikings camp each of the past two seasons.

If there is one area that Rick Spielman has excelled at finding talent, it is the defensive line. The Vikings are returning five major rotation guys this year, four of whom Spielman drafted, and only one, Hunter, went before day three. Johnson and Griffen were both fourth-rounders while Weatherly went in the seventh. And yet, Griffen and Hunter have blossomed into stars in Minnesota, while Johnson and Weatherly are solid pieces to have in the rotation. Weatherly in particular is a star on Spielman’s record, as he has proven he can even start for stretches if need be. 

Now, Griffen is certainly on the back end of his career. He had some significant off-field issues to deal with last season, but by all accounts, he has moved past them as well as one could expect. And when he was on the field in 2018, Griffen played fairly well, if not quite up to his 2017 standards. In his stead, Hunter took the mantle of top pass rusher in a breakout season. At the same time, Linval Joseph has retained his status as the monster in the middle, while Weatherly and Johnson provided spells when needed. 

The loss of Sheldon Richardson may be a significant one, given his strong play from the three-technique last year. However, Shamar Stephen is a capable starter who has quite a number of starts under his belt in this very system. Plus, there is still reason for optimism surrounding the development of Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes in years three and two, respectively. Holmes’ playing time was limited last season, but it was his first year playing inside after a solid Ohio State career as an end. He has apparently put on good weight and should be in line for more reps in his second season.

Those seven guys seem safe bets to make the roster. That leaves at least two spots wide open with a myriad of options to choose from. Two returning players, Hercules Mata’afa and Ade Aruna, are essentially rookies; both suffered season-ending injuries in preseason last year. Mata’afa has tried out a number of positions in Minnesota but has moved back inside to his natural defensive tackle. He is undersized for the position, but Mata’afa was one of the premier forces inside in college football. As for Aruna, he showed some promise last preseason after going in the sixth round. But he injured his knee before he got a true opportunity to separate himself from the defensive end pack.

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Then there are the old pros of Vikings camp, Tashawn Bower and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Bower has made the 53-man roster out of camp the last two seasons. Granted, he has seen little time on game days. Probably his greatest asset is that he looks the part: long, lean and strong. Odenigbo, on the other hand, is a little shorter, a little stouter and plays more north-south. However, he has produced when given opportunities in preseason, and has been a staple of the Vikings’ practice squad. Word is that management is still high on his development potential.

Interestingly enough, only one of the Vikings’ 12 draft picks went to the defensive line, that being sixth-rounder Armon Watts out of Arkansas. Late-round defensive linemen have done fairly well to make the Vikings’ roster out of camp. Some have made the active roster, others the practice squad. Either way, rookies get lots of run in preseason. Watts is built like a prototypical three-technique, but also has versatility, production and power to his resume. With so many questions surrounding the overall depth of the Vikings’ interior line, Watts should see plenty of opportunity.

The undrafted rookies are far more unknown. Tito Odenigbo had an up-and-down college career but may be getting a shot due in part to familial connections. Saint-Amour posted modest numbers, but has decent explosion to make up for his lack of size. Keely was a success story of the rookie tryouts, so he will have the fan support. But his UAB production does not match his imposing size (6-foot-7, 250). 

Minnesota has typically kept nine linemen, but circumstances could lead to an extra body making the roster out of camp. The Vikings are a little thinner in the secondary which could open up some other spots. While seven guys appear comfortable in their position, a host of other names could claim their stake in the coming months. 

The front four should remain strong, as always. If Hunter, who is still only 24, continues his development, the Vikings could boast a mean pass rush once again, even as some of their starters enter their downswing. Their depth will be a bigger question. But if Weatherly continues to step up while Johnson and Holmes progress, that should not be a major concern.

–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.

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