How Much Can the Minnesota Vikings Expect from their Young Defensive Linemen?

It’s no secret that improving the defensive line is a priority for our Minnesota Vikings. There have been no shortage of mock drafts that insist the Vikings will opt for Gregory Rousseau, Kwity Paye, or another similarly tantalizing DL prospect at #14.

These are names that fans should keep in mind, but don’t hold your breath on these picks. In the last decade, the Vikings have never selected a DE in the first round. Instead, Minnesota consistently opts for freakishly athletic prospects in the middle rounds. DT is a somewhat different story, with Sharrif Floyd being a first-round selection in 2013. Be that as it may, the overall trend is fairly consistent.

Perhaps this is the year Minnesota breaks the trend (keep an eye out for Steven’s article on the recent history surrounding OL vs DL in the draft). Even if they do select a DE or DT in the first, one question fans should be asking themselves rests in how much we can expect from some of the young defensive linemen already on the roster.

The Minnesota Vikings, The Defensive Line, and Room for Internal Improvement

There are some promising candidates within this group, D.J. Wonnum foremost among them. The 23-year-old edge rusher played in fourteen games last year, starting two. He was in for 41% of Minnesota’s defensive snaps, accumulating three sacks, fourteen pressures, and twenty-four tackles. The play that most stands out is his game-sealing strip sack on Aaron “Voldemort” Rodgers at Lambeau:

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Wonnum’s impressive season went beyond one big-time play. Fans should be encouraged by the improvement he is already showing, and by his ability as a run defender.

Otherwise, fans should be keeping an eye on Armon Watts and James Lynch. Watts, for instance, is already a solid rotational iDL. There is hope that he’ll progress into an impact starter. Take a look at the video below for a few highlights:

Lynch had a rough rookie season. Given the defensive line’s underwhelming performance, Lynch’s inability to get onto the field was discouraging.

Usually, the Vikings have tried to get production (especially when rushing the passer) from the 3T position by moving a DE into the interior. The Vikings might consider doing the opposite with Lynch. What are the chances he would benefit from kicking out to defensive end? It’s a question that Minnesota’s defensive coaches ought to be asking themselves.

Conclusion

Much of the attention on the Minnesota Vikings defensive line will inevitably center on the return of Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce. From there, most will focus on the draft and some intriguing options in free agency. There is also some reason to be encouraged about more veteran players like Shamar Stephen and Hercules Mata’afa. Overall, the group isn’t that far off from being really good.

That being said, the young guys also provide reason for optimism. For a team like the Vikings, getting substantial internal growth would be massive. They won’t be able to go get the highest-ranked DL in the draft, and nor will they be able to sign the most expensive one in FA. Seeing improvement from Wonnum, Watts, and Lynch would thus go a long way in getting Minnesota back into contention.

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