Minnesota’s Defensive Line Has the Capacity to Be Dominant

If you spend any time on Twitter, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some ongoing concerns about how things will shape up for the Vikings d-line. Will Danielle Hunter return to his usually-dominant self? How will the Michael Pierce-Dalvin Tomlison NT duo work? What can we expect for the DE opposite Hunter? As you can tell, questions abound when it comes to Minnesota’s defensive line.

Last week, we finished off the roster projections for the offense (QB, RB, WR, TE, and OL). It’s now time to turn our attention to the defense, and we’re starting with the young d-line. Minnesota has a rich history of elite defensive linemen, so fans weren’t at all accustomed to what was on the field last season. The 2020 season was ugly. Thankfully, things look to be considerably different heading into the 2021 season.

The Near Guarantees

In all likelihood, Minnesota will be keeping nine or ten d-linemen. There are quite a few guarantees in this group. At defensive end, Hunter, D.J. Wonnum, Janarius Robinson, and Patrick Jones II are near guarantees. At DT, we can expect to see Sheldon Richardson, Pierce, and Tomlinson on the final roster.

The best player on Minnesota’s defensive line is Hunter. The former third-rounder from LSU has quickly blossomed into one of the NFL’s preeminent edge rushers. In 2019, Hunter had an elite 89.4 PFF grade. The traditional stats, moreover, were similarly impressive: 14.5 sacks, 22 QB hits, 3 forced fumbles, and 15 TFLs. Understandably, Hunter wanted to leverage that production into more financial security. A sensible solution was reached and purple rejoicing ensued.

The concern, of course, is that Hunter struggles to return to pre-injury form. Frankly, there’s no way to know if he can until we see him on the field. I’m hopeful, but I’m no expert on neck injuries.

After Hunter, our best linemen are all defensive tackles: Richardson, Tomlinson, and Pierce. As you’ve probably heard, Pierce suffered a calf injury that threatens to prohibit him from starting training camp on time. We’ve heard this sort of thing before: a minor injury that shouldn’t stretch into the regular season. Fans will be forgiven if they’re somewhat skeptical. Alas, a calf injury isn’t as concerning as a neck injury. Hopefully it’s a minor tweak and he’s back to 100% soon. The last time he played – the 2019 season – Pierce was grading as a good-but-not-great DT on PFF. In Minnesota, Pierce will be tasked with keeping Eric Kendricks clean as he gobbles up double-teams while shutting down the A-gaps.

There’s been some concern about how Tomlinson will fit beside Pierce. Admittedly, I didn’t see foresee the Tomlinson signing (I was petitioning for Shelby Harris), but I don’t really share the broader concerns about Tomlinson’s fit, or lack thereof.

On paper, it’s a somewhat clunky pairing, but I can see Minnesota’s plan for their defensive line. A defense is continually trying to win the numbers game; on essentially every play, the defense wants to have a numbers advantage for wherever the ball is going. If a team sends two blockers and the ball carrier to the right side, the defense wants to have at least three players to that side so there’s a player the offense can’t block. Part of how defenses accomplish this goal is by having a monstrous NT who can occupy double teams. Having one defender occupy two blocker means there’s a DE with a good matchup or a LB who is free to pursue the RB unencumbered. What happens if a team has two NTs who demand double teams? Well, we’re about to find out.

I don’t think either Tomlinson or Pierce will put up huge sack numbers, but I do think they’ll make a positive impact in pass defense. For starters, they should help Minnesota force other teams into third & long on a consistent basis, thereby making the opposition predictable. They should also have success collapsing the pocket, making it more difficult for QBs to step up to avoid edge pressure.

Richardson, who fans will remember from the Vikings’ disappointing 2018 season, will have the chance to get the sacks. Last season was his worst-ever PFF grade, but he still finished 48th out of 126 with a solid 68.7 score. The only time he’s ever been truly elite was back in 2014, so fans shouldn’t expect him to be Aaron Donald. Nevertheless, Richardson will be a success if he merely provides above-average pressure, especially on third downs.

Fans should expect to see Wonnum, Robinson, and Jones II on the final roster. Put simply, they would need to be completely incompetent to not make the roster since they were all chosen in the middle rounds. The rookies may not get on the field very much, but they will be kept around. Wonnum should see lots of opportunity on third downs. His game-sealing sack on Aaron “Voldemort” Rodgers last year was perhaps the high-point of our season (which isn’t saying much).

The True Competition

The battle for the final two or three spots on Minnesota’s d-line will be intense. Stephen Weatherly, Hercules Mata’afa, Jalyn Holmes, and Jordan Brailford are all competing for the same DE spot(s).

For the most part, fans & writers assume that Weatherly is a lock to make it, but I don’t think that’s the case. His contract is quite modest, so Minnesota has the financial freedom to cut him without much consequence. He has a $2.5 million cap hit, and cutting him would save $2 million. The fact that he only leaves behind $500,000 in dead money tells us a lot. Now, we shouldn’t necessarily expect Weatherly to be cut. He is really long and really smart, attributes that Minnesota happens to value. He should be considered the front runner to start opposite Hunter – in spite of where ESPN puts him in their depth chart – but that doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee he makes the team.

I’m higher on Holmes than most, but I get that he’s fighting for his roster spot. He offers very little as a pass rusher, though he is strong against the run. I’m starting to believe that may not be enough for him. Perhaps his versatility will be enough to convince Minnesota’s coaches to keep him in a purple uniform. The same may be said for Mata’afa, who had strong moments last year but lacked consistent production.

I think they’ll keep four DTs (remember that three spots are nearly guaranteed). I’m a fan of Armon Watts; he should be on the roster. Watts, #96 in the below video, does a really nice job of tackling Ezekiel Elliott as he fends off the block from the Dallas guard. He starts in outside-shade and does a nice job of extending his arms so he can read where Elliott is running. When he sees Elliott working toward the B-gap, Watts is able to get just enough of him for the tackle. It’s an impressive play.

Jaylen Twyman still has a good chance of making the roster, but he was recently shot several times. Again, I’m not a medical expert, so I really can’t comment on how his recovery might proceed. All I can really say is that sixth-round picks often get cut and that missing any time for an injury really hurts one’s chances.

Otherwise, Minnesota will see if James Lynch, Jordon Scott, or Zeandae Johnson can offer any upside from the interior of their defensive line. It’s unlikely, but at least Lynch has a history of strong college play.

Who Makes Minnesota’s Defensive Line?

Similar to the o-line, I think that Minnesota’s defensive line will be a major point of emphasis heading into the season. The final roster will reflect this reality with 10 players making it.

At defensive end, expect to see Hunter, Weatherly, Wonnum, Robinson, Jones II, and Holmes. Wonnum is the dark-horse candidate to snag the starter spot opposite Hunter. At DT, expect to see Tomlinson, Pierce, Richardson, and Watts. That group is going to be able to overwhelm many teams’ iOL.

We won’t have the NFL’s most fearsome front-four, but Minnesota will feature a legitimately imposing defensive line. Minnesota will be among the league’s top defenses overall; the d-line to be a critical factor in this success.

What did I get wrong? Let me hear about it.