Roster Projection: The Defensive Line

In our first installment of the Roster Projection Series, we will be focusing on the defensive line. For a refresher on the format, take a look at our initial post.

The Minnesota Vikings have a long history of elite defensive linemen. Even in recent years, Vikings fans have enjoyed incredible play from Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Jared Allen, and Everson Griffen, among others. As they head into a transitional year, the Vikings will look to continue this tradition with the help of the D-Line Whisperer – Andre Patterson – and their next elite defensive lineman, Danielle Hunter.

The D-Linemen:
Jalyn Holmes, Danielle Hunter, Jaleel Johnson, Stacy Keely, James Lynch, Hercules Mata’afa, David Moa, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Michael Pierce, Shamar Stephen, Armon Watts, Kenny Willekes, D.J. Wonnum, Eddie Yarbrough, and Anthony Zettel

Lock:
Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, and Ifeadi Odenigbo

After five years in the NFL, Hunter has established himself among the preeminent defensive ends in the league. Hunter (who is still only twenty-five) is an elite player who is still improving.

Michael Pierce was signed in the offseason to be the starting nose tackle. He is an elite run defender. His ability to consistently stifle the opposing team’s run game will go a long way in Mike Zimmer being able to successfully navigate the turnover on his defense.

There are legitimate concerns about depth at defensive end, a reality that contributes to Odenigbo’s status among the Locks. Nevertheless, Odenigbo performed well last season. His ability to play end and along the interior on passing downs gives Zimmer flexibility in pressure packages.

Likely:
James Lynch, Shamar Stephen, Armon Watts, and D.J. Wonnum

The more intriguing names in the Likely category are Lynch, Watts, and Wonnum because they offer the most potential.

In a limited role last season, Watts performed admirably. At roughly 300 pounds, Watts is undersized for nose tackle, so it will be interesting if Patterson and Zimmer see if he can compete at three technique.

Lynch had a productive career in college. Questions remain, though, in terms of how this ability will translate to the NFL. His main role in his rookie season will likely involve rushing the passer on obvious passing downs.

In a recent press conference, Patterson explained why he pushed for the Vikings to select Wonnum: “He’s long, he’s athletic, and he’s very smart.” Patterson goes on to note Wonnum’s “desire to learn and try to become a great player” before acknowledging that he “can’t give him that length, I can’t give him that explosiveness.” The Vikings have done well when they’ve partnered players who have raw ability, work ethic, and intelligence with Patterson’s coaching.

Stephen is a bit of wild card. His performance was underwhelming last season. Even still, there is good reason to believe the Vikings will include him on their final roster. Adam Zimmer recently mentioned Stephen alongside players like Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and Hunter as key defensive players who will help with the transition. If Pierce gets injured, Stephen could pinch-hit at nose tackle. According to Over the Cap, releasing him would leave behind almost $4 million in dead money and just over $1 million in cap space, so there is no real financial incentive to cut him.

Lofty:
Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, Hercules Mata’afa, Kenny Willekes, and Anthony Zettel

The true competition heading into training camp involves rookies, recently drafted players, and veteran depth players.

The Vikings have addressed the uncertainty at defensive tackle by bringing in a variety of players, all of whom having notable strengths and weaknesses. Johnson is a powerful player with limited upside; his ability to fill-in for Pierce may allow him to secure a roster spot.

Holmes and Mata’afa are difficult to project. Both were chosen for their potential at three technique, but the difficult transition from defensive end to the interior (Holmes) as well as injuries (Mata’afa) have led to limited success. For what it’s worth, Patterson specifically mentioned Mata’afa in a recent press conference as a player to remember as the Vikings head into training camp.

Perhaps the most intriguing option in this category is Willekes. He is known for his effort and toughness, characteristics that will be crucial to him making the lineup. His ability to contribute on special teams may be the key.

Zettel is a player who may appeal to the Vikings because of his experience and flexibility. Zettel, who was drafted in the sixth round in 2016, has good size at 6’4, 275. In 2017, he had 6.5 sacks for Detroit.

Longshot:
Stacy Keely, David Moa, and Eddie Yarbrough

There may be uncertainty at three technique and limited depth at defensive end, but Keely, Moa, and Yarbrough will have a difficult time making the final roster. Perhaps the most intriguing prospect is Keely. He is only twenty-five years old and plays defensive end, a position of need for the Vikings.

Pre-Training Camp Defensive Line Projection: Hunter, Lynch, Mata’afa, Odenigbo, Pierce, Stephen, Watts, Willekes, Wonnum, and Zettel.

Pre-Training Camp Starter Projection: Hunter, Pierce, Watts, and Odenigbo.

In the next article in our Roster Projection Series, we’ll be looking at the linebackers.