The Minnesota Vikings are saddled with a considerable number of in-house free agents this offseason, many of whom will be allowed to leave Minnesota without too much consideration from the Vikings before or during free agency.
There is one free agent who cannot get away.
No, that player is not Jared Allen or Kevin Williams, franchise bedrocks for most of the last decade. Cross off Matt Cassel, Chris Cook, Erin Henderson and Toby Gerhart for consideration, too.
The right answer to this free-agent riddle is actually Everson Griffen, Minnesota's young, ascending defensive lineman who has rare versatility and disruptive ability. He's not yet a household name, but Griffen has all the tools necessary to become a centerpiece of Mike Zimmer's new, attacking defense, no matter what kind of hybrid fronts the Vikings may want to employ.
Now, the task ahead is keeping Griffen in Minnesota.
Asked at the NFL Combine if Griffen was a candidate for the franchise tag, Zimmer said that option hasn't yet been considered for any of the Vikings' free agents.
"We haven't talked about the tags," Zimmer said, via Marc Sessler of NFL.com. "We've just been evaluating our players. I think once we figure out more the football team that we have and where our funds need to go, and those kinds of things, we'll figure that out."
The tag would seem like an unlikely option, as it comes with a $12.6 million cost if Griffen is deemed a defensive end, or $9.2 million if he's grouped in with defensive tackles. His most likely designation would come at defensive end.
The Vikings have until March 3 to designate Griffen—or any other free agent—with the franchise tag. If the tag isn't used and a new deal isn't reached, Griffen will enter unrestricted free agency eight days later.
That timeline gives the Vikings plenty of time to get a new deal done. But even if Griffen does hit free agency, Minnesota should make him its No. 1 priority.
There simply aren't many defensive linemen in the NFL with his combination of versatility, athleticism, disruptive ability and future potential. Team that skill set with a defensive mind like Zimmer, who routinely put together top defensive lines in Cincinnati, and the sky is the limit for what Griffen can accomplish in Minnesota.
How many down linemen in the NFL can rush the passer from defensive end, tackle and 3-4 outside linebacker, comfortably drop into coverage and contribute on special teams, including as a gunner?
The answer: probably only Griffen.
We're talking about a rare athlete—a mini Jadeveon Clowney. The USC product ran the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds and bench-pressed 225 pounds 32 times at the 2010 NFL Combine. He reportedly timed as fast at 4.46 at his USC pro day, with a 34-inch vertical leap and a 9'7" broad jump. Those are impressive marks at 6'3" and 273 pounds.
The Vikings have since used the athletic Griffen at every spot on their front-man front, most notably at each end spot and inside at tackle in the nickel defense. He's equally effective doing both, as his length, bend and power cause offensive tackles trouble and his quickness and hand strength can be too much for interior guards and centers.
Watch Griffen here against the Cincinnati Bengals:
He lines up inside at tackle, head-to-head against guard Mike Pollack. Exploding off the ball, Griffen gets Pollack to overcommit to the outside before spinning off the guard's right shoulder and landing right in Andy Dalton's lap for a sack.
If used correctly, Griffen could be a devastating combo rusher on par with Michael Bennett, who just finished a top season with the Seahawks. In Seattle, Bennett moved all over the line depending on situation. Offensive lines couldn't handle him.
Yet if Griffen does return to Minnesota, he will likely be expected to play less inside at the three-technique and more in a full-time role at left or right defensive end, where Allen is likely to depart. His most natural position is at either end.
In the clip below, we see Griffen attacking the quarterback from the left defensive end spot:
This sack of Aaron Rodgers is all about explosion off the ball and the ability to bend around the corner. It's a special combination of skills that all top pass-rushers possess. Early on, Griffen uses speed to get to the right tackle's outside shoulder. Once there, he "bends" at the point of attack to get skinny around the corner and get to the quarterback before he can step into the pocket.
This explosive, flexible nature to his game has led many to believe Griffen could also stand up as a 3-4 rusher and be just fine. If Zimmer wanted to, he could experiment with hybrid fronts that allow Griffen and Brian Robison to stand up and rush the passer.
But Griffen's versatility as a player isn't limited to getting after the quarterback.
He can drop into space and hold his own. In fact, the Vikings dropped him into coverage on 66 snaps over the last two seasons. He even intercepted a pass in 2012, when he floated into the middle of the field and picked off Sam Bradford. Watch him return the interception for a score:
On special teams, which occasionally called for Griffen to be an outside gunner, the 273-pounder has 20 career tackles.
The best defenses in the NFL are those that can form and adjust around a versatile talent. With Zimmer now calling the shots in Minnesota, Griffen could be that valuable chess piece for the Vikings as they attempt to rebuild their own defense.
Despite playing behind Allen and Robison for the entirety of his NFL career, Griffen has managed to stay highly productive as a pass-rusher. It's a testament to his ability to cause havoc from a number of different positions.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Griffen has been on the field for roughly 1,400 total snaps since 2012, or roughly 58 percent of Minnesota's total defensive snaps. Of those snaps, 900 have come rushing the passer.
|Everson Griffen's Disruption Numbers, 2012-13|
|Sacks||QB Hits||QB Hurries||Total||FF|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Last season, Griffen provided 52 total quarterback disruptions, including seven quarterback hits and 39 hurries. His 52 disruptions ranked 18th overall among 4-3 defensive ends, and ninth among 4-3 defensive with less than 500 pass-rushing snaps. (On a side note: 27 of his pressures came from the left side, 25 from the right).
The year prior, Griffen tallied 43 disruptions, with a career-high eight sacks. He finished as one of just three 4-3 defensive ends to register at least 43 disruptions on less than 400 pass-rushing snaps. (Again, his split was almost even: 21 from the left, 22 from the right.)
Overall since 2012, Griffen has 95 disruptions, 13.5 sacks, 19 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. His disruption-to-snap rate is better than 10-to-1, which is comparable to Jared Allen's pass-rushing production over the last two seasons.
The numbers tell us that, in a limited role, Griffen has still been one of the more disruptive 4-3 defensive ends in all of football. He's almost equally as effective from the left and right side, and his disruptions aren't based solely on volume.
Best yet, he's only 26 years old, which ensures that a multi-year deal won't become a poor investment in terms of aging or rapid regression. In fact, exactly the opposite is more likely to be true, as his relatively limited exposure will likely result in a return at a decent price. And the chances of him progressing and contributing more as a full-time player are very good, especially under Zimmer's watch.
Keeping Griffen is also important for the future of a defense in transition.
A number of big names—such as Allen, Williams and Henderson—are likely leaving town. Zimmer's job, while working with general manager Rick Spielman, is to acquire and develop a younger, more talented unit.
Losing Griffen would be a hammer blow to those efforts. He's capable of being one of the centerpieces for the Vikings' defensive revival.
The 26-year-old Griffen is a rare talent whose best days are still in front of him, especially once Zimmer and his staff get ahold of him. In a sea of in-house free agents, Griffen represents the one trophy fish Minnesota can't let get away. The clock is ticking.