Will the Minnesota Vikings' New Defensive Line Be Among the NFL's Best?

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Will the Minnesota Vikings' New Defensive Line Be Among the NFL's Best?
Nam Y. Huh

If money talks—and in the NFL it almost always does—Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has made it crystal clear about how much he values the defensive line. 

In Cincinnati last season, Zimmer's starting defensive line cost the Bengals almost $50 million in total salary. The talented and disruptive group—anchored by Michael Johnson ($11.2 million; franchise tag), Geno Atkins ($19 million; $15 million signing bonus, $4 million base), Carlos Dunlap ($13 million; $11.7 million signing bonus, $1.3 million base) and Domata Peko ($5.1 million; $3.9 million base, $1.2 million bonus)—eventually helped the Bengals finish in the top five for both points and yards allowed in 2013. 

Now the head coach of the Vikings, Zimmer has again put his money where his mouth is to help rebuild a defensive line that could be one of the NFL's best in 2014. 

Minnesota didn't pay Jared Allen, a big name with 85.5 sacks over six years with the Vikings, and 11-year veteran Kevin Williams still doesn't have a deal to stay. But Zimmer did sign off on general manager Rick Spielman re-signing defensive end Everson Griffen for $42.5 million before the start of free agency. And on the open market, the Vikings locked up former New York Giants nose tackle Linval Joseph with a five-year, $31.5 million deal and versatile defensive lineman Corey Wootton on a one-year pact. 

The new and returning pieces will combine with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, a 2013 first-round pick, and Brian Robison, who led all defensive ends in quarterback hurries last season, to create a formidable front. 

New Toys: Comparing Vikings and Bengals DL in 2013
MIN: Robison, Floyd, Joseph, Griffen CIN: Johnson, Atkins, Dunlap, Peko
Sacks 20 20
QB Hits 30 45
Hurries 125 109
Stops 83 105
Grade +20.3 +43.2

Source: Pro Football Focus

Zimmer wouldn't have it any other way. 

The defensive line remains the bedrock to his defense; a front line against the run and the disrupting force against the pass. The remaining seven players on a defense all benefit from a strong front, such as a linebacker running free to a ball-carrier or a secondary having to cover downfield for a second less. 

Almost any elite modern defense is built from the front to back, whether it is Zimmer's from Cincinnati or Ron Rivera's in Carolina.  

The Bengals depended on Johnson and Dunlap holding the edge and disturb passing lanes, while Peko took up blockers and Atkins shot gaps. Seemingly every year, Cincinnati has added depth up front through high draft picks. 

The Panthers, who finished 2013 ranked second in points and yards allowed, got double-digit sacks from Greg Hardy (15.0) and Charles Johnson (11.0), while youngsters Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short plugged up the middle. Carolina has invested big-time money and draft capital into turning the defensive line into a strength. 

Even the Seattle Seahawks—the best defense in football last season—were more than just a top secondary. The Legion of Boom still got plenty of help up front, where Michael Bennett and Brandon Mebane played at All-Pro levels, and Cliff Avril, Red Bryant, Clinton McDonald and Chris Clemons completed a dominating rotation of linemen.

The same tune can be sung for top units in San Francisco, Kansas City and Arizona

These are the defenses Minnesota is now striving to join. And just a few months into the job, Zimmer has the building blocks needed to create another wrecking-ball defensive line. 

Griffen isn't yet a big name, but he could be soon. A rotational player who never had a set position under the former regime, Griffen will now start at right end, Allen's old spot. If his work as a part-time player is any indication, he'll produce big in his new role. 

Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Griffen produced 52 quarterback disruptions in 2013—18th most at his position—despite playing only 717 snaps at both defensive ends and tackle. The year before, he had 43 over 672. 

NFL Game Rewind

Zimmer asks his defensive ends to stop the run first and rush the passer second, but Griffen has finished with a positive grade against the run in all four of his NFL seasons.

He could flourish at right defensive end much like Johnson, who signed a $43.8 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the first day of free agency.

Even more encouraging for Griffen is the fact that Zimmer had a chance to go after Johnson—his starting defensive end in Cincinnati and a proven difference-maker—but instead chose to give his new pass-rusher big bucks to stick around. 

A show of faith? It appears so. 

"I don't want to give the impression that Michael Johnson was the guy we were going after and Everson was the second guy," Zimmer told KFAN-FM, via Ben Goessling of ESPN. "We felt like Everson was a guy that, his career is starting to go up and he was the guy that we really put our eggs in his basket first."

The $42.5 million deal for Griffen, which included $20 million guaranteed, could have de-incentivized the Vikings from spending more money on the front four in free agency. Just the opposite happened. 

In need of a true nose tackle, Spielman and Zimmer lured Joseph to Minnesota to give the line an ideal 1-technique to play the role held by Peko in Cincinnati. 

The 25-year-old Joseph is a rare breed; massive even by NFL standards at 6'4" and 323 pounds, with long arms (34 1/2") and tremendous strength (39 reps at 225 pounds), but also nimble and quick enough to collapse the pocket as an interior rusher.

Peko, who started every game for Zimmer at nose tackle from 2010 to 2013, stands 6'3" and weighs 322 pounds. Joseph is probably the better player. 

As a mostly full-time participant the last three seasons in New York, Joseph tallied nine sacks—a solid number for how massive he is and the position he plays—and 70 run stops, third most among true nose tackles. 

Joseph's disruptive ability was on full display during this sack of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Matt Barkley last season:

NFL Game Rewind

The 323-pounder splits the double-team with strength and then explodes into Barkley's lap, taking down the rookie before he can get off a throw. 

Later in the season, Joseph chases down Russell Wilson for another sack:

NFL Game Rewind

It takes him awhile to get home, but once he ends the hand fighting and swims past the guard, the big man looks athletic as ever in getting Wilson to the ground. 

The Vikings will hope that the presence of Joseph will aid in the development of Floyd, one of Minnesota's three first-round picks from a year ago. 

Mostly a rotational player as a rookie, Floyd tallied just 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2013. But his best games came later in the season, and he certainly likes what he sees out of the new additions. 

"I track the comings and goings, yes sir," Floyd told Brian Hall of Fox Sports North. "(Zimmer is) building the way he likes it and the way he sees fit and now I'm just looking forward to meeting those guys and building a relationship so we can be the rock of the 'D.'"

Fair or not, Floyd will be expected to assume the role of Atkins in Zimmer's new defense. 

The Bengals uncovered Atkins in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft. By the time Zimmer agreed to be the new head coach in Minnesota, Atkins had already developed into one of the game's most disruptive interior rushers. When healthy (he tore his ACL in 2013), Atkins has the rare combination of an explosive first step and overwhelming strength—traits that make him unblockable at times. 

Predicting that Floyd will become the next Atkins is a steep jump, but he does have the kind of athleticism and power to fill the role. And playing next to Joseph, who can eat up blocks and take away attention, will aid in his ability to pass rush up the field. Last season, the Vikings miscast Letroy Guion on the nose, and the whole line suffered for it. 

Completing the puzzle up front are Robison and Wootton, two differently styled ends who could each thrive under Zimmer. 

Robison is the classic pass-rushing end; great at attacking quarterbacks off the edge but somewhat lacking in holding up against the run. His transition might be the most difficult of the returning linemen, as he'll need to adjust his playing style to fit what Zimmer expects from his ends. 

But regardless of the transition, there's no doubting Robison can pressure the quarterback. 

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

While Allen totaled another double-digit sack season, Robison quietly produced a career-high 63 hurries, plus 11 quarterback hits and nine sacks. Among 4-3 defensive ends, only Robert Quinn of the St. Louis Rams had more quarterback disruptions. Since 2011, he has registered 193 disruptions and 25.5 sacks.

Wootton had an up-and-down year with the Chicago Bears, but he brings the versatility to play end and tackle. His best season—in 2012 when he had a career-high seven sacks—came while in a reserve role, where the Bears picked their spots. Given their depth at both end and tackle, the Vikings should be able to employ him in a similar fashion. 

Zimmer's ability to coach and develop defensive lines ties the whole package together. 

In all, the Vikings have $104.5 million committed to the four projected starting defensive linemen. Robison is under contract for $22.4 million, Griffen will make $42.5 million, Joseph's deal is worth $31.5 million and Floyd's rookie deal has a max value of $8.1 million. 

The total cap hits for the four in 2014: $22.3 million, or nearing 20 percent of Minnesota's total cap space next season.

The Vikings have simply followed the blueprint Zimmer helped lay in Cincinnati. The money still does all the talking for how important the position group remains to the defensive guru.  

Now, a front four with the potential to be one of the NFL's best in 2014 needs to walk the walk. 

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 


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