The Minnesota Vikings
If featuring a potent corps of interior defensive tackles that can constantly collapse the pocket up the middle is one of the keys to success of any defensive line, then the Purple and Gold look to be in fantastic shape.
Starters Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd provide a devastating one-two punch with Joseph, in particular, taking the league by storm in 2015 as arguably one of the top handful of most improved players in the NFL.
The Virgin Islands native was a solid, but non-descript, run-stuffer for his former squad, the New York Giants, at the time of the Vikings luring him away in free agency with a five-year, $31.25-million contract in 2014.
By simply widening his stance and working on his hand movement, coach Mike Zimmer helped turn Joseph into one the premiere interior linemen in the game. Pro Football Focus deemed him the fifth-best run-stopping defensive tackle, according to the site’s grading system.
The long-armed defender features a quick first step and remarkable strength to fight off double teams. His four-game absence last season visibly weakened his team’s ability to stifle the opposition’s ground game.
Floyd, by the same token, was also a disruptive force who played a major role in limiting opposing teams to seven rushing scores all season. The 25-year-old’s agility and hand skills to get off blocks allowed the ascending veteran to take his game to another level.
The only obstacles standing in his way are recurring knee and ankle issues that kept him out of three games. Nagging injuries are something for which Zimmer doesn’t have much patience.
Heading the reserves behind Floyd and Joseph is the 31-year-old Tom Johnson, who has literally traveled around the world as a member of the now defunct NFL Europe and the CFL prior to hooking up with the Purple People Eaters.
Johnson is more pass rusher than run-stuffer, who despite producing 6.5 and 5.5 sacks in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but PFF ranked him 81st among defensive tackles due to his underwhelming run defense. He is best utilized in limited doses.
Young Shamar Stephen is the bigger man at six-foot-five, 310 pounds and he uses that size well in occupying blockers. The UCONN product played five games in his second season before succumbing to a season-ending ankle injury. Stephen is a handful for any offensive lineman given how difficult it is to knock him off his feet.
One-time New York Jet Kenrick Ellis was signed to help make up for the loss of Stephen, but he didn’t see that much playing time. At 346 pounds, Ellis is a massive defender who excels in playing the run, but his deficient pass-rushing skills make him far from a lock to make the final roster.
Zimmer and company received an awful break earlier in the week when it was revealed that developmental lineman B.J. Dubose would miss the entire season due to a torn ACL he sustained during OTAs.
Going further down the depth chart, Travis Raciti is a quick-footed, high effort interior lineman that practically lives in the film room. Toby Johnson is another youngster with promise considering his impressive burst off the snap and speed to make plays down the line.
Over at defensive end, Everson Griffin’s back-to-back double-digit sack seasons have established him as a bonafide star. The tenacious sack master plays every down as if its his last along with possessing the vision to anticipate action in the opposing backfield.
Elder statesman Brian Robison is 33 years old and could see his snap total dialed back, but it won’t be because of his level of play. In fact, 2015 saw the Houston native make all 16 of his starts and register 34 tackles and five sacks.
Numbers alone cannot describe Robison’s value in that he has always done whatever has been asked of him throughout his career from playing stand-up linebacker to shifting inside to defensive tackle when necessary. His technical savvy and athletic ability make him among the more versatile players at his position.
The one player Robison will be making room for is fellow end Danielle Hunter, a second-year pro with arms like vines (34 ¼”) and outstanding closing speed. The intense 21-year-old was the youngest player in the league last year, but that didn’t stop him from notching six quarterback sacks.
Zach Moore barely saw any playing time last season, but is an intriguing defender that used his length, range and unusual leaping prowess to make plays while at Division II Concordia University in nearby St. Paul.
Old Florida Gator Justin Trattou will have to scrap for one of the final roster spots primarily by showing his wares as a special teams performer, though he did exhibit sharp instincts in picking off two passes in 2015.
Zimmer’s group of defensive linemen features the best mix of high-upside youth and effective veteran performers. They ranked seventh overall in sacks (43) in the prior campaign and have the firepower to surpass that mark with the continued development of Hunter, Stephen and Moore.
Their most important player, though, is Joseph. They need a full season’s worth of production from the 329-pound nose tackle if they hope to be a dominant unit. Running backs had a significantly easier time finding daylight in his absence.
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