Vikings offseason preview: Who will remain on the defensive line?

With a pair of aging veterans, the trenches could look different in 2020.
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Danielle Hunter

The Vikings offseason preview continues and as we've gone through the entire offense, and now it's time to focus on the other side of the ball beginning with the defensive line.

Last season, the battle in the trenches saw some good things for the Vikings, but they weren't quite able to be the dominant unit that has fueled Mike Zimmer's defenses in the past.

Those shortcomings will lead to an interesting offseason, especially along the offensive line, where several players are rumored for possible contract restructures or salary cap cuts. All of it could lead to a very different defense in 2020. 

2019 in review

Any discussion about the defensive line has to start with Danielle Hunter. Despite getting little to no media coverage, Hunter continues to become one of the best edge rushers in the game. After becoming the fastest player in NFL history to record 50 career sacks, Hunter tied his career-high with 14.5 sacks in 2019 and finished sixth among defensive ends with a 9.7 pass rusher productivity rating (PRP), per Pro Football Focus.

Across from Hunter was a revitalized Everson Griffen, who looked a lot like his old self with eight sacks on the season. Despite the solid sack total, Griffen's pressure numbers didn't stack up with the prime of his career, registering a 7.4 PRP that ranked 44th among edge defenders.

While the outside defenders looked good, the Vikings could have benefitted from some help on the interior. With Sheldon Richardson signing with Cleveland last offseason, Linval Joseph didn't have a tag-team partner on the inside and wasn't as effective as he has been during his career, managing three sacks but a career-low 44 tackles.

Part of this could have been that nobody stepped up to be a viable three-technique for the Vikings. Shamar Stephen may have been in the right spot, but he rarely got penetration to cause anything, although Zimmer has credited Stephen with eating up blockers to help linebacker Eric Kendricks put together a career year. 

Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson were rotational pieces and the preseason hype around Jayln Holmes and Hercules Mata'afa didn't materialize into regular-season production.

The salary cap situation

With the Vikings $12 million over the salary cap, they'll have to trim the fat on their payroll and the defensive line could be a good place to start.

Despite Griffen bouncing back to somewhere near his old form, he's 32 years old and owns a $13.8 million cap number that pays him like an elite defensive end. Griffen may still be productive, but he's one that could fall off a cliff before his extension runs out in 2022, when his cap number swells to $15.5 million.

In the end, Griffen might be seeking a deal that is somewhere between the three-year, $40 million deal that 31-year-old Brandon Graham hammered out with the Philadelphia Eagles or the two-year, $24 million pact that 31-year-old Justin Houston agreed to with the Indianapolis Colts. 

With Ifeadi Odenigbo, who recorded eight sacks last season, waiting in the wings, it could be enough for the Vikings to move on and clear $13 million in cap room.

Another restructure/release candidate is Joseph, but his situation is a little murkier. The Vikings do not have a primed talent to replace Joseph and although they approached Stephen Weatherly about a contract extension last August, he might not be suited to play on the inside permanently. Weatherly is also a free agent heading into this spring.

Joseph carries a $12.8 million cap hit coming into next season and the Vikings can save $10 million with a straight cut. If they can't restructure, it might make more sense to clean out the defensive tackle room as Stephen will make just over $5 million next season, but that leaves a gigantic hole in the middle of the defense.

Free-agent targets

A majority of any effort to revamp the defensive line will come from the interior unless they want to replace Griffen and Weatherly as edge defenders. On the inside, Minnesota should be looking to get a high-upside player that could improve with some coaching from co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Andre Patterson.

An interesting flyer would be Andrew Billings, who has been inconsistent during his time in Cincinnati but has shown some traits as a pass rusher. At 24 years old, having him work with Patterson could bring out the best in him and at least give Zimmer a rotational piece to get pressure from the inside.

Another option could be a pair of veterans that could serve as stopgaps but are more productive than what Joseph and Stephen are providing. Ndamukong Suh could be a fit, but he was more effective in stopping the run than was rushing the passer in 2019. Gerald McCoy would also make sense, but it depends on what salary he would want coming off a productive season (five sacks) in Carolina.

An intriguing possibility on the outside may be Vic Beasley, who saw his negotiations with Atlanta end last week. After leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016, it figures to be the barometer of what he could do with a competent coaching staff. With eight sacks last year, he would definitely be expensive but could be an interesting reclamation project to pair across from Hunter.

Draft targets

As with most of the positions of need, the Vikings' best bet to attract high-end talent will be through the draft. Starting with the interior, Javon Kinlaw could be a great fit as he is a big, explosive athlete that can create penetration and get to the quarterback. 

Unfortunately, with a tremendous couple of days in practice at the Senior Bowl, he figures to have shot up too far for Minnesota to get him without trading up.

Another first-round target that would be a pipe dream, but could fall toward the Vikings is LSU's K'Lavion Chaisson. There's a good chance that Chaisson will light up the combine as an athletic freak and if the Vikings let Griffen walk, having a pair of athletes on the ends could kick Odenigbo inside. Chaisson needs to learn some of the nuances of pass-rushing by using his hands and technique, scouts say, but this is a Patterson-made dream in heaven.

A lot of the later targets for the Vikings won't be determined until after the combine as they like to find guys who have raw athletic traits and coach them up. While we'll have to wait and see who some of those targets could be, Alabama's Raekwon Davis would be an interesting target as someone who didn't reach his full potential with the Crimson Tide, but has the tools to become a solid interior defender.

Outlook

The defensive line could have a changing of the guard heading into 2020, but even if it doesn't, it needs a lot of talent to maintain its level of play. 

The Vikings don't have a lot of money going into free agency, but if they can find a high-upside signing that won't break the bank they may go for it and hope that Armon Watts can make another leap this summer.

Minnesota has a chance at retaining Griffen, but if he doesn't, Odenigbo has looked explosive enough that he could be ready for a starting gig and another sneaky draft pick at the bottom of a draft loaded with talent could restock the defensive line on the fly.

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