Note: Until the 2017 NFL draft starts April 27, we’ll take a look at where things stand at each Vikings position group. We’ll combine some in order to address as many as possible. Check for a new post each weekday.
The defensive line was again Minnesota’s strongest position group last season, with defensive end Everson Griffen and nose tackle Linval Joseph both getting Pro Bowl invitations. Veteran end Brian Robison had 7.5 sacks, his highest total since Mike Zimmer was hired in 2014. And Danielle Hunter, with 12.5 sacks, looked like a stud in his second year.
But while the front four was collectively pretty good, it was not great due to the gaping hole at defensive tackle left by Sharrif Floyd.
The oft-injured former first-round pick appeared in only one game before undergoing what was supposed to be a minor surgery on his right knee. Three months later, the Vikings put Floyd, still not healed, on IR. It was revealed last month that Floyd had suffered nerve damage during that September surgery, putting his career is in jeopardy.
Trying to fill the void, the Vikings signed former Packers defender Datone Jones in free agency in the hopes he can play that three-technique spot. They also return pass-rushing specialist Tom Johnson and run stuffer Shamar Stephen, who split time next to Joseph with Floyd sidelined.
But this is a position the Vikings are expected to address in the draft.
The Vikings are pretty set at defensive end, with Griffen, Hunter and Robison all returning in 2017. The big offseason question there is whether Hunter will start at left end this season or will still be behind Robison, who accepted a pay cut to stick around, on the depth chart.
Projected starters: Griffen and Hunter at defensive end, Joseph at nose tackle and Jones (or perhaps a high draft pick) at defensive tackle.
Don’t forget about: Johnson. While Johnson was exposed a little bit last season because he was asked to play too many snaps with Floyd out, he has shown he can be an effective role player when used predominantly as a pass rusher. Johnson is 32 and coming off a hamstring injury, but he probably still has enough juice left to again be a disruptive reserve.
Level of need: High at defensive tackle, low at end and nose tackle.
Five prospects to remember: Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida; Davon Godchaux, DT, LSU; Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn; Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State; Tanzel Smart, DT, Tulane.
Our best guess: The Vikings will strongly consider taking a long-term replacement for Floyd on the second day of the draft, when they have one selection in the second round and two in the third. They could look to add another edge rusher in the late rounds if there is one they like. And with Stephen in a contract year and Joseph turning 29 during the season, don’t rule out them drafting a nose tackle, too. One presumes Zimmer and the Vikings want to make sure this group remains strong.