They cruise through pass-rushing drills one after the last, with chiseled frames so similar to one another, it almost appears as if they came off an assembly line.
The seven defensive ends on the Vikings’ 90-man training camp roster all stand between 6-3 and 6-5, none lighter than 246 pounds or heavier than 273. Their long arms uncoil like loaded springs, ready to send a tackle reeling backward or pull a quarterback down to the turf.
They are supple enough to bend around the edge of an offensive line, sudden enough to get past a guard from an inside rush lane and flexible enough to occasionally slip back into pass coverage after their presence forced an offensive coordinator to commit blockers to them, spending resources that have now been wasted by the deception.
“We like our ends to look kind of a certain way,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Even some of the guys in the past that haven’t actually made it, they’re all 6-5, they’ve all got long arms, they’re athletes — they’re almost basketball player-looking guys.”
This has been the template for Zimmer’s pass rushers dating back to his days with Tony Tolbert and Charles Haley in Dallas, and through his time with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap in Cincinnati. Last year, Everson Griffen (6-3, 273 pounds), Danielle Hunter (6-5, 252) and Brian Robison (6-3, 259) were the league’s only trio of defensive ends to post at least seven sacks apiece. Stephen Weatherly was added to the group last year, and Tashawn Bower might be next.
You haven’t heard of Bower? Given the Vikings’ success with pass rushers, his name might be one you want to learn. He has a pair of sacks this preseason, leading the Vikings and tying him for third most in the NFL. The Vikings gave him $45,000 in guaranteed money in April — the fourth most handed out to any undrafted free agent in 2017 — and he stands a decent chance to make the team’s 53-man roster.
He is a 6-5, 250-pound end from Louisiana State, with 33⅜-inch arms and the combine’s third-fastest time among defensive ends in the 60-yard shuttle. He was thought to be somewhat raw as a pass rusher, after three of his 5½ career college sacks came in his final bowl game, but defensive line coach Andre Patterson began regular contact with him before the draft because he thought there was more to coax out of the 22-year-old.
Sound familiar? Hunter is almost exactly the same size, the same age, from the same school and had 4½ sacks in three college seasons.
“Him and Danielle are very good friends,” Patterson said. “So from my first conversation [with him], he knew who I was. He knew what we had done with Danielle. And at the end of the deal, when it all came down to the end and he’s wavering back and forth, when I talked to him on the phone, [it was], ‘Hey, you knew what ‘D’ was at LSU, and you know what he is now. So you know I’m telling you the truth of, if you come here, what we can do for you.’ ”
Bower’s speed and length intrigued the Vikings enough to meet with him before the draft. Patterson and assistant defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez talked to Bower regularly in the three weeks before the draft, and each of the three days during the draft. When Bower wasn’t selected, and wound up with his choice of more than a dozen teams, the relationship with Patterson helped seal things for the Vikings.
The Vikings also used a seventh-round pick on Northwestern defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who had a sack on Friday night in Seattle, and have given occasional first-team work to Weatherly after using a seventh-round pick on him a year ago. The process has led to what Patterson called the deepest group of defensive ends since Zimmer’s staff arrived in 2014, and it could lead to some difficult decisions during final cuts on Sept. 2.
“You might be able to get them from the third, fourth, fifth [rounds], and sometimes free agency,” Patterson said. “Some people are looking at the total number of what the guy did through his career, instead of looking at, ‘What kinds of skill sets does he possess?’ ”
There are still plenty of teachable moments for Bower. In the second quarter Friday, his exuberance coming off the left side of the Seahawks line opened a hole for quarterback Russell Wilson to scramble. Early in the third quarter, Bower put both of his arms into Rees Odihambo’s chest, sending the tackle backward as Bower closed in to take down Trevone Boykin.
Upon returning to the sideline, he heard Patterson say, “At some point, you’re going to trust me,” eliciting a laugh and an endorsement from Hunter.
The process keeps churning out terrifying pass rushers. Bower could be the newest model.
“It’s [learning] angles, the way you have your body facing a certain way, your hand placement, all the little minute details that no one worries about, but they’re the biggest things,” Bower said. “I’ve definitely heard it before, but it’s coached way more strictly here. And it’s proven to be successful.”