INDIANAPOLIS – Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson has made it his practice in recent years to stick around for the linebackers’ workout at the NFL combine, in case the group of prospects contained any potential NFL defensive ends.
Two years ago, a lanky linebacker Patterson knew nothing about caught his eye.
“He ran 4.5 something [in the 40-yard dash],” Patterson said in December. “I was like, ‘Look at his frame — this guy could be a defensive end.”
Patterson caught up to the linebacker when both were walking off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium and asked him if he’d ever played on the line of scrimmage. When Stephen Weatherly informed Patterson he’d been a defensive end his first two years at Vanderbilt, Patterson filed that fact away. Two months later, the Vikings snapped Weatherly up with a seventh-round pick.
“I looked at the D-line [group], watched them work out and that’s why he jumped out at me,” Patterson said. “I said, ‘OK — if he’s willing to put in the time, we might have something.’ ”
That last sentence might be as close to a manifesto as the Vikings have had in the draft in the Mike Zimmer era, when a focus on athletic players and a willingness to develop unrefined prospects have built one of the most imposing defenses in the NFL. In the Vikings’ four drafts since General Manager Rick Spielman hired Zimmer, roughly half of their picks have posted 40 times near the top of their position groups at the combine, but it’s particularly been on the defensive side where a focus on athletic upside and a belief in their coaching staff’s ability to mold prospects have paid dividends.
The Vikings have stockpiled pass rushers that look like basketball players, snapping up Danielle Hunter when his lack of sacks in college caused the LSU product to slip to the third round in 2015. Weatherly started to get more playing time last season after spending most of 2016 on the practice squad, and Tashawn Bower — whom the Vikings targeted as a rookie free agent after he stuck out to Patterson — could be next in line after something of a redshirt year on the active roster in 2017.
Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (a seventh-round pick last year) ran a 4.72-second 40-yard dash and tied for second in the broad jump among defensive ends last year. Linebacker Ben Gedeon (a fourth-rounder last year) had the fastest 20-yard shuttle time at linebacker.
And back in the Vikings’ first draft with Zimmer and Spielman, they used the ninth overall pick on Anthony Barr, the 6-foot-5 linebacker who ran a 4.66 40. The next day, they used a third-round pick on Jerick McKinnon, a converted triple-option quarterback who put up eye-popping workout numbers as a running back.
In recent years, the Vikings have accentuated their draft approach with in-house metrics developed by analytics director Scott Kuhn. Their database holds repositories of historical information about how likely players with specific physical traits are to succeed at a certain position. As Kuhn has helped the Vikings accumulate and sort through more information, they’ve become more precise in targeting college free agents.
“I could have a backboard of 500 guys and they can, through a process of elimination, bring 20, 30 to our attention,” Spielman said. “A lot of times many of those guys on the backboard have one or two looks at the most, because they’re way over there. But when they ID those type of guys, it gives you an opportunity to go back and group study them and make a determination if he stays way over there or move to the forefront.”
So who could be next on the Vikings’ list? Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter, whom NFL Media projects as a second- or third-round pick, would seem to fit Patterson’s pass-rushing profile perfectly: he’s 6-6 and 250 pounds, with 34-inch arms, and he ran a 4.46 40. Florida’s Taven Bryan and Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne could be targets to fill a need at defensive tackle. And a player such as Tulane’s Ade Aruna (6-6, 262 pounds) could be a late-round project who could make the roster if he can carry his speed while gaining strength and developing pass-rushing moves.
Particularly at their pass-rushing and coverage spots, the Vikings will continue to try and stockpile players. And when they’re trying to make a decision between players, they’ll often consult their analytics, opt for an athletic specimen and trust their coaches to get the most out of him.
“It just gives you another tool, especially when you get into, if you guys want to frame it as tiebreaker situations,” Spielman said. “It can really guide you when you get into a tiebreaker situation.”