This is the fifth in an eight-part series reviewing the 2016 Vikings and looking ahead by position. Previously: OL / RB, TE / WR / QB
The Vikings’ vaunted defensive line started strong, leading the league in many areas through a 5-0 start before teams fully committed to scheming against them, especially on passing downs. Tackling was an issue as the defense ranked in the bottom third of the league in efficiency, per Pro Football Focus, which included too many misses along the defensive line.
Overall, Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph put together strong seasons. Brian Robison continued to squeeze every bit out of his long career while second-year end Danielle Hunter broke through as a potential star in the making. They were stunted at three-technique defensive tackle, where Sharrif Floyd missed 15 games. His presence was missed, particularly against the run, as the team leaned on a platoon to fill in for him. Moving forward, the Vikings may need to bring in another potential three-down tackle to pair with an otherwise reliable line.
Under contract in 2017: Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Danielle Hunter, Stephen Weatherly, Sterling Bailey
Pending free agents: Justin Trattou
Under contract in 2017: Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen, Toby Johnson, Scott Crichton, B.J. Dubose
Pending free agents: None
Grades are based on a 1-5 scale, with ’5′ marking an excellent season, ’4′ for above-average, ’3′ for average, ’2′ for below-average and ’1′ for failure to perform. Players who did not accrue a season (weren’t on the active roster for at least six weeks) or played in three games or fewer are not graded. Based on game and practice observations, weekly film reviews and interviews. QB pressures and missed tackles provided by Pro Football Focus analyst Trevor Lynch.
Everson Griffen (4.0): One of four player-voted team captains. Led the defensive line with 888 snaps [85.8%]. Voted onto the original Pro Bowl roster. Continued to make his money as a pass rusher as the Vikings’ highest-paid defender. Finished second on the team with eight sacks, though he led with 68 quarterback pressures (hurries/hits/sacks) overall as one of the league’s most disruptive 4-3 edge rushers. Not as strong against the run with one tackle for a loss (down from five last year) and a team-high 12 missed tackles (up from 10 last year). Missed Robert Turbin twice on a touchdown run in the Colts loss. Still Griffen, who turned 29 last month, forms one of the league’s better edge duos along with Danielle Hunter’s rise. Forced two fumbles and recovered three. Returned one for a touchdown in the season finale win vs. the Bears. Put up his third career three-sack game against Cam Newton in Carolina. Had a strong outing vs. the Cowboys offensive line and Tyron Smith with a team-high eight tackles, including three run stops, a quarterback hit, forced fumble and a recovered fumble. Fined $18,231 for a late shove on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, which negated a Harrison Smith interception. Flagged eight times, seven for offsides (up from four a year ago).
Danielle Hunter (4.0): Emerged as a budding star during his second NFL season. The 22-year-old defensive end tied for third in the league with 12.5 sacks, leading the Vikings. He was the defense’s most effective pass rusher with one QB pressure every 7.5 snaps, just edging Griffen (8.2). Played 598 snaps [57.8%] as a rotational end off the bench and mainstay in their pass-rush looks. Did not start a game, but probably warranted so given his improved play against the run. Physically imposing at 6-5, adding to his repertoire and started to really use his length to his advantage. Put up multi-sack games against the Cardinals, Cowboys and Packers. Returned a fumble 24 yards for a touchdown in the season-opening win in Tennessee. Threw Michael Oher to the ground and landed a safety on Cam Newton in Carolina. Missed six tackles. Flagged once. Should be in line to start next season as Brian Robison turns 34 in April.
Linval Joseph (4.0): Named to the Pro Bowl as a replacement for Aaron Donald, Joseph continued his upward trajectory during his third season with the Vikings. Played 721 snaps [69.7%]. Finished third on the team with 77 combined tackles and tied the team lead with three forced fumbles, both career bests. The 329-pound nose tackle also tied his career high with four sacks. Improved as a pass rusher with 34 quarterback pressures, up from 20 a year ago. Stayed relatively healthy as the line’s best run defender, drawing double teams for an all-too-inconsistent group. The Vikings’ 20th-ranked run defense didn’t help the team’s slide as Joseph’s production dipped to two tackles for a loss (down from seven a year ago). Missed eight tackles (up from four). Forced the Matt Barkley fumble that led to Griffen’s touchdown in the finale. Flagged three times, including for illegally hitting the long snapper on a Colts field goal attempt.
Brian Robison (3.5): One of four player-voted team captains. Played 837 snaps [80.9%], marking the six consecutive season he’s played at least three quarters of all downs. Up to 66 consecutive starts as the line’s unheralded iron man during his age 33 season. Still showed juice as a pass rusher with 49 QB pressures, third on the team. Finished with 7.5 sacks, three tackles for a loss and a team-high three forced fumbles, including the fourth-quarter strip of Aaron Rodgers in the Week 2 win vs. Green Bay. An integral piece of a strong Vikings pass rush. Continued to play inside as a pass-rushing tackle without Sharrif Floyd available. Combined with Tom Johnson as a formidable interior duo when they had opponents behind the sticks. Though perhaps age started to show as he surrendered more ground against the run, where a year ago Robison was a top-10 defender among 4-3 ends. Missed eight tackles. Flagged only once. Could be hard pressed to continue warding off Hunter for his starting job, should he stay in Minnesota. The Vikings could approach Robison about a pay cut this offseason as he’s due a $5.3 million base salary in 2017, none guaranteed.
Tom Johnson (3.5): Had his role scaled back at age 32, remaining one of the group’s most effective pass rushers. Played 475 snaps [45.9%] as a rotational tackle, but primarily played in pass rush situations. Finished with just two sacks, though he tied Griffen for the team lead with 13 hits on the quarterback. That included six hits on Brock Osweiler in the win vs. the Texans. Finished with 35 QB pressures overall, fourth on the team. Landed his first career interception off Cam Newton in Carolina. Won an appeal to have an $18,231 fine reversed for roughing Carson Palmer. Tore his hamstring against the Colts and missed the final two games. Said he won’t need surgery. Missed three tackles. Flagged three times. Under contract for a $2.3 million base salary next season, none guaranteed.
Shamar Stephen (2.0): Played 550 snaps [53.1%] in an increased role without Floyd in the lineup all season. Started a career-high 16 games, playing more in potential run situations. The former seventh-round pick has impressed coaches with his early development, but he didn’t provide much of a push and did not have a tackle behind the line of scrimmage in his third NFL season. That development has not come as a pass rusher, where Stephen had just nine QB hurries and no sacks. Missed four tackles. Flagged once.
Justin Trattou (2.0): A core special teams contributor who played just 10 snaps [1%] on defense all season. Saw 270 snaps on special teams units and was one of the group’s better blockers. Finished with four tackles. A pending free agent.
Sharrif Floyd (N/A): Played 25 snaps in the season opener in Tennessee before requiring arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in September. Missed 15 games. His recovery took longer than the Vikings expected as he was kept on the active roster for 12 weeks before he was placed on injured reserve. Floyd has now undergone operations on both knees in the last two seasons, missing 20 games across the last three seasons. The talented first-round pick may have to renegotiate a deal to stay in Minnesota as he’s under contract for a pricey fifth-year option that isn’t guaranteed until March.
Toby Johnson (N/A): The undrafted Georgia product turned a strong camp and preseason into a practice squad spot, where he spent 14 weeks before he was promoted to the active roster. Waived to make room for Adrian Peterson and re-signed three days later. Played 23 defensive snaps [2.2%].
Stephen Weatherly (N/A): Drafted in the seventh round (227th overall) out of Vanderbilt. Spent the first 11 weeks on the practice squad before he was promoted to the active roster. Active for the first time in Week 14 at Jacksonville. Made his first tackle in the season finale vs. Chicago. Played 15 snaps on special teams.
Scott Crichton (N/A): Made the move to defensive tackle after the 2014 third-round pick was phased out at end. Couldn’t stay healthy enough in camp to make a bid for a roster spot and was waived/injured and moved to IR at the start of the season.
B.J. Dubose (N/A): The second-year defensive tackle suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament during OTAs in the spring. Spent the entire year on injured reserve. A 2015 sixth-round pick out of Louisville.
Sterling Bailey (N/A): The undrafted rookie from Georgia signed to the practice squad in October. Inked a reserve/future deal.