Eric Kendricks previously called the 638-pound defensive tackle tandem of Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen a "linebacker's dream" just before his All-Pro season in 2019.
He must be thrilled with the Vikings' new 658-pound tandem of Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson, who signed a two-year deal worth up to $22 million this week. The Vikings cut Stephen a day later, paying for an upgrade in a younger and more versatile option.
Tomlinson, 27, arrives as general manager Rick Spielman's answer to watching the Vikings defense get run over, bottoming out in the Christmas Day debacle in New Orleans. A look through Tomlinson's last season in New York shows he'll stop the Vikings defense from getting pushed around, but questions remain about their four-man pass rush.
- At his best, Tomlinson is a bully of a run stopper. He overcame early knee issues at Alabama to start 64 of 64 NFL games in four seasons since the Giants made him a 2017 second-round pick. He lined up at multiple spots for New York's varied fronts, from one- (nose), to three- (undertackle), to five-technique (3-4 DE). He primarily played nose and thrived despite being on the lighter end — listed at 318 pounds — for an anchor position occupied in Minnesota by the 340-pound Michael Pierce. But Tomlinson, a former three-time heavyweight wrestling champion in Georgia, is incredibly strong and was always a fit for the dirty work at nose tackle.
In Minnesota, Tomlinson will move to starting three-technique next to Pierce, giving Mike Zimmer his best block-eating tandem of DTs he's had here. No surprise this comes after Saints coach Sean Payton said his flurry of pre-snap movement during the Week 16 loss was done, in part, to manipulate the Vikings defensive tackles while Alvin Kamara ran for six touchdowns. Having Pierce and Tomlinson makes it a little more difficult to be exploited in the run game.
In this Week 3 game between the Giants and 49ers, Tomlinson lines up outside the shoulder of the guard on this play, where he'll primarily be in Minnesota. He's not known for a super quick get-off or speed, but he's got some burst to go with the bull rushes.
On this first down, Tomlinson (#94) not only gets the quick jump on 49ers left guard Laken Tomlinson (#75), but he keeps driving the guard into the backfield to stall a run aimed away from him. Single blocks struggle to contain him when he gets his feet and hands in the right spots.
Tomlinson and Leonard Williams (#99) collapse the back side of this inside-zone run by San Francisco.
2. Tomlinson anchored the NFL's eighth-ranked run defense last year, trailing only Williams on the Giants defensive line with 656 snaps [60.3%]. He'll likely get more playing time for the Vikings (Sheldon Richardson saw 70% the last time Minnesota paid a three-technique this much), but it shouldn't be a big jump for Tomlinson. He'll provide an immediate improvement in short-yardage and goal-line situations, as he played a part in New York's third-ranked red-zone defense last year.
Even in New York's ugliest game, allowing a season-worst 249 rushing yards in a Week 16 loss to Baltimore, Tomlinson made a mark despite getting moved off his spot a couple times. He can get tied up in stalemates and be a beat late to plays. A good sign is Tomlinson responded aggressively to bad plays. Rarely is he pushed around on consecutive snaps, like when the Washington Football Team went at Tomlinson behind left guard Wes Schweitzer for three straight runs, 24 yards and a touchdown in a Week 9 win.
But in December, Tomlinson swiped Ravens right tackle D.J. Fluker out of the way and stopped running back J.K. Dobbins for a one-yard gain.
Two plays later, the Ravens double Tomlinson with Fluker (#70) and guard Ben Powers (#72) while going back to Dobbins.
Baltimore's double on Tomlinson frees up Giants linebacker Tae Crowder (#48) to make the play.
This kind of space is golden for Kendricks.
3. Disruptive four-man pass rushes are an elixir in today's NFL, and the question remains: Can the Vikings produce one? Without a big-time pass rusher in the middle, the focus stays on Zimmer's third-down pressure schemes, and the health and happiness of defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Tomlinson has been a good, not great, pass rusher. He wasn't a big part of the Giants' third-down packages, appearing mostly on third-and-short situations. He collapses the pocket if given the time. He's coming off a career-best season with 28 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, while the Vikings' interior D-line last year was led by Armon Watts (12). To illustrate, Sheldon Richardson had 47 pressures in 2018 for Minnesota.
The team's D-line guru, Andre Patterson, likely has visions of better pass-rushing plans for him. A lack of get-off speed and refinement as a pass rusher were Tomlinson's primary knocks coming out of Alabama.
Effort and power are not problems. They're how Tomlinson most frequently affected the quarterback for New York, illustrated by this Dak Prescott interception during the Giants' Week 5 loss. He got nothing on the stat sheet, but Tomlinson (#94) helps turn strong coverage into a pick six with this relentless rush on Cowboys center Tyler Biadasz (#63). It wasn't quick, but it was effective.
"Watch up front," CBS color commentator Tony Romo says during the game's broadcast. "You'll see the hand come up. After you watch this, you're going to find that ball goes high on Dak because he feels the presence inside. But it's a simple check down."
4. Quick reactions, long arms, and good vision help Tomlinson further affect the passing game. He doesn't rack up sacks (he's had 3.5 each of the last two years), but he messes with quarterbacks more than your average nose tackle.
Tomlinson batted away a career-high four passes last season, picking up from his college days at Alabama where he had nine deflections his last two years. He's what they call a quick mental processor (as a 2012 recruit, he had the grades to get accepted into Harvard and the talent to get offers from everyone else, including Alabama). He keeps his eyes up and reads and reacts without hesitation. It doesn't hurt that Tomlinson has longer-than-average arms for being 6-foot-3.
This second-and-5 play below was particularly impressive. The Rams try to catch the Giants with a quick snap, hiking the ball in the middle of a D-line shift.
Tomlinson (#94), aware of the empty backfield, keeps his eyes up and deflects the Jared Goff throw to Rams tight end Tyler Higbee (#89).
5. But the Vikings signed Tomlinson to be a bully in the middle after the defense got pushed around so much last year. It wasn't just a lack of stars; Zimmer appeared to find out his depth wasn't very good, either. Doubling down with Tomlinson, a year after signing Pierce from the Ravens, is one way to punch back in the trenches.
Tomlinson plays with incredible strength, which jumps off the screen when you see him get his hands placed under a lineman's pads.
Tomlinson extends a long left arm under the right shoulder pad of 49ers center Ben Garland (#63), benching him a few yards into the backfield. Running back Jeff Wilson has no chance to execute the designed cutback run as he falls over his own blocker on a three-yard loss.