Emotions overflowed after the Vikings’ NFC Divisional playoff loss in San Francisco, where inside the visiting locker room at Levi’s Stadium defensive end Everson Griffen cut short his media availability amid an answer about moving forward. Minutes later, the stoic star Danielle Hunter became emotional when asked about Griffen’s impact across their five seasons together.
“He's been everything to me," Hunter said. "He's a big part of the player I am today. He means a lot to me."
For much of six seasons under head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings defensive line has anchored defensive success with core players including Griffen and Linval Joseph. After another strong campaign together, during which the Vikings ranked top five in sacks, unprecedented change may be on the horizon.
Below we’ll hand out 2019 grades for Vikings defensive linemen and set up the outlook for 2020.
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Pending free agents
DE Everson Griffen (option)
DE Stephen Weatherly
Under contract through (+ 2020 cap hit)
2020: DT Jaleel Johnson ($905K), DT Hercules Mata’afa ($661K), DE Ifeadi Odenigbo ($660K), DE Eddie Yarbrough ($660K), DE Stacy Keely ($510K)
2021: DT Shamar Stephen ($5M), DT Jalyn Holmes ($843K)
2022: NT Linval Joseph ($12.95M), NT Armon Watts ($627K)
2023: DE Danielle Hunter ($14M)
Grades are based on a 1-to-5 scale, with ‘5’ marking excellence, ‘4’ for above-average, ‘3’ for average, ‘2’ for below-average and ‘1’ for failure to perform. Players that did not accrue a season (weren’t on the active roster for at least six weeks) or played in five games or fewer are not graded. Below are individual grades, based on game and practice observations, weekly film reviews and interviews with coaches for 12 defensive linemen who finished the season on the Vikings’ active roster, injured reserve or practice squad. Unofficial NFL stats, such as QB pressures, missed tackles and targeted passes, are compiled by ProFootballFocus.com.
DE Danielle Hunter (4.5) — Only one NFL edge defender, Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith, pressured quarterbacks more than Hunter this season. Continued astronomical ascension at 25 years old with career-high 88 pressures (14.5 sacks) during the regular season. Named to second Pro Bowl. Finished sixth in All-Pro edge voting with four votes. Set an NFL record with 48 sacks before turning 25 years old, surpassing Robert Quinn’s mark (45). You can count on one hand the number of defenders with Hunter’s blend of speed and power. Plays like a men among boys impervious to plans of double or triple teaming him. Blasted through Chargers running back Austin Ekeler and right tackle Sam Tevi before a strip-sack on Philip Rivers during the Week 15 win at Los Angeles; Ifeadi Odenigbo returned the fumble for a 56-yard touchdown. Season-high three sacks against a lost backup quarterback David Blough in Week 14 win at Detroit. Led the defensive line with 20 run stops, including five on third and fourth downs. Carried out of gap by right tackle Mitchell Schwartz during Damien Williams’ 91-yard touchdown run in Week 9 loss at Kansas City.
Played 897 snaps [80.9%]. Appeared for one snap in season finale to continue 48 straight starts, third-longest active streak among NFL defensive ends behind only New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan and Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes. Penalized once for defensive holding, and has been flagged so few times in five NFL seasons that he can recall them. Missed four tackles. Season-high nine combined tackles and three QB hits in Week 2 loss at Green Bay. Relentless speed rusher unleashing nearly unstoppable outside moves for many of his 14.5 sacks. Counters with power moves, including a devastating long arm. Hit multiple inside moves against Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, an All-Pro taking deep pass pro sets while wary of Hunter’s speed during the NFC wild-card playoff win. One inside move led to Hunter’s strip sack on Drew Brees, one of a career-high four forced fumbles for Hunter. Similarly dominant stretches in San Francisco, despite loss. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey allowed a sack, a pressure and committed a false start across from Hunter in three plays. Earned a $500,000 incentive for reaching 13 sacks; fell 1/2 sack short of another $500,000 (15 sacks). Turns 26 in the middle of next season, when no individual accolade could be out of reach for Hunter.
DE Everson Griffen (4.0) — Returned to form with “violent” play, as head coach Mike Zimmer describes, and a spark-plug energy that led the team to adopt a traditional part of his pregame speech — “If you want it, go get it!” — as their playoff slogan. Longest-tenured Vikings player in his 11th season. Abused Saints left guard Andrus Peat as an interior rusher on third downs during the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans, racking up a sack, a hit and a pressure leading to a Drew Brees incompletion on the opening three third downs; the latter two vs. Peat. Did most of his damage against left tackles. Finished the regular season with 66 pressures, ranking 14th among all edge defenders. Earned $2 million in incentives — $1.5 million for being on the game-day roster every week and $500,000 for reaching eight sacks. Appeared to return burst off the line and power in his game after sitting out five games last year to address his mental health. Led the Vikings in ‘almost’ with an additional 15 quarterback hits. Named to his fourth Pro Bowl (second as an alternate).
Played 863 snaps [77.8%]. Penalized eight times, including five early jumps and one roughing call on Matthew Stafford in the Week 7 win vs. Detroit. Played through a knee injury starting Week 11 vs. Denver that lessened a bit his regular season role. Missed 10 tackles, third most on defense. Walked into his second NFL interception when Eagles kicker Jake Elliott’s pass on a fake field goal was tipped by safety Anthony Harris. Expected to be a free agent as he can void the remaining three years of his contract, or otherwise likely be released at a current $13.9 million cap charge. Griffen wants “to be a Viking for life, but it’s a business.”
NT Linval Joseph (3.5) — Started strong in 10th NFL season with a goal-line stop of Falcons running back Ito Smith and a fourth-quarter sack on Matt Ryan in the Week 1 win vs. Atlanta. Consistently required double teams from opposing offenses. When he wasn’t, the 31-year-old Joseph was still walking centers into the backfield like the Lions’ Frank Ragnow on a run stop for a two-yard loss in the Week 14 win. Played 559 snaps [50.4%]. Penalized three times, including unnecessary roughness for illegally hitting Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie during a field goal attempt, leading to a first and goal. Missed one tackle. Underwent knee surgery before Week 10 win in Dallas to address meniscus issue. Beat six-week recovery timeline in three weeks and, with the bye week, missed only two games against the Cowboys and Broncos. Continued to play well, but Joseph is a candidate for a restructured contract or release entering his age 32 season with no guaranteed money left and a nearly $13 million cap hit.
DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (3.5) — Emerged in his third NFL season as a disruptive pass rusher from multiple positions. Told by coaches during an exit interview at TCO Performance Center this month that he’s part of the defensive plans moving forward after playing for a roster spot the past two years. Already earned a job for next season coming off a career-high seven sacks, ranking third on the team, and fourth with 26 pressures. Missed two tackles in 12 snaps during Week 1 win against the Falcons, and missed just one more the rest of the season. Played 372 snaps [33.5%]. Not penalized. Made game-changing plays. Four of Odenigbo’s seven sacks came on third down, including a strip sack on Philip Rivers in the Week 15 win in Los Angeles; also scooped up a fumble forced by Danielle Hunter and scored a 56-yard touchdown in the win. Sidestepped Cowboys left guard Connor Williams for a fourth-quarter stop of Ezekiel Elliott in the red zone in the Week 10 win in Dallas. Entering a contract season in 2020, and may have a shot at starting depending on other personnel moves this offseason.
DT Shamar Stephen (3.0) — Signed a three-year, $12.45 million contract in free agency to return to the Vikings after one season in Seattle. Replaced Sheldon Richardson as the three-technique defensive tackle, but did not replace his full-time role. Run-stopping specialist who played first and second downs, ceding third-down pass rushes to defensive ends. Played through a knee injury for more than three months, seemingly limiting his ability. More than half (6) of his 11 run stops came in Weeks 1-5, before he appeared on an injury report. Never left the injury report or missed a game while playing 588 snaps [53%]. Penalized three times, including roughing Bears quarterback Chase Daniel with helmet-to-helmet contact in the Week 4 loss at Chicago. Ineffective as a pass rusher with six pressures (one sack). Gets his hands up instead, leading to three pass deflections. Forced a Melvin Gordon fumble in the third quarter of the Week 15 win at the Chargers. Led the team with no missed tackles.
DE Stephen Weatherly (3.0) — Tasked with adjusting to a new role in his contract season, moving inside as an interior pass rusher on third downs. Played 523 snaps [50.3%]. Led the team with four pressures and three run stops during his only start at defensive end during the Week 17 loss to the Bears. Still played a part-time role at end, but most pass rushes came against centers and guards. Third on the team with 30 quarterback pressures, including third-down sacks in Week 16 and Week 17 losses to the Packers and Bears. Fourth on the team with nine quarterback hits. Forced one fumble during a fourth-quarter sack of Matt Moore in the Week 9 loss to the Chiefs. Candid about learning curve as an interior rusher, limiting his impact. Plays with hard nose against the run, crashing inside zone handoffs and outside jet sweeps alike. Quick first step, helping him beat Lions tackle Tyrell Crosby on third-and-1 run stop in Week 14 win at Detroit. Missed six tackles. Pending free agent.
DT Jaleel Johnson (3.0) — Top reserve at defensive tackle. Improved the more he played, but extended run was limited to two games. Particularly good fit at nose tackle, where Johnson played well in wins against the Cowboys and Broncos when the defense allowed just 3.1 yards per carry without Linval Joseph. Tied for the team lead in those wins with five run stops. Shed blocks with strong hands and quick recognition against the run. But seemed to take time to get going in games. Not a consistent anchor against double teams. Missed three tackles. Played a career-high 410 snaps [37%]. Not penalized. Walked Broncos rookie Dalton Risner into the backfield for one of career-high 3.5 sacks on season. Limited as a pass rusher without much burst. Disruptive run defender showing promise in third NFL season with bigger workloads. Entering contract year in 2020.
NT Armon Watts (2.5) — Strong sixth-round rookie (190th overall) out of Arkansas. ‘Redshirt’ season ended during Week 10 win in Dallas, the first game after Linval Joseph’s knee surgery. Made an immediate impact with two run stops and a split sack in seven snaps. Earned role upon Joseph’s return in Week 13 loss at Seattle, where Watts first deflected a Russell Wilson pass at the line leading to Anthony Harris’ interception. Played 121 snaps [10.9%]. Not penalized. Put his size (6-5, 295 pounds) to work with a ridiculous pace in seven run stops against 67 carries. Missed two tackles, including on a 14-yard run by Chris Carson in Seattle. Made leaping run stop on the next snap. Coaches ended the season raving about his potential, and Danielle Hunter said he sees a bit of himself in the 23-year-old Watts.
DT Hercules Mata’afa (1.5) — Flashed in camp and the preseason, including a sack in the Aug. 9 exhibition opener, and earned an interior pass rushing role in his second NFL season. That job was intermittent, however, as he was credited with just one tackle, blowing up a Jamaal Williams screen in Green Bay for a six-yard loss, in 103 snaps [9.3%]. Recovered a botched Packers snap in that loss. Penalized twice in the season opener vs. Atlanta, including an early jump on third down. Undersized (6-2, 254) for an NFL defensive tackle, meaning he’ll need to find consistency as a pass rusher to maintain an NFL role. Appeared in five games before starters rested in season finale.
DT Jalyn Holmes (1.5) — Healthy scratch for 10 games in his second NFL season. The former fourth-round pick out of Ohio State has the long limbs and strength to be an impact player, and had moments in limited opportunities. Played 73 snaps [6.6%], but only in mop-up duty before Linval Joseph’s Week 10 knee surgery. Credited with one assisted tackle in 24 snaps against the Cowboys and Broncos. Missed one tackle. Not penalized.
DE Eddie Yarbrough (N/A) — Signed off the Bills practice squad on Dec. 31 while Odenigbo (hamstring) and Weatherly (illness) recovered. Did not appear in a game. Credited with 44 solo tackles, two pass deflections and a sack in 31 games (six starts) for Buffalo.
DE Stacy Keely (N/A) — Earned a roster spot during a three-day tryout at rookie minicamp in May. Spent all season on the practice squad. Undrafted out of Alabama-Birmingham. Signed a reserve/future deal on Jan. 21.