The Vikings finished the season third in the NFL in total defense by allowing just 314.9 yards per game, and they were sixth in scoring defense — allowing just 19.2 points per game — as they continued their year-by-year improvement under Mike Zimmer.

One of the biggest stalwarts of that defense was nose tackle Linval Joseph, who finished his third year with the Vikings after signing a five-year, $31.3 million deal in 2014.

Joseph finished the year with a career-high 77 tackles and tied a career high with four sacks. Still it was his play in the run game, which sometimes goes unnoticed compared to the great pass rushers the Vikings employ, that helped him nab his first Pro Bowl selection last week.

Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said Joseph, who was an alternate to the Pro Bowl initially, is the best in the NFL at his position.

“Linval to me is the best pure nose tackle in the league,” Spielman said. “I know I thought that was an injustice for him not to get voted in right off the bat. I know when the NFL called and said he was the first alternate that he would definitely be in the Pro Bowl. I think what he does for our defense in the running game, there’s not a lot of people that can block him one-on-one, especially in the running game. I think he gets overlooked a little bit.

“He had his most productive year, with four sacks this year, but most of those defensive tackles that go to the Pro Bowl are not true nose tackles. They’re under tackles, 3-techniques that produce probably a little bit more in the passing game. But I think if you talk to any of our opponents or take a poll around the league, nobody would question this guy’s ability on how dominant he is and what a force he is for our defense.”

At the time of the Vikings’ signing of Joseph, the big debate around the league was who was the better free-agent defensive linemen between him and Michael Johnson, the former Bengals defensive end who had worked under Zimmer and signed a five-year, $43.75 million deal with Tampa Bay about three days before the Vikings signed Joseph.

It doesn’t look like much of a debate now as Johnson was released by the Buccaneers after one season and then signed a four-year, $24 million deal with the Bengals in 2015.

Still perhaps the biggest benefit for the Vikings is that Joseph continues to be able to clog up the middle of the defensive line, which opens up the team’s pass rush and helped them record 41 sacks — fifth most in the NFL.

Still, as Zimmer told Sports Illustrated earlier this season, it’s Joseph’s happiness in playing the run that makes everything work smoothly for the defensive line, and it’s what will continue to make Joseph so important next season.

“If he really liked to rush the passer, he could really be dominant,” Zimmer said, “but he just loves playing against the run so much.”

Recruiting update

According to Rivals.com, the Gophers football team has the 44th rated recruiting class in the country, which is just ahead of Iowa at 52 and just behind Wisconsin at 38.

Coach P.J. Fleck was able to flip eight recruitments from Western Michigan to the Gophers following his hiring.

However the new coach at Western Michigan, Tim Lester, who had been the quarterbacks coach at Purdue, was able to keep a good portion of the 25 recruits Fleck had commitments from, with only those eight flipping schools.

One thing the Gophers are going to need is a quarterback, especially if Seth Green is not allowed to play and his one-year suspension is upheld. The Gophers currently have three quarterbacks committed in Tanner Morgan, Neil McLaurin, and Reyondous Estes.

Morgan, who came with Fleck after committing to Western Michigan, is the most highly touted of the three, as he had scholarship offers from Louisville, Cincinnati and Wake Forest.

Jottings

• Xavier Rhodes was ranked as the No. 1 cornerback in the NFL by Matt Harmon of NFL.com, who did some statistical analysis after the regular season to determine his rankings. “2016 saw the Vikings’ top corner, always a solid player, join the elite group of NFL cornerbacks. Opposing quarterbacks targeted Rhodes 79 times in 14 games. It proved to be a fruitless endeavor, as Rhodes gave up an NFL-low 41.8 percent catch rate,” Harmon wrote.

• Ethan Lizak and Tommy Thorn returned to the Gophers wrestling team after being suspended for a violation of team rules. That is expected to help the team at the lower weight classes as Lizak was ranked No. 6 in the country and Thorn was No. 13. Lizak has already shown his great potential, as he was named the Big Ten co-wrestler of the week on Jan. 3.

• Zach LaVine had 291 career three-pointers heading into Thursday night’s game with the Clippers, that’s already good for fifth all-time in Wolves history, and only four behind Isaiah Rider for fourth all-time. LaVine has 111 this season and is on pace to beat Kevin Love’s single-season record of 190 in 2013-14.

• Grand Rapids, Minn., standout Alex Illikainen was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school with offers from every major Division I program in the Midwest, including the Gophers. Illikainen signed with Wisconsin but so far he has had a slow start to his collegiate career. Now a sophomore, the 6-0 forward is averaging 1.6 points and 1.7 rebounds off the bench. The Gophers got some heat for not getting him, but so far it hasn’t been a major loss. And unlike other years, Illikainen is the only Minnesotan playing for Wisconsin.

• Gary Trent Jr., the former Apple Valley standout who is now playing at Prolific Prep Academy in California before joining Duke next season, scored 33 points in his most recent game Tuesday, at the 15th annual Premiere Health Flyin’ to the Hoop Boys Basketball Invitational in Ohio, though Prolific Prep took its first loss of the season in the game.

• Unlike football, where the Badgers have dominated the Gophers for over a decade, the Gophers basketball team did beat Wisconsin 81-68 at home Jan. 22, 2014. Still, Wisconsin is rated No. 17 in the country, and it will be an upset if the Gophers beat them Saturday.

• The Gophers football team is going to need pass catchers since it lost its leading wide receiver in Drew Wolitarsky, and two incoming freshmen might help in three-star recruits Jacob Paulson, a tight end, and Chris Bell, who flipped his recruitment from Western Michigan. Paulson, from Louisville, Ky., was set to visit LSU before committing to Fleck and the Gophers. Meanwhile, Bell is a standout in both football and basketball at Bishop McNamara in Kankakee, Ill.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com