In Mike Zimmer’s first season in Minnesota, the Vikings’ front four became formidable once again.
Led by a first-time starter in right defensive end Everson Griffen, the Vikings — who had three new starters along their defensive line — recorded 41 sacks. And the pressure they generated on enemy quarterbacks was one of the primary reasons the Vikings were able to climb all the way to seventh in pass defense in 2014.
But it wasn’t all pretty. The Vikings got gouged for 121.4 rushing yards per game, which was worst in the division and ranked 25th in the NFL. That’s not all on the defensive line, but run defense does start up front.
The Vikings return all but one member of the 2014 rotation after re-signing reserve defensive tackle Tom Johnson — who surprised with 6.5 sacks — and letting backup end Corey Wootton walk. That continuity should be a good thing, and the group should be better off now that players are more accustomed to Zimmer’s techniques.
There is still plenty of room for improvement, though, especially against the run. So you can count on Zimmer continuing to stockpile his style of defensive linemen as he tries to develop a deep, talented rotation similar to what he had during his time with the Bengals.
Projected starters: Griffen and Brian Robison on the ends with defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph between them.
Don’t forget about: The Vikings drafted Scott Crichton last spring with one of their two third-round picks with the hope that he would rotate with Robison and maybe one day replace him. In his rookie year, though, Crichton was often inactive and played only 16 defensive snaps, recording two tackles and zero sacks. His lack of activity is no doubt a concern, but it would be foolish to write off a player after one season.
Level of need: Moderate. Most of the group will be back, but that doesn’t mean the Vikings can’t and won’t look to upgrade, especially at defensive end. They could use another speed rusher to spell Griffen, and Robison isn’t getting any younger over on the left side.
Five prospects to remember: Florida DE Dante Fowler, Nebraska DE Randy Gregory, Arizona State DT Marcus Hardison, Mississippi State DE Preston Smith, Norfolk State DE Lynden Trail.
Our best guess: With more pressing needs, the Vikings will probably pass on defensive linemen in the early rounds, though that could change in the unlikely event that a top pass-rushing prospect such as Fowler or Gregory falls into their laps at No. 11. Instead, look for them in the middle rounds to snag a defensive end prospect that Zimmer thinks he can develop into a starter and maybe a defensive tackle sometime during the draft, too.