Armon Watts has the size of a nose tackle, the speed of a three-technique tackle and the ability to be an unexpected breakout player who could help fill a critical position of need in Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s retooled defense.

Just ask Bears center Cody Whitehair, a former Pro Bowler who surrendered a Watts strip sack on an inside speed move from the nose tackle position in last year’s regular-season finale.

Or, better yet, ask Cowboys right guard Zack Martin, a six-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro. In Watts’ NFL debut seven weeks earlier, Martin gave up half a sack to Watts on a power move from the three-technique position, which calls for more penetration while the nose tackle absorbs blockers at the line of scrimmage.

“There are certain times we’ll slide the front one way or the other … so our guys have to learn how to play both positions,” Zimmer said. “And they’re two different positions, at least the way we play it. So, for [Watts], when he’s at nose, he’s got to be more thick and strong. And when he’s at three-technique, it’s OK, ‘I’m going to be a little more athletic and twitchy.’ He has the combination of both those things.”

In this first week of full-pad practices, Watts is working as the No. 2 nose tackle behind Shamar Stephen. He did, however, get a few reps with the first team Tuesday.

“But whether I’m starting or I’m rotating, my mentality is knowing the player I am and the potential I have to help this team,” Watts said by phone last week. “My career is only going up from here. That’s how I view it.”

With former Pro Bowler Linval Joseph now with the Chargers and prized free-agent acquisition Michael Pierce opting out of the season because of COVID-19, Watts will get his opportunities to prove he deserves to play more.

Just like he did last year from his Week 10 debut on Nov. 10 through New Year’s Eve, when a leg injury kept him from playing in the postseason.

For nine games last year, the raw sixth-round draft pick from Arkansas didn’t even suit up. He just practiced and worked with Andre Patterson, the team’s defensive line coaching guru, on learning the different stances and techniques.

“You could see the change starting to happen toward the middle of the season,” Patterson said. “He’s doing scout team and the offensive linemen were having trouble blocking him. We started thinking, ‘We have to get this guy on the field.’ ”

An injury to Joseph opened the door for a prime-time debut in Dallas. Watts played just seven snaps but came away sharing a sack with Everson Griffen.

With Dallas facing second-and-8 from midfield, the Vikings lined up in their Double A-gap look. Eric Kendricks was between the center and Martin, the right guard. Watts was shaded to Martin’s outside shoulder.

After the snap, Martin tried to quickly chip the blitzing Kendricks before turning his attention to Watts.

Bad idea.

“The biggest thing there was Armon showed his ability to come off the ball and get on top of the guard before the guard had an opportunity to bump Kendricks and then bump back out to him,” Patterson said. “Armon can move for a big old guy that’s 300-plus pounds and 6-5.”

Or, as Watts said of the move, “I knew I had a one-on-one block so that’s pretty much my job: Stay low, get my hands on him first and drive him back on the quarterback’s heels. Dak [Prescott] tried to move out of the pocket, but I was right there.”

In the sack against Chicago, Watts was shaded to the right shoulder of Whitehair, the center. He took two steps to the right before racing past Whitehair like a defensive end off the edge.

“And as soon as I got to the quarterback [Mitch Trubisky],” said Watts, “I went for the ball and got it.”

The Bears recovered, but Trubisky fumbled the ball away on the next snap.

“Go back and look at it again and watch how Armon uses his long arms, how he’s able to take away [Whitehair’s] hands and set up his move on the quarterback,” Patterson said. “That’s something we’ve worked very hard on him with, using his length and speed.”

Watts said he trusts Patterson to take him to a place where he can help “hold down the fort until Michael gets back.”

“Some guys, including myself, need to step up,” he said. “And that’s what I plan on doing.”

 

Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com