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Grading the Vikings: Hunter leads group filled with talent, questions

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.

Previously
Dalvin Cook’s breakout sets up payday; will Vikings buy in?
Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph adjusted to most change with Vikings
Offensive line improved, but talent gap clear vs. NFC’s best
Kirk Cousins delivers best season; will that mean $100 million?
Eric Kendricks’ 2019 makes him one of NFL’s best linebackers

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 adopta 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) —Strongsixth-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.

Grading the Vikings: Why Kendricks was among NFL's top linebackers

Eric Kendricks wasn’t given official credit for the first forced fumble in Los Angeles, where he prevented Chargers running back Austin Ekeler from recovering Philip Rivers’ fumble, allowing Ifeadi Odenigbo to scoop and score from 56 yards away.

Sometime afterward, cornerback Mike Hughes sought sideline advice on how to break up passes between the hands like Kendricks, who either already or was about to jar loose another ball from Chargers tight end Hunter Henry in the fourth quarter.

“I’ve never seen a linebacker cover as good as he does,” Hughes said outside the visiting locker room at Dignity Health Sports Park. “I actually asked him [Sunday] a few tips on how to play through the hands and get the ball out, because he does a really good job of doing that.”

Kendricks’ first All-Pro campaign set a new bar for the fifth-year linebacker, unquestionably the most dominant at his level of the Vikings defense.

Below, we deliver 2019 grades for Vikings linebackers and set up the outlook for 2020.

Previously
Dalvin Cook’s breakout sets up payday; will Vikings buy in?
Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph adjusted to most change with Vikings
Offensive line improved, but talent gap clear vs. NFC’s best
Kirk Cousins delivers best season; will that mean $100 million?

Pending free agents

LB Eric Wilson (restricted)

LB Kentrell Brothers

Under contract through (+ 2020 cap hit)

2020: LB Ben Gedeon ($893K)

2022: LB Cameron Smith ($585K)

2023: LB Anthony Barr ($12.7M), LB Eric Kendricks ($10M)

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 six linebackers 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.

LB Eric Kendricks (4.5) — As modern NFL offenses stress defenses with motion and misdirection, Kendrick solved many of those problems by seemingly being everywhere at once. Illustrated best when he cut off Alvin Kamara’s jet motion on third-and-1 in the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans, leading to a tackle for a loss by Jaleel Johnson. Put his name among the NFL’s best in his first All-Pro season with a career-high in run stops (35), pass deflections (12) and forced fumbles (2). Made first Pro Bowl as an alternate. Eight of Kendricks’ 12 deflected passes came on third or fourth downs, including a game-winning, diving deflection of an out-breaking throw to Ezekiel Elliott on fourth down in Dallas. Matches speed with proper angles to cover escaping running backs from Aaron Jones to Austin Ekeler, including tricky wheel routes. Showed impeccable feel to track the ball in the air and time contact for pass breakup, including a deep ball to Ekeler in the Week 15 win at the Chargers. Miles Sanders got him for a 32-yard touchdown in the Vikings’ Week 6 win over the Eagles. Predicted success in training camp when calling his situation a “linebacker’s dream,” referring to playing behind Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen as block-eating defensive tackles. Nearly half of Kendricks’ 35 run stops (sixth among NFL linebackers) came in September, including 15 against the Packers, Raiders and Bears.

More: Why Eric Kendricks deserved more than Pro Bowl alternate

Played 962 snaps [86.7%]. One of eight Vikings to eclipse 1,000 snaps, including 65 on special teams. Not penalized. Had some trouble with Rashaad Penny in Week 13 loss in Seattle; outrun on a 10-yard sweep, among others, during the Seahawks’ 218-yard rushing night. Ironically, one of his best games, the Week 15 win in Los Angeles, was the last before he was snubbed from the initial Pro Bowl roster. Recovered two fumbles in the Week 16 loss to Green Bay. Suffered a right quad injury during second recovery; missed second half of that loss. Jimmy Garoppolo tried to throw over him twice in NFC Divisional playoff loss, resulting in an interception and near interception broken up by George Kittle. Led the team in tackles for a fifth straight season, but also tied for team-worst 12 missed tackles, including two on 49ers running backs.

LB Anthony Barr (3.5) — Reneged verbal agreement to sign with the New York Jets last spring and left money on the table to re-sign with the Vikings on a five-year, $67.5 million extension. Roles expanded in sixth NFL season. Paired with Danielle Hunter as bookends of the Vikings’ “diamond” package, which is a throwback to Mike Zimmer’s 3-4 roots in Dallas deploying Hunter and Barr as stand-up outside linebackers, of sorts. Cohesion on display when Barr slyly dropped from stack (4-3) linebacker onto the edge before sacking Matt Ryan in the season’s first defensive snap. Forceful run defender who tackled as well as ever while Vikings surrendered just eight rushing touchdowns — second fewest in the NFL. Career-high 30 run stops came as Barr had a career-low four missed tackles during the regular season. Fell apart in the playoffs with five missed tackles in two games. Highlights were fewer. Fell from 2018’s most effective blitzing linebacker to 32nd, despite Vikings again ranking top 5 in sacks. Splashed in Week 5 win at Giants with diving interception off Daniel Jones, Barr’s first in four years, and his first safety while knifing between right guard Kevin Zeitler and center Jon Halapio.

Played 944 snaps [85.1%]. One of eight Vikings to eclipse 1,000 snaps, including 64 on special teams. Sidelined during Week 3 win vs. Oakland due to groin injury. Penalized four times. Flagged for roughing Matthew Stafford in the Week 7 win at Detroit. Fined $21,056 by the NFL for that hit. At his best as a downhill wrecking ball. Barr delivered the fined hit as a spy, a key role maintained in critical situations allowing him to stay on the attack — like when he delivered a second-down hit to Russell Wilson in the red zone. Limited as a coverage linebacker, where he allowed touchdowns to running backs Jamaal Williams and Tarik Cohen in division losses at Green Bay and Chicago. Four pass deflections. Made excellent read to blow up an Alvin Kamara screen attempt with 11 seconds left in regulation of the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans.

LB Eric Wilson (3.0) — Career-high six starts in third NFL season, beginning with a bang. Blocked punt in first quarter of Week 1 win vs. Falcons. Top reserve appearing in 13 games for injured starters, including the last eight games for Ben Gedeon. Played 383 snaps [34.5%]. Penalized once for jumping early on punt return team, giving Broncos a first down and eventual field goal in Week 11 comeback win. Played every snap in two games against the Raiders and Bears (Week 17). High-energy linebacker flashing growth as a playmaker, including a sack and run stop in a three-play span during the Week 4 loss in Chicago. Coaches compare his learning curve to Kendricks, and Wilson is not yet at the stage where he’s consistently anticipating blocks and play designs (and taking appropriate angles) like his All-Pro teammate. Remains without a pass deflection in 719 career defensive snaps. Overly eager, out of position on Chris Carson’s 25-yard run in Week 13 loss at Seattle. Reliable, if unspectacular, and typically lives up to high standard of being in the right place. Among Vikings’ top 10 tacklers, only Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter had fewer misses than Wilson (5). Core special teams player, ranking second with 280 special teams snaps [65.7%]. Pending restricted free agent.

LB Ben Gedeon (2.0) — Two-down linebacker continuing weak-side role in the Vikings’ 4-3 front. Run-stopping specialist dealt with brunt of job, suffering two concussions. Second brain injury against Broncos in Week 11 ended season on injured reserve. “Ben loves to play the game. … He might have pushed it a little too far,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Dec. 5, in returning from first concussion after a two-game absence. Played 102 snaps [9.2%] in eight games. Missed Week 2 loss at Green Bay due to groin injury. Not penalized. Credited with 11 tackles (none for a loss), four run stops and no missed tackles. Entering final year of rookie contract.

LB Kentrell Brothers (2.0) — Won preseason/camp competition against younger linebackers to maintain roles as a reserve and mainstay on coverage/return teams. Saw mop-up duty in wins against Raiders, Lions and Chargers. First extended defensive snaps after Barr and Kendricks were sidelined in Week 16 loss vs. Green Bay. Missed one tackle — on Aaron Jones’ 56-yard touchdown run in that loss. Played 111 snaps [10%]. Not penalized. Core special teams player ranking fourth on team in coverage tackles (7). Played 222 special teams snaps [52.1%]. Pending free agent.

LB Cameron Smith (N/A) — Drafted in the fifth round (162nd overall) out of USC, Smith was the earliest-selected rookie to miss the 53-man roster after the preseason. Twice promoted from the practice squad. Made NFL debut at end of Week 6 win vs. Eagles. Remained on the active roster for final seven games after Ben Gedeon’s second concussion in Week 11. Played 33 snaps [3%], including season-high 23 snaps in season finale vs. Bears. Not penalized. Maintained small role on punt return team in playoffs.

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