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The Minnesota defense has given up a lot of yards and points both on the ground and through the air over the last couple of seasons, but they remained among the league leaders in big-play production. The 2021 Vikings created 24 turnovers, and their 51 sacks were second only to the Steelers. With the hiring of Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator and the impending move to a 3-4 base scheme, none of that matters, including the sack count. As is always the case when making such a switch, there will be both a learning curve for the players and a period of transition as the organization overhauls the roster to fit the new scheme. This being the first year of the transition, things could get ugly for Vikings fans, especially considering there are not many players from the front seven of the old unit who seem like a good fit in the new one.
The only holdover that seems fairly certain to have a starting job is Dalvin Tomlinson, who was a nose tackle in the Giants’ 3-4 before signing with Minnesota last year. Tomlinson is a 319-pound road grader that should fit right in and give the Vikings a good anchor to build around. He might even make a decent target for IDP managers in leagues that start two tackles.
Tomlinson was the 39th-ranked tackle in his first year with the Vikings, going 17-22-2.5. Over his final two years with the Giants in 2019 and 2020, however, he recorded 47 and 49 combined tackles adding three and a half sacks in each of those seasons, and ranked 24th and 18th, respectively. He is not going to be an elite option by any stretch, but returning to a familiar setting could make Tomlinson a decent DT2 once again.
Beyond Tomlinson, the Vikings look to have a wide-open battle royale for starting jobs. Free-agent addition Harrison Phillips enters camp as a favorite for one of the defensive end spots and could also see some time at nose tackle after working as the 1-technique in Buffalo. In terms of fantasy production, there is not much expectation for Phillips, who managed 50 combined tackles in 2021 but has one sack since being drafted by the Bills in 2018.
Fourth-year man Armon Watts, 2020 fourth-round pick James Lynch, journeyman Jonathan Ballard, and rookie fifth-round selection Esezi Otomewo along with a handful of others, make up the rest of the field as the Vikings throw a bunch of spitballs against the wall and hope that some of them stick.
Watts is one of two players we might want to keep an eye on here. He tallied 22-24-5 with a pair of forced fumbles while working mostly as the 3-technique in Minnesota’s 4-3 last year. At 6’5” and 295 pounds, he has the optimum size and the 3-technique is the closest comparison to the responsibilities and skill set of a 3-4 end.
The other guy is second-year man Jaylen Twyman. He was selected by the previous regime late in the 2021 draft as a developmental 3-technique with high potential as an interior pass rusher. Twyman missed his rookie season while recovering from gunshot wounds. He is fully recovered now and is quietly in the mix for one of the jobs at defensive end.
What makes Twyman interesting is that he was the first player in Pitt Panther history to lead the team in sacks from an interior position, posting ten and a half in 2019, and he was making some noise last summer before the shooting. Between COVID in 2020 and being in the wrong place at the wrong time in June of 2021, it has been two years since Twyman has played in a game but he has not been away from football altogether. He has continued to work and has proclaimed himself stronger than ever.
We have never seen any great IDP options in the front three of any Ed Donatell defense, but there have been some guys roster worthy as depth. Maybe Watts or Twyman can be the first to buck the trend.
- DE/NT Harrison Phillips – Marginal value at best
- DE Armon Watts – Watch list player with DL3 potential but limited upside
- DE Esezi Otomewo – Rookie that could earn playing time
- DE Jonathan Bullard – No impact expected
- DE James Lynch – No impact expected
- DE Jaylen Twyman – Deep sleeper
- NT Dalvin Tomlinson – Possible DT2
- NT Tyarise Stevenson – Developmental rookie
During his three years as the Broncos’ coordinator, Ed Donatell’s defenses never gave us an IDP stud at inside linebacker. Maybe that is because he never had a player like Eric Kendricks to work with. The best production by an inside backer under Donatell came in 2020 when Alexander Johnson ranked 22nd with a line of 72-52-1 and a pair of forced fumbles. Johnson was a good player but not on the level of Kendricks who finished among the top ten last year with an average of 13.1 points per game and was ranked second through week twelve of 2020 before missing the final five games.
Kendricks does not have a history of being a tackling machine but always turns in respectable totals in that area. The 83 solo and 58 assists he recorded last year, along with his 5 sacks, are all career highs. Much of his value is found in the big-play columns where he has at least three takeaways in five of the last six seasons and averages seven passes defended.
Kendricks has never played in a 3-4 but being a seven-year starter in the middle of a 4-3, there is no reason to think he will have any trouble with the transition. He is smart, fast, physical, excels in coverage, and is a leader both on the field and in the locker room. If the Vikings struggle with the transition to the new scheme as most teams do, Kendricks could be in line for the best fantasy production of his career.
Minnesota signed Jordan Hicks to pair with Kendricks on the inside. A third-round pick of the Eagles in 2015, Hicks looked great at times but battled a lot of injuries over his four seasons in Philadelphia. Since leaving for Arizona in 2019, he has been both an iron man and a considerable fantasy factor. By considerable, I mean he was the fantasy game’s top linebacker in 2019 and made the top 20 in each of the last two seasons.
In 2019 Hicks’ 93 solo tackles were the third-most in the league and his 55 assists ranked fifth. Over the last two years, those numbers have slipped a bit but remain strong. This is not a player that relies solely on tackles for fantasy value. He’s reached six turnovers twice in his career (2016 and 2019) and has at least one sack in five of the six seasons that he played at least eight games, including a career-best of five in 2021. Hicks even has 19 pass breakups over the last four years. Perhaps the most important point for IDP managers, he is both a physical run defender and strong enough in coverage to stay on the field full-time.
That brings us to the next important factor. Donatell likes to keep two inside linebackers on the field in most situations. Denver was riddled with injuries at the position last season, but in 2020 both Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell played over a thousand snaps, even though Jewell has some issues in coverage. It is hard to say which of these two will have the most fantasy points at the end of the season. Chances are they will be very close with either player having the better game from week to week. Fortunately, the situation should provide enough opportunity for both to produce top-20 numbers.
Dynasty managers will want to consider third-round pick Brian Asamoah as a taxi squad target. Both Kendricks and Hicks are signed through the 2023 season with a slim chance that both will be resigned ahead of the 2024 campaign. Asamoah was a two-year starter at Oklahoma, putting up 80 combined tackles, a sack, and two forced fumbles as a junior in 2021. He has the talent and physical tools to become a highly successful three-down starter at the NFL level. A year or two of working as the third man at ILB will go a long way toward cleaning up some of the technical issues and occasional over-aggression he showed while with the Sooners. As every coach will tell you, it is much easier to coach a player to be more controlled than to be more aggressive.
Throw in guys like 2020 fourth-round pick Troy Dye, 2021 third-round selection Chazz Surratt, and third-year man Blake Lynch, and the Vikings have a pipeline of good young players that will earn a living on special teams while developing for a potential future at inside linebacker. There are many more questions to be answered at the outside positions.
Providing he is healthy, the signing of ZaDarius Smith was huge for the organization in that it gives them at least one proven star to seed the transformation to the 3-4. Smith missed all of last season after having back surgery in September. Despite proclaiming himself healthy earlier in the off-season, he was held out of most off-season practice sessions, including OTAs. Head coach Kevin O’Connell said Smith is being held out as a precaution and that he should be a full participant when training camp opens.
In his first two seasons with the Packers (2019 and 2020), Smith racked up 26 sacks, forced 5 fumbles, and recovered 2. If the soon to be 30 year old can regain that form, it would be a huge step for the team and an opportunity for IDP managers in big play formats to grab a potential LB1.
Despite finishing last season with the second-highest sack total in the league, Minnesota had no individual with more than eight. Nor did they have anyone with NFL experience as an edge defender in a 3-4 before adding Smith. D.J. Wonnum led the team with eight sacks while Danielle Hunter was second with six despite missing ten games with a torn pectoral.
There is no question that Hunter is the man expected to start opposite Smith but there are questions about Hunter himself. The first concern is his health. After missing all of 2020 with a neck injury, he looked 100% to start last season, racking up six sacks in the first five games. There has been no mention of the neck problem in almost two seasons and players generally recover fully from pectoral injuries within a few months, so at this stage, the only hurdle left to cross is the scheme.
At 6’5” and 252 pounds, Hunter was a bit undersized for a 4-3 defensive end. He relied on speed, leverage, strength, and a lightning-quick upfield burst to beat blockers off the edge. All of those things are going to be assets as he transitions to the new scheme as well. In reality, the only real differences for Hunter will be if he’s asked to drop into coverage, which is something he was rarely asked to do in the past, and working from a two-point stance. If he struggles with either, the coaching staff should be able to work around it easily enough, keeping Hunter comfortable with his responsibilities.
When he was healthy in 2018 and 2019, Hunter turned in back-to-back seasons with about 70 combined tackles and at least 14 sacks. He was the fantasy game’s number one defensive lineman in 2018 and the number one defensive player overall in many formats in 2019. If he can rekindle that level of production in 2022, it would return him to IDP relevance but with the position change to linebacker, the same numbers would have far less impact. That said, Hunter has the potential to join T.J. Watt as the only 3-4 outside backers that are every-week starters in balanced scoring formats.
D.J. Wonnum has a bit of an edge in his quest to be the third man on the edge. He worked as an outside linebacker in his final season at South Carolina in 2019. He will enter camp as the favorite for the role but will have to fend off last year’s third-round pick Patrick Jones and 2021 fourth-round selection Janarius Robinson among others.
- ILB Eric Kendricks – Quality LB2 with LB1 potential
- ILB Jordan Hicks – Solid LB2 with a high floor
- ILB Brian Asamoah – Dynasty special
- ILB Chazz Surratt – Injury sleeper at best
- ILB Troy Dye – No impact expected
- ILB Blake Lynch – Injury sleeper with LB3 upside if called upon
- ILB Ryan Connelly – No impact
- OLB Danielle Hunter – Potential LB1 in big-play-based formats or LB3 in balanced scoring leagues
- OLB ZaDarius Smith – Priority LB2 with some upside in big play formats
- OLB D.J. Wonnum – No impact expected
- OLB Patrick Jones II – No impact
- OLB Janarius Robinson – No impact
Scheme changes between three and four-man fronts generally have little effect on the secondary. That should ring true with this situation as well. At this time last year, I was touting the move of Harrison Smith back to strong safety. The result of that position change was Smith going 83-31-3 with a pick, a forced fumble, and 7 pass breakups despite missing a couple of games. His raw numbers made the top ten with Smith’s average of 11.9 points per game ranking sixth.
When last year’s free safety, Xavier Woods, signed with Carolina, I feared a move back to free safety for Smith. When the team used their first-round pick on Lewis Cine, it was a huge relief. Smith turned 33 in February and is signed through 2025, meaning he is set to remain with the Vikings for the rest of his career and all but certain to stay at strong safety. With no sign of him slowing down, Smith is in line for another strong season and likely another top-twelve finish.
After four years of relative fantasy obscurity in Dallas, Woods had an uncharacteristically productive 2021, putting up 30 more combined tackles than he ever had in Dallas and equaling the best turnover numbers of his career. That has a lot of IDP managers looking at Cine with grand expectations. Don’t be one of those managers. Cine is a strong NFL prospect and will take over the free safety job from day one, but he has a lot of cards stacked against him when it comes to statistical production.
For starters, free safeties under Donatell have traditionally been less than friendly in IDP terms. This is not just over his three years as the coordinator in Denver but also goes back to his years as the secondary coach with the Bears. Then there is the level of competition for plays. With Eric Kendricks, Jordan Hicks, and Smith all between Cine and the ball, his opportunities will be limited. And finally, there is Cine’s marginal college production. In 25 games as a starter for Georgia over the last two years, he recorded 81 tackles, 44 assists, and 1 interception.
The Vikings were a hot mess at corner in 2021. Some of the issues were injuries but much came down to coaching decisions, or rather indecision. It seemed that every week there was a different combination of players on the field. As the team prepares for training camp, the picture seems pretty clear this time around. Patrick Peterson is healthy and locked in as one of the outside guys with Cameron Dantzler and second-round pick Andrew Booth filling out the top three. The only question at this point is who will work over the slot.
Both Booth and Dantzler are capable of playing either spot but at least in the short term, Booth may be the better fit inside. He is lacking experience and working over the slot would keep him from being exposed while he learns. He can play press coverage but is more effective playing off man-to-man or zone at this point, and covering the slot with help outside would put him in a position to take advantage of his ball-hawking skills. Booth’s ability to close while the ball is in the air and toughness in run support are factors that could point to work in the slot. They are also the kind of traits that make a corner valuable to managers in IDP leagues. His college production was nothing to get excited about but that is generally not a good measuring stick when it comes to corners.
Booth was the first but not the only corner drafted by the Vikings. Fourth-round pick Akayleb Evans will be in the mix with third-year man Harrison Hand, and veterans Kris Boyd, Chandon Sullivan, and several others to earn the remaining sub-package snaps and establish the rest of the pecking order. This group lacks experience at the top but is otherwise built to compete right now.
- SS Harrison Smith – Quality DB1
- FS Lewis Cine – Possible DB3 without significant upside but likely no more than depth
- SS/FS Josh Metellus – No impact
- FS/SS Camryn Bynum – Injury sleeper if Smith goes down
- CB Patrick Peterson – No impact
- CB Andrew Booth – Rookie corner rule and a skill set that suggests good production
- CB Cameron Dantzler – No impact expected
- CB Akayleb Evans – Rookie watch list until we see if he has a big role
- CB Harrison Hand – No impact
- CB Kris Boyd – No impact
- CB Chandon Sullivan – No impact
That’s a wrap for Part 20. Coming up next, I’ll kick off the AFC North with the Ravens.
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