Ivan Pace Enters Linebacker Rankings

Dec 10, 2023; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) celebrates after an interception against the Las Vegas Raiders in the second half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s rookie class included two immediate contributors: linebacker Ivan Pace and wideout Jordan Addison. The receiver was a solid target next to Justin Jefferson early in the season and even played well during the three-time Pro Bowler’s absence. A jump in year two is possible, but some questions surround him.

Ivan Pace Enters Linebacker Rankings

Dec 10, 2023; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams (17) laterals the ball over Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) during the final seconds of the fourth quarter at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Pace, unlike Addison, didn’t join the Vikings with the huge expectations of a highly-touted draft choice. Instead, he fell out of the mid-rounds, where he was expected to hear his name called, and dropped into the undrafted free agency pool. The Vikings then lured him to Minnesota.

Defensive coordinator Brian Flores was considered a perfect coach for the undersized rookie with enormous pass-rushing potential. His blitz-heavy scheme gave the former Cincinnati Bearcat the perfect opportunity to claim a significant role. The debut season ended with solid statistics and the knowledge that he is more than just a rotational pass rusher, but a complete linebacker.

Nov 19, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) makes the tackle on Denver Broncos running back Jaleel McLaughlin (38) in the first quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Slowly but surely, media pundits pay attention to the young defender. Jordan Dajani of CBS Sports listed his top 20 linebackers, and the Viking clocked in at the final spot.

Let’s begin with a projection. Pace is not some solidified veteran that has been playing at a high level for multiple seasons. He was an undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati that made the active roster of an NFL team his rookie year, then recorded 102 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, nine QB hits, two passes defensed and one interception in 17 games played with 11 starts.

Not many were excited to watch the Vikings’ 3-0 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 14, but Pace made his mark with 13 combined tackles, one tackle for loss, one QB hit, one pass defensed and one interception. He was good as a blitzer, recording a 78.0 PFF pass-rush grade and 15 pressures.

Jordan Dajani

The spot next to starting linebacker Jordan Hicks was vacant, and Pace snatched it in training camp from projected starter Brian Asamoah and proceeded to play 706 snaps on defense and 249 on special teams in 17 games.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (5) react with teammates after a fumble recovery against the Detroit Lions during the game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

When Hicks exited the contest versus the Saints with his scary leg injury, Pace was suddenly the defense’s play caller on the field, the player with the green dot helmet with the speaker. He received the play calls from Flores and informed his teammates.

In the upcoming season, that job is available following Hicks’ departure. Last month, ESPN’s Kevin Seifert wrote: “Pace appeared to be the top contender for the green dot during spring practices. O’Connell said Pace ‘has had a very good spring, just with the type of communication [Flores] is putting on his plate,’ but indicated the Vikings were also taking a look at newcomers Blake Cashman and Kamu Grugier-Hill.”

Ivan Pace Enters Linebacker Rankings
Aug 25, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Texans linebacker Blake Cashman (53) in action during the second half against the San Francisco 49ers at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings signed Minnesota native Blake Cashman in free agency, who experienced a breakout season with the Texans in 2023. He hasn’t gotten much buzz and might be an underrated player on the roster. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Pace and Cashman will fill the two starting spots behind the defensive line.

Pace, 23, could be a crucial player in Minnesota’s defense for years to come.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this article.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and prefers Classic rock over other genres. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt