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In recent months, it has become apparent that the Vikings’ interest in the draft’s defensive tackles is more than just a smokescreen. The Vikings are rumored to have met with at least five and will likely meet with more before the draft starts up in just a few weeks.

Vikings fans, at first, were a bit perplexed at the level of interest. After all, our defensive line seems like the strength of the defense. Between Griffen, Floyd, Joseph, Robison, and Hunter, the starting defensive line appears to be set for a while. Even the depth seems to be good with Tom Johnson rushing the passer well and Shamar Stephen having a pretty promising rookie year (coming back this season after being injured all last year). So, Vikings fans were even more confused when we heard rumors that we told Andrew Billings (NT, Baylor) we would draft him if he fell to our first round pick. Why take a defensive tackle so high in the draft when we need a wide receiver and safety more urgently?

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Most have dismissed the interest in a way, saying it’s just that they’re so talented you can’t pass them up. In other words, we’re just interested in the talent – we don’t really have a hole to fill or a real need at the position. I disagree. While there are a lot of talented defensive tackles in this draft class, I believe we do have a hole to fill at this position. Perhaps it’s not the biggest hole, but I believe they are targeting a defensive tackle to play a specific role, not just the best one on the board.

What role could that be?

There are a few different kinds of roles the different defensive tackles play on Mike Zimmer’s defensive line. First, you have the starters, who perform the typical functions of defensive tackles. The nose tackle, Linval Joseph, is mainly a run-stuffer. He takes up multiple blockers to free up the linebackers to make plays and create one-on-one matchups for the other defensive linemen. Our three-technique, Sharrif Floyd, plays a little faster. His job is to penetrate the offensive line and get into the backfield. He provides more pressure on the QB, as well. The details of the roles change from snap to snap, but those are the basics.

Second, you have the depth players. A significant part of their job is to spell the starters and try the best they can not to let the quality of play worsen when their number is called. However, they are used in unique ways. Shamar Stephen is an all-around backup. He is strong enough and big enough to substitute at nose tackle and he provides good enough penetration to substitute at three technique. Tom Johnson is our backup three-technique. He’s our more unique backup and is an unsung sub-package player. While Johnson subs in for Floyd on a regular basis, he’s also one of our our designated interior pass rushers. When the offense is in obvious passing situations, Johnson is often the only DT out on the field to rush the passer. On passing downs, he pushes the pocket from the interior so that the QB is not able to step up in the pocket. We have also been rotating Robison to defensive tackle in these situations in an attempt to create more pressure up the middle of the offensive line.

So, are they looking for more of a run-stopper or a pass-rusher?

Judging by the types of prospects they’ve visited with, one would guess that they are looking for a run-stopper. Jarran Reed, Andrew Billings, Darius Latham, and Vernon Butler’s strength is in taking on blockers in the run game (some have more quickness than others, though, and could get the penetration needed by a three-technique). Trevon Coley is the only prospect with whom they have visited that I would say projects as a designated interior pass rusher.

However, judging by what Zimmer has said to the media, one would guess that they are looking for an interior pass rusher. At the Annual League Meeting, a couple weeks ago, Zimmer stated “the inside nickel rusher becomes a really important position, at least for us, as much as the nickel back,” and “an inside rusher is what we always look for.” It is possible that they believe some of the guys they have visited with could become good pass rushers. I have mentioned Coley, but Butler does have the necessary athletic traits to be an effective pass rusher. Latham and Reed also have some pass rush to their games, but it’s not the reason they would be drafted.

We are getting mixed messages from the front office and coach. Do you believe the straight-shooting Mike Zimmer? Or do you rely more on the visits tracker?

Let’s cross-check these visits with what our team actually has right now. Presently, we have starters at nose tackle and 3-tech who are in or are just entering the prime of their careers. Behind them, we have a young defensive tackle who has the ability to play either DT position and an aging veteran who provides the interior pass rush. We also have Kenrick Ellis (a nose tackle who has not quite lived up to his draft hype, but came in last year and performed decently when we needed him to), BJ Dubose (a sixth-round pick who was put on the practice squad this past season, but who was likely drafted for his potential as an interior pass rusher), Isame Faciane, and Toby Johnson.

On that list, I do not see any quality nickel pass rushers behind Tom Johnson, while we do have Kenrick Ellis and Shamar Stephen behind Linval Joseph. With the age of our nickel rusher, I think it’s a somewhat thin spot. The nose tackle depth is looking decent, though, as long as Stephen comes back well from his injury. It appears, then, that our biggest need at defensive tackle is the interior, nickel pass rusher.

It is clear that the interior, nickel pass rusher is a critical position to Mike Zimmer. He initially drafted Geno Atkins to play that position in Cincinnati, not even expecting him to become a starter. Zimmer runs a very coordinated, disciplined defense. His pass rush designs are not formed randomly. He wants a choreographed attack on the QB. Part of that is not letting the QB step up in the pocket or escape the pocket. To do this well, you need a good interior pass rusher. Tom Johnson has been doing a fine job, but he is getting older. Robison does a fine job, too, but he is also getting older. I believe Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman are trying to find a dynamic player in this draft for this role.

Prospects who fit:

There are multiple players who would fit this role at the top of the draft:

Of those prospects, I think we’re looking mainly at Butler, Hargrave, Collins, and Day since Rankins is unlikely to fall to our pick and Nkemdiche has character concerns.

Butler is a player bursting with potential. He is strong with incredible length (35 1/8″ arms, which are almost an entire inch longer than Danielle Hunter’s). He has the explosiveness to excel at rushing the passer, but needs to work on technique and pad level, like most. He’s first and foremost an offensive-line-penetrating run-stopper who could play either nose or 3-tech at this point.

The final three prospects I listed have similar scouting reports to Geno Atkins’s, which is copied below from NFL.com:

STRENGTHS

Atkins has been a productive SEC defensive tackle. He plays with great intelligence and instincts and was a good student at Georgia as well. Plays with good motor and doesn’t stop till the whistle. Displays impressive quickness off the ball and good lateral agility in pursuit. Has impressive pass rushing ability for a defensive tackle.

WEAKNESSES

He’s undersized as a defensive tackle lacking adequate height and bulk. Doesn’t have the power to consistently hold up at the point of attack against the run and is overpowered by bigger blockers. Must become more consistent with his hand use.

Obviously, this is interesting because Geno Atkins was drafted by the Bengals while Zimmer was there and Zimmer coached him.

Hargrave and Day are pass rushers with quick feet but short arms, which could limit their effectiveness at the next level. They measure about the same as Geno Atkins, so…that’s interesting, but I do think Zimmer would rather have a prospect with good length if possible. Hargrave is faster (4.83 40 at his pro day) and more explosive (34 1/2″ vertical) than Sheldon Day. He also has the ability to anchor in the run game due to his lower body strength, which is what puts him above Day and Collins. However, he still has a lot to learn about the game and needs to improve his feel for the game. Day is a pretty well developed pass rusher, using a variety of moves and counter-moves to beat his guy, but he gets bullied in the run game. Collins has better length than Hargrave and Day, but doesn’t play strongly. He is an explosive pass rusher with good quickness, but is very weak against the run. Weaker than Day. Still, he was able to produce against good competition and that shows you how quick and persistent he is.

If I had to pick a player, it would be Vernon Butler. He has a a lot of upside as a pass rusher and could become a very good defensive tackle with good coaching. I think Javon Hargrave is the best prospect after him because of his explosiveness and raw athleticism. Hargrave is a player Zimmer and Patterson could mould into a good, situational pass rusher while he learns the game behind a few veteran leaders in Joseph, Floyd, and Johnson.

It may not be the biggest need we have, but it is a game-changing position. Having a dynamic interior rusher can do wonders for your 3rd-down defense. At this time, I would ask all Vikings fans to remember the years just prior to 2014 when we used Everson Griffen as our nickel rusher and recall how that affected our 3rd-down pass rush. Griffen was explosive and provided a pocket-collapsing dimension we weren’t getting from our defensive tackles at the time. Being able to collapse the pocket from 3 directions severely limits the QB’s ability to escape or avoid the rush. This makes the interior nickel rusher a very important role. Because this is such a critical position to Zimmer and this is such a good class of defensive tackles, I believe we will draft one of these players on the first or second day of the draft.

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