As news began to circulate Monday morning, the Vikings looked like they were in the mix to sign one of the premier pass rushers of this free agency class, Trey Hendrickson. As we all know by now that didn’t happen. Hendrickson threw the league a curveball and decided to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals. This left the Vikings with money available to sign one of the best free agents DTs, Dalvin Tomlinson as day one wound down (no Vikings fans, it wasn’t a dream).
Would Hendrickson/Hunter paired along the outside of the defensive line have been terrifying for opponents? Of course it would have. That said, Hendrickson got paid $60 million. There is no way that the Vikings should have given him $60 million when 1) Danielle Hunter is upset about the money he is making, and 2) the Vikings may already have the next version of Hendrickson on their roster.
Debunking a Hendrickson Myth
Hendrickson did very little for the Saints in his first two years of play. He didn’t start a single game from 2017 to 2018 and recorded just two total sacks. In 2019, he began to have a bigger impact. He started three games that year (played in 13) and recorded 4.5 sacks and nine QB hits. Then in 2020 he emerged as one of the best statistical pass rushers in the league with his 13.5 sacks being second in the NFL behind T.J. Watt while also recording 12 TFLs and 25 QB hits.
What caused this sudden rise in production? Well, certainly more playing time and a few years of experience helped, but that’s not all. While his experience certainly had some impact, Hendrickson played with one of the best defensive lines in 2020. He lined up across from Cam Jordan, PFF’s 8th ranked DE this season. Then, in the middle he had David Onyemata, who was PFF’s 7th ranked DT. Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Brown also received significant playing time on the interior, and both graded above 70. Not to mention, behind him the Saints had Demario Davis who was PFF’s 5th best linebacker and 4th best in terms of pass rush.
The Saints had so many guys that opposing offenses had to pay attention to. It opened up a lot of opportunities for Hendrickson to make an impact. The question thus emerges: is Hendrickson really this good, or did he just happen to have an extremely good situation in New Orleans? As Uffda! Sports resident Saints fan, I am leaning towards the latter. I wish him well in Cincinnati, but I will be shocked if he puts up such gaudy numbers again.
The numbers seem to agree with me, too. In fact, despite his massive sack output, PFF ranks him as just the 17th best pass-rushing edge defender, grading him at 77.0. Of course still impressive, but it is not nearly that of Watt who graded 90.5 or Aaron Donald who graded 93.6 on the interior. Watt and Donald also topped their positions in pass rush win rate (per ESPN Analytics) while Hendrickson didn’t even crack the top-10. It’s also worth noting that Hendrickson’s run defense took a pretty massive hit in 2020. While he had graded in the high-60s for PFF in 2018 and 2019, his 2020 grade was a mere 54.8.
Enter D.J. Wonnum
D.J. Wonnum and Trey Hendrickson have a lot in common. They have similar measurements: Wonnum stands 6’5” and 260 lbs while Hendrickson is 6’4” and 270 lbs. They were drafted in similar spots: Hendrickson 103rd overall and Wonnum 117th overall. Their rookie production was also similar with Wonnum getting more playing time. The extra playing time led to slightly more impressive numbers as Hendrickson recorded 13 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 TFLs while Wonnum had 24 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5 TFLs. There’s no question that Hendrickson’s Saints had a better overall defense in 2017 than Wonnum’s Vikings had in 2020, though.
That said, this leads to the final similarity between the two. Hendrickson had a great situation in 2020, and Wonnum looks like he could have a close to the same situation in place for him to breakout in 2021. Let’s look at the numbers. First off, Wonnum will hopefully have Danielle Hunter across from him next season. In 2019, Hunter posted a PFF grade of 89.4, higher than Cam Jordan’s 2020 grade of 83.7.
Then along the interior of the Vikings line, Michael Pierce posted a grade of 69.2 in 2019 which is very similar to the 2020 grades of both Tuttle and Brown of the Saints. Of course, there is no David Onyemata on the Vikings, but new signee Dalvin Tomlinson certainly serves as an above average DT.
Finally, Anthony Barr provides a greater presence at OLB than any Saint in 2020 outside of Kwon Alexander who only played seven games for them before tearing his Achilles. Demario Davis also grades out as a much better pass rusher than Eric Kendricks in 2020, but that could change in 2021 as the Vikings opponents have to pay more attention to both Pierce and Tomlinson up the middle.
Honestly, it doesn’t even have to be Wonnum in this situation. It could be Stephen Weatherly, who the Vikings just reunited with. It could even be someone else that emerges in training camp. I only picked Wonnum because he feels like the ideal player to break out for the Vikings. He is under contract through 2023 and is on an extremely team-friendly rookie deal.
Even if it is not Wonnum, and instead it’s someone like Weatherly or a draft pick that gets starting snaps at DE, my two points remain the same. First I don’t think that, in a vacuum, Trey Hendrickson suddenly became a top-tier pass rusher in the league. Instead, I believe he benefited greatly from his situation in New Orleans and could come back down to earth next season.
Secondly, the Vikings’ signing of Dalvin Tomlinson along with the returns of Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, and Michael Pierce (I guess it would still be Pierce’s Vikings debut, but you get my point) should retool this front seven. They may not need to get another high profile DE in the draft as these guys will make it much easier for the fringe defenders to make a bigger impact. Whether that’s Wonnum, Weatherly, or someone else, the Vikings could have their own version of Trey Hendrickson emerge in 2021.