How Minnesota’s Defense Has Been Built

Through four weeks, Minnesota’s defense has been playing lights-out. But how did they all get here? My weekly look at all things NFC this week analyses how the Vikings have put their team together through the draft, how the pieces fit together, and how they’ve supplemented them with free agent signings.

When we think about building a team, we know there are two avenues for a franchise to go down: rookies, or veterans. Everyone, to some degree, uses a combination of the two. Some rely near-solely on big-money free-agent veterans, supplemented by the odd draft pick. Some throw their rookies in from day one, with limited veteran experience to guide them. The savviest teams keep a few veterans around to guide their youngsters on, and they build through the draft year after year after year. The savviest defense in the NFC currently belongs to the Minnesota Vikings, and it’s worth having a look, player by player, at how they’ve done this. To assist with this, I’ve used Pro Football Reference’s 2016 snap counts for Minnesota.

Missing Pieces

Minnesota, like all other teams, are perennially a piece or two down due to the injury. The natural attrition keeps things equal in the NFL, but that attrition’s taken some big pieces out of a team that is still doing fantastically. The main player out is defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who’s currently recovering from arthoscoping knee surgery. He’s a run-stuffer and quarterback-pounder in the middle, who was a 2013 1st round pick.

Minnesota’s also missed cornerback Xavier Rhodes for a few games, and of course on offense Bridgewater and Peterson are both out. But broadly speaking, Minnesota have been lucky with injuries. Now let’s look at how their current team was built.

Defensive Tackle

Minnesota play a 4-3 system, so they’ll need two defensive tackles, with one lining up over the middle, or the ‘nose’. That’s Linval Joseph, who as a 2014 free agent signing from the Giants, is somewhat of a rarity here. Joseph was a moderately big-money signing, who’d been fairly good for the Giants, stuffing the run in the middle, picking up a few sacks here and there. He’s been the same in Minnesota, only moreso each year. He’s a force in the run game, able to shake off blocks and dive on that back the first chance he gets. But he’s also a pass-rushing force, with the power and speed to either beat or shed blocks. 2016 has been fantastic so far. Through 4 games, Joseph already has 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 12 solo tackles and 9 assisted.

Alonside Joseph at the moment is mostly Tom Johnson, a veteran who floated around the league for a few years before finding a home in Minnesota in 2014. Johnson’s more of a pass-rusher than a run-blocker, and his breakout seasons in 2014 and 2015 saw him pick up 6.5 and 5.5 sacks respectively – not bad for a rotational player at defensive tackle, even if he’s picking up a lot of snaps as an extra interior rusher in nickel situations (5 defensive backs on the field).

Their third rotational tackle at the moment is Shamar Stephen, a 2014 7th round pick. As always, turning a seventh round pick into a solid rotational player is exactly what the best franchises do to build depth.

Defensive End

The Vikings have had bags of fun at defensive end these past few years, and Everson Griffen has been joybringer-in-chief. A 2010 4th round pick who took a couple of years to crack the lineup, he recorded 8 sacks as a situational rusher in 2012, but broke out when he won the starting defensive end job in 2014 following Jared Allen’s departure. He now has two seasons of double-digit sacks in a row, and four sacks in four games to start the 2016 season, too. Against Carolina, Griffen picked up 3, and it’s interesting to look at how he did to show his strengths. Sack #1, he drives the tackle back towards Newton, and then as Newton tries to spin out of trouble, Griffen sheds his block sufficiently to first grab Newton with a free hand, then completely latch onto Newton, who never stands a chance.

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For sack #2, first Griffen forces Michael Oher to hold him, preventing a sack but giving away 10 yards. Then, another ten yards goes as Griffen starts wider to his right, and shimmies round the outside of Oher to speed his way past the tackle and straight onto Newton. For sack #3, as time ticks on, Griffen tries a spin move on a double-team, which doesn’t work. But with no-one open downfield and Newton needing to throw, Griffen keeps plugging away at the tackles, eventually shedding his block and pouncing. Power, speed and tenacity. Three not bad traits in a pass-rusher, eh?

Alongside Griffen tends to be veteran Brian Robison, a 2007 1st round pick who was a situational player for years before winning the starting job in 2011. He had three good years alongside Jared Allen, and though his age has started to show in recent years, he still provides a veteran presence, is good for about 5 sacks a season, and has the wherewithal to be a stronger player against the run – not the bread and butter for an edge rusher, but it keeps the Minnesota front versatile.

And then, when the situation allows, in comes the excellent Danielle Hunter, a 2015 3rd round pick who is doing what so many Vikings have done before – spent a few years as a productive, situational pass-rusher, before inevitably winning the starting job. Hunter is incredibly athletic, gets results – sacks, forces fumbles, and while he’s still a bit raw, he’s fierce. His strip-sack of Aaron Rodgers in Week 2 was fierce – Rodgers is nimble enough to avoid the onrushing linebacker, but Hunter sheds Bryan Bulaga’s block, leaps for Rodgers, forces the fumble, which unluckily, JC Tretter recovers for Green Bay.

Linebackers

The gem of Minnesota’s linebackers is also their highest overall draft pick, 2014 1st rounder Anthony Barr. Before the draft, he was seen as something of a risky prospect – a former running back who put up mind-boggling stats as a pass-rusher at UCLA, but one obviously lacking in the sort of instincts that experience in the position would’ve brought. But Minnesota obviously saw an all-rounder, someone who can hold up in coverage, can be solid against the run, and have incredible physical potential to do everything. Anyway, they drafted him, and played him nominally as an outside linebacker in 4-3, a role that isn’t pure pass rush at all. So, although Barr is fantastic at generating pressure, and has picked up a handful of sacks, Minnesota set about making him fantastic in coverage and against the run. Linebackers are often required to cover more in the redzone, where short routes to hulking tight ends are dangerous. Barr ended up in coverage a lot last year, and, per PFF, gave up only one touchdown in coverage, and made a heck of a lot of tackles to stop first downs.

Alonside Barr is the excellent Eric Kendricks, who a few of you might know I am a huge fan of. Kendricks was the NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 1 of 2016, after returning an interception 77 yards for a TD, alongside his five tackles. His breakout game in 2015 (the year he was Minnesota’s 2nd round pick) was against the Lions, where he was more opportunistic, exploiting breakdowns in the centre of the line to come charging through late to obliterate Matt Stafford. And as you’d want for a linebacker, he’s versatile too, nifty enough in coverage to have four passes defended already this year.

The third of the trio is veteran Chad Greenway, who’s been with Minnesota ever since being drafted in the 1st round in 2006. Greenway is a starter, but because teams seldom have three linebackers on the field these days, he’s played just over 25% of snaps. Greenway’s probably in his final season, and was known for racking up the tackles throughout his career. He’s there for veteran leadership and a steady hand now.

Safeties

Probably the biggest consensus of “elite” for any Viking is for free safety Harrison Smith. A late first-round pick in 2012, Smith was great from the get-go, recording two pick-sixes, 104 tackles and 11 passes defended in his first year in the league. Smith was seen as another all-rounder at the position, solid in run support, tight end and running back coverage, though with some weakness if asked to go man-to-man. In reality, he’s gone from being good at everything to excellent at everything. Put him on the blitz, and you’ve got roughly a one-in-three chance he’ll get pressure. Put him in run defense, and he’s going to be the one manning the centrefield. Generally, leave him in the defensive backfield, let him direct traffic, and your defense is going to look even better.

In fact, your weaker players will look better too. Andrew Sendejo has played every snap thus far this year. A former 2010 undrafted free agent who bounced around practice squads until the Vikings snapped him up in 2011, Sendejo is probably the weakest starter in the Vikings team. And he’s currently enjoying his best season as a pro. Playing strong safety, Sendejo has more utility in run stopping, although he doesn’t quite have Smith’s instinct for making a tackle. But he’s a steady presence, with an unnering ability to be in the right place at the right time to recover fumbles – not a bad skill to have!

Cornerbacks

If you thought Chad Greenway was a relative veteran, meet Terence Newman. A 2003 1st-rounder for Dallas, he had success with the Cowboys and Bengals before joining the Vikings in 2015. At age 36. Seriously, I suspect even the Vikings are surprised that Newman’s still able to play corner well. He doesn’t return interceptions so far these days, but he’s still making interceptions and defending passes at a roughly similar rate to the rest of his career.

If you’re going to have such a veteran corner, having a budding superstar no. 1 corner elsewhere on the roster helps, and that’s what 2013 1st round pick Xavier Rhodes is. Rhodes missed the first couple of games this season, and the Vikings were fine, but he’s come back and played two fantastic games, notably holding Odell Beckham to three catches for 23 yards and an interception, and very much getting in his head. Whereas Josh Norman did that to Beckham with hi-jinks, Rhodes basically did it with fantastic coverage. Coming into the league, Rhodes was hyped as the leading press-man corner in the 2013 draft, and that’s been mostly what Minnesota have got. He struggled through the middle half of last season, so it still remains to be seen if he can regularly shut out opposing receivers, but the prospect is there.

Rounding out the ‘starters’ at cornerback, another free-agent acquisition in slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Signed in 2014 from Carolina (where he was a 2009 7th round pick), Munnerlyn may also be a weak link among the main men, especially when coming up against a top-tier slot receiver (just look at what Doug Baldwin did to him in the wildcard game last year. Munnerlyn can lose players on crossing routes now and then, but for the most part he’s a reliable presence to have around while bringing through younger corners.

One of those, 2015 1st round pick Trae Waynes, will be the next Viking to be slowly brought into the lineup. Waynes played early this season while Rhodes was out, and played well! Waynes already has ball-hawking instincts, just take a look at how he picks off Aaron Rodgers here.

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Waynes has started in more of a prevent defense situation, and that’s enabled him to follow the receiver and keep an eye on when Rodgers is ready to throw. This means that by the time the ball’s in the air, Waynes has made it across, got a better angle on the ball than the receiver, who has to turn and lose momentum. As a result, only one person is going to catch that ball.

Keep an eye out as well for 2016 2nd round pick Mackensie Alexander. Don’t expect to see much from Alexander yet, but the thoughts are he has the instincts and ability to move into the slot sooner rather than later. It’s easy to imagine the cornerback tandem by 2018 being an excellent version of Rhodes-Waynes-Alexander, sure enough.

How Have Minnesota Done It

viking-draft

This table fairly well demonstrates Minnesota’s team-building. First round picks in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 have become the cornerstones of the team. The development of a few mid-round picks has helped this mightily, but 12 out of 17 players here were Minnesota draft picks. The majority of the remainder were excellent free-agent pickups in 2014, Mike Zimmer’s first round of free agency.

I don’t want to say the Vikings have the best strategy, or that anything is ever guaranteed to work: this is the NFL. Bad strategies will always be bad strategies, but good strategies can also be bad if you don’t get lucky. Minnesota have drafted very well, and that will always require some luck that players develop how you hope they will. And indeed, look at the offensive side of the ball in recent drafts, and two underwhelming first-rounders in Matt Kalil and Cordarelle Patterson jump out. Maybe that’s just bad luck.

Despite all that, there’s a lot to admire about the Minnesota approach, particularly the patience that they have with picks. Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, Eric Kendricks and Trae Waynes have all been brought along slowly, which has meant they’ve gotten game-savvy, and carry a bit more experience than those going straight into the starting line-up. Minnesota have looked after their early picks, and surrounded them with top-drawer coaching and veteran leadership. The result of that is none of them look quite so overawed when joining the line-up. The only knock on them is that, other than Hunter and Griffen, there aren’t many 3rd, 4th or 5th round picks here providing backup. The fact that all the top picks have stuck on defense means that you don’t have those stars on offense, and so the offense has had to rely more on mid-round picks to flourish (of course, one of them is Stefon Diggs, so it’s not necessarily that flawed a strategy).

The best thing for Minnesota? That they’re built for the future too. Harrison Smith got a big extension this year, and one would expect Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd to follow soon. There’s obvious depth here, and young players to step in when the older guard start to take a step back. There’s a lot to love about this Minnesota defense, and hopefully for them, long may it continue.

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