As Danielle Hunter morphed from raw prospect to fully formed pass-rushing terror even faster than the Minnesota Vikings expected, the team knew it was going to have to move some furniture around to make room for its growing Phenom. When Hunter posted six sacks as a 20-year-old rookie, splitting his time at left and right defensive end in 2015, the Vikings started moving Brian Robison inside on passing downs to give Hunter more opportunities.
Now, as Hunter prepares for his third season still almost five months shy of his 23rd birthday, the Vikings seem prepared to unleash him even more. The 34-year-old Robison, who restructured his contract this spring, has told coaches he will accept a smaller role if it helps the team. In addition, after two Pro Bowls at right end, the 29-year-old Everson Griffen could get some work at a position where he played as the Vikings’ third pass-rusher early in his career. Griffen has spent some time working as an interior pass-rusher, revisiting the spot where he saw most of his playing time during his first three years in the league. His ability to move around the Minnesota Vikings defensive front could help the team in two ways this season.
With all these defensive line weaponry, the Vikings can always use options to pressure the quarterback from the middle of their defensive line. Coach Mike Zimmer has been pleased with the progress Datone Jones has made at defensive tackle, and veteran Tom Johnson figures to play a key role in the team’s pass rush again at age 33. Griffen, though, has been a solid run defender in addition to a productive pass-rusher, and the Vikings could find a reason to use him inside from time to time in their base defense.
The Vikings’ ability to unleash a trio of versatile pass-rushers could make their pressure packages even harder for opponents to decipher. Griffen, Robison, and Hunter have all shown an ability to drop into coverage at times, and Zimmer has shown a fondness for athletic pass-rushers who can get to the quarterback from multiple spots. The flexibility of his defensive front gives Zimmer more options and offensive coordinators more headaches.
The return of Sharif Floyd would help the Vikings, who is dealing with a nerve issue in his right knee that prevents his quadriceps muscle from working properly. But the presence of Jones and Johnson, not to mention developing young pass-rushers like Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo, gives the Minnesota Vikings defensive line a number of different ways to play.
Editor’s Note: This article can also be seen in our upcoming NFL Preview Edition.