Minnesota Vikings have a lot of work to do in 2022 draft to convert to a 3-4 defense
Minnesota’s coaching change likely means the team will transition to a 3-4 defense.
That’s easier said than done – and it will likely take two-plus years.
For starters, defensive end Danielle Hunter could be a cap casualty, as he’s scheduled to make more than $26 million in 2022, with a roster bonus of $18 million due late next month. Taking a pass rusher high in the April draft will go a long way toward determining Hunter’s future with the team, as the Vikings can save close to $14 million if they make him a post-June 1 release.
The Vikings are currently scheduled to be $16 million over the 2022 salary cap, according to Over The Cap.
Why would the team consider cutting Hunter? He was the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks, and the 2015 third-round pick out of LSU made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and 2019 after producing 14.5 sacks both years.
But Hunter has played just over one-fifth of Minnesota’s games since the start of 2020. That includes missing all of 2020 due to a neck injury that required surgery and missing more than half of last season after tearing a pectoral muscle. Overall, Hunter has missed 26 out of the last 33 games.
Minnesota could lose three-fifths of its starting defensive backfield, too. Cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander and safety Xavier Woods are all unrestricted free agents. None of them had great Pro Football Focus grades – Peterson had a grade of 63.0, Alexander had a 40.2 and Woods led with a grade of 66.4 – but they all received a heavy amount of playing time. Woods played in 100 percent of the team’s defensive snaps with 1,208. Peterson received 885 snaps (73.3 percent), and Alexander played in 690 snaps (57.1 percent).
The team also needs to decide what its options are at linebacker, as Anthony Barr and Nick Vigil are UFAs.
Overall, Minnesota has 17 unrestricted free agents.
Finally, the Vikings could consider drafting a center, as 2019 first-rounder Garrett Bradbury has been a disappointment thus far. Otherwise, the team is fairly set on offense.
The bottom line? Expect a Minnesota draft that’s heavy on defense.
Here are some of the choices the Vikings could face during the first two days of the draft.
Round 1: LSU CB Derek Stingley vs. Purdue Edge George Karlaftis
No way Stingley lasts to No. 12, right?
Not so fast. The reason why so many draft evaluators are ranking Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner and Washington’s Trent McDuffie ahead of Stingley is because of the LSU junior’s injury history combined with his so-so performance on the field the past two seasons. FanNation’s NFL Draft, for example, recently mocked Stingley to Minnesota. Same for NFL.com draft analyst Chad Reuter. Overall, six out of 17 recent mock drafts all had Stingley falling to the Vikings with pick No. 12 overall.
From NFL.com analytics expert Cynthia Frelund, who was among those who has Stingley falling to Minnesota: “There’s an elephant in the room here, and it’s that Stingley’s tape and metrics have gone the wrong way from his 2019 campaign until now, with the corner playing just three games in 2021 due to injury. However, press coverage is a positive in his resume, and his pursuit speed flags in the top 20 percent, per computer vision. PFF counts him as allowing a completion percentage of just 41.1 in his three seasons at LSU. If the Vikings end up naming Ed Donatell their defensive coordinator, Stingley would get excellent tutelage in Minnesota, and his natural attributes could be on full display.”
If not Stingley, then Gardner or McDuffie could be in play here if either is available.
Any of those three would be the likely selection over a pass rusher like Karlaftis or Georgia’s Travon Walker, who also could be available. Again, it comes down to the new defensive alignment: those two players are better suited for a defensive end in a traditional 4-3 defense than as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. However, with their size – Karlaftis is 6-foot-4, 275-pounds and Walker is 6-foot-5, 275-pounds – either could play the 5-tech defensive end position for Minnesota. Those players, however, typically don’t have the same impact as an OLB in a 3-4 alignment.
Round 2: Texas A&M DL DeMarvis Leal vs. USC Edge Drake Jackson
If the pick comes down to Leal or Jackson, then Minnesota will likely take the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Aggie – and not just because he’s generally seen as the better prospect. Jackson, at 6-foot-4, 250-pounds, played in a 3-3-5 defensive alignment at USC, so he’s at least used to playing the 5-tech or the 6-tech. However, there are questions about Jackson’s play strength and ability against the run, as pointed out by NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein.
On the other hand, Leal seems like the perfect fit as a 5-tech in a 3-4. Here’s what Zierlein said about Leal: “Most will see him as an even-front defender in some capacity, but playing 3-4 DE might be his best fit as a pro.”
Round 3: Memphis C Dylan Parham vs. Minnesota Edge Boye Mafe
Unless Bradbury has a career year in 2022, then he’s likely not a part of the team’s long-term future.
However, this isn’t a great year to draft a center, as there’s a huge gap between Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum (ranked No. 5 in the latest Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board) and the next-best center, Arizona State’s Dohnovan West (No. 132).
That’s why several interior linemen are being looked at as a center, including Boston College’s Zion Johnson, Chattanooga’s Cole Strange and Parham. Johnson, though, likely won’t be available past the early part of the second round, so the choice might come down to giving Bradbury another year or taking a shot at Parham or Strange in Round 3.
Strange has better measurements at 6-foot-4, 304 pounds, but Parham has obviously played against better competition. And he has packed on a few pounds since the end of the season, when he was listed at 6-foot-2, 285-pounds. Parham was listed at 313 pounds at the Senior Bowl.
With all that said, Minnesota has to do something about it’s pass rushers, especially if the team releases Hunter and lets Barr walk in free agency.
D.J. Wonnum, a fourth-round pick in 2020, is coming off a career year with 8 sacks, giving him 11 his first two seasons. He may get a shot at one of the OLB spots, but at 6-foot-5, 260-pounds, he could also play the 5-tech. The same goes for Janarius Robinson, who’s roughly the same size as Wonnum. The 2021 fourth-rounder didn’t play last season due to injury. And 2020 seventh-rounder Kenny Willekes (6-foot-3, 264) could get a look at OLB, while 2020 fourth-rounder James Lynch (6-foot-4, 295) will likely vie for playing time as a 5-tech.
That’s pretty good depth – but still too many question marks in terms of position fits. What happens if Wonnum, Robinson or Willekes can’t hold up as a defensive end but doesn’t have the speed or athleticism required for an OLB in the 3-4?
That’s why Minnesota will likely draft at least one pass-rushing linebacker – and why the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Mafe might get the nod over a center.
However, Mafe is coming off a solid Senior Bowl week – he had 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss and 1 forced fumble in the game – and he could rise up draft boards with a solid Combine. In other words, he might not be available when the Vikings are on the clock in the third round.
Here’s what a scout for an NFC team told NFL.com about Mafe: “The numbers the strength coach put out there on him are crazy. If he hits the (NFL Scouting) Combine like he’s supposed to then he’s going to shoot up there.”
Here’s the problem with that scenario: If Minnesota hasn’t taken a SAM or a JACK outside linebacker by the end of Day 2, then it might not draft one at all, as the Vikings do not have a pick in the fourth round. After Mafe, who is ranked No. 79 in the Rigdon-big board, the next-highest ranked Edge players include Miami-Ohio’s Dominique Robinson (No. 93) and Western Kentucky’s DeAngelo Malone (96).
That might not be such a bad thing, though. The 6-foot-4, 254-pound Robinson is one of the more athletic pass rushers in this draft, although the former wide receiver is still very raw and inexperienced at the position. And the 6-foot-3, 234-pound Malone turned heads at the Senior Bowl, laying to rest some concerns about his size and positional fit. Malone likely wouldn’t make it as a defensive end in a traditional 4-3, but he’d get a long look as a JACK OLB in a 3-4.