As we count down the days until the Vikings' opener against the Packers on September 13th, InsideTheVikings will be previewing every single player on the roster. The amount of days remaining corresponds with the jersey number of the player being examined on that day. Today is June 12th, and there are 93 days until kickoff for the 2020 regular season. That means our daily player preview looks at a veteran defensive tackle who could face serious competition for his starting role.
Countdown to Vikings-Packers on September 13th: 93 Days
Player Preview: Shamar Stephen (No. 93, Defensive Tackle)
- College: Connecticut
- Drafted: 2014 seventh round (220th overall)
- NFL experience: Six years (2020 will be his seventh season)
- Age: 29 (Turns 30 next February)
- Size: 6'5", 309
- 2019 PFF Grade: 58.2
- Notable 2019 stats: 21 tackles, 6 pressures, 1 sack, 3 pass breakups, 1 FF, 1 FR
- Notable career stats: 139 tackles, 4.0 sacks
Using their nickel formation, the Vikings have six returning starters on defense: Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, and Shamar Stephen.
One of those things is not like the other. Five are big names who have either made a Pro Bowl or should have (Harris) and – with the possible exception of Barr – are stars in the NFL. They're all locked in as starters again in 2020. The sixth is Stephen, who might face more competition for his role than any other returning starter on the roster. The only other incumbent starters facing a potentially serious challenge for their job are Pat Elflein and Riley Reiff on the offensive line.
Stephen was the clear weak link on a 2019 defensive line that also featured Hunter, Everson Griffen, and Linval Joseph. That's not a knock, as those are three veteran stars and he was probably playing out of position at three-technique. Stephen is a solid run-stopper playing a position that is supposed to produce interior pressure, which is something he hasn't proven capable of doing at a high level.
Stephen was a solid presence in the middle of the defensive line, but he failed to create any pressure whatsoever last year. In 314 snaps, he recorded just six pressures and one sack. That was 41 fewer pressures than Sheldon Richardson registered for the Vikings in 2018 while Stephen was with the Seahawks.
From a wider perspective, Stephen has had quite a solid NFL career considering he was a seventh-round pick out of UConn in 2014. He started three games as a rookie and has carved out a role in the league ever since. In six years, Stephen has played in 82 games and made 49 starts. He was taken 220th overall, but those 82 games rank 35th among his draft class.
Stephen's best year came in 2017, when he posted a 67.9 PFF grade in a rotational role behind Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson. Stephen then spent a year with the Seahawks, posting a career-high two sacks, before returning to Minnesota last year. In each of his three years as a full-time starter (2016, 2018, and 2019), Stephen has posted a PFF grade between 58 and 60. That's firmly below average for a veteran starter.
At 6'5," 309 pounds, Stephen has good size that allows him to plug gaps in the run game. He has a strong frame and plays with decent leverage. However, Stephen is severely lacking in the athleticism and explosiveness that teams typically want from their three-techs. He would probably be better suited at nose tackle, but with the Vikings replacing Joseph with Michael Pierce, that spot is secured.
Because of Stephen's uninspiring play, there will likely be a wide-open competition at three-tech in 2020. His primary asset in that competition is his experience; Stephen's six years in the NFL are easily the most of any DT on the Vikings roster. However, he may face an uphill battle to keep his job. If Mike Zimmer wants to continue having a bigger three-tech, both Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson probably offer more all-around upside. If the Vikings want to maximize their interior pass-rush, especially with Griffen gone, they could hope someone like James Lynch, Hercules Mata'afa, or Jalyn Holmes wins the job instead.
He's had a great career for a seventh-rounder and will likely stick around the NFL for a while longer, but Stephen's days as a starter might be ending in 2020.
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