With Added Weight, Could Hercules Mata'afa Emerge For the Vikings in Year Three?
One of the Vikings' biggest needs is an upgrade at three-technique defensive tackle, where Shamar Stephen was one of the worst interior defenders in the NFL last season.
Stephen ranked 88th out of 114 qualifying DTs in Pro Football Focus's grading system in 2019. He offered virtually nothing as a pass-rusher, recording just six pressures in over 300 pass-rushing snaps. With newly-acquired nose tackle Michael Pierce not known for his pass-rushing ability, the Vikings need to find an interior pressure creator to pair with Pierce. Here's what I wrote in my takeaways from the Pierce acquisition:
The Vikings could use someone like their 2018 starter, Sheldon Richardson, who posted 25 pressures and 4.5 sacks in his lone season in Minnesota. Whether that's an in-house player like Jaleel Johnson or Armon Watts, or a rookie like Ross Blacklock or Neville Gallimore, the Vikings need to find someone who can create pressure from the interior. A defensive tackle pairing of Pierce and Stephen would make it too easy for opposing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket and evade the Vikings' edge rushers.
While I mentioned Johnson and Watts as potential candidates to step up and seize expanded roles, there's another young player on the roster to keep an eye on: Hercules Mata'afa. The 2018 undrafted free agent has been bulking up, posting a picture on Twitter Sunday of him weighing in at 289 pounds.
That's 35 pounds above his listed weight on the team's official roster, which is 254 pounds. Mata'afa's weight is now right in the range of some of the league's best interior pass-rushers. Aaron Donald is listed at 280. Grady Jarrett, 290. Vikings great John Randle played at 285 or 290 during his career.
Mata'afa hasn't seen the field much during his first two NFL seasons. A torn ACL caused him to miss his rookie season, and he played just 100 snaps in 2019. But with this additional weight, he'll have a chance to compete for a larger role in 2020. Could he follow in the footsteps of Ifeadi Odenigbo and have a breakout season in year three?
The Vikings signed Mata'afa after he went undrafted in 2018. The Hawaii native had 21 sacks in three years at Washington State, including 10.5 as a senior. He was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American in 2017, but was seen as a tweener DT/EDGE who didn't have a clear position at the next level. At 250 pounds, he was too small to play on the interior of a defensive line. At 290, that's no longer the case.
Mata'afa has shown some flashes over the past couple years. This sack against the Saints in last year's preseason was impressive:
Now, he'll look to use this added weight and show the Vikings' coaching staff that he should be part of the defensive line rotation in 2020.
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