Vikings Defensive Ends Preview: Is Ifeadi Odenigbo Ready for a Three-Down Role?

Will Ragatz

With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, we're going to take an early look at each position on the Vikings' 2020 roster. We'll break down any notable competitions for certain roles or roster spots before making a prediction on who makes the 53-man roster, who winds up on the practice squad, and who will be continuing their football career elsewhere. We begin our look at the defense with a breakdown of the Vikings' defensive ends.

Ifeadi Odenigbo's football journey has been an unorthodox one, to say the least.

He didn't start playing the sport until joining the JV team during his sophomore year of high school in Ohio. Prior to that point, his parents – first-generation immigrants from Nigeria – hadn't allowed him to play, viewing it as too violent and a distraction from academic pursuits. Odenigbo persisted and got them to agree to let him join the team if he made the honor roll as a freshman, which he did by the skin of his teeth. The beginning of Odenigbo's football career was a struggle because he was competing against kids who had been playing since a young age. But he stuck with it, and eventually his athleticism and relentless motor began to produce results.

By his senior year, Odenigbo was a four-star recruit and one of the most sought-after pass rushers in the country. He ended up at Northwestern, where he once again had to prove himself; despite his recruiting pedigree, Odenigbo redshirted during his first year in Evanston. He showed flashes of greatness over the next three seasons, recording 14.5 sacks during that span, but he was clearly a work in progress and was used only on obvious passing downs. Even as he remained unable to earn a full-time, three-down role, Odenigbo broke out for a Big Ten-leading 10.0 sacks as a senior, including four in one game against Iowa.

Read: The Top 10 Defensive Rookies The Vikings Will Face in 2020

All that did was allow him to progress to the next level and start over again, back at the bottom. Odenigbo, whose short arms and lack of size kept him from generating significant buzz as a prospect, was taken by the Vikings in the seventh round of the 2017 draft – 220th overall, to be precise. He was unable to make the team as a rookie, but was kept around on the practice squad and continued to put in work to improve. In 2018, the Vikings moved Odenigbo to defensive tackle, a position he had never played before. He wound up switching back to defensive end during the preseason because of injuries to other DEs, but the end result was the same as the year before: Odenigbo fell short of the 53-man roster and was cut.

This time, he had shown enough in the preseason to merit interest from other teams. Odenigbo spent three weeks with the Browns and a month with the Cardinals, then found his way back to Minnesota after being waived by three teams in less than two months. Later that season, the Vikings convinced him to turn down an offer to join the active roster of the Eagles, giving him a raise and suggesting that he'd have a shot to be part of their plans the following season.

In 2019, the third time was the charm for Odenigbo. A decade-long journey in which he considered quitting football on numerous occasions culminated with him making an NFL roster. With Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen entrenched as the Vikings' starters, Odenigbo remained in the role of pass-rush specialist that he was stuck in during his time at Northwestern. And just like he did in college, he made the most of limited opportunities. Odenigbo finished the season with 7.0 sacks, third-most on the team, after a season-ending stretch with four sacks in five games. That late-season burst also included a thrilling 56-yard fumble return for a touchdown against the Chargers.

Now, for the first time in his NFL career, Odenigbo will enter training camp with a roster spot already secured. And that's not all. With Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly departing in free agency, Odenigbo has a strong chance to be a full-time starter for the first time since he was in high school. Therein lies the biggest question facing the Vikings at the defensive end position in 2020. Is he ready for that role?

On paper, Odenigbo's seven sacks and 26 pressures in less than 370 snaps would seem to suggest that he's poised to explode if given the chance to be a starter. But his remarkable efficiency was, in part, a product of the situations the Vikings put him in. Odenigbo entered the game in clear passing downs and, whether he lined up on the edge or on the inside, had the same task he's had since he began playing football 11 years ago: go get the quarterback. Odenigbo rushed the passer on roughly 75 percent of his snaps last season.

Playing on all three downs means doing much more than just that. Specifically, it means being an important part of the team's run defense. That's been the thing that has relegated Odenigbo to the role of pass-rush specialist for all these years; he's never been a particularly adept run defender. He has developed a lot in that regard during his time with the Vikings, but even so, Odenigbo's run defense grade from PFF was a fairly average 60.1 last year, significantly lower than his impressive 73.2 pass rush grade. His shortcomings in that area were on display in his one full game of last season, which came in Week 17 against the Bears when the starters were resting.

The Vikings are hoping that co-defensive coordinator and D-line coach Andre Patterson can help turn Odenigbo into a well-rounded end. And if there's one thing to take away from his journey from the JV team to the seventh round to seven sacks, it's that doubting Odenigbo is usually a mistake.

As for Hunter, there's not much that needs to be said. The 25-year-old superstar has an arrow that is still pointing up, and the only question for 2020 is if he can find yet another level to reach. Hunter is coming off a season where he recorded 14.5 sacks for a second consecutive year and set a career-high with 88 pressures, second-most in the NFL. He's a force of nature who can beat tackles with speed rushes on the outside or powerful counter-moves. Despite still being young, Hunter is embracing a leadership role heading into this season.

The Vikings made several additions to replenish their depth at defensive end this offseason. They signed journeyman Anthony Zettel, who was productive as a starter for the Lions in 2017 but has bounced around the league since then. He's a low-risk acquisition with experience and some upside. To kick off day three of the draft, Rick Spielman selected South Carolina defensive end D.J. Wonnum – a long, athletic pass rusher – at the urges of Patterson. Wonnum wasn't highly productive in college and was seen by some as a reach in the fourth, but Patterson has earned the benefit of the doubt and will look to work his magic yet again.

Three rounds later, the Vikings landed a potential steal in Michigan State's Kenny Willekes, who many analysts actually ranked higher than Wonnum. Willekes is a former walk-on with a relentless motor who dominated in the Big Ten to the tune of 23.5 sacks and 25.5 non-sack tackles for loss over the past three years. 

The Vikings also have two depth pieces facing uphill battles to make the team. Eddie Yarbrough is a veteran who they signed off of the Bills' practice squad at the end of the regular season. Stacy Keely went undrafted out of UAB in 2019, was signed after impressing at rookie minicamp, and spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad.

Oh, and Griffen may have publicly said goodbye to the organization, but he still has yet to find a new home. A reunion remains unlikely but can't be entirely ruled out.


Starters: Danielle Hunter, Ifeadi Odenigbo

Make 53-man roster: DJ Wonnum, Anthony Zettel, Kenny Willekes

Practice squad: N/A

Cut: Eddie Yarbrough, Stacy Keely

I don't expect the Vikings to bring back Griffen or sign a different veteran, and I don't see anyone on the roster who can beat out Odenigbo for the other starting spot. It's time to find out if No. 95 can be a productive NFL starter. In addition to his talent, he has the fiery personality and energy to help fill the void left by Griffen in that department. As for the backups, I've got all three newcomers making the roster. Keep an eye on Yarbrough, who has some intriguing physical traits and could beat out Zettel for the role of veteran depth or potentially push Willekes to the practice squad.

Other post-draft position previews

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