Vikings Defensive Tackles Preview: Who Will Emerge at Three-Technique?

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 continue on the defensive side of the ball with a look at the big guys up front.

At some point, NFL teams will be cleared to begin practicing at their facilities in preparation for the 2020 season. That training period seems likely to be condensed from its usual format and perhaps affected in other ways by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but every team will deal with the same alterations and adjustments. Whether they start in July, August, or – in a worst-case scenario – even later, players and coaches will need at least a couple weeks of buildup before jumping into games that count.

Once that portion of the preseason schedule commences, the re-tooled Vikings will have quite a few competitions for important roles. Backup quarterback, third wide receiver, both starting guards, and the two cornerback spots next to Mike Hughes stand out as a few exciting battles that lie ahead. But for my money, there isn't a more fascinating positional contest than the one set to take place at three-technique defensive tackle.

Read: NFC North QB Rankings: Cousins, Rodgers or Stafford at No. 1?

That spot was a blatant weakness in an otherwise stout front seven for the Vikings last season. It was manned by Shamar Stephen, a 2014 seventh-round find by Rick Spielman who spent 2018 with the Seahawks before returning to Minnesota. Stephen is a big, physical player who can adequately plug gaps against the run, but he's severely lacking the explosiveness and penetration ability that three-techniques are supposed to provide. Last year, he recorded just six pressures and one sack in 314 pass-rushing snaps. The Vikings used Stephen on early downs and, knowing his deficiencies as a pass-rusher, rotated defensive ends into his spot (and Linval Joseph's) on third downs.

(Note: For anyone unaware, "three-technique" refers to the tackle who aligns on a guard's outside shoulder. The Vikings' 4-3 defense features a nose tackle at zero- or one-technique, a three-technique, and two defensive ends. The picture-perfect 3T is the Rams' Aaron Donald, who lives in opposing backfields and is a menace on twists and stunts.)

To put Stephen's six pressures into comparison, look no further than the player he replaced. The Vikings spent $8 million to sign Sheldon Richardson to a one-year deal in 2018, and he rewarded that decision by producing 47 pressures and 4.5 sacks in a three-down role. He then received a major payday on a multiyear deal from the Browns that the Vikings couldn't afford to match. Richardson was the latest contributor in a long run of consistent production at three-tech for the Vikings, who got several strong years out of Tom Johnson after a decade of excellence from Kevin Williams.

Stephen is still around and will compete to keep his starting role as he enters the second year of a three-year, $12.45 million deal. But the Vikings know how important it is to get interior pressure from that position, so they'll presumably be hoping that a more traditional three-tech emerges in camp.

What makes this positional battle so intriguing is the number of unproven players that will take part, all of whom could theoretically tap into varying levels of upside (with help from outstanding defensive line coach Andre Patterson) and become starting-caliber defensive tackles. Returning players joining the veteran Stephen in this competition are a quartet of homegrown, fairly young players: Jaleel Johnson (a 2017 fourth-round pick), Jalyn Holmes (2018 fourth), Hercules Mata'afa (2018 UDFA), and Armon Watts (2019 sixth).

Holmes and Mata'afa are former college edge rushers who weigh around 285-290 pounds, which is prototypical size for a three-tech, and offer the gap-shooting quickness teams tend to desire from that position. Johnson and Watts are bigger players in the mold of Stephen – though with more upside – who can fit as sturdier three-techs but could also be considered for rotational snaps at nose tackle.

Mata'afa and Watts are particularly interesting to me. Mata'afa was the 2017 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year at Washington State, but was viewed as a tweener DE/DT in the NFL – not long enough to play on the edge, but too small for the interior. The Vikings scooped him up as an undrafted free agent, and after missing his rookie year with an ACL tear, Mata'afa impressed last offseason and made the team. This year, in an effort to compete for a starting role, the Hawai'i native bulked up to 289 pounds, a considerable jump from his listed 2019 weight of 254. If he retains his explosiveness (he ran a 4.76 40 at the 2018 combine) with the added mass, Mata'afa could be a major factor in this competition. 

Watts was a one-year starter at Arkansas who is still developing but looked good in limited action late last season, receiving easily the highest PFF grade of these four players. His combination of size and agility make him a compelling prospect to watch in the coming years. The Vikings' coaches seem to be very high on Watts' potential, so I'd be shocked if he didn't make the roster in 2020.

Johnson and Holmes could also garner consideration for the starting job, even if both former fourth-rounders have failed to earn significant playing time across their first few seasons. Johnson had 7.5 sacks as a senior at Iowa and is coming off of his best NFL season, with 3.5 sacks in a rotational role. He saw over 400 snaps last year and has the most experience of this group. Johnson has some upside, but it's now or never as he enters the last year of his rookie contract. Holmes looks the part of an NFL three-tech; he's an excellent athlete with long arms and a powerful frame. But he has been a disappointment thus far, playing just 131 snaps in two seasons.

There's a chance that the best three-technique on the roster isn't a returning player, but rather someone who the Vikings just added in April. Spielman selected Baylor's James Lynch as one of his three fourth-round picks in this year's draft, and the Vikings believe he has a ton of potential. Lynch is a converted edge rusher who had a dominant 13.5-sack season in 2019 and was named the Big 12 DPOY. He has a quick first step and possesses the strength, intelligence, and pass-rushing moves to be an immediately disruptive force at three-tech. However, the 21-year-old will likely have to deal with a shortened offseason that could make the transition to the NFL tougher than usual. The other rookie on the roster is Boise State's David Moa, who was signed as a UDFA.

The Vikings will also have a new nose tackle in 2020. Joseph had a strong six-year run in Minnesota, but he signed with the Chargers this offseason. To replace him, the Vikings went out and made their only major signing of free agency, bringing in former Baltimore Raven Michael Pierce on a three-year, $27 million deal. Pierce, who is four years younger than Joseph, was one of the best nose tackles in the NFL in 2017 and 2018. He's a massive, 340-pound run-stuffer who plays with good leverage and isn't fazed by double teams. Pierce will slide right into Joseph's role as a space-eater who makes plenty of plays against the run and whose presence will allow linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr to come downhill and fill gaps.

Pierce, like Joseph over the past few years, likely won't offer much as a pass-rusher. That's one of the main reasons why the Vikings need to upgrade from Stephen at three-tech and find an interior pressure-creator.

Predictions

Starters: Michael Pierce, James Lynch

Make 53-man roster: Armon Watts, Jaleel Johnson, Hercules Mata'afa

Practice squad: David Moa

Cut: Shamar Stephen, Jalyn Holmes

Pierce is a lock, but there are a whopping six players with a shot at the three-tech spot. Johnson might be the favorite because of his experience, but I'm going to go somewhat bold here and pick Lynch to win the job. His 2019 tape is incredibly impressive and I think he legitimately might offer the most pass-rushing ability of any DT on the roster. Mata'afa is the wild card here. Watts will make the team and see snaps. Cutting Stephen adds even more dead money to the Vikings' books, but I don't see a role for him on this team in 2020.

Other post-draft position previews

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