Just as a reminder or for those who may be new to the Eyes of the Guru series. For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, the model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
The Vikings have become a formidable defense under head coach Mike Zimmer. Over the past three seasons, they have been at or near the top in most important statistical categories. In 2018, Minnesota finished fourth in total defense, third in sacks with 50, forced 20 turnovers, and was among the top third in points allowed. Their overall success is a direct reflection on the foundation up front.
Last year the Vikings front four gave both their fans and IDP managers plenty to be excited about. They had the third highest scoring defensive end in Danielle Hunter and a pair of productive interior linemen in Linval Joseph who finished at 10 among tackles, and Sheldon Richardson at 15. Had Everson Griffen not had some complications, this group may well have placed all four starters among the top 15 at their respective positions.
At this time last year, it was tough to be highly confident in Hunter. In 2016 he was working as the third man in the rotation but that did not stop him from having a breakout season. With 34 tackles, 22 assists and 12.5 sacks Hunter was the third highest scoring defensive lineman that year. After being promoted to starter and signing a fat multi-year contract, Hunter’s numbers slumped the following season to 26-18-7 with a ranking just inside the top 30. By the end of the 2018 season, those numbers were a distant memory. Hunter showed everyone that the organization was right for giving him a three-year deal worth up to $78 million when he exploded for a line of 50-19-14. With those numbers, he once again claimed the title of the fantasy game’s number three lineman.
Hunter turns 25 in October and already has 38.5 career sacks. He is the first Vikings lineman since 2015 to reach the 40 solo tackle plateau. While he may not hit 50 again in 2019, Hunter is a safe bet to reach the benchmark for IDP value of 40 tackles and double-digit sacks. He is an elite first tier target on draft day and has the potential to be the fantasy game’s top lineman this season.
Everson Griffen had a down year in 2018 but do not be fooled. Prior to last season, he was on a run of four consecutive top 12 rankings. The 2017 season was big for Griffen with a career-best 13 sacks despite playing half the year with a painful plantar fascia injury. Griffen had at least one sack in each of the first eight games that season and was second in the league at the time of the injury. He only missed one game but was clearly not the same player down the stretch.
Griffen’s 2018 campaign was sidetracked early on by some personal issues. He was away from the team for five weeks and was not at the top of his game until late in the year. The fact he finished strong with seven tackles, four assists and two sacks in the final three games, is a good sign Griffen will be back to normal in 2019. This is a player that averaged 35 tackles and 11 sacks over a four-year span between 2014 and 2017 and has at least 8 sacks in five of the last seven seasons. At age 31 he is far from over the hill and should give us a few more quality years. Based on the numbers from last year, many IDP managers will undervalue Griffen who should be targeted as a priority DL2 with DL1 upside.
Barring injuries Minnesota’s defensive ends do not come off the field much. Both starters averaged better than 80% of the snaps over the last two years when healthy. When someone does need a break Stephen Weatherly is the guy to spells them. The 2016 seventh round pick played well over a five-game stint as a starter when Griffen was out last season, posting a mark of 10-5-2 and forcing a fumble. Weatherly will not be much of a fantasy factor if everyone stays healthy but should one of the starters go down for a period of time, he could be a solid fill in for your fantasy squad.
Minnesota has a pair of young developmental players behind the top three at end. Former undrafted free agent Tashawn Bowser moves into the third defensive end role while Griffen was out last season while 2018 sixth-round Ade Aruna has battled injuries and has not yet seen the field in a game that counts. Aruna is a raw prospect with the combination of size, speed and athleticism teams look for in a developmental guy. If he can stay healthy Aruna could eventually take over as the third end.
In Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson, the Vikings had one of the best interior tandems in both the NFL and fantasy game last season. Joseph is a highly underrated player unless, of course, you play in a league requiring defensive tackles. Managers in those leagues recognize him as a perennial top-10 tackle and understand his value at an always thin position. Since becoming a starter for the Giants in 2011 Joseph has averaged 36 tackles, 23 assists and 2.5 sacks per season. He has multiple top-10 finishes including last season, with a few top-5 sprinkled in as well. At 329 pounds he sees a lot of double teams as the anchor of the run defense, showing an almost uncanny ability to stand up and shed blockers at the point of attack. With a career best of four sacks in a season, Joseph is not the guy to make much big-play impact but his tackle totals are exceptionally consistent from year to year.
Richardson followed the free agent money to Cleveland so the Vikings will have to fill a big void this year. Fourth-year pro, Shamar Stephen, will be penciled in at the position entering camp but is not a lock to be there week come one. Last year’s fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes will likely be in the mix as will 2017 fourth-round selection Jaleel Johnson and possibly rookie Armon Watts. With all the talent around them, whoever comes away with this job is going to have some fantasy potential.
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