MINNEAPOLIS — The first troublesome area facing the Minnesota Vikings going into the offseason was solidified in consecutive games in December when the defense gave up 264 yards rushing to the New Orleans Saints after allowing 199 yards against the Chicago Bears.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was exasperated by the way his team was “manhandled” up front. He called this defense the worst he’s ever had.
So when free agency opened this week, the Vikings wasted no time leaning in to one of the problems that hurt them the most in a 7-9 season.
The answer to fixing Minnesota’s shoddy run defense, which allowed 4.56 yards per rush last season (23rd), comes by forging one of the most dominant run-stuffing defensive tackle tandems in the NFL. The Vikings landed their “big prize” in Dalvin Tomlinson, signing the former New York Giants standout to a two-year, $22 million contract with $16 million fully guaranteed.
“He was the No. 1 target we had,” general manager Rick Spielman said Thursday.
The move might have appeared as somewhat of a surprise given the glaring need for pass-rushing help after a franchise-low 23 sacks last season. But the Vikings were equally as ineffective stopping the run.
The plan is to play Tomlinson, a stalwart nose tackle in the Giants’ 3-4 scheme, next to Michael Pierce, Minnesota’s marquee free-agent signing from a year ago. Sources indicate Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season, will play nose tackle while Tomlinson slides over to three-technique (aligned on the outside shoulder of a guard). He played that spot occasionally in New York, along with five-technique (defensive end in a 3-4) with most of his snaps coming at zero-technique (the nose position).
“All I can assume is I’m going to play a little bit of three-tech and shade as they go hand in hand together,” Tomlinson said. “I feel like I’m pretty stout at the run game and I can bring a good element of the run game to the Minnesota Vikings as well as pass rush to get after the quarterback and collapse the pocket. Like Mr. Spielman said, I want to get the quarterback as well and play the run also.”
For years, teams that attempted to run on the Vikings got what they were asking for when crashing into a giant brick wall named Linval Joseph, another former Giants free agent who spent six seasons in Minnesota. It’s a reason why Minnesota was one of the top rushing defenses in the NFL prior to 2020.
Now there’s 659 pounds anchoring the middle of the defensive line between Tomlinson and Pierce. The block-eating tackles duo will easily be the most dangerous Zimmer has had in Minnesota, making it even riskier for opposing offenses to run.
Tomlinson is a bully up front and had 49 tackles (eight for loss), 3.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. There’s no question he can play the run well. Whether he can disrupt the quarterback like some of the league’s best three-techniques and be the right fit for the Vikings will be uncovered this fall.
The pass-rusher market dried up quickly in free agency after Trey Hendrickson (Bengals) and Carl Lawson (Jets) priced themselves out of Minnesota’s range. The Vikings’ expectation that Danielle Hunter will be back at a high level after missing the 2020 season due to a neck injury will play into how we’ll grade the Tomlinson signing a year from now. With Hunter next to Tomlinson and Pierce, this defensive line has the potential to be lethal. Without him, Minnesota will once again face the same issues it did a year ago with its outside pass rush.
Tomlinson, 27, is young, durable and certainly an improvement over Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson, whose pass-rushing productivity ranked at the bottom of the NFL. While he doesn’t have the gaudy sack statistics, he doesn’t believe that’s the only way he can affect opposing quarterbacks.
“I would have to say collapsing the pocket,” Tomlinson said. “There’s not really a stat for collapsing the pocket or getting pressure up front on the quarterback, or even if you have an offensive lineman in the QB’s lap, about to step on his feet, or he hit his hand on his helmet.
“That’s not something that you can really track with stats. So things of that nature, getting the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket or just affecting the running backs and quarterback throughout the game, I feel like that’s very important but they can’t be tracked.”
Tomlinson is out to prove he can do more than stop the run. The Vikings are counting on it, too.
“I’m pretty known for stopping the run but also want to be known as an all-around defensive lineman who can also run the passer and play the run,” he said. “I’ll just say, my game in general. I just want to continue to improve in the run as well as the pass just so I can be more dominant up front.”