Vikings could continue to stockpile pass-rushers in draft

MINNEAPOLIS -- If there's any spot on the Minnesota Vikings' defense that wouldn't seem to need much attention a month from now in the NFL draft, it'd be defensive end. Everson Griffen, who is coming off back-to-back double-digit sack seasons and a trip to the Pro Bowl, doesn't turn 29 until December. Danielle Hunter -- the 6-foot-6 dynamo who recorded six sacks as a rookie -- is only 21.

Brian Robison had five sacks at age 32 last season. The Vikings brought back Justin Trattou to see if he can build on the flashes he's shown and they still have 24-year-old Scott Crichton, a third-round pick in 2014 who's looking to turn a corner in his third year.

And yet, it would be wholly within the Vikings' draft strategy -- and very much in keeping with their approach to roster construction -- to spend another pick next month on an athletic pass-rusher.

Here's why: First, since Mike Zimmer became the head coach in 2014, the Vikings have gravitated toward athletic players, like Crichton, Hunter and running back Jerick McKinnon, whose speed and strength helped them stand out. The Vikings' overall draft strategy has been something of a calculated gamble on their coaching staff's ability to develop players, and that strategy appears to be working so far.

Second, as the Vikings have continued to stockpile good athletes, they've provided options for special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who's presided over one of the league's best special-teams units in recent years. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings were third in the league in expected special-teams points added last season and finished ninth in 2014 and 2013. Lanky defensive ends who can run make good special-teamers and the Vikings would have an immediate place for a draft pick to contribute while he learns from defensive line coach Andre Patterson.

Finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- the way the Vikings used Robison last season hinted at a key part of their pass-rushing strategy, and Zimmer sounded at the NFL owners meetings as though he expects it to continue. The Vikings moved Robison to a defensive tackle position for 89 of his 852 snaps last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information and had him playing inside on 58 of his 192 third-down snaps, or roughly 30 percent of the time. It helped the Vikings regularly put three defensive ends on the field last season as part of their nickel package and was part of the reason their third-down pressure rate (39 percent) was the third-highest in the league.

"The inside nickel rusher becomes a really important position, at least for us," Zimmer said at the NFL owners meetings last week. "That's the kind of position we look for quite a bit."

When the Cincinnati Bengals found Geno Atkins while Zimmer was the defensive coordinator there, it was initially out of the belief he'd primarily be a nickel rusher, Zimmer said. Tom Johnson has carved out a role with the Vikings in part because of his ability to generate inside pressure and Robison had one of his five sacks from there last season. If the Vikings are looking for another rusher in the middle rounds of this draft, players like Brigham Young's Bronson Kaufusi or Vanderbilt's Stephen Weatherly could make some sense.

It's not the most obvious need for the Vikings, but given Robison's age and how much the team can gain from carving out roles for disruptive pass-rushers, it's worth keeping in mind.

"Inside rusher is what we always look for," Zimmer said. "It's almost like you're looking for 12 or 13 guys, as opposed to just 11-on-11."