MINNEAPOLIS -- As Danielle Hunter morphed from raw prospect to fully formed pass-rushing terror even faster than the Minnesota Vikings expected, the team knew it was going to have to move some furniture around to make room for its growing phenom.
When Hunter posted six sacks as a 20-year-old rookie, splitting his time at left and right defensive end in 2015, the Vikings started moving Brian Robison inside on passing downs to give Hunter more opportunities. They did more of it in 2016, with Robison playing only 544 of his 800 snaps at left end (according to ESPN Stats & Information) while Hunter posted 9.5 of his 12.5 sacks in 389 snaps at Robison's customary spot.
Now, as Hunter prepares for his third season still almost five months shy of his 23rd birthday, the Vikings seem prepared to unleash him even more. The 34-year-old Robison. who restructured his contract this spring, has told coaches he'll accept a smaller role if it helps the team. And after two Pro Bowls at right end, the 29-year-old Everson Griffen could get some work at a position where he played as the Vikings' third pass-rusher early in his career.
Griffen spent some time during the Vikings' open practice on Tuesday working as an interior pass-rusher, revisiting the spot where he saw most of his playing time during his first three years in the league. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Griffen played 678 of his 1,572 snaps at defensive tackle from 2010-13, notching 12.5 of his first 17.5 sacks from there. His ability to move around the Vikings' defensive front could help the team in two ways this season.
First, with Sharrif Floyd's status still in question, the Vikings can always use options to pressure the quarterback from the middle of their defensive line. Coach Mike Zimmer sounded pleased with the progress Datone Jones has made at defensive tackle on Tuesday, and Tom Johnson figures to play a key role in the team's pass rush again at age 33. Griffen, though, has been a solid run defender in addition to a productive pass-rusher, and the Vikings could find reason to use him inside from time to time in their base defense.
And second, the Vikings' ability to unleash a trio of versatile pass-rushers could make their pressure packages even harder for opponents to decipher. Griffen, Robison and Hunter have all shown an ability to drop into coverage at times -- Griffen's 29-yard interception return touchdown against Sam Bradford came on such a play back in 2012 -- and Zimmer has shown a fondness for athletic pass-rushers who can get to the quarterback from multiple spots. The flexibility of his defensive front, coupled with the presence of linebackers such as Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith gives Zimmer more options and offensive coordinators more headaches.
The Vikings would still be helped by the return of Floyd, who is dealing with a nerve issue in his right knee that prevents his quadriceps muscle from working properly. But the presence of Jones and Johnson, not to mention developing young pass-rushers like Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo, gives the Vikings a number of different ways to play. Moving Griffen around would put one more tool at Zimmer's disposal.