EAGAN, Minn. -- As the Minnesota Vikings aligned their offseason priorities after their 2017 run ended in the NFC Championship Game, three things stood at the top of the list. In order: Hire an offensive coordinator, address the quarterback position and add depth on the defensive line.
As the first wave of free agency wraps up, all of those boxes have been checked. Adding two Pro Bowlers in two days between quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson not only fulfilled position needs, it solidified Minnesota as a Super Bowl contender.
As pivotal as it was for the Vikings to land the top free agent at arguably the most important position in all of sports, it was equally crucial to fill the missing piece on the league’s No. 1 defense.
Coach Mike Zimmer pointed to a breakdown in the Vikings' pass rush in “maybe the last four or five ballgames” as the reason his vaunted defense came up short. Not being able to pressure the quarterback as well as they had earlier in the season came down to injuries and a weakened rotation on the defensive line. At the combine, Zimmer went over the possibilities of where these struggles started. Maybe he had played veteran DT Tom Johnson too much (the 33-year-old played 70 percent of defensive snaps)? Maybe he didn’t play Linval Joseph enough? Zimmer then stressed the importance of bolstering depth along the defensive line, particularly via an upgrade at the 3-technique spot.
Minnesota got more than an upgrade Friday. It got a potential game-changer in Richardson.
Entering his sixth year in the NFL after one season in Seattle and the first four years with the Jets, the 2013 first-round pick was the top free-agent defensive tackle on the open market.
Richardson said he'd made it difficult for his agent, Ben Dogra, to find him the best deal because he “didn’t finish enough at the quarterback.” Zimmer didn’t necessarily see it that way.
“Sheldon was a guy that has been, and even was this last past season, one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the NFL in order to get the quarterback off the spot,” Zimmer said. “He didn’t have a lot of sacks, but as I’ve said before, sacks are not our No. 1 goal. It’s about disrupting the quarterback and getting him off his spot and getting him off timing.”
Richardson had one sack in 2017 but totaled 44 tackles, 28 hurries and seven quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus. The numbers don’t always tell the story of how effective a player can be. What the defensive tackle provides for a line that is expected to feature a front four of Danielle Hunter, Joseph, Richardson and Everson Griffen is not measured by stats alone.
Minnesota got better immediately when Richardson came on board on a one-year deal (his doing, as a "prove it" type of contract) worth $8 million, per the NFL Network. The Vikings will be in the conversation among the best defensive lines in the NFL with Philadelphia and Jacksonville because Richardson provides them with something they didn’t have before: a lineman who can hold down the 3-technique spot every down.
Richardson can’t fix the pass rush or stop the run all on his own, but as the Vikings flesh out the beginnings of their 90-man offseason roster, the team has confidence in its younger defensive linemen (Jaleel Johnson, Stephen Weatherly and Tashawn Bower) to provide the depth that went missing late last season.
“I’d give Philadelphia a lot of credit,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “They used an eight-man rotation last year and you can see the results of that. I think if we can keep building the depth on the defensive line, that’ll just pay dividends for us down the road.”
The Vikings' aggressive approach to free agency was quickly apparent to the 27-year-old Richardson, who ate lunch with Cousins during his visit. Seeing how much Minnesota was willing to load up its roster to contend for a title played a big role in his decision to sign with the Vikings, on top of the fact that Richardson said Minnesota offered him a better deal than Seattle did.
“I wanted the best opportunity to win the Super Bowl and I feel like this is it," Richardson said. "With them acquiring Kirk, talking to him, pluck his brain a little bit ... done deal.”
The Vikings did more than get better in free agency. They backed their commitment to fight tooth and nail for the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy with two huge additions. Chalk that up as a successful week.