'Change happens': Vikings primed for defensive line challenge

Kirk Cousins searching for normalcy with intense workout routine (4:25)

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins maintains his intense workout routine despite social distancing restrictions. (4:25)

As he scans the 14 faces in his virtual position room, there's something about this offseason that reminds Andre Patterson of a time six years ago when he helped usher the Minnesota Vikings through a similar period of transition.

Patterson, the Vikings' co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, was part of a staff led by Mike Zimmer that inherited the NFL's worst defense in 2014. The secondary was young, the Vikings lost the majority of their linebackers and only one starter (Brian Robison) remained on the defensive line.

"[The defense] was going to be the weakness of the team, and by the middle of the season it was the strength," Patterson said. "That's how I look at it. Change happens. You can't be afraid of change. You coach them up and let them go out and play, and you help them improve and get better. We've done it before, and I feel like we're going to do it again."

The Vikings lost five starters on defense in free agency, including two staples up front. The departure of former Pro Bowlers Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph along with backup edge rusher Stephen Weatherly commences a new era for the Vikings' defensive line in 2020.

Minnesota signed nose tackle Michael Pierce to a three-year deal in March to fill Joseph's role. Ifeadi Odenigbo, who ranked third on the Vikings in sacks (7.0) last season, is primed to take over Griffen's duties at defensive end. The Vikings also added four rookies in April and expect to have a wide-open competition for several rotational roles in training camp.

Odenigbo's opportunity is one Patterson could see coming at the beginning of camp last year. Drafted in the seventh round in 2017, Odenigbo spent his rookie season on the Vikings' practice squad before bouncing to Cleveland, Arizona and then back to Minnesota in 2018. He finally cracked the 53-man roster in 2019 and showed the Vikings what he was capable of.

Griffen remains an unsigned free agent, but Odenigbo says he's approaching this offseason with the mindset that he's going to take over opposite Danielle Hunter at defensive end. That means conditioning his body to play anywhere from 40 to 60 snaps per game and utilizing what he learned playing inside at 3-technique to make him a more effective pass-rusher on the outside.

The tips and tricks he picked up from Griffen over the past three seasons will help Odenigbo take on a bigger role.

"Everson is a remarkable player, a mentor," Odenigbo said. "For guys like me, I'm 6-3, a little shorter for defensive ends, so having a guy like Everson and I being the same size, I got to really watch his game. There were two or three years in a row where I got to watch him play. My rookie year, where he had 10-plus sacks, I really got to study his mechanics.

"Everything about Everson and how he goes about it, there's no wasted movement. For the most part, as a vet now, I know the technique and fundamentals. It's just working on the mechanics and fine-tuning the details."

But Patterson doesn't want Odenigbo to get caught up in trying to make up for the loss of Griffen's production.

"The worst thing Ifeadi can do is say, ‘Oh, I've got to replace Everson. I've got to put up Everson's numbers. I've got to do the things that Everson did,'" Patterson said. "That's the worst thing he can do. He's got to be Ifeadi Odenigbo, and he's got to be the best Ifeadi he can be. If he keeps his focus that way, he'll help us win football games."

Last season, Hunter became the youngest ever (25 years and 40 days old) to reach 50 career sacks. He tied a career-high 14.5 sacks, registered 22 QB hits and capped off the 2019 season by making back-to-back Pro Bowls.

His production aside, Griffen's leadership will be hard to replace. But it doesn't fall on Hunter to be the one to fill that void in the eyes of his coaches.

"D's an extremely hard worker, and he's going to lead by the way he works," Zimmer said. "He's a fairly quiet guy anyway, so the worst thing a guy can do is to try to manufacture something he isn't. Like Harrison [Smith] leads by the way he works and the way he does things, and that's what I expect Danielle to do."

So what's next for Hunter? Staying at left defensive end or moving over to Griffen's spot on the right side could be in the cards. Hunter is approaching 2020 trying to pave the path for the next five years of his career, which includes passing down the knowledge he has gleaned from veterans such as Griffen and Joseph. That's the leadership role he thrives in.

"Every year, you just start over again, and it becomes easier and easier to start over," Hunter said. "But you've got to make sure you sharpen those tools first before you move on the, ‘OK, what move am I going to try to do this year or what run move am I going to try to this year?' Just simple stuff like that.

"I was at the Pro Bowl, and I talked to a whole bunch of the pass-rushers and all that. Chandler Jones. [Za'Darius] Smith. We sat down and we talked about, like, moves that they saw that we use together as individuals. And Chandler, he said he saw me using moves, and I said I saw him using moves, and I said once I get back into my form, my pass-rushing form, I'll try some of those. So, I'll definitely be trying moves down the line, but you just got to take it at the start by going back to the basics."