After 37 years of running 4-3 defenses, the Minnesota Vikings are finally switching to a 3-4. Although Ed Donatell’s defense has been referred to as a “multiple” defense that utilizes 4-3 fronts and some other nickel sub-packages, that system resembles Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense.
Acquiring the personnel necessary to run a brand-new system is part of the process of implementing it. Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, and Za’Darius Smith were significant additions for Donatell to operate his scheme. Yet part of Minnesota’s transition to running a 3-4 has not been completed, nor has the outcome been determined. Certain players on the front seven will have to change positions because they don’t meet the standard height and weight requirements to play at their previous spot.
For instance, 4-3 3-techniques have to switch to 5T, while 4-3 DEs have to switch to OLB. It creates a glut at OLB, and some players who are new to the position will have to fight for a roster spot against more traditional 3-4 linebackers. So who has the most to gain, and who has the most to lose from Donatell’s scheme change?
The scheme change is great news for undrafted free-agent LBs like Luiji Vilain, Zach McCloud, and William Kwenkeu. In any other year, their chances of making the roster are slim to none, but now they potentially have the backing of a new front office and defensive coordinator. Donatell likely wants someone already familiar playing in a 3-4 front.
It’s still an uphill battle for any of them to make the 53-man roster, but I would expect at least one of them to make the practice squad. Once that happens, I can see one of them sticking around for a couple of years as a developmental project.
When the Vikings drafted LB Brian Asamoah II early in the third round, I thought it could mark the end of Dye’s time in Minnesota. Now entering his third year with the team, Dye’s impact has been minimal, and he has struggled in limited playing time. However, Dye filled in for Eric Kendricks at ILB alongside Jordan Hicks at OTAs. Things may change during training camp, but for now, it seems as if Dye is entrenched as the team’s third ILB.
James Lynch has the most to gain from Minnesota’s switch to a 3-4 defense. Mike Zimmer envisioned Lynch as a pass-rushing specialist at 3T, but he’s not exactly the most explosive athlete, so the Vikings would be misusing his talents by playing him in a 4-3 defense.
Lynch will go back to playing 5T as he did at Baylor under Ed Donatell. He’s poised to be Minnesota’s backup 5T behind Armon Watts.
A former walk-on, Willekes consistently defied the odds and found a way to stick on the roster. He is the Marcus Sherels of defensive ends. Willekes is not the flashiest player in the world, but he gets the job done.
Here’s the problem: Willekes is an undersized defensive end who fits best in a 4-3 defense, and he doesn’t have the strength necessary to play 3-4 defensive end. In Donatell’s scheme, he will have to compete out of position as a 3-4 LB against players who have more raw athleticism and/or experience than he does.
Michigan State listed Willekes as a linebacker his freshman year, so he may be able to switch back to LB — but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Remember how I thought that Dye’s roster spot could be in jeopardy after the Vikings drafted Asamoah? That’s how I currently feel about Chazz Surratt. He’s one year less experienced than Dye, and, at 25 years old, the former UNC quarterback is still learning the intricacies of the linebacker position.
The new front office seems to value younger players, so Surratt may be the odd man out at linebacker. For him to stick around, he’s gonna have to prove his game is more polished than Blake Lynch‘s and Ryan Connelly‘s.
There’s no way of sugarcoating it: Jaylen Twyman is screwed. That’s not hyperbole. He’s an extremely undersized 3T who is exclusively used as a pass-rushing specialist on third downs. In Donatell’s scheme, Twyman’s ceiling is limited to whenever Donatell decides to play a 4-2-5 front on third-and-long. Twyman’s future with the Vikings is already in doubt with a bevy of depth at DT and LB.
There’s an adage that the only constant in the NFL is change. While it might be a bit cliche, that saying rings true this year. The Vikings no longer have the same core group of players performing in lockstep under Zimmer for eight years.
Players who were once considered “Zim’s guys” may not have the same level of preference under this new coaching staff. The new regime will reshuffle the deck in training camp, and with that comes a new hierarchy and perhaps more surprise cuts than in previous years.