September 25, 2021

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What Danielle Hunter Means for Vikings

7 min read
What Danielle Hunter Means for Vikings

Those of you who have purchased Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 (now available!) will know that we like the Vikings’ chances of returning to the playoffs. Minnesota qualified for the postseason in a little more than half of our simulations, battling the also-rans from the NFC South and West for wild-card positioning. If the Vikings are going to live up to that forecast, however, they’re going to need to improve a pass rush that was the weakest we have measured in nearly a decade.

According to Sports Info Solutions, the Vikings pressured opposing quarterbacks on just 18.9% of dropbacks. That wasn’t just the lowest rate in the league, it was the worst for any defense in any season dating back to 2012. That wasn’t the only problem for Minnesota’s front—they also gave up 5.16 adjusted line yards, the second-worst mark in our records—but this article is focusing on pass pressure. How did the Vikings finish so low, and is there hope they will improve in 2021?

The Vikings had ranked in the top half of the league in pressure rate in each of the prior five seasons, so there was little warning that a collapse was imminent. But then Danielle Hunter, who had led the club with 14.5 sacks and 59 hurries in 2019, missed the entire 2020 season with a herniated disk in his neck. Yannick Ngakoue, acquired via trade from Jacksonville shortly before opening day, was subsequently traded to the Ravens after Minnesota lost five of its first six games. Ngakoue only played a half-dozen games for the Vikings but still led the club with 5.0 sacks.

The losses of Hunter and Ngakoue left Minnesota with exactly zero edge rushers who had ever started an NFL game prior to last season. Three of them qualified for our tables in FOA 2021:

  • Ifeadi Odenigbo, the Vikings’ seventh-round pick in 2017, spent the first several years of his career bouncing around practice squads in Minnesota, Cleveland, and Arizona. He finally stuck as a situational pass-rusher with the Vikings in 2019, racking up 7.0 sacks in fewer than 400 defensive snaps. However, he was overmatched as a DE1 in 2020, collecting only 3.5 sacks and 19 hurries. The latter figure led the team, but was not in the top 60 in the NFL.
  • Jalyn Holmes, a 2018 fourth-rounder, started nine games but failed to record a single sack. He had one sack as a rookie, taking down the Jets’ Sam Darnold in Week 7, but has zero sacks in 22 games since.
  • D.J. Wonnum, a fourth-round rookie out of South Carolina, had 3.0 sacks last year, including a strip-sack on an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary attempt on the last play of Minnesota’s upset win over Green Bay in Week 8.

Ngakoue signed with the Raiders in March, making them his fourth team in just over six months. Idenigbo joined the Giants in free agency and may end up starting, which tells you something about how woeful the perimeter of New York’s defense looks this year. Holmes and Wonnum remain on the roster but have been shunted deep down the depth chart. Stephen Weatherly, who spent four years on the Vikings bench before producing zero sacks in nine games for Carolina last year, returned to Minnesota in free agency and is expected to start by default. The Vikings also drafted a pair of edge rushers: third-rounder Patrick Jones II (Pittsburgh) and fourth-rounder Janarius Robinson (Florida State). SackSEER was not thrilled with either prospect. The interior of the line has also been rebuilt, with Dalvin Tomlinson arriving in free agency and Michael Pierce returning from a COVID opt-out.

In the end, the Vikings are relying on Hunter to return from injury and play like the blossoming superstar he had resembled in prior seasons. Let’s not forget that from 2016 to 2019, Hunter made two Pro Bowls and finished in the top four in sacks three times. Only Chandler Jones and Aaron Donald had more sacks in those four seasons. Hunter was also in the top 10 in hurries in both 2018 and 2019. And he’s still a young man—he doesn’t turn 27 until October. Hunter is currently +3300 to win Comeback Player of the Year at most betting sites, which seem like very good odds for someone in his position.

Hunter is about to start a very high-stakes season. The Vikings re-worked his contract to guarantee him $5.6 million up front as a signing bonus, but in the process they added an $18 million roster bonus for 2022. If Hunter is anything less than dominant this year, he’ll be cut before he ever sees that money. But then, if he’s anything less than dominant, the Vikings are likely to miss the playoffs again and start a rebuild from the ground up.

Full 2020 Results

There’s no excuse for last place, but to be fair to the Vikings, their pressure rate was historically low in part because everyone’s pressure rate dropped. The league average was 25.2%, down from 30.3% in 2019 and the lowest in any year since 2014.

Seattle was dead last with a pressure rate of 24.0% in 2019; in 2020, they were 10 spots higher in the rankings even though their pressure rate remained virtually unchanged. Only two defenses generated pressure more often than they had the year before: Miami, whose pressure rate soared from 24.1% to 29.4%, and Washington, who saw a bump from 26.1% to 27.7%. That’s what signing Emmanuel Ogbah and drafting Chase Young can do for you. Meanwhile, four teams—Cincinnati, Green Bay, Jacksonville, and Minnesota—saw their pressure rates fall by at least 10 percentage points.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had the league’s highest pressure rate at 30.4%, a rate that would have left them in the middle of the pack in 2019. And the top of the table was terribly tight—the top eight teams were all within 10 pressure plays of each other, about one every other game.

We should point out, however, that 2020’s results are the norm, not the exception. It’s the three years from 2017 to 2019 that are the anomaly. The league-wide pressure rate was at least 30.0% in each of those seasons, but it has never climbed higher than 27.1% in any other year since 2010. The lowest on record was in 2012, when the average rate was just 20.2%.

DVOA with Pressure

Teams that rank highly here are those that are able to convert pressure into sacks. That’s good news for Washington and Green Bay, who were effectively tied for first place in DVOA on plays where they generated pressure. (Technically Washington finished in first place by a few decimal points, but the difference is insignificantly small.) The bad news, especially for the Packers, is that they didn’t rank so high in pressure rate. Pressure rate is much more consistent from year to year (coefficient of correlation: .503) than DVOA with pressure (.240). It’s very unlikely that these teams will once again rank one-two in DVOA with pressure in 2021, which means they’re going to have to generate pressure more often to avoid a defensive decline.

The flipside is also true: teams that had a high pressure rate but a poor DVOA with pressure might be expected to improve. Strong candidates there include Baltimore and Kansas City, though this formula is not aware that the Chiefs’ top edge rusher was arrested on gun charges in June and is facing a lengthy prison sentence, not to mention a likely suspension.

The Bengals were last in the league with 17 sacks, and they were also last in DVOA with pressure. The Jaguars were second-to-last in both categories.

DVOA without Pressure

This stat is important because it measures a secondary’s ability to cover receivers when the pass rush fails to pressure the opposing quarterback—which, for even the most fierce defenses, is most of the time. For New Orleans, the top team in this category, it says a lot about their linebackers as well. Demario Davis led all qualifiers at the position by allowing just 3.1 yards per target in coverage, and he was fifth with a success rate of 68%. Teammate Kwon Alexander also made the top 10 in both categories. That’s a big reason the Saints were second in DVOA on passes to tight ends.

The 49ers finished in second place here, which says a ton about Robert Saleh’s coaching ability considering how many injuries the 49ers suffered on defense. The Rams, Colts, and Broncos were next in line, which says a ton about the coverage abilities of Jalen Ramsey, Xavier Rhodes, and Bryce Callahan. Meanwhile, the corners on the teams at the bottom of this category—the Lions, Eagles, and Jets—were not nearly as successful.

Again, we find a lot of year-to-year variance in DVOA in this category, which means teams that had a good pressure rate but a poor DVOA without pressure might be expected to improve in 2021. The most obvious team in that category is Philadelphia—sixth in pressure rate, 31st in DVOA without pressure. Teams that ranked higher in DVOA without pressure than they did in pressure rate—and thus might be expected to decline—include Indianapolis, Denver, and Minnesota, which nicely brings this article full circle.

DVOA Differential

Every defense is better when they get pressure than when they don’t (duh), but for some teams the gap is larger than others. Take the Packers, for example. They allowed a DVOA of -110.6% with pressure but 37.1% without it. That difference of 147.7% was the highest in the league in 2020 … or in any other year since 2014. In short, this means the Packers were dominant when they got pressure, but mediocre when they did not.

Green Bay’s opposite in this department was Buffalo. The Bills were sixth in the league with a DVOA of 15.7% without pressure, but 30th with a DVOA of -36.5% with pressure. That’s a gap of 52.2%, the fourth smallest we have ever measured. They’re well short of the record, though: The 2018 Oakland Raiders, the only defense we have ever measured that had a positive DVOA even with pressure, had a gap of just 27.0%. Yes, that was the year they traded away Khalil Mack, why do you ask?