EAGAN, Minn. — The calendar has flipped to March, which means the 2021 edition of free agency is quickly approaching.
The 2021 league year officially begins at 3 p.m. (CT) on March 17.
Vikings.com is continuing its positional outlook series with defensive line, a position group that has already welcomed Stephen Weatherly back into the mix after the 2016 seventh-round pick spent 2020 with Carolina.
Here's a look at which Vikings are scheduled to become free agents, a list of where potential needs might be and notes on players from other teams that are set to become free agents.
Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Shamar Stephen, Jalyn Holmes, D.J. Wonnum, Armon Watts, Jordan Brailford, James Lynch, Hercules Mata'afa, Kenny Willekes and Stephen Weatherly
2020 Stats: None (did not play due to injury)
The Vikings missed Hunter's dominant presence in 2020, especially after the elite defensive end registered 14.5 sacks in back-to-back seasons before an August neck injury caused him to miss all of this past season.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman recently commented on Hunter's status on the team.
"I know from all indications from where he's at on his rehab right now — and I [recently] saw an Instagram picture of him — he looked pretty good," Spielman said. "But excited to get him here in the fold and get him going once we get started."
If Hunter returns at full strength, the Vikings defensive line should be better than it was in 2020.
2020 Stats: None (did not play due to COVID-19 opt out)
Pierce was a notable free agent signee a year ago but voluntarily opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. His presence was also missed, especially in the run game where the Vikings allowed 95-plus rushing yards in all but one game.
"I know that [Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator/defensive line coach Andre] Patterson has been talking with him," Spielman said. "He looks in great shape. He sent a picture, so we anticipate him being here just like everybody else going forward."
Much like Hunter, Pierce will be counted upon to help revamp the defensive line in 2021.
2020 Stats: 16 games (16 starts); 662 snaps (61.6 percent); 34 tackles (20 solo), 0.5 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits
Stephen is an unheralded player but is respected by his teammates and coaches for his unselfish nature. Stephen completed his seventh season in 2020 and sixth in Purple. If Pierce enters the fold, it will be mostly at nose tackle, allowing Stephen to slide back over to the 3-technique, where he could still provide value in a rotational role, more so in the run game than getting to the passer.
2020 Stats: 14 games (9 starts); 617 snaps (57.4 percent); 36 tackles (16 solo), 2 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed
Holmes played a whopping 617 defensive snaps in 2020 after seeing the field for 131 combined snaps in 2018 and 2019. He had some ups and downs in the expanded role and could be suited for more of a rotational role rather that a starting gig.
2020 Stats: 14 games (2 starts); 471 snaps (43.9 percent); 24 tackles (16 solo), 3.0 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed, 1 forced fumble
Wonnum progressed nicely during his rookie season. His signature moment was a game-winning, strip-sack on Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. And while Wonnum might not be a full-time starter in 2021 depending on what moves the Vikings make, he certainly has the potential to create a niche role for himself going forward.
View the best defensive line photos of the 2020 season from Vikings photographers.
2020 Stats: 16 games (0 starts); 392 snaps (36.5 percent); 31 tackles (12 solo), 0.5 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 2 quarterback hits
Watts played in every game in 2020 in a part-time role. He likely could have made a bigger impact, but that could be said for many players along the defensive line. Watts has shown flashes of his potential at times, but an increase in consistency could really help out this unit.
2020 Stats: 5 games (0 starts); 34 snaps (3.2 percent); 2 tackles (2 solo), 1 quarterback hit, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Brailford didn't play much in 2020, but he did have an impactful game against the Jaguars with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He could battle for a roster spot this offseason as a depth player along the line.
2020 Stats: 9 games (0 starts); 59 snaps (5.5 percent); 3 tackles (2 solo), 1.0 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit
Lynch made a splash with a sack on Russell Wilson in his first NFL game. But there wasn't much of an impact from him beyond that as he was inactive for about one-third of the season. Lynch was likely hampered by a virtual offseason and no preseason games, but he could be in line for more reps in 2021.
2020 Stats: 13 games (1 start); 293 snaps (27.3 percent); 24 tackles (12 solo), 2.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 6 quarterback hits
Mata'afa had quite the roller-coaster season in 2020. He began the season on the roster, but was waived and promptly added to the practice squad. He maintained belief in himself and had 2.5 sacks in his final nine games. He could play a similar role going forward as a decent depth player.
2020 Stats: None (did not play due to injury)
Willekes was an intriguing player coming out of Michigan State as a seventh-round rookie. But he suffered a season-ending injury in a late August practice and didn't play a single snap. He could be a sneaky addition to the rotation in 2021 as he looks to make an impact in his first NFL action.
2020 Stats with Carolina: 9 games (9 starts); 358 snaps; 17 tackles (7 solo), 1 tackle for loss, 3 quarterback hits
Weatherly is back with the Vikings after spending the 2020 season with the Panthers. He has a strong knowledge of Minnesota's scheme and offers versatility in a variety of roles, whether it's as a starter or a depth player.
"I'm coming to be the best version of myself and compete for the starting spot," Weatherly said Monday. "I would love to if that's how it shakes out after camp and everything like that. I'm coming in to try to make an impact and bring as many of the traits as I have to help the defense out. Hopefully it works out like that."
SCHEDULED TO BECOME FREE AGENTS:
Jaleel Johnson (unrestricted free agent)
2020 Stats: 16 games (16 starts); 654 snaps (60.9 percent); 44 tackles (22 solo), 1.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits
Johnson transitioned into a starting role in 2020 after being a rotational player in his first three seasons in Purple. He endured some ups and downs, and could be more suited for the role he had from 2017-2019. He could also draw interest from other teams if the Vikings decide to move on.
Ifeadi Odenigbo (restricted free agent)
2020 Stats: 15 games (15 starts); 696 snaps (64.8 percent); 35 tackles (16 solo), 3.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits
Odenigbo had a similar fate as Johnson in 2020, as he moved up from rotational duties to a full-time starter. But he also endured an inconsistent season and admitted to being angry at the missed opportunity at the end of the 2020 season. If he is back, perhaps he could valiantly fill the rotational role he had in 2019 when he garnered 7.0 sacks.
Eddie Yarbrough (restricted free agent)
2020 Stats: 4 games (0 starts); 83 snaps (7.7 percent); 8 tackles (5 solo), 1 quarterback hit
Yarbrough was added at the end of the 2019 season on a future contract and spent time between the practice squad and the roster in 2020. He could be back with the Vikings in a developmental role under Patterson going forward.
If Hunter and Pierce return and play to their capabilities, one of the Vikings weakest position groups in 2020 could turn into one of their strongest for the upcoming season.
"I think those two would help for sure," Spielman said. "That's almost like adding two free agents to this year's class."
But other moves could be made too as the Vikings look to revamp a defensive line that struggled both against the run and to get to the opposing quarterback in 2020. Some players who saw an increased role in 2020 couldn't meet the challenge and might not return.
And based on Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's comments after the 2020 season, it's a safe bet to assume the Vikings will prioritize their defensive line in both free agency and the draft.
"A priority for me is that we continue to get more pass rushers," Zimmer said in early January. "I've always said since the day I walked in here that you've got to have people that can cover and you've got to have people that can rush, and like we've done in the past.
"We've had Brian Robison line up in there and rush the passer, Stephen Weatherly or a whole bunch of different guys that can do different things," Zimmer added. "So we need people that can rush the quarterback."
WHO'S POTENTIALLY OUT THERE?
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal recently released his list of the top 101 potential free agents.
The following defensive linemen are listed in order of their overall rankings: 2. Shaquil Barrett (edge rusher), 4. Bud Dupree (edge rusher), 5. Trey Hendrickson (edge rusher), 6. Carl Lawson (edge rusher), 8. Jadeveon Clowney (edge rusher), 10. Matt Judon (edge rusher), 12. Yannick Ngakoue (edge rusher), 23. Romeo Okwara (edge rusher), 25. Dalvin Tomlinson (defensive tackle), 28. Leonard Floyd (edge rusher), 30. Shelby Harris (defensive end), 31. Justin Houston (edge rusher), 32. Haason Reddick (edge rusher), 37. Carlos Dunlap (edge rusher), 42. Melvin Ingram (edge rusher), 49. Denico Autry (defensive end), 56. DaQuan Jones (defensive tackle), 61. Larry Ogunjobi (defensive tackle), 62. Ndamukong Suh (defensive tackle), 66. Sheldon Rankins (defensive tackle), 72. Aldon Smith (edge rusher), 77. Derek Wolfe (defensive end), 78. Tyson Alualu (defensive tackle), 81. Takkarist McKinley (edge rusher), 84. Lawrence Guy (defensive tackle), 88. Kawann Short (defensive tackle), 91. Kerry Hyder (edge rusher), 93. Al-Quadin Muhammad (defensive tackle), 94. Everson Griffen (defensive end) and 99. Roy Robertson-Harris (defensive end).
Defensive linemen (and edge rushers) make up quite a group this spring, as this collection of talent accounts for nearly 30 percent of Rosenthal's list, which was updated this week after organizations announced franchise tags or contract extensions to keep players from hitting the market. Those ranked high atop his list could demand big bucks, but those toward the bottom could be impacted by a reduced salary cap.
This is where the Vikings could come in, as Minnesota could look to sign a veteran or two who falls into the mid-tier or lower in free agency depending on what the team decides to do with their own free agents.
Short was initially No. 99 on Rosenthal's list, but he moved up to 88 in the update, which ushered a former Lion (Hyder) and Viking (Griffen) and potentially former Bear (Robertson-Harris) to the top 101.