EAGAN, Minn. – With 14 NFL coaching seasons under his belt, Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson is still having fun.
The 2019 campaign will mark Patterson's 15th in the pros and sixth in Minnesota under Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
Patterson recently told Vikings.com's Mike Wobschall that having such a consistent core of players is not only rewarding but also makes his job easier.
"It's a lot of fun for me. You know, I take a lot of pride in taking young guys and seeing them improve and seeing them get better," Patterson said. "Fortunately for me, the Everson Griffens of the world, and Linval Joseph, and bringing Shamar Stephen back and now even Danielle Hunter, those guys are helping me coach, too.
"And it's really a good influence on the young players," he continued. "The young players see the vets care about them, and it's important for the vets to have them improve and get better. I think that really helps with the camaraderie in my room."
With Vikings Verizon Training Camp on the horizon (rookies and select other players arrive on July 22 while veterans report on July 26), Vikings.com is looking at Minnesota's group of assistant coaches and their position groups.
Here is a quick bio on Patterson:
— Patterson's first stop in Minnesota was as the Vikings defensive line coach in 1998 and 1999.
— A native of Richmond, California, Patterson played collegiately at Contra Costa College and at Montana before suffering a career-ending knee injury.
— Patterson brings 36 total years of coaching experience to the Vikings defensive line group, 21 of which were at the college ranks.
— His first NFL coaching experience came in 1997, when he joined Pete Carroll and the New England Patriots, who won the AFC East in his lone season with the club.
Like Thin Lizzy sang, "The boys are back in town."
Three of the Vikings 2018 starting defensive linemen – plus Stephen Weatherly, who started six games – are returning this season.
Danielle Hunter, who will turn 25 on Oct. 29, is entering his fifth NFL season with 40 sacks already under his belt.
Patterson assured that Griffen is back to himself after missing five games last season to deal with a personal issue, and he emphasized that he and Hunter "look good" holding down the defensive end spots.
"They're working hard and are hungry. You never have to worry about those guys' desire to get better and to work," said Patterson. "Everson is the old Everson, he's in a good place. It really brightens my heart to see that because I care about him a lot. I'm happy to see him being himself as a football player, and most importantly, as a human being and as a man.
"And then Danielle has a great hunger every day to chase improvement," added Patterson, who said that Hunter's first career Pro Bowl nod following last season hasn't changed his blue-collar mentality.
Weatherly, a 2016 seventh-round draft pick by Minnesota, also plays a key role in the defensive end rotation.
The 25-year-old started six games last season in place of Griffen and took a big step forward in his development. Patterson wasn't surprised by the improvement, saying that it's common for players to gain a new perspective – and confidence – after getting real-live game action and seeing success.
"He knows he's a good enough player where he can start on a lot of different teams in this league," Patterson said. "Coach Zim' is going to do a great job of having a role for Stephen to go out and play. We're real fortunate to have three defensive ends in our system in Everson, Danielle and Stephen Weatherly."
On the interior of the line, Joseph did not participate in team drills during the Vikings voluntary Organized Team Activity practices or minicamp but did take part in individual periods, and Patterson said he's looking forward to getting Joseph back for training camp.
Starting beside Joseph will likely be Stephen, who is back in the Vikings locker room.
Stephen spent his first four NFL seasons with Minnesota before signing with the Seahawks for the 2018 season and then returning to Purple this spring. And in case anyone doubted the effect he can have on the roster, Patterson wants to set the record straight.
"Vikings fans, Shamar Stephen is the real deal, OK? Those of you that have known me know that I don't blow smoke," Patterson said. "This guy is for real, and it's a great thing we have him back on our football team."
Patterson emphasized that Shamar's performance at 3-technique in 2017 was a "big reason" Minnesota's defense topped the league. He explained that Shamar frees up Joseph and starting linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks by executing his own assignments so well.
Patterson reminded that box scores don't tell the whole story.
"At the end of the game, if you just grab the stat sheet and look at tackles and sacks, you'd say, '93 didn't play that well.' But if you go in as a coach and watch what that position is supposed to do, this guy is one of the best in the league at doing his job," Patterson said. "I am so glad that we have him back. The day he walked back into this building, he made our defense better."
The Vikings have plenty of competition at backup defensive tackle, starting with Jalyn Holmes and Jaleel Johnson, both of whom are familiar with the defensive system. Johnson, a 2017 draft pick, "worked his tail off" during the offseason and has put on muscle, earning praise from Patterson.
"He's in tiptop shape and works hard every day," Patterson said of Johnson. "He's been getting all the first-team reps at nose since Linval hasn't been able to practice, and he's done a good job. I'm expecting him to make a jump and it's time … it's Year 3. I think he's heading in that direction."
Heading into his second NFL season, Holmes also went from 282 pounds to 300 and has good length and athleticism.
Patterson said he has "high hopes" for Holmes, who has a lot of talent and is expected to improve with more reps at the 3-technique spot throughout camp.
Also vying for reps inside are Hercules Mata'afa, who spent his rookie season on Injured Reserve with a torn ACL, and the Vikings 2019 draft pick, Armon Watts.
Mata'afa originally was listed at linebacker but worked all through spring practices at defensive tackle. According to Patterson, he has worked to put on weight for the position without sacrificing his "tremendous quickness and explosion" at the line.
"Those things aren't going to change when the shoulder pads come on. That's the gift that God gave him," Patterson said. "He still has to improve and get better, but I think he has the ability to give us something we haven't had inside since I've been here. Hopefully he can keep going and keep improving, and you know I'm going to stay on him about it. But I'm excited where he is right now."
To Watts' benefit, the rookie has the flexibility to play nose tackle or 3-technique.
"He has a natural feel [in the] pass rush as far as slipperiness to get off guys and get back to the quarterback, [and his] length really helps him in the run game," Patterson said. "For him, it's just getting enough reps and understanding the speed of the game, which will tell if he's going to be able to help us this year or not. But he was a fine, fine pickup for us."
Training camp will be important for the Vikings young defensive linemen as they vie for spots on the final 53-man roster.
Patterson anticipates a number of tough decisions down the road, but he also pointed out that it's not a bad problem to have.
"You'd rather have it where you say, 'You know, I really don't want to have to get rid of these guys,' then say, 'Hey, we have to wait for everyone else to make their cuts and see if we can pick somebody up,' " Patterson said. "I'm going to let the guys keep working to get better, and then it will take care of itself.
"As long as they keep working hard, somebody is going to step forward out of that group and say, 'Hey, it's my time to stand up and take this,' " he continued. "I can't force feed it or have a crystal ball … I have to let it take its course and [let them] prove to me who that guy is going to be."