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Monday Morning Mailbag: Richardson's 2021 Role & Room for Defensive Creativity

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I know the Vikings just signed Sheldon Richardson, but he is a defensive tackle. Why are people saying he will play defensive end opposite of Danielle Hunter when they have D.J. Wonnum taking first-team reps? Would it not be Hunter, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, Wonnum as our starting line?

— Nicholas Imperatore

Nicholas is correct as he starts us off for this week's Mailbag. I believe Richardson was brought back to provide interior pass rush, something the team sorely lacked a season ago.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer essentially said as much last month.

"It's really early right now to talk too much about roles. We anticipate that he's going to be the pass rushing guy in there," Zimmer said. "Not that Dalvin [Tomlinson] and Michael [Pierce] can't do that, but that's kind of where we see him being worked in."

That's not to say that Richardson can't move around along the line. According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, he played 208 of 914 snaps [22.8 percent] at defensive end in 2021 with the Browns.

Richardson himself said he is flexible about where he lines up in his return to Minnesota.

"I've played outside linebacker before in this league, so I really don't mind it at all. And I was 330 [pounds] when I did that," Richardson said. "I'm 286 right now and feeling good. Like I said, just trying to get back in football shape and let the chips fall where they [may]."

But if you ask me, the Vikings will primarily use Richardson up the middle this season. He thrived there in 2018, so why deviate from what worked then?

The starting defensive line as of now likely will be Hunter, Pierce, Tomlinson and either Stephen Weatherly or Wonnum.

But if we're looking at third-down packages in passing situations, a potential quartet could be Hunter, Richardson, Weatherly and Wonnum.

Perhaps Richardson's snap count is a little lower this season than in previous seasons, but I expect him to still make a sizable impact in 2021.

View photos of DT Sheldon Richardson who signed with the team on June 15.

What is your take on the Vikings switching to a 3-4 defense with Pierce at nose, with Tomlinson and Richardson at ends? Do you think it would be a good fit for Hunter rushing as a stand up outside linebacker opposite Anthony Barr? Or even a 3-3-5 formation?

— Michael Joseph

Michael expands on Nicholas' question a bit as we'll continue to dive into what the defense could look like this season.

Zimmer did say earlier this offseason that he has tinkered with different whiteboard ideas for ways that could keep the defense fresh in 2021. We'll have to see if a 3-4, or even 3-3-5, scheme is part of that.

But looking at the 3-4 scheme, I'll admit that would allow the Vikings to get all of their best defensive players up front on the field at the same time. As Michael mentioned, the 3-4 system would get Pierce, Tomlinson and Richardson along the line, with Hunter and Barr potentially on the edge standing up.

It's tempting to think about, but I'll say Zimmer and the Vikings primarily stick with the 4-3 scheme. But as I mentioned above, there is certainly some room for creativity with the amount of talent on the defensive line.

A final thing I'll add is that we did see Weatherly and Wonnum rush from a stand-up position this spring while the Vikings were still in their 4-3 alignment.

Is the possible the Vikings rookie running back [Kene Nwangwu] earns a spot over Alexander Mattison this season?

— Gehrig Burnes

An interesting question from Gehrig, who delves into the Vikings running backs group behind Dalvin Cook.

At this point, I would say Nwangwu has a lot of work to do in order to pass up Mattison on the depth chart.

Mattison is entering Year 3 and is one of the best backups in the league. He's proven he can carry the load when Cook is not on the field, as he has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his career.

There's no doubt that the Vikings offense runs through Cook, but I'm interested to see what impact Mattison continues to make in his third season. There's a reason why many pundits believe the Vikings have one of the best, if not the best, running back tandem in the league with Cook and Mattison.

As for Nwangwu, his best bet to make the roster and contribute is likely on special teams in 2021.

He tallied just 143 carries in four seasons at Iowa State, so he his legs are plenty fresh. And he showed that with 2,470 career kickoff yards in college, which is the most in school history and third all-time in Big 12 history.

Nwangwu's biggest trait is his speed, and he flashed it this spring. It's tough to evaluate the running game in offseason practices because of the lack of contact, but it was very easy to see Nwangwu's speed in the open field.

The Vikings need much better play on special teams in 2021. Nwangwu could be a key factor there, whether it's on kickoff returns or as a gunner on punt coverage.

Minnesota's offense will be just fine with Cook and Mattison leading the way at running back.