The team has a need at defensive end, but is Griffen the right choice to fill it?
Everson Griffen spent the first 10 seasons of his career in Minnesota, racking up 234 tackles, 81 sacks, 493 pressures, 4 Pro Bowls and numerous electric pre-game speeches (numbers per PFF and PFR). He was a team captain from 2015-2019 and is now a free agent, a year after playing 7 games for Dallas before being traded to Detroit for the remainder of the season. Arguably the biggest remaining need for the Vikings is a pass rusher opposite Danielle Hunter, as the current depth chart after him is some combination of Stephen Weatherly, DJ Wonnum, Jalyn Holmes, and two rookies Patrick Jones II and Janarius Robinson. Yikes. Griffen and Hunter combined for 167 pressures in 2019 in Minnesota, which led the NFL. Last week, the voice of the Minnesota Vikings Paul Allen reported that Everson Griffen “desperately” wants to return to Minnesota. So, on the surface, a reunion between Griffen and the Vikings seems natural… you would think. However, there are a couple red flags that the Minnesota front office will need to sift through before making that decision.
The first thing that should give Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer pause about bringing Everson Griffen back is how he performed last year. He posted a career-low 63.2 overall PFF grade, which ranked 38th among NFL edge defenders playing 50% of snaps. Griffen did that across 528 total snaps, which was the lowest snap total he has had since his second year in 2011. For those unaware of how PFF’s grading scale works, a grade in the 60s is about average, 70s is above average, 80s are high quality and 90+ is considered elite. That scale is a rough estimate and is constantly changing, but to give you an idea of how Griffen has played in his career, most of his season grades fall in the high 60s to 70s area, peaking at 84.4 in 2017. Circling back to Griffen’s 2020 grade, while it was the lowest of his career, it was still better than any Vikings pass rusher besides Yannick Ngakoue and Hercules Mata’afa who posted 64.4 and 64.3 overall grades, respectively, on roughly 300 snaps each. So, even though Griffen performed below his career expectations, below average for Griffen would still likely be a helpful addition to the Vikings defensive line.
Let’s dive even further into Griffen’s 2020 season. It appears his grade was pulled down by a poor 54.5 run defense grade, the lowest of his career. On a defensive line with some combination of Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce and Sheldon Richardson, one would think the Vikings run defense would still be alright even if Griffen is not as much of a force as he once was. Pass rushing-wise, Griffen actually had one of the best years of his pro football tenure, posting a 73.6 pass rush grade, which ranked 22nd in the NFL and 4th among Griffen’s career seasons. He posted a 10.3% pressure percentage, not terribly far below his career average of 11.4%. Needless to say, Griffen can assist a Vikings pass rush, at least on a rotational basis, that badly needs it. His current strengths and weaknesses fit well with Minnesota’s run stuffing defensive interior. As it pertains to football, Everson Griffen might not be the beast he once was, but he can absolutely improve the Minnesota defensive front.
Unfortunately for Griffen, his main red flag when it comes to returning to Minnesota does not involve anything on the football field, but instead on social media. Before we get into that, let me first preface by saying Everson Griffen has publicly discussed his mental health battle that caused him to miss five games in 2018 in an interview with Tom Pelissero that you can read about here: https://www.nfl.com/news/free-agent-everson-griffen-says-2018-incident-changed-his-life-0ap3000001109048. Mental health issues can be very serious, and it is important that we do not gloss over them just because someone has been successful in their field and become wealthy. Everyone is susceptible to them and they are no joke. That being said, in a series of tweets on Jan. 9, Griffen inferred that Mike Zimmer never wanted to sign Kirk Cousins, and that Cousins was not good. He did not use that nice of a term, but the screenshots of the since-deleted tweets can be easily found if you want to find them. Two days later Griffen tweeted an apology, saying it was “insane” of him and that he would be getting help and checking himself in.
While no one knows exactly what caused Griffen to send those tweets, judging by his apology he was not in a great mental state. That being said, they were posted, and he owned up to them, meaning he can no longer used the “I was hacked” excuse some talking heads use. This brings up the toughest decision Vikings brass must think through. Is it worth bringing in someone who has publicly criticized the team’s quarterback and stated that the head coach never wanted him? As Matthew Coller discussed on his episode of Purple Insider this week, a move like this could seriously divide the Vikings locker room. A QB is supposed to be the team’s leader, but there would always be the elephant in the room that a former five-year team captain had made some divisive remarks and since returned to the team. Kirk Cousins would never publicly say such, but one would imagine he would take a re-signing of Griffen as a slap to the face. Could the Vikings locker room come together and get through the awkwardness that would linger in the air? A lot of tough questions for Spielman, Zimmer and company to ask themselves.
Now it is not hard to see why Griffen reportedly wants to come back to Minnesota so badly. He had a lot of success on the Vikings defense, and surely still has friends on the team and on the coaching staff. Returning to his home for the first ten years of his career would also probably help his mental health. Minnesota is likely more comfortable to him than bouncing between Dallas and Detroit for a season. His lower numbers from last season are also probably due to being in two putrid defenses, and Minnesota’s 2021 defense looks to be much more suitable to Griffen. So, to answer the question, should the Vikings bring back Everson Griffen? It appears the clear answer here is that the answer is in fact not clear at all. On the football field, a Griffen to Minnesota reunion makes a lot of sense. Off the football field, Griffen likely has to do a lot of hashing out with Vikings players and coaches before the team feels comfortable bringing him in. There are similar players who could fill the Vikings opening at pass rusher, such as Melvin Ingram and Justin Houston, without the off the field issues. However, if both of them go elsewhere, the Vikings might be left without a choice.
(Note: the most important part of this discussion is that Everson Griffen is mentally healthy and doing well. Everything else comes second.)