Vikings beef up their defensive line with 'some meaty boys'

Jul. 30—In the mid-1980s, Wendy's started a catchphrase with commercials that asked, "Where's the beef?" More than three decades later, it's quite apparent where it is on the Vikings.

The Vikings have 659 pounds of expected starting defensive tackles in 340-pound Michael Pierce and 319-pound Dalvin Tomlinson. And they have an expected top reserve in Sheldon Richardson, who at 294 pounds is the skinny one in the rotation.

"I got some meaty boys in front of me," linebacker Eric Kendricks said.

Last season, the Vikings' defensive line featured a 305-pound nose tackle in Shamar Stephen and a 316-pound three-technique tackle in Jaleel Johnson, but they still struggled against the run. Enter Pierce and Tomlinson into those two positions.

The 6-foot Pierce signed a three-year, $27 million contract as a free agent in March 2020 but opted out of last season because of the coronavirus pandemic and his history of asthma. The 6-3 Tomlinson signed a two-year, $21 million contract as a free agent this March.

"No doubt about it, those guys are run-stoppers for sure," Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "If you want to be able to win in this league, you definitely have to be able to stop the run, although it is a passing league now. But if you're able to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional, you have a pretty good opportunity of being successful."

When it comes to rushing the passer, the Vikings are expected to bring Richardson off the bench at three-technique, with either Pierce remaining at nose tackle or Tomlinson moving to that spot. The 6-3 Richardson, who first played for Minnesota in 2018, returned this season on a one-year, $3.6 million deal.

"It's always good to have big guys in the middle, stop the run and things like that," said Tomlinson, who played his first four seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants. "I'm sure all the linebackers are happy about it, too, taking up the double teams."

Pierce, the Vikings' heaviest player, said there are "probably not" many teams in the NFL with 659 pounds of starting defensive tackles. He did point, though, to his 2016-19 stint with Baltimore, where he was a primary starter in 2017 and 2019 alongside Brandon Williams.

The 6-1 Williams is listed at 336 pounds. So there was 676 pounds of girth in that combination.

"We did really a lot of good things together," said Pierce, who has been limited since training camp started Wednesday because of a calf strain but expects to return soon to full health. "So I envision (this season) will be something like that. It's going to put some stress on some guards and some centers."

Throw in Richardson, who started all 16 games for the Vikings in 2018 before playing the next two seasons with Cleveland, and there indeed will be little relief for opposing centers and guards. Richardson laughed when asked about Kendricks calling the interior linemen "meaty boys."

"We are," he said. "We've got guys to stop the run and the pass. We've got depth."

For good measure, the Vikings also have 6-5, 295-pound reserve Armon Watts to help out.

"The combination of all of those guys, I think will be good," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.

Zimmer is looking to get the Vikings' defense back to where it was from 2016-18, when they finished in the top four in the NFL in total defense those three years. That included 2017, when they were No. 1 in both total defense and scoring defense.

The Vikings slipped to 27th against the run in 2020, when they had a depleted defense. In addition to Pierce being out, defensive end Danielle Hunter (neck surgery) missed the entire season, linebacker Anthony Barr (shoulder surgery) the final 14 games, and Kendricks (calf injury) the last five.

"Any time you bring in a guy like Dalvin and Sheldon, who has been an A-plus starter in the league for a long time, and myself, you expect the run defense to get drastically better," Pierce said.