It didn’t take long after Dalvin Tomlinson joined the Minnesota Vikings for him to get a history lesson from Andre Patterson.
The 319-pound defensive tackle was Minnesota’s top target in free agency in March, and he got a two-year, $21 million deal. Soon after, he was under the tutelage of Patterson, the co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach.
Patterson, 61, grew up in the era of Minnesota’s legendary Purple People Eaters defensive line. He had his first stint at Vikings defensive line coach from 1998-99, a period that included John Randle and Chris Doleman as part of the Rushmen line. And he has had three different linemen make a combined eight Pro Bowls since he returned to the team in 2014.
“Coach Dre always talks about the Purple People Eaters and the Rushmen and stuff like that,” Tomlinson said. “He talks about John Randle all the time, about how he used to come in and outwork everybody. He always talks about the tradition of it and pretty much like the D-line here is a tradition.”
Yes, it is. In the franchise’s 60-year history, the Vikings have had 14 different defensive linemen earn a total of 29 first-team all-pro selections and make a combined 56 Pro Bowls.
In recent years, the Vikings’ tradition of top linemen has continued. Between 2015-19, defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter and nose tackle Linval Joseph made a combined eight Pro Bowls, and they played a key role in the team ranking No. 1 in the NFL in both scoring defense and total defense in 2017.
Then came last year. Hunter missed the entire season following neck surgery, Griffen departed as a free agent and Joseph was released in a salary-related move. And the defensive line was awful.
The Vikings had just 23 sacks in 2020. By comparison, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen once had almost that many in a season by himself: 22 in 2011.
So, the Vikings set out to retool their defensive line. Hunter is back and has been said to be fully recovered ever though he didn’t play in the preseason. Tomlinson was signed after four seasons with the New York Giants. Nose tackle Michael Pierce is back after he signed as a free agent in March 2020 and sat out last season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fourth starter is still-a-bit-raw second-year defensive end D.J. Wonnum, but he will have plenty of support behind him in Griffen, who has returned to the team as a reserve, and Stephen Weatherly, who came back after spending a year with Carolina.
“We’ve got four new starters on the defensive line from a year ago and the guys they replaced are backups somewhere else,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
That’s actually putting it a bit kindly. Shamar Stephen, last year’s starter at nose tackle, is a reserve with the Denver Broncos. But the other three former starters — defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (New Orleans), and defensive ends Jalyn Holmes (New Orleans) and Ifeadi Odenigbo (Cleveland) — are now all on practice squads.
Minnesota’s retooled line will be on display in Sunday’s season opener at Cincinnati. Pierce is hoping the line can live up to some of the great ones in franchise history.
“You honor those guys every time you take the field, and that’s something Coach Dre has done a great job with us,” Pierce said.
Like Tomlinson, Pierce has gotten a crash course from Patterson on the history of Minnesota defensive lines.
“You have a great history of defensive linemen in this organization (and) those guys are watching them play,” Patterson said. “Those guys want them to play to the standard that they made back in the day. I think when they go in the D-line room (at the TCO Performance Center) and they see all the pictures on the wall of all those guys that have been Pro Bowlers through the history of this organization, they see how many Hall of Fame defensive linemen are sitting in Canton that wore a purple jersey. It should mean something to them when they go out on the field that they’re representing those guys.”
The Vikings have had four hall of fame defensive linemen: tackles Alan Page and John Randle, and ends Carl Eller and Chris Doleman. Doleman died in January 2020, and the other three have lived in the Twin Cities since they retired.
Randle, who played for the Vikings from 1990-2000, will be watching closely when Minnesota’s rebuilt line takes the field against the Bengals.
“I’m hoping they can set new standards for the Minnesota Vikings, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” Randle said. “It’s something that’s hard to do because when you think about Minnesota Vikings football, you think about the great defensive line play. It’s always been a Minnesota Vikings trademark. When I joined the Vikings, I just tried to live up to the standards of the guys that came before me, guys like Jim Marshall, Carl Eller and Alan Page.”
Those three were the key members of the Purple People Eaters from 1967-78. The quartet also included defensive tackle Gary Larsen until he retired after the 1974 season and then Doug Sutherland.
The Purple People Eaters helped the Vikings reach four Super Bowls, although they lost them all. They helped them be ranked No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense in three straight seasons, from 1969-71.
“We were one of the best (defensive lines ever), if not the best,” Eller said.
Marshall took that a step further, saying, “I think we were absolutely the best.”
Randle doesn’t disagree.
“I would love to see a statue in front (of U.S. Bank Stadium) of the Purple People Eaters because when you talk about the Minnesota Vikings, you talk about the Purple People Eaters,” Randle said. “That’s where it started.”
Later, Randle played a key role in the Vikings having one of the best defensive lines in the league. The late 1980s through the end of the century was a period that included Minnesota having the likes of Randle, Doleman and defensive tackles Keith Millard and Henry Thomas.
The tradition continued in the new century. The late 2000s and early 2010s featured the likes of Allen and defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. And then came the period with Griffen, Hunter and Joseph.
“The Vikings’ defensive line to me is a tradition, like your father or grandfather passing a watch down and saying, ‘Son, take this and wear it with pride,’’’ Randle said.
Weatherly knows all about Vikings greats of yesteryear seeking to pass down wisdom to the team’s current linemen. When he had his first stint with Minnesota from 2016-19, he met Page, Doleman and Randle.
“It’s huge shoes to fill,’’ Weatherly said of living up to the team’s D-line tradition. “We always try to uphold that legacy and take it one more step when we get the opportunity. … We’re just trying to get better and better each and every day and trying to live up to that standard.’’
Randle has been like a proud papa watching Vikings defensive linemen excel since he retired following a 2001-03 stint with Seattle and returned to the Twin Cities. In recent years, he has followed closely the development of Griffen, who has made four Pro Bowls, and Hunter, who has been named to two.
Randle was thrilled when he recently read about how Kevin Williams had wanted so hard to live up to wearing No. 93 after he joined the Vikings in 2003. Williams said in June he didn’t initially realize that Randle had previously worn that number, and when he found about it, he said to himself, “Kid, you know you can’t be a bust, right?’’
Williams, who played for the Vikings from 2003-13 and will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor at halftime of the Oct. 3 game against Cleveland, was anything but a bust.
“I read that story and I was just in awe,’’ Randle said.
Randle then called and left Williams a voicemail offering congratulations on joining him in the Ring of Honor and saying he never knew his tale about No. 93. Williams said recently that the first time he ever told that story was during a Zoom call in June with the media announcing his Ring of Honor induction.
“That was kind of an internal deal,’’ said Williams, now a volunteer assistant defensive coach at Little Rock (Ark.) Central High School. “I took it upon myself that you picked this number and you can’t be a sorry player now. … When you become a part of the Vikings organization, you realize that they’ve had some great defensive linemen that have come through this program and it’s just a standard that you want to hold up.’’
Williams is now doing what he can to help Minnesota’s current defensive line return to respectability. When he was in the Twin Cities in June to learn of his induction into the Ring of Honor, he spoke to linemen at a minicamp.
“I kind of shared a few words with them and wished them luck,’’ Williams said. “I mean, everybody knew that (after last season) our D-line needed to be shored up, and I think (the Vikings) did a good job of doing that.’’
Due to their bulk, some are already comparing Minnesota’s interior defensive line of the 340-pound Pierce and Tomlinson to the Williams Wall of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, which was dominate against the run from 2005-10. Kevin said he played at about 310 pounds and that Pat was about Pierce’s weight when he played despite being listed at 317 pounds.
“I wish those guys the best and I hope they play well enough to get their own little nickname,’’ said Kevin Williams.
Allen, who played with the Vikings from 2008-13, said it’s too early to start making a comparison to the Williams Wall.
“I would caution people to not to make early comparisons because right now you’re putting pressure on guys,’’ Allen said. “Let them have a good two- or three-year run.’’
Allen, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., doesn’t pay as close attention to the Vikings as some of their other top former defensive linemen. But he certainly took notice when Minnesota last month re-signed Griffen, who had been his teammate from 2010-13. Zimmer said Griffen, 33, will now be used as a “situational” pass rusher.
“It’s going to be curious what Everson’s role is but I think what he can provide is some of that old-school mentality that has been bred over generations to the younger players,’’ Allen said. “It’s good to have Ev back, and I hope they can get back to where they need to get to.”
Randle is hoping the return of Hunter and Griffen will result in good news for the Vikings.
“To me, it’s kind of like that band that broke up and they get back together,” Randle said. “And hopefully they can come back out and recreate a new atmosphere and get us back on the Minnesota Vikings defensive line explosion, getting after quarterbacks, and leading that team.”