MANKATO, Minn. — A mountain of a man at 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds, Linval Joseph is an imposing figure whether in pads or not for the Minnesota Vikings.
The first day of training camp, Joseph participated in team drills — minus pads — for the first time since signing a five-year, $31.25 million contract on the first day of free agency. Minnesota’s priority free-agent signing, Joseph had undergone shoulder surgery and was more spectator than participant in the offseason program as he rehabbed.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer got to see Joseph’s presence in the middle of the defensive line for the first time last week.
"He came in in tremendous-looking physical shape," Zimmer said of Joseph after the team’s first walk-through. "He weighed 317, benches 500 pounds. And watching him out there in the walk-through, which doesn’t mean anything, he looked like a nose tackle’s supposed to look."
Minnesota hasn’t had a player who looked like a nose tackle for the past three years, and certainly failed in finding a starter who played like a nose tackle.
He started at least 15 games each of the past three seasons with the New York Giants. He has 167 tackles mainly as a run defender the past three seasons. Joseph is also able to collapse the pocket at times and has nine sacks the past three years.
"My role is to stop the run," Joseph said. "Every team runs the ball and they pass the ball, so play actions, play the pass, I’ve been on running backs. So my goal is just to take up space, stop the run and make opportunities for guys to make sacks."
The Vikings have tried to get by the past three seasons with Letroy Guion, listed at 303 pounds in Minnesota, at nose tackle. Guion was the fallback option after the team’s attempt to replace Pat Williams with Remi Ayodele failed.
Williams was the prototypical NFL run-stuffing nose tackle at 317 pounds — at least that’s what he was listed at — but was 38 years old when the Vikings decided to not re-sign him. Ayodele only lasted one season into a three-year contract before being released, and Guion started 28 games the past two seasons and is now in Green Bay.
Fred Evans, Joseph’s current backup, has had his moments at the position in recent years, but Minnesota appears to have finally found its replacement for Williams in Joseph.
"We haven’t had that presence like Pat Williams that we’ve really needed," defensive end Brian Robison said. "When you look at Linval, he reminds you a lot of Pat. A bit taller, but pretty much kind of the same stature, that presence in the middle that we need and is able to run with it, which is another good thing because if you can leave him in there on passing downs and be able to draw them double teams and things like that. So I think he’ll be really good for our defense this year."
With any new coaching staff or new players, comparisons are inevitable. Joseph, naturally, is likened to Williams. With Zimmer instituting his defensive scheme, Joseph draws comparisons to Domata Peko from Cincinnati.
"It’s critical," Zimmer said of the nose tackle in his system. "I was very fortunate in Cincinnati to have Domata Peko, who in my opinion was one of the best nose tackles in the league, and on top of that he’s a great guy and a smart guy. So that helps the middle linebacker not get blocked very much.
"They do a lot of dirty work that people don’t see, that helps linebackers have an opportunity to stay healthy and make tackles."
Joseph relishes the pride-swallowing role and calls it fun. He said his responsibilities with the Vikings are similar to what he did in New York. Minnesota’s coaches appreciate Joseph’s ability.
"Those are the guys that don’t get a lot of credit, but I’ll tell you what, being inside and taking on blocks, that job is as important as any," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "Everything is tied together and it starts right there with him . . . From that aspect of it, you can tell the difference with him in there (last week), with him getting back and getting healthy and moving around inside. So we’re excited to see him as he progresses through camp."
Health isn’t an issue any longer. He says he is back up to his playing weight in New York. Bench pressing 500 pounds is likely a sign his shoulder is strong again.
"I’m back to where I was," Joseph said.
And the Vikings are back to having a true nose tackle in the middle of the defensive line.