‘Underdog’ Watts pushing to stay in Vikings’ starting defense

Anthony Soufflé, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS
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When Vikings players don pads during Monday's practice for the first time in seven months, an unheralded defensive lineman is looking to remind observers that he can make the splash plays everyone loves.

Armon Watts, entering a contract year in his fourth NFL season, made nine starts at nose tackle last year for the injured Michael Pierce. He is still running out with the first-team defense during practices, doing so this time as an interior defender in coordinator Ed Donatell's 3-4 system alongside fellow starters Harrison Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson.

Watts aims to keep the job by making plays in front of the new coaching staff under Donatell, who is looking for which defenders can successfully play the run or pass before assigning them roles accordingly. Watts wants to become a better run defender, but he also reminded a reporter that he led last year's Vikings interior defenders with five sacks, which ranked 21st leaguewide among defensive tackles.

"I think a lot of people forget," he said.

Flying below the radar, Watts said he's embracing an "underdog" mentality while trying to open a season as a full-time starter for the first time in his career. That's not exactly a new approach for the 2019 sixth-round pick.

"Just better than I was last year," Watts said. "Even though I had five sacks, the tackles I had, the pressures I had, it's last year's stats. No matter if it was better than whoever around the league. I still feel like I got to prove a lot to a lot of people, pretty much all over this league, I think. Until that time comes, going to keep trying to beat what I did previously."

Making the best impression on new coaches meant reshaping his body. Watts said he lost "16 to 17 pounds" before reporting for training camp last week, dropping to 303 pounds so he can move fluidly from his new position. He doesn't need as much weight playing as a 3-4 defensive end, where he's aligned over offensive tackles, compared to previous roles as a 4-3 defensive tackle over guards and center.

Watts hopes his new form can help him make an "immediate impact" during padded practices, when he'll compete with Jonathan Bullard, James Lynch and others for playing time.

"Still evaluating him and I want to see the pads come on," Donatell said. "With the big guys, I want to see how they hit blocks in the run and how much rush do they really give? We'll evaluate that and get a role for him."

To stay in the starting lineup, Watts will need to prove he can be a reliable run defender. Running downs are when the Vikings defense will be in the 3-4 base formation that currently features Watts as the third down lineman in front of four linebackers.

Watts had the Vikings' worst run-stop rate, according to Pro Football Focus, among last year's interior defenders who formed a porous front that allowed 4.7 yards per carry.

"He wants to be more technically sound this year," Tomlinson said. "He was a big help in the pass rush last season, want to build on top of that as well. Just technique, being consistent in the run game, I feel like are the biggest things."

New techniques in this adjusted defensive front — different stances, hand and foot placements, reading blocks — will pave the way to whatever role Watts carves out this season. Either way, Watts' slippery interior pass rush is a skill the Vikings will need on Sundays after the front office allocated resources to solidifying the edge with new outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith.

Watts' 10 career starts offer experience to lean on in this summer's push to stay in the starting lineup.

"It's big now that I got my confidence up," he said. "That helped a lot last year. I had to step into a starting role the majority of the season and it paid off. I think I still got to prove a lot to a lot of people. I don't even think what I did last year was enough. I'm still trying to imagine myself in that underdog role."