It wasn’t until a January phone call with his mother the morning after a disappointing loss to San Francisco in the NFC Divisional Round, which ended the Minnesota Vikings’ season, that Ifeadi Odenigbo took a moment to reflect on what he had accomplished over the previous few months.
Three years after the defensive end was selected in the seventh round of the draft, then eventually cut and later placed on a practice squad, Odenigbo was a legitimate contributor on a playoff team.
And after a breakout season that featured seven sacks — four in the final five weeks of the season — despite limited snaps in 2019, Odenigbo may be the favorite to start at defensive end opposite Danielle Hunter for the Vikings this fall after Everson Griffen’s offseason departure.
“I’m taking that approach,” Odenigbo said Thursday, May 21, in a conference call with reporters. “I’ve seen my development from the preseason (last fall) when I was pass rushing to Week 14, when I started to get in the groove. … I had a breakout year, but my approach this year is being more efficient.”
Odenigbo attributes his 2019 success to opportunity and buy-in. He is pleased with his recent results, but noted in January that he’s guarding against being content. This is the same guy who was humbled upon entering the NFL out of Northwestern, where he quickly realized he wasn’t as good as he suspected. He has been moved to defensive tackle — where he gained 25 pounds in such a short order that he joked he cramped every time he went to scratch his butt — and back to defensive end again. He has been knocked down time and again.
But when Odenigbo finally got a chance to succeed, he grabbed it, and doesn’t plan on letting it go now.
“Because what happens in this league, you start reminiscing about ‘Oh, I did pretty good,’ and then you get slapped in the face the next year,” he said. “No one cares if you got seven sacks last year. What do you do now? That puts more pressure on myself, but I like that. I like the fact that I got seven sacks, I know what it takes to get to the quarterback. I’m ready to let everybody know that this is not a fluke, and I’m here all day, every day.”
At age 26, Odenigbo is still a relatively young player, which could make a virtual offseason a challenge. But he feels he is far enough into his career to be able to take information from the coaching staff, teach himself and translate it to the field.
The Vikings have roughly two hours of Zoom meetings each day, and Odenigbo’s camera is off for just about all of it. That’s because as the coaches are providing instruction, Odenigbo is putting it to practice in real time.
“I kind of get into my stance because no one’s able to see me, and I start visualizing, I start doing power steps, I start working long arms,” he said. “So it’s kind of cool, the fact that nobody can see me, so when (co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson) is talking, (I work on things), because it starts with visualizing. And when you’re able to visualize it, then you’re able to apply it.”
Odenigbo said he knows the technique and fundamentals of playing the position — he has had prime examples in watching Hunter, Griffen and Linval Joseph — and is simply working now to master the mechanics and fine-tune the details. The conditioning is key, too. He experienced the grind of a 22-game season last fall and noticed the toll that took, and that was only in a part-time playing role. It wasn’t until the Week 17 game against Chicago — during which most of Minnesota’s starters didn’t play — that Odenigbo got a start and played the majority of the snaps.
“It’s like, ‘Yo, this is wild,’ ” Odenigbo recalled that game. “(You have to) have your body conditioned and have the mindset, because when you’re playing 60-70 snaps, you have to be locked in.”
Upon the season’s conclusion, Odenigbo said the Vikings coaching staff told him he has shown he belongs on an NFL field, and it was simply time to build off it.
“I’m pretty excited for what’s in store,” he said in January, “and I’ve just got to take care of business this offseason.”
He planned to hone in his diet this spring, but has been careful not to ramp up his conditioning too much just yet.
“We’re kind of in this limbo land, so I’m working hard, training. But I’m also trying to find the right time to peak,” he said. “I’ve been taking it one step at a time, working on the fundamentals, details and stuff like that. If we don’t have OTAs, then in the July area, that’s when I’ll really start upping the conditioning, because I’ve got to get used to playing 40, 50, 60 snaps.”