The Minnesota Vikings are the perfect fit for Ivan Pace Jr. 

2RTT1DA Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) reacts after a tackle during the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Perhaps it is sometimes better to be an undrafted free agent than a sixth- or seventh-round draft pick. Generally, signing bonuses are smaller, but there is a distinct advantage for a player who gets to pick their own destination for various reasons, schematic fit often being one of them.

No player this season embodies that idea more than Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. Measuring in at just 5-foot-10 and 231 pounds, Pace was one of the more difficult evaluations in the 2023 class. However, he carried a fourth-round grade on PFF’s big board, and his college production spoke for itself.

Ivan Pace Jr. Grades/Ranks | Among LBs 2021-2022 (min. 100 snaps)
Metric Grade Rank (out of 851 LBs)
Overall Grade 93.6 1st
Run Defense Grade 88.5 10th
Coverage Grade 87.5 26th
Pass Rush Grade 93.9 1st
Pass Rush win rate 25.2% 1st
Pressure rate 30.0% 2nd

Pace was a fantastic all-around player at Miami (OH) and in his final college season at Cincinnati. But what makes him so unique is his pass-rush ability. His 93.9 pass-rush grade not only led all linebackers over the past two seasons, but it led all defensive players. He finished with a higher mark than first-round picks Aidan Hutchinson and Jalen Carter.

Now in Minnesota, Pace is currently the highest-graded undrafted defensive rookie and the highest-graded rookie linebacker. Once again, his skills as a blitzer are setting him apart.

This play is his lone sack so far, but he has eight total pressures — trailing only Demario Davis and Frankie Luvu, a former edge rusher, among linebackers. Furthermore, he has seven other pass-rush wins and drew a holding penalty on just 47 pass-rush snaps.

Altogether, that production creates a 28.9% pass-rush win rate that leads all linebackers through Week 6. His 88.8 pass-rush grade through Week 6 also trails only Luvu.

So, we’ve established that Pace is an excellent pass-rusher. That skill generally translates on any team. Why is it such a perfect fit in Minnesota? Because Brian Flores is now the Vikings' defensive coordinator.

Since Flores took over as New England’s linebackers coach in 2016, his teams have put a major emphasis on blitzing linebackers from traditional linebacker spots. He carried this tendency with him as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, and it became a staple of his defense.

Brian Flores Defenses | LB Pass-Rush Snaps (regular season only)
Seasons Pass-Rush Snaps (LB) Rank
2016-2018 (Patriots) 934 1st
2019-2021 (Dolphins) 975 1st
2022 (Steelers) 104 T-21st
2023 (Vikings) 91 1st

After an odd year in Pittsburgh, where defensive coordinator Teryl Austin doesn’t embrace linebacker blitzes as much, Flores went right back to his wheelhouse. Pace and teammate Jordan Hicks are the NFL's top two linebackers in pass-rush snaps this season.

Of course, Flores hasn’t just run these schemes with great volume, but also with success. We all remember the success New England used to generate blitzing players such as Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, who followed Flores to Miami.

However, the player who best compares to Ivan Pace Jr. is likely a younger player that Flores developed, Jerome Baker. It took Baker a couple of years to find his role, but across 2021 and 2022, his 84.8 pass rush grade and 9.5 sacks rank second among all linebackers behind Micah Parsons.

Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who remained in Miami last season despite Flores’ departure, used Baker’s inside-rush skills to speed up opposing quarterbacks' internal clocks.

Ivan Pace | Among Rookie LBs in 2023
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Flores has deployed Pace in a similar manner so far with success, forcing opponents to get rid of the football quickly.

Pace is a nightmare for running backs to block, and he’s shown a couple of reps where he can beat offensive linemen with his quickness, as well.

Ivan Pace Jr. has so far exceeded everything the Vikings could have expected from an undrafted player. Being undrafted gave him the freedom to pick a team that would best deploy his skill set, and it's paying dividends already.

The Vikings’ defense still has a long way to go before it's considered an elite unit, but Brian Flores and company have certainly found a gem in Pace.


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