Sunday, February 7, 2016

Anthony Barr

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Will the Cincinnati-Minnesota pipeline continue for Mike Zimmer?

George Iloka a top free agent safety for the Vikings
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Building an NFL defense is a lot like putting together an intricate puzzle. Some pieces fit perfectly within the frame, like Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith in Minnesota. Others, unfortunately, are square pegs in a round hole. They have a place somewhere, but not with the Minnesota Vikings.

For Mike Zimmer, the picture is nearly complete — a top-five unit in 2015 has a chance to become even more dominant next season. But one of those pieces has long been a blemish in what should be Mike Zimmer’s masterpiece — strong safety.

From Andrew Sendejo to Robert Blanton, and even Terence Newman, no one player has been a perfect fit beside Smith in the secondary. Despite the revolving door at the position, general manager Rick Spielman does have options. The draft is chock full of potential contributors, and players like Anthony Harris will continue to develop, but the safest path to the perfect puzzle may begin in March.

That’s when free agency opens. And that’s when safeties like Eric Berry, Reggie Nelson, and Eric Weddle will hit the open market. They’re fine pieces to add to the puzzle, but they’re not the right piece for Zimmer’s defense. Enter George Iloka, current Cincinnati Bengals strong safety and soon-to-be free agent target.

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Danielle Hunter's NFL Combine
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Danielle Hunter is a freak, but not in the “having a physical oddity and appearing in a circus sideshow” way. In the NFL, where a select few human beings can run faster, hit harder, and react more quickly than the rest of the world’s population, Hunter may be the rarest of them all.

Before he was selected by the Minnesota Vikings with the 88th-pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Hunter was a starting defensive end for the LSU Tigers. A physical specimen then, he was known more for his comically large arms than his eye-popping statistics. Despite starting 23 straight games for the Tigers between 2013 and 2014, he finished his three-year career in Louisiana with just 142 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks.

For a player with such gifts, the production didn’t match the physical presence. At 6’5″ and 252 pounds, Hunter generated a mere 1.5 sacks his junior year, despite playing 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Entering February’s NFL Combine, scouts, analysts, and coaches knew Hunter would pass the eye test, but questions lingered on his shallow statistical output. As one former LSU coach said about Hunter before the event:

“If he walked into your living room, your eyes would pop out of your head. He looks that good on the hoof. He’s going to blow up the combine, and then ace all of the interviews and NFL teams are going to fall in love with him. He still needs someone to unlock all that talent, though.”

His performance at the Combine, paired with an impressive Pro Day and interview process, was enough to warrant the gamble from Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. The rookie defensive end appeared in 14 games last season, finishing the year with 33 tackles, six sacks, and one forced fumble. Although he played in a rotational role behind Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, Hunter made the transition from “project” to player look easy, realizing his potential in a way so few can do so early in the careers.

Ranking the Vikings first round selections

[Note: This reflection on the Vikings’ success in the first round of the most recent decade’s worth of drafts is provided courtesy of Matt Falk from Draft Season. We highly recommend checking out their site for scouting reports of this year’s top prospects with a Vikings slant.]

Over the past 10 years, the Vikings have done a decent job finding talent in the first round of the NFL Draft. While they’ve have had their share of big misses, they’ve also hit on some stars along the way.

Let’s take a quick look back and attempt to rank them from worst to best.

#12 – 2011 – Christian Ponder QB, Florida St. (12th overall)

It’s hard to not feel bad for Ponder. He really never should of have been the 12th overall pick. Due to where he was selected, fans had some unrealistic expectations. Unsurprisingly, Ponder never panned out and struggled through a rocky four years in Minnesota. You’ve, gotta give the guy credit though; he acted like a true professional during his time in Minnesota.

#11 – 2013 – Cordarrelle Patterson WR, Tennessee (29th overall)

Patterson toyed with our emotions during his big rookie season, but has been in a nose dive ever since. While he’s still one of the most dangerous return men in the league, he adds absolutely nothing to the team as a wide receiver. Unless he has a huge turnaround, we won’t be seeing him on the field with the offense, except in August. For now, we’ll just have to get excited when he gets the chance to return a kick.

#10 – 2015 – Trae Waynes (11th overall)

The only reason Waynes is so low on the list is because it’s much too soon to know what we really have in the Michigan State cornerback. He barely saw the field as a rookie, but did show some flashes (along with some growing pains). I would feel confident saying that in a few years, we could see him bumping up at least a few spots on this same list.

defensive unrestricted free agents
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

If anyone knows about winning, it’s legendary Alabama Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant. In 25 seasons at the head of the football program, Bryant won 232 games and hoisted six national championship trophies. It’s no surprise, then, that Bryant is credited with the famous quote: “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”

And in Minnesota, Mike Zimmer’s following that same formula. The Vikings may not have won the Super Bowl this year, but they rode a top-five defense to an 11-5 record and the NFC North division title. They’re set up for long-term success, especially on defense, where a number of key players are in their first or second year with the team. A few of those contributors, though, are set to become unrestricted free agents in March.

Playing the role of general manager Rick Spielman, the Vikings Territory team analyzed the players and picked one as their highest priority to re-sign this offseason.

Which defensive unrestricted free agent should be the highest priority for the Vikings to re-sign?

  • Chad Greenway
  • Terence Newman
  • Josh Robinson
  • Robert Blanton
  • Marcus Sherels
  • Andrew Sendejo

  • Audie Cole
  • Casey Matthews
  • Kenrick Ellis
  • Jason Trusnik
  • Justin Trattou

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Harrison Smith would be an impact player
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Vikings Territory asked, and the readers spoke; in this series of articles, the team will announce the winners of our fan-voted awards, from the Minnesota Vikings’ MVP of 2015 to the Rookie of the Year. Today, a look at the Defensive Player of the Year as voted by you, the fans.

Harrison Smith, FS — Minnesota Vikings

First a trip to the 2016 Pro Bowl in Hawaii, and now, a title as the Vikings Territory Defensive Player of the Year. Though not as grand, the award is important because it comes from the fans of the Minnesota Vikings. Since he was drafted in 2012, Vikings fans have known that Harrison Smith would be an impact player in Minnesota. The award, just like his Pro Bowl invitation, is long overdue, but no less deserved.

He jetted closer to stardom in 2014, the best statistical season of his four-year career. It was Smith’s five interceptions and three sacks that earned him a first-team nod on Pro Football Focus’s All-NFL team, and one could argue he improved his play in 2015. Despite missing nearly four games this year, Smith was a force against the pass and run in Mike Zimmer’s aggressive scheme. “I’m fortunate enough to be in a system where [coach Mike Zimmer] wants us to do all of those things,” he said, per Matt Vensel. “I’m just lucky to be here and happy to be here because of that.”

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