Last week I wrote a piece about whether the Vikings Offensive position groups would grow, regress, or stay the same. Here is the same thing, but for Mike Zimmer’s baby, his defense.
Everson Griffen will be playing somewhere other than Minnesota for the first time in a decade. Now, it’s easy to say that the defensive ends will regress automatically because that, but it’s not quite that simple.
The loss of Griffen is huge, not just from a stat perspective but from a leadership perspective. The Vikings don’t really have a vocal leader on the defensive line now, or maybe the defense as a whole. Danielle Hunter is an amazing player, but he’s a quiet “lead by example” guy.
In addition to losing Griffen, the Vikings also lost rotation player Stephen Weatherly to the Carolina Panthers. Although Weatherly only recorded three sacks in each of the last two seasons, he was a very solid depth player who was able to give a breather to Hunter or Griffen.
What the Vikings do have is the aforementioned Hunter and the rising start that is Ifeadi Odenigbo. After bouncing between Minnesota’s practice squad and the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, Odenigbo found his footing last season and put up seven sacks, two fumble recoveries, and a touchdown. All of those stats came in limited rotation with Weatherly and Griffen.
This season, we should see both Hunter and Odenigbo as starters and a rotation of rookie D.J Wonnum, veteran free agent pickup Anthony Zettel, second year man Stacy Keely, and Eddie Yarbrough. Jalyn Holmes, who has played defensive tackle the last few seasons, has also reportedly been seeing reps at first team defensive end in Hunter’s absence at training camp.
That’s a lot of question marks outside of Hunter and Odenigbo. Wonnum projects to be very similar to Hunter, but he’ll take time to develop. Between Yarbrough and Zettel, the Vikings should get one solid rotational piece. Perhaps Holmes moving to the outside is going to work, but he also has very limited NFL experience as it is. Between Keely and rookie Kenny Willekes, the Vikings might not get anything decent.
Despite the question mark in depth, the Vikings should be ok as long as Hunter and Odenigbo stay healthy. They may even hit on a couple of rotational guys and come out ahead.
Final Verdict: Starters maintain, Depth regresses
The Vikings tried to fix their rather weak interior defensive line last off-season by bringing back Shamar Stephen for a pretty fat three year, $12.45 million contract. Stephen was supposed to shore up the spot next to Linval Joseph and give the Vikings a solid one-two punch to bring their defense together.
Instead, they got 21 total tackles, one sack, and two tackles for loss. Stephen was bad against both the pass and the run last season and, along with Linval Joseph’s injuries and age seemingly catching up to him, was a big reason for the Vikings being bounced from the playoffs by the San Francisco 49ers.
This offseason, with the departure of Joseph, the Vikings committed to finding answers along the defensive line and signed free agent Michael Pierce to play the nose tackle position. However, Pierce opted out of the 2020 season with concerns of complications with his asthma if were to contract COVID-19.
So, the Vikings are currently planning on moving Shamar Stephen to the nose tackle position. This does take pressure off of him being a pass rusher as he will mainly be used to eat up blockers and give chances to Eric Kendricks. However, like I said, he wasn’t good against the run last season, so I don’t know how well that plan will work. Armon Watts has been backing up Stephen in training camp so far according to reports.
As far the other tackle position, the Vikings have some interesting, if a bit unproven, options. Rookie James Lynch was an absolute force at Baylor last season putting up 13.5 sacks. Second year man Hercules Mata’afa flashed in limited time last season and should at least be solid. Although an underdog, David Moa has a chance to at least hold one of the Vikings practice squad spots at a somewhat thin position.
The last player to talk about is Jaleel Johnson. Although Johnson has seen limited work the last few seasons, he recorded 3.5 sacks last season and 29 total tackles, five of those for loss. He has been working at the three tech spot, but I personally see Johnson as a decent rotational player at both tackle positions with his size. Also, because he has a better pass rush than Stephen, I think he could be the third down nose tackle when the situation dictates it.
Last season the defensive tackle position was bad. This year, they’re going to likely be mediocre again, but with many players getting experience and reps to improve for the future.
Final Verdict: Growth all around
The Vikings solved their problem of what to do with Anthony Barr last offseason by signing him to a long-term extension. Despite many fans disagreeing with this, the Vikings linebackers were once again solid in 2019 and Barr seemed to be exposed less than the year before. Of course, we still wish we would see more pass rushes from Barr, but that’s more a scheme problem than his problem.
Next to Barr, Eric Kendricks played possibly his best NFL season in 2019. With 12 pass breakups, Kendricks was tied for the most pass breakups by an NFL linebacker. He also recorded 110 total tackles, his fourth season in a row recording 100+ tackles. Kendricks should only get stronger over the next few seasons too.
The third linebacker spot is a bit up in the air. Personally, I’d rather see Eric Wilson play the starter spot with Ben Gedeon rotating in. Wilson has done an excellent job replacing Barr, Kendricks, and Gedeon at different times. With that said, I understand wanting that versatile depth to be ready to come in at a moment’s notice. Either way, the Vikings should be solid in that spot.
After that, the Vikings have a ton of guys ready to show their potential, and they’ve got a lot to be excited about. Troy Dye and Blake Lynch and both freak athletes with the motors to match. Mark my words, between those two, at least one will be a superstar. Jordan Fehr is a small school guy who will be fighting for his opportunities. Quentin Poling spent last year with the Miami Dolphins practice squad and may also be on his last real NFL shot. Cam Smith unfortunately will not be available after having heart surgery. Hopefully he will return in the near future.
The Vikings should be solid for starters and the depth has a ton of potential if they are called upon. However, I really hope they don’t need to test that depth in any meaningful way.
Final Verdict: Starters Maintains, Depth Grows
This is the position group that has seen the most change this offseason. Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander are all on different teams meaning the Vikings are without last year’s top three cornerbacks.
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rhodes was a liability all of last season, both defending actual passes and in picking up penalties. Waynes was still solid, but never really became the true number one we were hoping for. Alexander actually probably was the best of the three in his role, but as a slot he was also the least called upon of the three.
So, the Vikings have a completely new look at the corners. Holton Hill and Mike Hughes have both seen extensive work, outside of time lost to injury and suspension, and Kris Boyd got some reps last season, although most of his work was done with his excellent special teams play.
Luckily, the Vikings did seem to reload their corners with a great draft starting with first rounder Jeff Gladney. Gladney should bring some stickiness to the position as he led the NCAA in contested targets last season. He also is an absolute sparkplug of energy and will hopefully replace some of Everson Griffen’s fire on the defense.
After that, the Vikings took Cam Dantzler who might be the best pick of this draft for the Vikings. A true boom or bust guy, Dantzler has reportedly already taken reps with the first team in the first couple of days of training camp. Dantzler has length and height, similar to Holton Hill, and could be one of the team’s outside corners when the season starts.
Following those two shining rookies, there’s some more to be excited about with the likes of Harrison Hand and the aforementioned Boyd, but unfortunately it’s a lot of what I would call average NFL corners.
Final Verdict: Growth, but mostly because Zimmer is great
The Vikings have the best safety duo in the NFL, still. I don’t even feel the need to justify those two maintaining their work and I feel like the depth is about on-par with what the team has had the last few seasons.
Jayron Kearse is gone, but his best work was on special teams anyways. The Vikings have also replaced him with three rookies Josh Mettellus, Myles Dorn, and Brian Cole II. I don’t really know what to expect from any of these guys this year, but since they are all rookies, the only place they have to go is up and they don’t need to do much to replace the depth of the last couple years.
Final Verdict: Maintain