The chief malady for the 2020 Minnesota Vikings defense was singular. Due to a wildly reduced pass rush – compared to Mike Zimmer teams of yesteryear – the Vikings defense tanked to fourth-worst in the NFL via points allowed.
Seemingly every game was marred by a leaky defense — displaying poor tackling, a flimsy run-stopping approach, and a nonexistent pass rush. When Danielle Hunter was lost for the season late in the summer (confirmed in the autumn), the defensive line went from formidable with the addition of EDGE rusher Yannick Ngakoue – to nauseating. Too, Zimmer was sans Michael Pierce, a sizable nose tackle signed to replace the exiting Linval Joseph.
Ergo, the defensive trenches were a paper mâché project in patchwork. From left to right, the group was normally something akin to this:
(LDE) Ifeadi Odenigbo, (NT) Shamar Stephen, (3DT) Jaleel Johnson, (RDE) Jalyn Holmes.
No one of those men will start for Zimmer – or anything close to it – in 2021.
Minnesota could improve at the right defensive end spot. Stephen Weatherly was reunited early on in free agency, and it’s anybody’s ballgame on the determination if he will start.
If he does not, well, Jadeveon Clowney can be crossed off the menu for potential replacements. The young journeyman EDGE rusher inked with the Cleveland Browns on Wednesday, landing a one-year, $10 million gig.
Should general manager Rick Spielman have plans not directly attributable to Weatherly starting at RDE, the options for EDGE rushers are dwindling.
Ingram, Kerrigan, Houston, Etc.
With Clowney now a member of the Dawg Pound, the best defensive end available is arguably Melvin Ingram. He’s a veteran pocket-pressure merchant that remains unsigned. Ingram spent eight seasons in San Diego/Los Angeles with the Chargers, tallying 49 sacks in 113 career games. As each moment ticks by, his price tag gets a bit smaller. The soon-to-be 32-year-old would be a marvelous, Everson Griffen-like fit opposite Danielle Hunter on the Vikings 2021 line.
Others are out there, too. Older men like Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston, and the aforementioned Griffen are billowing in free-agent winds. One of those dudes could sign on with the post-pandemic Vikings, searching for a late-career surge with a defense-first coach in Zimmer.
The names are available while the Vikings have about $7 million of cap space.
But maybe this a No Country for Old Men ordeal. Spielman may not want an older EDGE option. If he does not, his 1st-Round pick could easily be spent on a rookie defensive end like Kwity Paye (Michigan), Gregory Rousseau (Miami), or Jaelan Phillips (UCLA, then Miami). All three of those players have been mock-drafted to the Vikings in some capacity by credible sources.
Doing that, though, would blatantly neglect the “team need” of offensive line. If the 2021 season started in April, Zimmer and Spielman would be in rough shape – per usual – for the offensive trenches. Very few Vikings fans will complain if 1st-Round draft capital is utilized on offensive linemen. Prospects like Rashawn Slater (Northwestern), Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), and Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC) should be there for the taking at the 14th spot in the NFL draft.
It boils down to opinion. What is a direr need? Offensive trenches or defensive trenches? Good luck deciding that verdict without disagreement.
Roll with Weatherly-Wonnum Combo
Assume the Vikings roll with an offensive lineman with their first pick. It’s a reasonable prognostication as no other franchise has drafted more offensive linemen in the 2nd Round or higher during the last three drafts than the Vikings. Zimmer would be marinating with what he has now – Hunter, Pierce, Tomlinson, a Weatherly/D.J. Wonnum.
That is probably good enough to “get by” with a defensive back-end stuffed full of players like Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Patrick Peterson, and Cameron Dantzler. Barring injury, the 2021 defense will not resemble the 2020 ineptitude in any way, shape, or form.
Signing a free agent like Ingram or drafting a Paye can be considered gravy. Some will disagree, but this current defense has enough firepower to propel the Vikings closer to the usual Zimmer standard of efficiency.
Another name to monitor is Ronald Blair formerly of the San Francisco 49ers. Blair is a free agent that was noticeably productive when allotted playing time. Should Spielman “strike out” late in the month for pass rushers in the draft, Blair is worthy of a look as a starting RDE opposite Danielle Hunter.