1 Unsung Viking Must Shine for Necessary Defensive Overhaul

The Vikings 'Most Underrated' Player Is a Newcomer
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The Minnesota Vikings were held back in 2022 by a horrendous defense. It is unacceptable how even bad offenses like the New York Jets or the New England Patriots despite subpar quarterback play were unstoppable against the Vikes. The front office took action and left no stone unturned to improve the unit.

1 Unsung Viking Must Shine for Necessary Defensive Overhaul

1 Unsung Viking Must Shine for Necessary Defensive Overhaul
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Ed Donatell ended up departing after only one season as the defensive coordinator and was replaced by Brian Flores, a former NFL head coach for the Miami Dolphins and a longtime New England Patriots assistant coach.

The underwhelming starting cornerbacks departed, and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah signed Byron Murphy to be the top guy in the cornerback room. He also added a couple of defensive backs, Jay Ward and Mekhi Blackmon, in the draft and can hope for contributions from his 2022 draft class where he brought in Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth, Brian Asamoah, and Akayleb Evans. It is a young but promising group. Za’Darius Smith was traded away but Marcus Davenport joined the team to keep a strong edge-rushing duo in place.

the Basement for
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One defender left in free agency and was not substituted. Dalvin Tomlinson signed a huge deal with the Cleveland Browns and the Vikings didn’t replace him. They added Dean Lowry in free agency and Jaquelin Roy in the draft, but Tomlinson is a phenomenal player who will be missed unless someone else steps up. That guy must be Harrison Phillips.

The Vikings introduced Phillips as a free-agency signing in 2022. He was overshadowed by the addition of Smith. The defensive tackle is in the second year of a three-year $19.5 million contract.

Together with Tomlinson, the defensive tackle duo quielty formed the strong suit of the Vikings’ defense who were decent at stopping the run. It is now on Phillips to keep that going. He will receive help from a bunch of defensive linemen but nobody has proven to be more than just a guy.

Just over eight months ago, defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga didn’t make the Bears’ 53-man roster and had to accept a spot on the Falcons’ practice squad. Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah signed the large human being to the active roster in October.

Vikings Keep Free Agent Defender in the Building
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Tonga was inactive in the first two games, in matchups against the Bears and the Dolphins, and made his Vikings debut in Week 8 against the Cardinals, where he pressured quarterback Kyler Murray to force an interception. He ended up playing in 12 games for the Vikings and also started a couple of contests. Tonga should be expected to claim a starting job after a promising 2022 campaign in which he ranked 13th out of 127 defensive linemen in PFF’s grades.

In addition to him, Minnesota employs the aforementioned Lowry and Roy, James Lynch, Ross Blacklock, Jonathan Bullard, T.J. Smith, Sheldon Day, Esezi Otomewo, and Calvin Avery. None of those names will strike fear into opponents. It will be Phillips who has to claim the vacant top role in the DT room without Tomlinson in the building.

The Vikings Top Defensive Performers at Bills, per PFF
Bills quarterback Josh Allen delivers a pass as he is pressured by Vikings Harrison Phillips. © JAMIE GERMANO / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Phillips fired up a PFF grade of 72.0, which ranked him 29th out of 127 DTs. He had a grade of 75.2 in his final season in Buffalo before he joined the Vikings and ranked 15th.

The defensive tackle started all 18 games for the Vikings and recorded 62 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. The best game of his 2022 campaign came against his former team. He was unstoppable in the comeback win against Buffalo.

The Vikes and defensive coordinator Flores need some more games of that caliber to be competitive in the upcoming season. Teams like the 49ers and the Eagles show year in and year out how hard it is to beat a team with a dominant defensive line.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt