Dismantling Mike Zimmer’s Defense

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Things went poorly at the end, but Mike Zimmer is a brilliant defensive mind.

Over eight seasons, Zimmer was an instrumental figure for the Vikings. The head coach didn’t have the final say on who got signed or drafted, but his opinion mattered. Notably, the defense that he created and cultivated, nurtured and nourished is almost complete gone.

The Mike Zimmer Defense is Almost Entirely Gone

Safety is where things are holding strong for Zim (and Spielman).

Harrison Smith, Josh Metellus, and Camryn Bynum all got added under Zimmer’s watch. All three are more important than ever, and that’s even after Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has attacked the position. Lewis Cine stands out as the most notable addition, but the GM also snagged Theo Jackson and Jay Ward. The latter two names have gotten some opportunity, but the Zimmer trio is still leading.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and safety Harrison Smith (22) against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

If we step back from safety, though, things will look very different.

As a whole, the defense only has one more player who bridges the gap between the Zimmer days and the present-day Vikings: edge rusher Patrick Jones II. The pass rusher is facing and uphill battle to maintain his roster spot after Minnesota added a pile of players at his position in free agency (Jonathan Greenard, Andrew Van Ginkel, Jihad Ward), the draft (Dallas Turner), and among the UDFAs (Gabriel Murphy, Bo Richter, Owen Porter).

If Jones gets cut at the end of the summer, there will only be three left standing, all of whom are playing the same position.

Oct 18, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer (L) speaks with general manager Rick Spielman (R) prior to their game against the Kansas City Chiefs at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

In 2022, Ed Donatell was working with a ton of carryover players. Eric Kendricks was still at linebacker while Patrick Peterson was the main corner. Dalvin Tomlinson was at defensive tackle and Danielle Hunter was putting together his first full season since 2019. Various depth players — EDGE D.J. Wonnum, LB Troy Dye, CB Cameron Dantzler — were all doing their best within Minnesota’s bland, overwhelmed defense.

Every player listed above isn’t in Minnesota anymore. Some survived into 2023, but the 2024 roster doesn’t include any of those players.

Mike Zimmer Vikings Head Coach
May 26, 2021; Eagan, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer at OTA at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Flores is the new defensive sheriff. It’s hard not to be impressed with the work he has been doing. As Year 2 approaches for the DC, Minnesota seems primed to get close to the days of elite defensive play.

Meanwhile, Zimmer is down in Dallas as the DC for Mike McCarthy, a bizarre turn of events as the one-time NFC North rivals look to get the Cowboys over the hump. Minnesota and Dallas aren’t scheduled to play in 2024, but the possibility exists that there will be a playoff tilt.

Mike Zimmer will turn 68 on June 5th.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.