The Minnesota Vikings harnessed a defense-by-reservist-committee in 2020. The running back rendition of this philosophy is rampant in the contemporary NFL – have a gander at the Buffalo Bills rushing corps or perhaps that of the Baltimore Ravens who even fold a run-first quarterback into the mix.
Mike Zimmer utilized this strategy out of broken necessity as early as Week 1 without Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce. Then, Anthony Barr was lost for 14.5 games during a Week 2 contest in Indianapolis. It was later Mike Hughes who was infected by the injury bug and Eric Kendricks after that. To be sure, Kendricks’ pregame injury against the Jacksonville Jaguars was a match in the powder barrel. The Vikings nearly lost to Jacksonville – a team that would end the season as the NFL’s worst team. Oh, and the Vikings lost their next three games after that without Kendricks’ presence.
Although Zimmer is an elite defensive specimen, he did not surmount an avalanche of tears, herniations, and tweaks by his keynote personnel. In this recent lore of Vikings defensive stardom, Harrison Smith was the only player left unscathed by the epidemic of injury.
As a result, Minnesota finished 27th in yards allowed to opponents and 29th in points surrendered. Three years ago, Zimmer’s men finished tops in the business for yards and points allowed. Like Red Redding said in The Shawshank Redemption, “Feels like a long time ago.”
Either Zimmer is suddenly inept at coaching defense and the game has passed him by – or the Vikings defense will return to respectability in eight months. Mending this plethora of injuries is the determinant factor. Regardless, Minnesota’s defense will experience roughly 64% turnover when comparing the 2020 starters to the 2021 depth chart. Why? Because only four of the Vikings 2020 defensive starters are sure-fire locks to fill starting jobs this September.
The Defensive Line
Barring contractual shenanigans or a freak retirement, Danielle Hunter is poised to reclaim his left-sided throne on the defensive line in 2021. Ifeadi Odenigbo – who was serviceable in 2020 – will shift back to the right side of the line or return to a backup designation. All in all, Hunter is the “easy” remedy upfront.
Odenigbo will presumably compete for the starting RDE gig with D.J. Wonnum, a rookie from the 2021 draft, or a free agent. He is not guaranteed to start once again, rest assured. The likelihood that he is interpreted as a bonafide starter hereafter is slim. A Hunter and somebody-else duo is two of the seven swaps in comparing 2020 to 2021.
Next, the interior defensive line will be completely reconditioned. Linval Joseph plays football in California, so he is not returning to Minnesota. But a man that is virtually identical to Joseph in stature will take the reins – Michael Pierce. He joined Minnesota during free agency of 2020 but opted not to play due to coronavirus concerns.
Directly alongside Pierce, will be unnamed 3-Technique defensive tackle No. 1. It may be Armon Watts; it could be a rookie selected in 2021 with high draft capital. Because of Shamar Stephen’s price tag, he is probably not the answer at either DT spot.
That makes four realigned or new faces on the Vikings 2021 defensive line – a sight for sore eyes.
First off, Anthony Barr will return to the role he has inhabited for seven seasons. He is a vital tackler inside Zimmer’s scheme, and that was vivified during his absence with fill-in Eric Wilson’s inability to consistently bring offenders to the ground. Wilson has plenty of fabulous attributes, but tackling is not one of them. Barr is a fabulous tackler of men; Wilson is not. Period.
On Wilson, he likely played well enough in 2020 to command a larger sum of dollars than the Vikings will offer to him in March. His statline will capture the attention of other NFL teams, but Minnesota will bow out of the pursuit. And, it is doubtful Wilson stays with Minnesota on a team-friendly deal as this is primetime for the 26-year-old to grab his first sizable contract.
Exhale – Eric Kendricks will be back. He is the cardiovascular system to everything that the Vikings do defensively. He is the first shoo-in starter to be back in 2021 for the purposes of this analysis.
Curiosity arises at the weakside linebacker position. Will this be Todd Davis – a veteran player that was pretty decent in 2020? He has a long history of dignified performance (especially his tackling) with the Denver Broncos. Is Ben Gedeon ever slated to see U.S. Bank Stadium? His disappearance was unceremonious.
We may not even have the identity of the starting weakside linebacker in our brains as of now. Stay tuned.
As the secondary comes to the forefront, Eric Kendricks is the lone player “guaranteed” to be back as a starter in 2021. The secondary actually offers stability contrary to the pass-rushing and linebacking departments.
Harrison Smith – notwithstanding a bizarre decision by the Vikings front office – is scheduled to start for a 10th consecutive season. If Kendricks is the team’s cardiovascular system, Smith is the inertia. He is constant and unwavering. Smith will be the team’s free safety.
The other safety – previously Anthony Harris – is undetermined. Like Eric Wilson, Harris is probably not on the field in purple clothes for Week 1 of 2021. He can attract more money, and potentially regain his 2019 form, elsewhere. Minnesota cannot afford him within its current salary cap situation. A rookie or free agent is on the horizon for the strong safety position.
Thankfully, two rookie cornerbacks in Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney were success stories during 2020. Dantzler is becoming a mini-shutdown asset while Gladney tackles like a mean safety. This salt-and-pepper approach is interesting and should pay dividends during sophomore campaigns for each man. Unless Zimmer salivates at an irresistible corner early in the draft – which is extremely possible – Dantzler and Glaney have full-time jobs early next autumn.
Count ’em. Exiting the starting lineup: Jalyn Holmes, Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Ifeadi Odengibo, Eric Wilson, Troy Dye, and Anthony Harris – seven defensive starters.
Enter starting lineup: Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Unknown 3-Technique DT, Unnamed RDE, Anthony Barr, New Weakside Linberbacker Guy, and Strong Safety newcomer. That’s seven.
11 players start on a defense. 7 / 11 = 64%