Vikings’ Offseason Questions, Part 2: The Defense

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Around this time a year ago, we were all thinking that the Vikings defense was solid and that they needed to go offense in the draft (which they did in the first round with wide receiver Laquon Treadwell). We thought the defense needed some tweaks, but there wasn’t a whole lot of room for additions to the starting roster. Well, one year later, plenty has changed on the defense.

Starting linebacker (he had nine starts in 2016) Chad Greenway retired; nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn set sail back home to Carolina; and defensive tackle and former first-round pick Sharrif Floyd may never play again. Suddenly, head coach Mike Zimmer’s stalwart defense (which slid some in the second half of 2016) has more holes to fill than President Trump’s campaign-promised agenda.

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Some moves have already been made on the defense, but more needs to be done. We expect Zimmer to push for more troops (in the draft and post-draft) to fortify his former top-five defense. Let’s take a look at where the team is at on defense and a bit of special teams.

Defensive Line

The Floyd news that came out a couple weeks ago (potential career-ending nerve damage following knee surgery) creates a big hole in the defensive line. Add to that the recent announcement that defensive end Brian Robison (who has been moved all over the line under Zimmer) will likely retire after the 2018 season (when his contract is up) and suddenly a fairly decent unit has some issues.

The Vikings worked to replace Floyd (if he is unable to go) with the free agent acquisition of former Green Bay Packers lineman Datone Jones. It remains to see how Jones will fit into the Vikings’ defensive scheme (as he converted from end to outside linebacker in Green Bay) and how long he will stick around with just a one-year deal.

Question: How will this unit look next season? The defensive ends are locked in with Everson Griffen at right end and Danielle Hunter (we believe) finally moving past Robison and taking over the left end. Robison even speculated that would be the case at the end of the season in his player exit interviews. Zimmer favors a rotation on his defensive line, and Robison will continue his duties as flexible utility player.

Nose tackle Linval Joseph will anchor the middle of the line, with Jones getting some time next to him if Floyd can’t recover (which would be a terrible shame). So, it looks like the selection of a defensive interior lineman is warranted for the Vikings, and I am calling for it as early as their first pick, which is in the second round (No. 48). And according to Luke Braun on the purpleJOURNAL podcast, Michigan State defensive lineman Malik McDowell could potentially slide to pick 48 for the Vikings (although he said it could be a “pipe dream”), and McDowell would fit in nicely as he has some position flexibility, as well.

The Vikings will likely look to the future for this unit, as the defensive line has to constantly be backfilled to stay young, fast and strong for continued opposition quarterback disruption. They are a key to Zimmer’s defensive strategy. But now with Floyd being a huge question mark and Robison ostensibly phasing himself out, the need becomes front and center.

Linebackers

With Greenway gone and Audie Cole moving on to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Vikings linebacker depth took a bit of a hit this offseason. Throw in that linebacker Anthony Barr coming off a down season, the linebacking unit, a former strength on the team, suddenly is hurting. MLB Eric Kendrick had a fine season in 2016, and soon to be third-year man Edmond Robinson will be expected to step up and make a much bigger contribution (he has just two starts in two seasons). In addition, there is an opportunity for second year-man Kentrel Brothers, the undersized MLB, to get on the field consistently.

Question: Where do the Vikings go with this unit in the starting lineup, and how much of a priority will it be on draft day? Brother’s natural spot is in the middle and if he is ready to step up, Kendricks could slide to Greenway’s outside spot, giving the team some flexibility. Brothers is a good run stopper and would likely come off the field for nickel defenses. But given the questions with him and Robinson, for that matter, the Vikings will have to take a linebacker if a good one is available to them in the 3rd or 4th round.

Cornerbacks

Munnerlyn’s defection was a big loss for the cornerbacks (and in the locker room for reporters as he was a two-time Korey Stringer Good Guy award winner), so this unit has to step up. Xavier Rhodes is locked in at one corner (and headed toward a nice payday, potentially one of the highest at his position in the league), while the Vikings re-signed soon-to-be 39-year-old Terence Newman—who said Trae Waynes is ready for prime time. He now has to be. There is no margin for error, injury or learning the position—Waynes should start opposite Rhodes.

Question: What do the Vikings do with Newman and at the nickel? Newman started all 16 games last season at cornerback despite his age. Unless he falls off a cliff physically, he could be called on to start again. But at this point, his presence would continue to be a crutch for Waynes. Can Newman play the nickel slot? Is sophomore Mackensie Alexander ready to step in there and share time with Newman? I see Newman as the Joe Berger type who plays wherever he is needed: starting at nickel until, perhaps, Waynes shows he can’t handle the corner and Alexander gets a rapid ascension to play inside. Zimmer likes Alexander, but knows he has some growing to do. Therefore, the old adage of “you can never have enough good cornerbacks” rules the day and the Vikings will grab one somewhere in the draft.

 Safeties

Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo had a decent season together in 2016, despite Smith missing two games with an ankle injury and hobbling for several more. That leaves Antone Exum, Jr., Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse behind them, and Kearse got plenty of run last season (including a start) in his rookie year.

Question: So, are the Vikings finally set at safety? Not even close. The team can live with the current situation, but the unit is really not in a position to stand pat. Luke Braun, purplePTSD.com’s resident draft guru, postulates that the draft is safety heavy and there are some names out there that could help the Vikings in more ways than one. Luke mentioned Washington safety Budda Baker (and not just because his name is fun to say) as a player who ranks highly as a safety but is also fast enough in coverage and has the requisite skills to play nickel corner. Baker is likely first round talent but could drop to the Vikings at 48 and give them the position flexibility to, perhaps in time, serve two needs with one player and open a draft pick slot for another position. That is creative thinking and it might be what this teams needs when it heads into the 2017 draft.

Special Teams

I never did I would be saying that the Vikings are giving me cause for concern with the defection or punter Jeff Locke (who signed as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts). Last year at this time I was calling for them to bring in some competition for him. They didn’t, and Locke had a marginally better year. At least to the point where we thought he was getting it and could be the Vikings punter/holder for the future.

Well, he “got it” enough to sign himself a nice deal with the Colts and proceeded to break up that all UCLA triumvirate of himself, kicker Kai Forbath and long snapper Kevin McDermott. The Vikings did sign punter Ryan Quigley and also have another in Taylor Symmank—so they have the competition for Locke, but Locke is no longer on the team. The Vikings will look long and hard at punter in the draft, but with two in camp already, it would have to be a sure thing dropping in their lap to spend a pick on one.

Question: How do you replace Cordarrelle Patterson as a return threat? You don’t; he has proven to be elite at the position. Rules changes have somewhat limited all kick returners’ production, and opposing coaches’ schemes took away even more from Patterson, but the Vikings are going to missed CP Flash more than they know (he was also effective as a coverage gunner last season). Marcus Sherels isn’t going to be around forever (I know, we say that every year), so the Vikings will have to address this issue, hopefully with someone who is useful position player, as well. I don’t see them drafting a KR specifically, but that kind of skill in a late-round wide receiver might just grab Rick Spielman’s eye.

 

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