The primary bane of the Minnesota Vikings 2020 season was a lack of pass rush. It was an unconventional showing for a Mike Zimmer-fueled defensive front four – Ifeadi Odenigbo, Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, and Jalyn Holmes. There is a reasonable chance that none of those four men will start in 2021. That’s not a lock yet, but it is palpable that the line will be totally reconditioned.
Zimmer’s defense – one that was the best in the NFL just three years prior – was the fourth-worst in the league during the pandemic season. As a 2020 analogy on the opposite side of the ball, consider the 2020 Green Bay Packers offense led by Aaron Rodgers (1st in NFL) versus the 2020 Cincinnati Bengals offense quarterbacked by Ryan Finley (29th in NFL). That’s the type of statistical variance on display between the 2017 Vikings and 2020 Vikings defenses.
Thankfully, Zimmer is a defense-before-God-and-Country coach, so there should be no man in the NFL better equipped to restore Minnesota’s defense to respectability than him. If Zimmer cannot handle the assignment, he will likely be searching for work in 2022. This is not an endorsement by PurplePTSD to fire Zimmer, but the 64-year-old needs a profitable season to get his buttocks off the hot seat.
There is a pathway to re-energize the defense. General Manager Rick Spielman and his pal Zimmer will not be starting from scratch. Injuries largely derailed 2020, and the reservist players tasked with filling roster holes were not collectively capable. Some did fine as fill-in guys, but the presences of Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Anthony Barr, and Mike Hughes were missed.
It all starts upfront, and here is why 2020-to-2021 can be a simple rags-to-riches tale.
The Return of the King
The Vikings just need Danielle Hunter back at defensive end to find a heartbeat. He generates pandemonium at the start of all plays and nobody – at all – did that on the Vikings in 2020. His body simply on the football field in Week 1 will bolster the defense.
Even missing an entire NFL season last year, Hunter ranks 10th all-time in sacks by a player thru his age-26 season. He was tops all-time in the age-25 metric and managed to remain in the Top 10 for this parameter despite a scary next injury in 2020.
Hunter is a leader, a force, quarterback tyrant, and an essential worker for the Vikings. Assuming he returns with vengeance aforethought, Hunter rejoining the 2021 Vikings is colossal.
Re-installment of an Actual Nose Tackle
Linval Joseph – a player that will probably be released by the Los Angeles Chargers soon – departed Minnesota at this time last year. His replacement is named Michael Pierce, a 2020 free-agent acquisition from the Baltimore Ravens.
But Pierce didn’t play in 2020. He had reservations about participating in the pandemic season due to asthma. So when Pierce joins the Week 1 Vikings, he will be a new face – and a welcomed one. His stature is spookily similar to his predecessor, Joseph. Pierce is a big-bodied run-stopper and that can rush the quarterback here and there.
God, do the Vikings ever need that.
At the peak of his powers in 2018, Pierce snared a 90.8 Pro Football Focus grade. To that, the Vikings front office says “yes, please.” The return of a massive nose tackle is a necessity. Shamar Stephen was decent during his reservist work for Pierce – but Stephen is not a massive nose tackle.
Use Free Agency for Pass-Rushing 3DT
And this is when everything gets interesting.
Minnesota could stick with organic solutions at the 3-technique spot. That is – hope Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts, or James Lynch is the real deal. It is actually a real possibility that one or some of those men is auditioned if Spielman cannot find an affordable 3DT with his tiny free-agency budget.
But if he wants a new 3-technique player – they are out there. Between Kawann Short, Geno Atkins, Shelby Harris, Ndamukong Suh, Jurrell Casey, Sheldon Rankins, and Malik Johnson, Spielman has names galore to explore in free agency. Not all of those players will arrive on tiny deals, but there is a litany of 3DTs to contemplate.
Should free agency go unkindly for the Vikings at 3DT, several credible mock drafts send Alabama’s Christian Barmore to the Vikings at the No. 14 overall pick. Call it a contingency plan.
As it is “easier” to find a decent 3-technique in free agency than a defensive end, Minnesota will probably turn to the draft for Everson Griffen’s long-awaited replacement. At the aforementioned 14th slot, names like Kwity Paye and Gregory Rousseau hover around draft speculation. Either man would blend Best Player Available and Team-Need draft philosophies.
We will know in March if RDE is on the docket for the draft. If Minnesota finds a decent defensive tackle in free agency, the No. 14 pick will likely be an EDGE rusher. Then, the line will resemble: RDE – Paye/Rousseau, NT – Pierce, DT: FA Guy, LDE: Hunter.