ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Vikings had 23 sacks in 2020 as a team. That was less than half their 48 sacks in 2019 and just one more than Jared Allen had all by himself in 2011.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that head coach Mike Zimmer has put a premium on improving Minnesota’s pass rush for the 2021 season.
“With the Vikings, they’ve had a D-line for generations," said Allen, a defensive end for the Vikings from 2008-13 whose 22-sack season remains tied for the second most in NFL history. “That’s been kind of a franchise staple. It’s very rare when they don’t have a dominant D-line."
It also was rare for Zimmer that the Vikings weren’t very good much of anywhere on defense in 2020. In going 7-9 and missing the playoffs, they were hampered by injuries, playing too many young players, and a lack of talent after not bringing back a number of defensive veterans from a 2019 team that went 10-6 and won a playoff game.
After never ranking lower than No. 11 in scoring defense and No. 14 in total defense in any of Zimmer’s first six seasons, Minnesota was No. 29 and No. 27, respectively, in those categories. Zimmer summed it up when he called the 2020 defense the “worst one” he’s ever had.
That was saying something since Zimmer just finished his 21st season as an NFL defensive coordinator or head coach. In that span, he's had seven top-four finishes in the NFL in total defense, including three with the Vikings.
“I think if you look at the track record of the past seven years, we’ve been pretty solid defensively," Zimmer said. “So I do think we need to look at everything in that aspect."
Zimmer did say that the Vikings, who finished No. 4 in the NFL in total offense, had the most “explosive offense” in his seven years on the job. The offense was the main reason Minnesota was even able to stay in the playoff race until the next-to-last game.
Now, the task for the Vikings is to rebuild their defense. Zimmer said it will “improve us automatically” getting several key players back who missed time in 2020, but it’s going to take more than that.
Yes, it will help having linebacker Eric Kendricks, a first-team all-pro selection in 2019, back after he missed the final five games in 2020 with a calf injury, and nose tackle Michael Pierce return after he opted out in 2020 due to the pandemic. Yes, it should be a big boost having two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter back after he missed the entire season due to undergoing surgery for a herniated disc in his neck. Zimmer said Hunter is “doing well” and “on track” in his recovery, but it remains to be seen if he will be the same dominant player who had 14 1/2 sacks in both 2018 and 2019.
Perhaps more of an issue is linebacker Anthony Barr, who missed the final 14 games with a torn pectoral muscle. Even if Barr fully recovers, he is under contract in 2020 with a robust $15.062 million salary-cap number.
With revenue declining because of the coronavirus pandemic, the cap will decrease from $198.2 million in 2020 to as low as $175 million in 2021. Analyst Jason Fitzgerald, who runs the site OvertheCap.com, has projected the cap to be $176 million, and projects Minnesota to be about $11 million over that entering March. Some believe the cap will be higher, but it still will be low enough to hamper the Vikings from signing many impact free agents and will result in them needing to trim some big salaries.
The Vikings might request that Barr restructure his contract or be released. If he does stay with Minnesota, there would seem to be no chance that impending free-agent linebacker Eric Wilson would be re-signed. Fitzgerald has projected that Wilson, who played every snap in the final 14 games after Barr was injured, could command a contract worth “$9 million or $10 million a year.”
Assuming the Vikings do end up in good shape with two every-down linebackers, most of the work on defense will involve retooling the line and beefing up the secondary.
On the line, the Vikings might need to replace two starters in the interior after nose tackle Shamar Stephen and three-technique defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson had trying seasons. Pierce is in line to step in at nose tackle, and Stephen is not certain to return under his $5.083 million cap number. Johnson will be a free agent.
At defensive end, the assumption is Hunter will be back and healthy, but the other starting spot remains up in the air. Ifeadi Odenigbo will be a restricted free agent following a season in which he had just 3 1/2 sacks in 15 games, all starts, after producing seven sacks in 2019 in 16 games as a reserve.
“In the years past, I think we’ve had that high standard on defense, but this year we’re just kind of lacking them," Odenigbo said. “Obviously, everyone’s at fault."
While Jalyn Holmes, who started nine games in 2020, isn’t being looked at as any sort of a long-term solution, the Vikings hope D.J. Wonnum can continue developing. A fourth-round draft pick, Wonnum looked good as a rookie, and had three sacks.
The Vikings will go after defensive linemen in the draft, including perhaps with their No. 14 pick in the first round.
In the secondary, the Vikings might need another starting safety if Anthony Harris departs after making $11.441 million on a one-year franchise tag. The team is not expected to re-sign Harris to a similar salary after he dropped from No. 1 to No. 37 among safeties in Pro Football Focus' rankings in 2020.
At least safety Harrison Smith, who has one year left on his contract, is expected back for a 10th Vikings season. Smith, who turns 32 next month, had his five-year Pro Bowl streak end while slipping a bit in 2020. But he’s eager to get the defense back to Minnesota standards next season.
“Zim, being his defensive background and his defensive prowess here, we’ve had a lot of success, and we’re not used to not being toward the top in defense," Smith said. “I think there’s a lot of people here that are eager to get back to that spot.”
At cornerback, due to defections and injuries, the Vikings started two rookies most of the season in Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney. Pro Football Focus ranked the 6-foot-2, 188-pound Dantzler No. 27 among 124 cornerbacks, but he missed five games due to injury and Zimmer said he must gain weight and strength to help him become more durable.
Gladney was ranked 105th by Pro Football Focus while playing nearly every snap in most games at outside cornerback and in the slot. He might be better suited in the future to exclusively play the slot.
The Vikings still have cornerback Mike Hughes, a 2018 first-round draft pick who has missed 24 out of 48 games due to injury in his first three seasons, including 12 in 2020. But Hughes’ fifth-year contract option for 2022 is not expected to be picked up in May, and it remains to be seen if he is any sort of long-term piece for the team.
To make defensive strides in 2021, the Vikings might need to add some veterans. When Zimmer was asked after the season about that possibility, one of the first things he said was, “Obviously, salary cap could be an issue."
Zimmer then said he “probably miscalculated some things going into the season when we lost all the guys that we lost." He was referring to the team’s decision before last season to release cornerback Xavier Rhodes and nose tackle Linval Joseph and not bring back free-agent defensive ends Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly, cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander and safety Andrew Sendejo.
Rhodes, Joseph and Griffen made a combined nine Pro Bowls with the Vikings. The exits of Waynes and Alexander meant the Vikings lost their top three cornerbacks.
“Unfortunately, I just think there was a little too much transition, particularly on the defense," said Steve Jordan, a former Vikings tight end and a member of the Ring of Honor. “I thought there were some players that left that it was a going to be a challenge to replace, and I think that has borne itself out. And, of course, you get a couple of (issues with Hunter and Pierce) on the D-line that really made that whole thing look different.”
The Vikings tried to beef up the line when they traded second- and fifth-round draft picks to Jacksonville shortly before the start of the season to get former Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue on a one-year, $12 million deal. But after a 1-5 start, Ngakoue was dealt to Baltimore for third- and fifth-round selections.
As it turned out, Ngakoue led the Vikings with five sacks even though he played in just six games. That’s how bad the Vikings’ pass rush was in a season in which their 23 sacks were less than half their 48 in 2019 and 50 in 2018.
“A priority for me is that we continue to get more pass rushers," Zimmer said. “I’ve always said since the day I walked in here that you’ve go to have people that can cover and you’ve got to have people that can rush, and like we’ve done in the past."
One big problem is that pass rushers are expensive, and the Vikings won’t have much money to spend. Griffen has indicated an interest in returning as a free agent after spending 2020 with Dallas and Detroit. But he is 33, and it remains to be seen how much money he might want.
And there will be the draft, where the Vikings have gotten most of their top pass rushers over the years. But it usually takes some time to develop pass rushers, even under well regarded co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson
Regardless, Allen remains optimistic that the Vikings eventually will get their defensive line, as well as the rest of their defense, back to where it once was.
“You’ve got to stay healthy, and if you get Danielle back, that’s another 10 or more sacks," he said. “And Zim’s proven he’s been able to have top defenses. I think everybody will be motivated to put this year behind them and they’ll get out there and get to work and come out next year with guns blazing.”