The new regime will have several big decisions down the line with its players under contract, but one of the biggest personnel takeaways from O’Connell’s first press conference as head coach was privy to Mike Zimmer’s first draft pick and potential outgoing free agent, Anthony Barr.
Barr, selected ninth overall by the Vikings in 2014, is a pending free agent this offseason after restructuring his contract last March. His statistical contributions have diminished after making four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 2015 to 2018.
However, O’Connell appears adamant that Barr could play a vital role in a new defensive scheme in Minnesota, reversing predictions that the soon-to-be 30-year-old linebacker could play elsewhere for the first time in his career next season.
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O’Connell Hints at Barr’s Return?
During the press conference, O’Connell confirmed the Vikings defense would be shifting to a 3-4 base under defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.
When asked about difference-makers at each level of the defense, O’Connell mentioned Barr, along with Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith, adding that there are defensive linemen who can “impact” the quarterback.
Here’s O’Connell’s breakdown of the current pieces on defense and his hopes for the unit:
I think (Smith’s) the perfect player for the defensive structure we want to play from the standpoint of the coverage, how we want to make all things look the same. He’s got great length. He’s got great instincts. He’s going to be a problem for people in the middle of the field and around the line of scrimmage. He really always has been, speaking from experience…
With linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, those guys have long been huge issues for people in this league defensively. I think there’s ways to use those guys and allow them to play with an attacking mindset, while they’re still responsible for the things they’re responsible for defensively. And then I think we’ve got players both internal and on the edges defensive line-wise that can impact the quarterback…
But when it all works together, when that coverage can make it cloudy for the quarterback and that rush is one more step closer to getting home, and those backers are doing everything they can to force negative runs on early downs and finish plays in the pass game, it can be a beautiful thing.
After voiding the final two years of his contract last offseason, Barr approached 2021 as his final year in Minnesota as a Zimmer loyalist. But depending on his plans, Barr could re-sign with the Vikings and help him reinvent his career as a 3-4 edge rusher — the role that garnered recognition in college as a top draft prospect but did not see the same responsibilities in Zimmer’s scheme.
Coming back from a torn pectoral injury that forced him to miss 14 games in 2021, Barr tallied 72 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 11 games this season.
OverTheCap estimated Barr’s value sits at $7.8 million per year.
It’s clear O’Connell thinks highly of Barr, which should offer some encouragement in any future negotiations.
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What About Danielle Hunter?
O’Connell’s omission of Danielle Hunter, accidental or intentional, has raised skepticism of Hunter’s future in Minnesota approaching the offseason.
Hunter missed the entire 2020 season due to a neck injury and suffered a torn pectoral muscle seven games into last season. Hunter, when healthy, is one of the league’s premier pass rushers; however, his availability has left him a specter in the broader NFL community.
The 27-year-old edge rusher carries a $26.1 million cap hit in 2022, including an $18 million roster bonus. That cap hit may raise eyebrows that Minnesota needs to get Hunter off their books after seeing him in just seven of 33 games the past two seasons.
However, Minnesota has a more considerable grace period with Hunter than perceived. The Vikings can convert the roster bonus to a signing bonus and stretch those earnings across the final four years of Hunter’s contract in $4.5 million increments.
If the Vikings convert that bonus, Hunter’s cap hit in 2022 will be $12.6 million, ranking 23rd among edge rushers next season — a more reasonable rate while Hunter reasserts himself as a force to be reckoned with.
At 25, Hunter was the youngest player to reach 50 career sacks. He proved he’s every bit the same player he was in his limited action in 2021, tallying six sacks in seven games.
He may be worth one last squeeze before the new regime does anything drastic.