The Minnesota Vikings defense could see one of the most dramatic swings in the NFL next season.
After finishing the 2020 season as the 27th ranked defense in the league, the Vikings sold the farm to correct the unit after an uncharacteristically poor season.
ESPN analyst Mike Clay recognized the potential of the unit, recently ranking Minnesota’s defense as the fifth-best in the league in his 2021 NFL unit grades ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft.
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Vikings Defensive Overhaul
Minnesota guaranteed $32.2 million on defense in free agent signings in defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson ($20.8 million), cornerback Patrick Peterson ($8 million), safety Xavier Woods ($1.75 million), linebacker Nick Vigil ($1.05 million), defensive end Stephen Weatherly ($500,000) and cornerback Mackensie Alexander ($137,500).
Tomlinson, Peterson and Alexander are probable starters and upgrades over their 2020 counterparts, however, the bigger shift comes from returning players.
Pro Bowl talents Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr return from injury along with presumptive Linval Joseph replacement at nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season.
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Defense Expected to Recover From 2020 Exodus
The Vikings saw a mass exodus on defense after committing to Kirk Cousins for another two years. The two-year, $66 million extensions came at the cost of parting ways with several household names, including five starters on defense.
Minnesota maintained it had every intention to compete last season and even made a major move in acquiring Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. But after starting the season 1-5, general manager Rick Spielman cut his losses and shipped Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens to recover early-draft capital in the form of a third-round pick after giving up a second-rounder for Ngakoue.
Despite the front office folding on its postseason expectations, the team was in contention for a wild card spot through Week 16 of the season, allowing many young players to play meaningful reps for the majority of the season.
Biggest Area For Improvement in the Draft
Clay graded each position group with specific weights to calculate his grades. Most of the league’s top defenses have bolstering edge rushers and cornerbacks, but for Minnesota, the edge is currently the team’s biggest weakness.
Danielle Hunter currently doesn’t have a partner on the edge that matches Everson Griffen and could see some regression if he does not have someone capable of taking attention away from him.
Minnesota has characteristically struck gold with developing mid- to late-round picks at edge rusher under the tutelage of coach Andre Patterson. Fourth-round pick D.J. Wonnum showed flashes of promise in his rookie year, however, he may not be physically ready to take on full-time starting duties.
An early-round pick like Michigan’s Kwity Paye or Miami’s Jaelan Phillips could slide into a starting role from Day 1 and return the Vikings’ pass rush into one of the league’s most formidable for years to come.