The Minnesota Vikings aren’t concerned with building. They’re ready to win now.
After a year where several rookies were thrust into starting roles, the Vikings poured $46.1 million in guaranteed money on the defense by signing several high-profile veteran free agents.
Many of these veterans are slightly past their physical primes, however, The Athletic’s found one crucial reason he believes Minnesota will boast the NFL’s best defense in 2021.
That reason is coach Mike Zimmer.
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Vikings Make Largest Jump in NFL Defense Rankings
Last week, Kapadia weighed each team’s defensive depth charts entering the 2021 season. He ranked the Vikings No. 1 on his defense rankings after Minnesota ranked 18th in his preseason rankings a year ago, following a mass exodus of veteran defenders that once were tantamount to the team’s No. 1-ranked defense in 2017.
Kapadia didn’t sugarcoat his assessment of the Vikings either. He said the unit isn’t the “most talented,” but they could be the best coached and competent groups given the veteran experience added this offseason.
Here’s what he wrote:
1. Minnesota Vikings
Last season: 18th
It’s pretty simple to explain away the Vikings’ struggles last season. They had the third-worst injury luck of any defense, according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric, and they had the most injured defensive line. The Vikings didn’t get a single snap from edge defender Danielle Hunter or defensive tackle Michael Pierce.
This year, not only are both players back, but Minnesota added Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson. With Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr still in the mix at linebacker, the Vikings project to have one of the league’s top front sevens. There are some questions on the back end, but the Vikings added veterans Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander to give themselves options at cornerback. Cameron Dantzler figures to improve in his second season.
On paper, it’s probably not the most talented group, but coach Mike Zimmer is one of the smartest defensive minds in the NFL. The Vikings finished first, third and fourth in defensive efficiency from 2017 to 2019. Barring another bout of terrible injury luck, they’re talented enough to get back into that range this season.
Safeties Harrison Smith and newly signed veteran Xavier Woods will likely relish playing with a veteran core of cornerbacks this season despite the questions marks surrounding the veterans.
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‘Questions on the Back End’
Minnesota’s defensive line was the bane of the defense’s struggles a season ago.
The unit leaked the fifth-most rushing yards in 2020, allowing 134.4 yards on the ground per game. They also posted a league-worst run-stop win rate (24%) and the third-lowest pass-rush win rate (36%), per ESPN Stats & Info.
There will be a significant improvement in all phases on the defensive front, with Hunter, Pierce and Tomlinson entering the fold this season.
However, cornerback remains the biggest question mark.
Patrick Peterson posted his worst Pro Football Focus coverage grade (53.1) since his rookie year. Peterson and Bashaud Breeland tied for the most penalties among all cornerbacks last year with 10 each, per NFL Penalties.
Breeland’s aggressiveness could be both a gift and a curse this season if Zimmer cannot hone the 29-year-old cornerback’s technique. Peterson, 31, will also need to be used appropriately as he doesn’t have the same speed he did when he made eight consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in the prime of his career.
If anyone can unlock the veteran cornerback’s potential for the final years of their career, it’s Mike Zimmer, who has helped several cornerbacks reinvent themselves after reaching the age of 30.
“[Zimmer’s] reputation speaks for itself. The things he does with not only the defense but with defensive backs… Deion Sanders, Leon Hall, Terence Newman, Johnathon Joseph the list goes on and he’s able to further got those guys’ careers,” Peterson said after his signing in March. “Those guys played 13-14 plus years. Coach Zim has something that he’s given those guys to help repave their career for new heights.”