As the Minnesota Vikings prepare for the 2020 season, there will be a lot of new faces on defense. After releasing Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph and letting Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Everson Griffen walk, the Vikings will at least have four new starters and could have five if Griffen doesn’t have a last-minute change of heart.
For a defense that has prided itself on continuity since Mike Zimmer arrived in Minnesota, that brings a lot of volatility to a unit that has defined the Vikings over the past six seasons. On top of that, a team like the Vikings that is looking to get to another level will have to rely on their defense being built on the fly.
Of course, that means that there are a lot of things that could go wrong for the Vikings in their quest to become a contender. While there are still issues on offense, the amount of things that could sabotage their season on the defensive end is something that bears monitoring as the Vikings report for camp.
Michael Pierce Can’t Make an Impact
At the start of free agency, the Vikings made a classic “Who is that again?” move by signing Pierce from the Baltimore Ravens. The 6’0″, 340-pound Pierce definitely stands out in a lineup, but he is not a household name or addition that can be the sole reason to make Vikings fans believe in the 2020 season.
Many are expecting Pierce to slide in and make an impact on the interior of the defensive line. With the way that Joseph played in 2019, that bar should be set pretty low. Pierce didn’t clear it that much with his play with the Ravens, however, and entering his age-28 season, there’s a decent chance he pretty much is who he is.
|2019 SEASON||Michael Pierce||Linval Joseph|
|PFF Overall Grade||69.2 (52nd)||71.2 (38th)|
|Total Pressures||16 (67th)||16 (67th)|
|Pass Rusher Productivity Rating||3.2 (81st)||3.2 (81st)|
|Run Stop Percentage||9.1% (23rd)||8.1% (41st)|
The first thing you’ll notice is that Pierce is a fine upgrade when it comes to stopping the run, but when it comes to rushing the passer, he’s almost identical to Joseph. You could blame Baltimore’s 3-4 defensive scheme where defensive tackles are usually asked to soak up offensive linemen for others to make plays, but Pierce rushed the passer 65% of the time, according to PFF, whereas Joseph only had 56% of his snaps as pass-rushing snaps.
The Vikings must believe that co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson can unlock something in Pierce, and as a man that squatted a school-record 725 pounds at Samford, there very well could be something there. But the Vikings need more than just another wide body to take up tacklers and need to find a way to penetrate.
If Pierce is good, the Vikings should be able to generate more pressure to help out Ifeadi Odenigbo, Danielle Hunter and whoever the 3-tech will be. If not, the Vikings may have a gaping hole in the middle of their defensive line.
The new cornerbacks need more time to develop
If there’s one thing that isn’t on the Vikings’ side heading into this season, it’s time. After losing all of their on-field offseason programs to COVID-19, the Vikings are probably one of the few teams hoping that the NFL doesn’t go through on their plan to play preseason games next month in order to give more reps to their young cornerbacks.
Although they have several key players such as Mike Hughes and Holton Hill returning from last season, the 2020 rookie class could be the catalyst for Minnesota having a competent defense or three versions of 2019 Rhodes on the field at the same time.
As we sit six weeks away from the regular season, the situation has to be trending toward the latter as these players haven’t even met their coaches in person, let alone had a rep on an NFL field. Jeff Gladney figures to be a pro-ready prospect, but as we saw with Garrett Bradbury, that always doesn’t transfer into immediate success in the NFL.
The rest of the rookie additions to the cornerback room were mainly projects. Cameron Dantzler likely needed weights under his sweats to get to 188 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, and all we know about Harrison Hand is that he likes to hit people and could be a safety or corner at the next level.
Those options do not exactly inspire confidence for a team that has Hughes, who is recovering from broken vertebrae, as their top option. It’s also not inspiring that Hill is another bad move away from a lengthy suspension, and the third corner is Kris Boyd, who was impressive down the stretch but is a project in his own right.
With a quarterback schedule that includes Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson, the cornerbacks will have to take to their new surroundings quickly. This is an act that should fall on the head coach and his staff.
Mike Zimmer can’t connect with his new players
One of the biggest reasons for the Vikings’ continued success over the years has been their appreciation toward Zimmer. When Zimmer first arrived in Minnesota, many Cincinnati Bengals players mentioned he was like a father figure you didn’t want to disappoint by not doing your job on the field.
After an acclimation period which called out guys for getting hurt and brawling with offensive coordinators, many on the defensive side loved playing for Zimmer and did what they could to stick around. Anthony Barr even agreed to sign with the New York Jets before pulling a 180 because he liked being with this group so much. They were like one big, aggressive family.
Last season, that family aspect was as cohesive as an Aaron Rodgers family Christmas. As players got older, their effectiveness dropped off and a lot of the moves this offseason were like the end of a football version of Old Yeller. But there were players in their prime such as Waynes and Alexander who took the opportunity to go elsewhere. Even Stephen Weatherly, who probably had an opportunity for a bigger role had he stayed, decided to take his talents to Carolina in free agency, leaving all sorts of holes in the defense.
The Vikings did everything they could this offseason to plug holes, including using nine of their 15 draft selections on defensive players. But that might not be the best idea for an old-school coach like Zimmer.
The good news is that Zimmer will have a chance to make an impression on a slew of new players this season and re-establish the family atmosphere that has helped the Vikings win three NFC North titles during his tenure. The bad news is that he has to quickly connect with those players or risk being fired at the end of this season.
Zimmer took a step in the right direction with his comments in the wake of George Floyd’s death, saying he’d fight for his players, but it remains to be seen how those things will translate into game action. What we know is that he’ll need to make a connection quickly, otherwise he’ll be coaching somewhere else.