If there’s one dream that Mike Zimmer wishes to come true with the 2020 Minnesota Vikings, it’s that the defense doesn’t skip a beat. Since Zimmer took over the team in 2014, the Vikings have never ranked lower than 11th in points allowed and 14th in yardage allowed. But with five new starters on defense, even Jiminy Cricket might think it’s too far-fetched to maintain that standard.
But much like we did with the Vikings offense, there are several dream scenarios that could play out in an interesting 2020 season.
What if the young cornerbacks are quick studies?
There is no bigger question on the Vikings defense than what will happen at cornerback. After Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander all left this offseason, the Vikings will be starting fresh with Kris Boyd being the oldest corner at age 24 and Mike Hughes having the most experience with five career starts.
Such a scenario is both exciting and frightening for the Vikings, who will see an all-star lineup of quarterbacks that include Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford twice and games against Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Dak Prescott.
To even maintain the same level the Vikings corners played at last year would be a huge ask with that lineup. Although they are talented, cornerbacks have needed time to learn their positions under Zimmer. But what if things click faster than anticipated?
The Vikings were smart to put an 11th-hour franchise tag on Anthony Harris to keep one of the best tandems in the league together with Harrison Smith. With Harris and Smith on the back end, it should help give the younger corners confidence in case they do make an early mistake. With Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks also returning, there’s enough talent around them to mask their shortcomings.
If there’s one thing to bet on, the group of Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand will all endure a baptism by fire in 2020. But if one of them steps up and veterans Hughes, Boyd, and Holton Hill continue to improve, there’s a chance the defense could be much better than it was a year ago.
What if Ifeadi Odenigbo is the Vikings’ next big find on the defensive line?
There was a time where the Vikings had trouble developing defensive ends. After using multiple first-round picks on Erasmus James and Kenechi Udeze in the mid-2000s, Minnesota finally said “screw it” and burned several draft picks to acquire Jared Allen, which worked out well.
But since the Vikings traded for Allen, they’ve done a lot of their own development on the edge. Brian Robison eventually turned into a starter and they complemented him with 2010 fourth-round pick Everson Griffen. The Vikings replaced Robison with 2015 third-round pick Danielle Hunter and with Griffen leaving in free agency, they hope that Odenigbo can be their next great find.
Odenigbo’s opportunity has been a long time coming after being cut multiple times in training camp before finally making the roster in 2019. He ran with his first opportunity last season to the tune of seven sacks, and it was enough to entice the Vikings to roll with him as a starter in 2020. If he can match the production he put up last season, it should be enough to replace Griffen and give the Vikings a new edge duo for the next couple of seasons.
What if Armon Watts dethrones Shamar Stephen?
Andre Patterson is already angry at this idea, but if there’s one player that could make a massive second-year leap in the trenches it’s Watts.
Watts didn’t see the field much in his rookie season, but when he got the chance, he looked terrific. Watts ranked sixth among defensive tackles for Week 17 in overall grade according to Pro Football Focus, and his 5.7 pass rusher productivity ranking last season would have tied for 25th among qualifying defensive tackles.
While it’s dangerous to assume that would extrapolate given a bigger sample size, there’s reason to believe that Watts could see improvement in his sophomore year. Coming into the league, Watts was a player who exploded for seven sacks in his senior season after not seeing the field in his first three college seasons, and his technique needed a little refining to reach his full potential.
Patterson might have tears in his eyes to see Watts take over for his beloved Stephen, but Watts may provide the best of both worlds to keep blockers off of Eric Kendricks while also becoming a threat to take the quarterback down. If he’s able to do that, it would make everyone’s job easier — cornerbacks can’t be attacked if the quarterback is lying on his back.