While the Minnesota Vikings will be relying on young cornerbacks and saw the departure of Everson Griffen in the offseason, the linebackers are a very talented group of players. In fact, they will likely be the strength of the defense this upcoming season.
Here are some reasons why this unit will carry Mike Zimmer’s defense in 2020.
Depth and Experience
This unit is one of the more experienced and deepest on the entire team. Anthony Barr has been starting since his rookie season in 2014, and Eric Kendricks has been since his inaugural year as well. Those two have a combined 159 starts between them. Eric Wilson became a full-time starter last year but did start sparingly in 2018. He has 10 total starts in his Vikings’ tenure. That is 169 total starts between the starters, easily making it the most experienced starting group on the defense.
Not only does this unit have experience, it also has depth. Behind the projected starters are some quality players. Ben Gedeon should be the primary backup at weakside linebacker this season. While he isn’t a flashy player, he’s had a solid NFL career and has registered 103 combined tackles with 22 starts. If Wilson goes down, the team will rest easy knowing they have an experienced veteran ready to step in.
The Vikings also have an exciting rookie on the depth chart. The team took Oregon’s Troy Dye in the fourth round of last year’s draft and he is an extremely talented player. Dye has great size, speed and plays the game with a fiery passion. He could get on the field in spot duty early in the season and make his presence known.
The Vikings’ linebacker group isn’t just deep and experienced, they are also very productive. Kendricks led the way in 2019, with 110 total tackles, half a sack and four tackles for a loss. Barr had 79 total tackles with six tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Wilson had 62 total tackles, with six tackles for a loss and three sacks. The starters alone accounted for 25% of the total tackles on the team, 18% of the total tackles for a loss and 10% of the sacks. That’s great production from three players who all play in the same unit.
The production could be even better this season. The Vikings brought in Dom Capers as a defensive assistant and his past is primarily working with the 3-4 alignment. His addition could lead to more pass rush looks for Barr, which could jack up his total sack numbers.
Wilson also will likely be a starter from Day 1 and should see an increase in his numbers because of that. In fact, if you look at the games Wilson started last season and project that over a 16 game season, he would have had 101 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss and eight sacks. Wilson needs to be put on every Vikings’ breakout player list in 2020. He could be on the verge of a huge year that’ll earn him top dollar in the free-agent market.
Every other position has a major concern
Looking at the Vikings’ linebacking corps from top to bottom, it is the only unit on the entire defense that doesn’t have any glaring concerns. Unfortunately for the team, that can’t be said for the rest of the units. Let’s start at the back end and work our way forward.
The safety position is fine as far as the starters go. Harrison Smith is still one of the best in the game, even though he’s entering his age-31 season. And Anthony Harris has developed into a very good safety.
It’s the depth behind those two that is horrifying.
The Vikings are going to have two rookies as backups. These aren’t just rookies either, but will likely be a couple of late-round picks or a late-round pick and an undrafted free agent. If Harris or Smith gets injured, the Vikings’ secondary is going to be in major trouble.
The Vikings’ cornerbacks are in a similar situation. This is a group that is led by a third-year corner in Mike Hughes who has started just five games in his career. The second most experienced player is Holton Hill, who has just four starts to his name. Rookie Jeff Gladney will see a lot of playing time, as will second-year man Kris Boyd.
This is a very raw and inexperienced group that could suffer plenty of growing pains throughout the season.
The defensive line of the Vikings also has some question marks. At defensive end, they are set with the starters: Danielle Hunter is one of the best in the league, and Ifeadi Odenigbo is coming off a breakout season. It is the depth behind these two that is the concern. The Vikings will go with rookie D.J. Wonnum at one spot and either a journeyman veteran in Anthony Zettel, Eddie Yarbrough or a seventh-round rookie in Kenny Willekes.
Like the safety position, if the Vikings are hit with an injury to a starter in this group, they could be in major trouble if they have to rely on one of these veterans or an unproven rookie.
Defensive tackle is also a position that is riddled with question marks. The only certain starter is Michael Pierce, the team’s primary run stuffer who takes over Linval Joseph‘s role from a season ago. Who starts next to him is the question. It could be Shamar Stephen, Armon Watts, Jaleel Johnson, James Lynch, Jalyn Holmes or even Hercules Mata’afa. This group has plenty of talent, but the order of the depth chart is yet to be determined.
The Vikings’ linebacking corps will lead the defense this season. It is the deepest and most experienced group on that side of the ball and will account for at least a quarter of the production of this unit in 2020. It is also the only position group that doesn’t have any major concerns as the starters and backups are all but set in stone.