Every year, every team’s fan base thinks their team has a chance at the best available free agents. This year is no different, but as a (somewhat) realistic Minnesota Vikings fan, I want them to get an affordable pass rusher to create a sack-filled rebound season.
Minnesota was ranked 32nd in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus’s pass rush rating in 2020. But next season they’ll be top-10 if they make at least one key move in free agency, signing either a veteran defensive end or defensive tackle to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
Here are the specifics on why the Vikings’ defensive line struggled to create pressure. Just know that injuries and inexperience on the defense were the biggest factors.
With the recent news that Kyle Rudolph was cut, it’s starting to look more like the Vikings are willing to shell out cash before the draft. It will likely be a defensive line player because some alluring options are out there for Mike Zimmer in particular (wink, wink).
Here are five sleeper picks for free agents who would bolster the defensive line in 2021:
DT Geno Atkins
The 32-year-old defensive tackle is a member of the HOF All-2010s Team and is familiar with Zimmer, who coached him from 2010-2013 on some great defenses. Atkins’ current contract pays him $12 million in 2021, which is too steep for the Vikings at this stage.
But Atkins is older and had a down season compared to last year. He isn’t a free agent yet, but it looks like the Cincinnati Bengals are about to cut him. This means if he is looking to play with his former coach, he could strike some sort of deal with Minnesota.
This would be a great move for the Vikings. Atkins had an off-year due to injury and would have time to fully recover to a starting-caliber player next. He would line up next to Michael Pierce, who would be pulling the load in the run game while Atkins has all day to menace the quarterback.
This is a strong option that may not be possible if all the pieces don’t fall into place.
DT Kawann Short
In the same vein as the Atkins move, this would be another veteran tackle coming off a down year to place next to Pierce at defensive tackle.
Short has faced season-ending injuries in both 2019 and 2020 with the Carolina Panthers, so that makes this move a bit of a risk. It also means he could be cheap. He also would be playing as the second option to Pierce at the tackle position, so he would definitely get more bench time as a rotational player.
Short wouldn’t solve all of Minnesota’s defensive line problems, but he would bring a veteran presence to a group desperate for more pass-rushing options on the cheap.
This would be a good option if the Vikings could not put together enough cap space to grab Atkins or a stud defensive end.
DE Carl Lawson
Lawson, 25, is not getting enough credit for his solid 2020 season. He had six sacks and 34 quarterback hurries, and he is a free agent who would be a great complement to Danielle Hunter on the outside of the line.
The edge defense in Minnesota will always be a committee affair across from Hunter. But with someone who could be a starter in their own right, Hunter would have even more room to show off. The Vikings should keep Ifeadi Odenigbo around because he is a great role player, but finding someone to truly fit in across from Hunter should be their biggest priority after defensive tackle.
If Lawson doesn’t get too many suitors this offseason, he should be affordable as a young and capable pass rusher.
No, he wasn’t in Cincinnati at the same time as Zimmer, but who knows? Maybe Atkins put in a good word for Zimmer to get this young player with the potential to keep developing.
Finally, a familiar face. Weatherly was cut from the Panthers, who tried him in a new system. And while he isn’t quite the disruptor the Vikings need, he fills a role and is cost-effective.
There isn’t too much to say about Weatherly other than being one of the smartest players in the locker room and being an effective rotational end in Zimmer’s defense.
This is a low-risk, low-reward signing that the Vikings should try to avoid if they want results. But it might be all they can afford.
This 31-year-old free-agent end from the Dallas Cowboys isn’t a huge numbers guy, but he may have enough juice to be a role player for a few more years.
Over the eight seasons he’s played, he’s only averaged just over three sacks a year, but don’t let that fool you. He still grades out well in the pass-rush department and creates pressure despite not reaching the quarterback.
Crawford is another sneaky pick who would be a good rotational player alongside the players the Vikings already have. He would have to be willing to take a pay cut to make it work, but he’s getting old and hasn’t played a starter’s share of snaps in the past two seasons.