A Deep Dive Ranking of the Vikings' Current Needs

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings enter the 2021 offseason in a unique situation — the top-to-bottom roster is pretty talented (Mike Clay ranked the Vikings’ roster sixth-best in the NFL), but there are several glaring holes where they currently could make a good argument for having the worst projected starters in the NFL. The snapshot below gives a good overview of where their roster currently stands:

Before we dive into how I would rank the Vikings’ needs, let me set out two foundational principles:

1. Rank needs not by how bad the current projected starter is, but by how much better off their replacement makes you.

Just because you have the worst punter in the league doesn’t mean a new punter is your team’s biggest need, because upgrading at punter isn’t going to be the thing that turns your roster around and sets up your Super Bowl run. Similarly, if you have the 20th-best quarterback in the league, you may be better off than over a third of NFL teams, but you should absolutely still be trying to upgrade given how much NFL success revolves around the quarterback. Positional value matters, as does the likelihood that a veteran free agent or first round rookie upgrades the position, so these rankings reflect that.

2. Patch weak-link systems; upgrade strong-link systems.

Pass protection is a weak-link system, as the Vikings found out last year. It only takes one Dru Samia to negate otherwise great play from Brian O’Neill, Riley Reiff, Garrett Bradbury, and Ezra Cleveland. But you don’t need to trade multiple firsts for Quenton Nelson to solve that problem — one Josh Kline-caliber player would probably be enough to keep the pass protection from losing the Vikings games. The same is true for coverage, as the Chicago Bears found out last year — Kyle Fuller is a Pro Bowl corner and Jaylon Johnson was great in coverage for a rookie, but that didn’t help much as opposing offenses could simply pick on Buster Skrine all game long.

The opposite is largely true for receiving weapons, as the Vikings also found out last year. Having an unspectacular WR3 in Chad Beebe didn’t hold the Vikings back. Pro Football Focus gave them the highest grade for team receiving, thanks in large part to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. This is also true for pass rushers; despite some pretty lackluster edge rushers, the Los Angeles Rams still wound up with the second-best team pass rush grade thanks to Aaron Donald.

With that context, here is how I rank the Vikings’ current team needs:

Tier 1 — Need to Invest Heavily Now or Risk Your Entire Season

Positions: None

The Vikings may have some glaring needs, but none rise quite to the level of Chicago’s quarterback fiasco, the Baltimore Ravens’ desperation for receivers, or the Houston Texans’ absolute lack of a pass rush after cutting J.J. Watt. None of Minnesota’s needs absolutely require spending big in free agency or locking yourself into a certain position in the first round of the draft.

Tier 2 — Need to Invest Moderately Now or Heavily in the Long Term to Compete

Positions: Safety

Right now, safety is the biggest position of need on the Vikings’ roster. Anthony Harris is an unrestricted free agent and is unlikely to return given the Vikings’ lack of cap space. Harrison Smith is still playing at a very high level, but he’s 32 years old. Minnesota needs to start thinking about his long-term replacement. The only other current options on the roster are Josh Metellus, who failed to make the initial 53-man roster last year after being drafted in the sixth round, and Myles Dorn, who also failed to make the initial roster after going undrafted.

Conventional NFL wisdom suggests that safety is not the most important position, given that they are the lowest-paid defensive position in the NFL. Zimmer himself has echoed that sentiment before, remarking at last year’s combine that “if you put up the positions that are the most important on defense, it’s probably not going to be safety.” Pro Football Focus might disagree, however, as it has found that safety actually turns out to be the most valuable position on defense. But Zimmer’s own track record might caution against breaking the bank for a safety:

  • The Cincinnati Bengals traded a backup cornerback for Reggie Nelson, and Zimmer helped turn him into a Pro Bowler.
  • George Iloka developed from a fifth rounder into a solid starter under Zimmer.
  • Andrew Sendejo went from special teams player into solid starter under Zimmer.
  • Anthony Harris went from backup UDFA into earning the highest grade in the league in 2019.

So the Vikings don’t need to splurge on Justin Simmons in free agency or spend a first round draft pick at the position. But given Harris’ likely departure, Smith’s age, and the lack of depth, the Vikings do need to invest a decent amount into the position if they want to build a championship-caliber defense now and in the future.

Tier 3 — Need to Patch Up Now

Positions: Guard, 3-Technique, Cornerback, Kicker/Punter

Clearly, the Vikings’ offensive line has room for improvement. Last year Minnesota ranked 29th in team pass-blocking grade and 18th in team run-blocking grade, which led to Kirk Cousins being pressured on 38.6% of his dropbacks — third-most in the NFL. But that poor performance should not force the team into overreacting by investing a first-round pick or $15 million dollars into the left guard position when a third-round pick or third-tier free agent could also get the job done.

The Vikings are actually pretty set at tackle. Brian O’Neill is a stud and will likely get extended this offseason. Riley Reiff has lived up to his contract and could also be due for an extension. Ezra Cleveland was a great left tackle in college and has all the athleticism to succeed if and when moved out to the edge. Oli Udoh makes for good depth. Along the interior, both Reiff and Cleveland have flexibility to succeed inside at guard, and Garrett Bradbury is one of the most impressive run-blocking centers in the NFL. Bradbury still struggles to anchor one-on-one against defensive tackles, but if he had two steady guards opposite him, he wouldn’t be left alone in pass protection nearly as often.

That leaves just one hole along the offensive line at left guard, replacing Dakota Dozier. And while the Vikings could go make Brandon Scherff the highest-paid guard in the league to address the issue, that would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, particularly when cheap options like Austin Blythe, Ben Garland, Matt Feiler, or Lane Taylor are available.

At defensive tackle, the Vikings look to be set at nose guard with Michael Pierce returning, but with Shamar Stephen currently set to start at 3-technique, and limited depth with only James Lynch and Hercules Mata’afa behind him, the they could certainly use an upgrade.

The reason 3-tech doesn’t rank higher on this list is twofold. First, Shamar Stephen is coming off a career year. While he offers little as a pass rusher other than pushing the pocket, he’s fundamentally sound against the run, which allows Zimmer to run more two-high-safety coverage looks — which is more valuable than you would think. Second, Zimmer has demonstrated the ability to get by with a 3-tech rotation deploying two nose guards on run downs and a pass-rushing specialist like Tom Johnson on passing downs. This year the Vikings might be able to snag someone like Ndamukong Suh, Geno Atkins, or Mike Daniels as a rotational pass-rush specialist without needing to spend big. Alternatively, with Andre Patterson as defensive line coach, the Vikings could try and sign Sheldon Rankins or Larry Ogunjobi as athletic reclamation projects and save their early draft picks for other positions.

Ranking cornerback as a bigger need than edge defender might be surprising to some fans, given how impressive Cameron Dantzler‘s rookie season was and how much potential Jeff Gladney has. But as the Bears found out last year, it only takes one bad cornerback out of three to sink the whole group, and right now Mike Hughes cannot be counted on with his injury history. That leaves Kris Boyd, Cordrea Tankersley, and Harrison Hand as depth, none of whom should be trusted on to start. Given how valuable cornerbacks are in the NFL, the Vikings should try and address the position with a value free agent like Mike Hilton or Darqueze Dennard, or with a third- or fourth-round draft pick.

If there’s anything to be learned from Daniel Carlson and Kaare Vedvik, it’s that kickers (and punters) are probably not worth spending draft picks on. That said, Dan Bailey left 27 points on the board last season and wound up as the lowest-graded kicker in the entire NFL, and Britton Colquitt didn’t fare much better as the third-lowest-graded punter in the NFL. Newly promoted special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken’s best shot at fixing those positions is to bring in players for a robust camp competition and coach up specialists to do their job without costing significant draft capital or cap space.

Tier 4 — Worth a Luxury Pick

Positions: Quarterback, Wide Receiver, Edge Rusher

It would be hard to argue that quarterback is a pressing need for the Vikings, given that Kirk Cousins has graded out as a top-10 quarterback each of the past two seasons and ranks seventh in EPA/play over that same time frame. But given how important the quarterback position is to long term success in the NFL, an upgrade at the quarterback position would be more valuable to the Vikings than an upgrade at any other position. So if they get a chance to trade up for Zach Wilson, or if a high-upside prospect like Trey Lance happens to fall to them in the first round of the draft, they should jump at the chance to upgrade the same way the Kansas City Chiefs jumped at the chance to trade up for Patrick Mahomes even though Alex Smith was coming off a Pro Bowl year.

Similarly, it would be hard to argue that a team with the highest receiving grade in the league needs to invest heavily at the wide receiver position, especially given that they run the fewest three wide receiver sets in the league by far. But Adam Thielen turns 31 in August, and with limited depth behind Thielen and Jefferson, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to add someone like Keelan Cole or Breshad Perriman in free agency. It’s a passing league, and good receivers help you win, as Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Stefon Diggs all helped take their teams to a championship game last year. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to draft someone like Jaylen Waddle if he were there at the fourteenth pick of the 2021 draft.

It’s a slightly different story at edge rusher, where most draftniks fully expect the Vikings to address the position early on:

That should come as no surprise given that the Vikings ranked dead last in the NFL last year in team pass-rush grade. But the need is not as pressing as last year might suggest, given that they expect Danielle Hunter to return at full health, which should also enable Ifeadi Odenigbo to bounce back after being the fifth-most double-teamed edge defender in the NFL last year, and given that the Vikings just signed Stephen Weatherly to a one-year $2.5 million contract. There is still plenty of room for improvement, even if everyone stays healthy and D.J. Wonnum makes a leap after a somewhat promising rookie season, but you could do a lot worse in the NFL than Danielle Hunter and Ifeadi Odenigbo as your primary pass rushers. Add to that the fact that Andre Patterson has a knack for getting the most out of every pass rusher who walks into the facility, and the Vikings definitely shouldn’t feel like they need to spend all their draft capital on the pass rush. A first-round pass rusher could still make plenty of sense, given that the highest-paid non-quarterbacks in the NFL are all pass rushers and the Vikings have room to improve. But if they have to settle for Hunter and Odenigbo as their edge defenders next year, I think somehow they’ll manage.

Tier 5 — Worth Thinking About in the Long Run

Positions: Linebacker, Nose Guard

Since drafting former UCLA roommates Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks back-to-back in 2014 and 2015, the Vikings have been pretty darn set at linebacker. That is not about to change any time soon. Kendricks finished 2019 as the highest-graded linebacker in football and finished third-highest in 2020. Anthony Barr is a four-time Pro Bowler and a lynchpin for Zimmer’s entire scheme (both blitz packages and coverages, as Barr demands an extra offensive lineman in pass protection and can cover sideline-to-sideline as an underneath defender). But with Kendricks and Barr both turning 29 this offseason, it is worth starting to think about life after the Pro Bowl UCLA duo. Despite an ugly rookie season, Troy Dye has the athleticism and instincts to develop into a starting-caliber linebacker if he can just add some weight and strength, and hopefully Cameron Smith returns healthy after missing last year due to a bicuspid aortic valve. In the meantime the Vikings should continue to try and add linebackers with the athleticism and upside to eventually take the reins from Vikings’ veterans.

As for nose guard, they are pretty set with Michael Pierce returning after opting out of the 2020 season. Pierce was the 11th-highest-graded defensive tackle in 2017 and the fifth-highest-graded defensive tackle in 2018 before having an off year in 2019. If Pierce can return to form, he will be worth every penny of his remaining three-year, $27 million contract. But if not, or if he starts to drop off with age (Pierce turns 29 in November), the Vikings might want to start thinking about succession planning in the draft or free agency. Pierce’s contract could make him a cap casualty down the line — and like with safeties, there are usually good players available for relatively cheap later on in free agency or the draft.

Tier 6 — All Set for the Long Term

Positions: Running Back, Tight End, Tackle

Dalvin Cook is 25 years old, under contract for the next five years, and is arguably the best running back in the NFL. Alexander Mattison is no slouch himself and also under contract for the next two years. Meanwhile C.J. Ham is under a reasonable contract for the next three years and Jake Bargas seems like a solid understudy fullback. No need to even think about drafting a running back until the late rounds of the draft.

At tight end, even with Kyle Rudolph released, Irv Smith Jr. is an exciting player to build around and still one of the youngest players on the roster at just 22 years old, and Tyler Conklin and Brandon Dillon provide solid depth. Unless Kyle Pitts somehow falls to the 14th pick of the draft, the Vikings seem pretty set at tight end.

So Where Does That Leave the Vikings Heading Into Free Agency and the Draft?

Rick Spielman has generally done a good job finding value later on in free agency to shore up some of the roster’s weaknesses so that the team isn’t locked into reaching at a position of need in the draft. If the Vikings make some suggested cuts and extensions to create spending money for free agency, they would do well to sign a starting free-agent safety so they don’t have to rely on a rookie learning Zimmer’s scheme — whether that’s bringing back Anthony Harris on a back-weighted longer-term deal, signing a discount option later on in Jaquiski Tartt or Tashaun Gipson, or reuniting with a veteran like Andrew Sendejo or George Iloka. The next priority should be patching up the left guard spot with a value option like Austin Blythe. If the Vikings still have money to spend, there could be a lot of value in upgrading at WR3, finding a bargain at nickel back, or adding a rotational pass rusher (either along the edge or interior).

That would allow them to take the best player available at each pick regardless of any immediate needs while also trading both up and down to navigate the draft and extract maximum value out of each round. If they can do all that to add to their very promising 2020 draft class, the Vikings could be set up to contend sooner rather than later.

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

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