The 2020 Minnesota Vikings’ pass rush ranked dead last in the NFL per PFF. Until last season, Mike Zimmer’s pass rush had never been lower than 20th during his time here. There were a few factors that played into this outlier of a season that will lead to a stark change in personnel and improvement on the defensive line in 2021.
Injuries and opt-outs were the biggest reason the pass rush suffered in 2020. Minnesota’s four best defenders up front — Michael Pierce, Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks — all were injured or missed time.
That’s not the only reason the pass rush was awful last season. They also had a wave of new secondary players come in to replace departed corners. The top three corners for the Vikings last season had an average of .33 years of experience in the NFL entering the season, with second-year corner Kris Boyd being the veteran of the group.
The young secondary started slow, so a Vikings’ pass rush that was already missing key pieces never had time to create pressure on their own with receivers open down field.
Regardless, Minnesota certainly will maneuver to improve the defensive line this offseason, and there are some moves that make perfect sense for their situation.
The D-line will have at least one notable departure this offseason.
Shamar Stephen has been a reliable depth defensive tackle for six years, but he is 29 years old and likely will be a cap casualty. If the Vikings cut or trade him, they would save nearly $3.8 million for next season.
He’s an obvious cut. But are there any others on the line?
The answer is most likely no.
As much as young players like fourth rounders Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes have disappointed in starting spots so far, the Vikings need bodies on the line and don’t save much money by cutting them.
It’s possible that Hunter’s contract gets renegotiated, but that is a big if, and it will only hit the cap in future seasons. Besides, there have been rumors that Hunter’s party wants him to be the highest paid end in the NFL, and that’s not unreasonable.
Ifeadi Odenigbo will likely have the starting spot on the line across from Hunter, but that side will always be a defensive end by committee with D.J. Wonnum, Holmes, and Hercules Mata’afa. It’s likely Wonnum will have earned the most snaps over the season if he develops after a solid rookie campaign, given he’s a complement to Hunter.
It’s more likely the Vikings add an end through the draft than free agency due to the cap restraint and talent already there. But, that’s where the defensive tackle position gets interesting.
Stephen’s looming departure leaves Pierce in his first year playing after opting out last year, and Johnson opposite of him. Minnesota is in dire need of a stable 3-technique and has been since Sharrif Floyd got hurt. That’s why it’s likely they sell out for Geno Atkins.
Zimmer has coached Atkins firsthand, and the defense desperately needs a good 3-tech. That’s why they tried Sheldon Richardson in 2018 — he just didn’t stick.
The pieces at the tackle position look a whole lot better when used as intended — for depth. James Lynch and Armon Watts were not meant to be significant role players last year, although the rookie Lynch did have an impressive sack in limited playing time.
With the addition of Atkins and Pierce, and the return of Hunter, the line will once again be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The rotational players also have shown they can play at an NFL level with all of the adversity on the defense in last season. I think they performed relatively well considering the amount of issues they dealt with.
The defensive line can only go up from here, and with added depth through the draft I think it will be a top-10 unit easily if they are able to snag Atkins and keep everyone healthy. Last season was an outlier; expect the D-line to be a strong point in the 2021-22 Vikings’ defense.