Vikings

How Mike Zimmer Can Fix His Defense On a Budget

Photo Credit: Chuck Cook (USA TODAY Sports)

As more than half the league appears to be changing quarterbacks, trade rumors have enveloped Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings. With the offensive line in shambles, fans hope Minnesota will find a guard for the first time since Steve Hutchinson retired. Even adding a third wide receiver would be a nice touch.

In other words, the offense has been the focal point. But when head coach Mike Zimmer appeared on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football, he said exactly what many expected him to say.

“Kirk’s our guy,” Zimmer said when asked about the Cousins trade rumors. “You know, he had a terrific year this year. We were fourth in the league on offense. We have to get better on defense — we had a lot of injuries and young guys — that’s my job to get it fixed.”

Boasting that the Vikings’ offense finished fourth in total yardage but failing to mention they ranked 11th in points is a “This is fine” meme waiting to happen. But that’s the mentality Zimmer has had during his time in Minnesota.

The Vikings finished 27th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed, so odds are good that Zimmer has all 16 games of the 2020 season on 16 different screens playing on repeat in the basement of his Kentucky ranch. We could be on the precipice of an offseason that could be titled “Mike Zimmer’s Defensive Extravaganza.”

The problem is that Zimmer will have to do so on a budget. With Adam Schefter reporting the 2021 salary cap is expected to be around $180 million, the Vikings would enter the offseason roughly $9.6 million over the cap per Spotrac. With all of the defensive issues, Zimmer and the front office will have to get creative to fill those holes.

The defensive line

The Vikings pride themselves on generating pressure and getting to the quarterback but wound up with a 19.8 percent pressure rate last year, 29th in the NFL. That led to just 23 sacks on the season, including five from sack leader Yannick Ngakoue, who played in just six games.

While many of the Vikings’ young players were forced into starting roles in the wake of Danielle Hunter’s injury, the disappointing aspect was that more veterans couldn’t step up. Ifeadi Odenigbo had a steep decline after being relegated to a starting defensive end spot. The veteran combination of Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes provided nothing in the middle of the defense.

The good news is that the Vikings could fix their issues internally. The return of Hunter and Michael Pierce should help the defense by default. By the team’s measures, Shamar Stephen has thrived in the three-tech spot, which should also improve playing between Hunter and Pierce instead of Johnson and Odenigbo.

Still, the Vikings would be wise to find one more edge rusher, so they’re not forced into playing D.J. Wonnum opposite of Hunter. The free-agent market usually pays a premium for edge rushers, so the best place to find an impact pass rusher would be early in the draft. Kwity Paye and Gregory Rousseau are the top options in this regard and could help give Hunter an effective partner on the outside.

Safety

With Anthony Harris likely to leave in free agency (and no 11th-hour franchise tag in sight), the Vikings will also hope to find a starting safety. And fortunately, they’ve shied away from spending significant resources on the position.

Harrison Smith was a first-round selection by the Vikings in the 2012 draft, but since then, they haven’t used a high draft pick or large free agent capital on the other safety position. For years, they opted to use Andrew Sendejo next to Smith, and it resulted in the top defense in the NFL during the 2017 season.

When it was Sendejo’s turn to be replaced, the Vikings tapped Harris, a UDFA out of Virginia who turned into a Pro Bowl-caliber safety with little investment in terms of salary or draft capital.

With the Vikings likely in need of a safety, the best option is to create a battle royale by signing several options and seeing who emerges from the pack. While George Iloka and Josh Metellus are suitable contenders, Minnesota may find some hidden gems in free agency thanks to the pandemic-influenced drop in the salary cap.

Even if the Vikings don’t wait to go thrift shopping, Pro Football Focus projected several safeties as affordable options, including Malik Hooker (one-year, $2 million), Keanu Neal (two years, $10 million), or Jaquiski Tartt (two years, $9 million). There’s a chance any one of them could pay off on a modest investment.

Cornerback

Zimmer loves his cornerbacks in the way that Andy Reid loves his cheeseburgers. With that, there’s a good chance that Zimmer is looking at his cornerbacks and wondering how they can get better in 2021.

Much like the defensive line, the cornerbacks were a case of young players that needed to step up. The key difference is that the Vikings didn’t have any adequate veteran corners to help guide them along. Even as Logan Ryan, Darqueze Dennard, and others sat on the free-agent market, Minnesota gambled with Mike Hughes and Holton Hill — and lost.

Minnesota had to play guys who probably needed another year in Zimmer’s system before becoming full-time starters. Cameron Dantzler showed plenty of potential, grading as the sixth-highest cornerback in the final six games, but also had three lengthy stints on the injury list. Jeff Gladney also showed flashes but allowed a 124.7 passer rating when targeted.

Outside of their two rookie corners, the Vikings were forced to use Chris Jones, fellow rookie Harrison Hand, and Kris Boyd to stop the bleeding. It proved fruitless.

With so many questions at depth, it wouldn’t be surprising for Zimmer to turn around and select another first-round corner such as Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn. But there could also be more value on the free-agent market to provide some veteran presence in the group.

As the most important aspect of Zimmer’s defense, there’s a good chance he’ll be looking to clean it up. The problem is, he’ll need to find an affordable way to do it.

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