Ah, the offseason. A time for hope, intrigue, and, of course, everyone’s favorite pastime: rampant speculation. Your team can be as good or as bad as you can imagine. Become a Super Bowl contender? Sure. Draft the next Patrick Mahomes? You got it. It’s Schrödinger’s Team until kickoff in September. The Vikings have certainly done plenty this March to fuel championship dreams, but no change ever comes easily. And with potentially five new defensive starters in 2021, the Vikings should be improved, as long as these recruits can band together.
The 2020 defense was historically bad. Injuries, youth, and opt-outs were all contributing factors — no need to re-live that any longer. Everyone knew a dramatic change was needed. We all fully expected the Vikings to address major holes on that side of the ball in free agency and potentially the upcoming draft. And they did. Hooray! But to expect a defense to dominate immediately with enough new starters to scrimmage the Wolves may be imprudent.
The Vikings’ tremendous defensive play over the past several seasons can be attributed to good players, good coaching, and continuity. In 2019, all 11 of the defensive starters had been with the team for at least three years. That’s nothing short of amazing. Ten of them were either drafted or signed as UDFAs. And from 2017-19, nine of them were a constant in the starting lineup. Tackle and safety were the only positions that changed. This kind of cohesiveness is almost unheard of in the NFL.
The players themselves even attribute a lot of their success to this incredible stretch together. After the Philadelphia Eagles game in 2019, Anthony Harris spoke to what the teamwork on defense meant to him. “Despite whatever happens, players might give up a big play, you see guys still hustling to get them down on the ground…. That is what it is all about. Playing as a team, keeping your energy up, continuing to believe in one another, and playing together.”
Communicating with another player becomes much easier the more trust and familiarity they have with each other. Coaching a player after spending years learning their strengths and weaknesses becomes easier as well. The non-verbal communication they honed over the years was an art. The Vikings’ defense had become an old married couple. A grunt here, a groan there with a wave of the hand, and an entire conversation about Cover 2 could be had. They were mind readers out on the field.
I’m pretty sure Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have some sort of telepathy going on. I must have missed that PFF rating. The incredible feat of keeping this core together was one of the essential factors in their recent success.
However, this all changes next year.
With presumed new starters at both defensive tackle positions, safety, cornerback, and edge, the Vikings will be starting fresh. Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce, and Patrick Peterson will be Day 1 starters. Xavier Woods has a strong chance to slide in at safety, and edge could get a new face from draft night. Not only will most of these players come from outside the organization, as opposed to building from within approach from recent years, they will also potentially have an abbreviated off-season depending on COVID-19 protocols.
These players are outstanding on their own, but it remains to be seen how they can all come together to form a cohesive unit. Most teams may be dealing with maybe two or three new starters on one side of the ball. The Vikings will have up to five, not to mention Danielle Hunter’s return after he missed all of last year with an injury. It is not too far-fetched to say that the defense may have some growing pains as they learn about each other.
It’s like any team. Change is hard.
You and Debra in accounting have worked together for years. You know her birthday and even the name of her pet iguana. She was always your safety net. But now she’s gone, signed with a firm in Philadelphia, and replaced with Jeff from Dallas. Jeff with a mystery birthday and no reptiles. And maybe Jeff is good at what he does, but it will take some time to build that rapport.
Along with the addition of new players, Mike Zimmer teased another twist in his press conference on Wednesday, “The offenses have changed so much the last four or five years. It’s time that we need to do some things differently and change and adapt.” Not much can be deciphered from that yet. But this added wrinkle on top of the 11 players just trying to learn to play alongside one another makes for an interesting offseason. The injection of new talent will undoubtedly make the Vikings’ defense stouter. Zimmer’s mysterious new approach could also improve the squad. But talent and scheme alone are not enough. The players need to trust one another to run at peak performance.
Football is the ultimate team sport, and the Vikings are in uncharted water with this year’s defense. Gone are the days when a wink and a whistle were all the defense needed to relay information. This team has substantially more talent than last year’s did, but how they come together will be the most critical aspect of determining success or failure in the 2021 campaign. Veterans like Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith can elevate the youth. The new wall up front can take pressure off linebackers. A lot can go right, but a lot of trust and teamwork needs to be worked on before the players even take the field. Together they will prevail. A rising tide raises all Viking ships.