Minnesota Should Prioritize Edge Rusher in the Draft

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings have myriad issues after finishing 7-9, aka the Jeff Fisher special. While there are multiple culpable parties here, Mike Zimmer’s ragtag bunch of misfits on defense led the way in that department. A unit that Zimmer traditionally hangs his hat on finished as one of the worst in football this season, allowing the league’s fourth-most points.

The absence of impact players like Daniel Hunter, Michael Pierce, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr due to opt-out or injury forced rookies to play meaningful snaps early on. While we can all be empathetic to that things need to change going into next season, that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow how poor the defense was at times.

Most surprisingly, the worst aspect of the defense was the edge rushing. The position that was supposed to be held down by Hunter and Yannick Ngakoue never actually saw both players take the field together. Instead, the Vikings had five different players rotate at defensive end, resulting in the league’s third-worst QB pressure rate (18.2%).

Getting Hunter back will automatically help those figures, but who plays opposite of him in Week 1 of the 2021 season is still a big question mark.

Zimmer could look internally to fill the spot. While nobody necessarily stood out from the pack statistically, there’s still some untapped potential sitting there.

Ifeadi Odenigbo paced the group in snaps, and after a breakout 2019 season in which he had seven sacks, the seventh-round pick from Northwestern earned that playing time. Unfortunately, Odenigbo suffered from what we’ll call “The Daniel Hunter Effect.” As the primary guy coming off the edge, Odenigbo’s production took a hit, with only 3.5 sacks in 15 starts.

While I think his production would likely go up with Hunter returning, Odenigbo is a restricted free agent, and while he won’t get a huge deal, Spielman may want to consider other options when playing cap space math.

Enter D.J. Wonnum, who showed some promise with increased playing time down the stretch. His game still needs to be polished, but a full (presumably COVID-free) offseason on the team could make a huge difference. And he’s still on a rookie deal, which will become increasingly integral when Hunter inevitably demands a better contract.

I don’t see a situation where Spielman doesn’t restructure Hunter’s contract, so having a defensive end on a rookie deal seems almost essential.

The other way this could be accomplished is through the draft, where the Vikings are in a position at 14 to take one of the top guys at the position. In fact, a majority of mock drafts have the Vikings selecting either Gregory Rousseau (Miami) or Kwity Paye (Michigan).

Both are talented, but Rousseau is the absolute dream for Zimmer. He had a monster year in 2019, registering 15.5 sacks.

The knock on Rousseau is that’s really his only season of tape since he opted out of the 2020 season, and his actual mechanics need some work. But playing under Zimmer and learning from one of the top pass rushers in the league could turn this guy into an absolute animal.

He’s a converted wide receiver, and I think the fact that he has so much to learn makes him that much more exciting of a prospect.

The final route the team could go is to go and get someone in free agency. A reunion with Everson Griffen has been proposed, and something I endorse. But while Griffin definitely still has some sacks left in him and would potentially make an impact, it doesn’t present the most appealing option.

Griffin, or any free agent for that matter, would cost much more than any of the aforementioned options. It seems like Griffin would maybe be willing to take a pay cut, but even so, a player on a rookie contract is much more palatable.

You also have to look at the current state of the franchise and what is best not only for next season but for years to come. The Super Bowl window has closed, and while the team should be striving to make the playoffs, it’s clear Zimmer needs some young cornerstones on defense.

If Griffin were the finishing touch to a team, I’d be all on board with that plan. The fact of the matter is that the Vikings need playmakers who will be here for a while. That’s how you rebuild a team on the fly, and a veteran signing at defensive end would present a mirage that this team is close.

If this season proved anything, it’s that they aren’t close right now, and building with the future in mind is the best option. This means drafting a young defensive end to play opposite Hunter and create a tandem for years to come.

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