On Saturday, Rick Spielman went out and grabbed safety Xavier Woods on a one-year deal, making him the fifth defensive acquisition for the Minnesota Vikings during free agency. A unit that ranked 29th in team defense has already improved immensely.
The defensive line went from being filled with bench warmers to having three above-average starters. Plus, the secondary got some much-needed veterans to aid the younger players in their development while adding some depth.
But there’s still one area that hasn’t been touched — or really talked about much at all — this offseason: the linebackers. Outside of restructuring Anthony Barr’s contract, not much has been done to address outside linebacker.
This position appeared to be a need this offseason following the assumed departure of Eric Wilson, a Zimmer draftee whose solid production last season included 122 tackles in a starting role. Wilson has never really been a game-changer, but given his solid performance last season and the fact that he’s heading into the prime of his career, it begs the question of why he’s still on the market.
There are likely several reasons why, but I think the best explanation might be what I’ll call the “Mike Zimmer Effect.”
Zimmer is renowned around the league for being one of the best defensive minds and, in turn, getting the most out of his players. This is great for the development of young guys, but it seems to also have an adverse effect when these same players hit free agency.
Instead of teams jumping all over young, productive former Vikings defensive players, they seem hesitant. I wrote about how we saw this with Anthony Harris, and we’re seeing it again with Wilson.
So the obvious solution for both sides would be for Minnesota to bring back Wilson on a one-year deal, right?
The answer isn’t so clear-cut.
It would make all the sense in the world for Wilson. Much like Harris, he had to play a bigger role last year due to injuries and opt-outs, including serving as the Vikings’ main linebacker after Kendricks went down. Barring any unforeseen injuries, this won’t be the case in 2021, and Wilson wouldn’t be surrounded by a largely inexperienced defense. Take the one-year prove-it deal and earn a long-term contract on the field.
This would really answer the only remaining question on the Vikings’ defense. But the lack of chatter — or even rumors — about his return makes you think that maybe Zimmer believes he can replicate Wilson’s success with another young linebacker.
After all, Zimmer turned Wilson from an undrafted free agent in 2017 to a starting-caliber linebacker last year. Why couldn’t he do the same with Nick Vigil or Troy Dye?
There’s no reason he couldn’t. Vigil has been around the league and shown he can be productive in a starting role. On the other hand, Dye is raw and struggled at times as a rookie, but he’s still athletic and could be molded into a contributor.
But that’s taking an optimistic view. As much as Zimmer has proven that he is indeed very good at developing defenders, sometimes he trusts himself too much.
Last season he trotted out a slew of young cornerbacks who struggled mightily at the beginning of the year. While Cameron Dantzler and even Jeff Gladney got the hang of things by the end of the year, the damage had already been done.
While there’s no doubt in my mind that Zimmer can get Vigil or Dye to that point, that process could include some of the same growing pains we’ve seen in the past.
Enter Wilson back into the equation, who has already proven himself as a contributor in Zimmer’s defensive scheme. He’s probably not going to cost more than $3 million annually, and he’d ease some of the concerns you’d have about throwing somebody lees experienced in Zimmer’s scheme into that spot.
Needless to say, the Vikings have a lot of options when it comes to who plays alongside Barr and Kendricks. You can pick apart film and stats of these guys as much as you want, but ultimately it’s all about whether or not Zimmer thinks he can get production out someone currently on the roster.
He’ll have a more regular offseason this year, so if he has confidence in Vigil or Dye, that’s great. But if he has any hesitance, it might be time to reunite with Wilson and put the finishing touch on what’s shaping up to be a much-improved defense.