This Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings will close out the season at home against the Chicago Bears. Although Minnesota’s playoff hopes were erased last week at Lambeau, Mike Zimmer still intends to play his starters in a meaningless affair for both teams.
Some may call it pride. But trotting the starting unit out onto the field presents an unnecessary injury risk for Minnesota’s star players, which could affect next season. That’s why Eric Kendricks missing the final game of the season is for the best in the long term.
Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. There is still one more game to play this season, and Kendricks’ absence creates a large void that the Vikings need to fill — especially against a team like the Bears that relies on running the ball with David Montgomery and rookie QB Justin Fields.
So who will be called upon to command the center of the Vikings’ defense?
There are a few candidates worth considering, but let’s start with Nick Vigil. He has played more defensive snaps than any other linebacker on the roster outside of Kendricks and Barr. Vigil has only been with the Vikings this one season. But he has experience in the same scheme Zimmer runs, albeit under a different defensive coordinator.
Vigil was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016, two years after Zimmer left to take the Vikings job. Paul Guenther replaced Zimmer’s role as defensive coordinator and held the position in Cincinnati from 2014-17. This offseason, Guenther joined the Vikings as a senior defensive assistant. Vigil essentially has five years of experience playing in the same system, making him the frontrunner to receive the bulk of Kendricks’ snaps.
He may have the experience necessary to fill in for Kendricks, but that doesn’t mean Vigil is the end-all-be-all solution at linebacker. He has played for three teams in his six years in the NFL, and that’s not by coincidence. He’s an average athlete who is prone to being exposed in coverage. Additionally, Vigil has struggled at stopping the run in the past. That’s something the Vikings will ask him to do more of if he’s starting at middle linebacker.
A young player with upside
It would be beneficial for the Vikings’ front office to use Kendricks’ injury as an audition for younger players with more upside in a game with no real meaning. Troy Dye, Chazz Surratt, and Blake Lynch fall into this category.
The Vikings drafted Dye and Surratt within the last two years. Minnesota selected Dye in the fourth round in the 2020 draft, and Surratt is a third-round rookie. Pundits saw both players as projects, but that shouldn’t stop the Vikings from increasing their snap count in a meaningless affair. Dye has only played 2.84% of snaps. Meanwhile, Surratt has yet to register a snap on defense.
Lynch has received more snaps than Dye and Surratt, but even his snap count is rather low. Acting as the team’s fourth linebacker, Lynch has served in a starting role only 19.18% of the time.
Their lack of action isn’t surprising, considering that Zimmer has always preferred to start established veterans over his younger players. It took two weeks for Justin Jefferson to fight his way into the starting lineup, and you’d be hard-pressed to see a rookie starting in Zimmer’s defense. The Vikings typically sign veteran defenders in free agency to fill any voids left by departing players, and there are not many starters on defense that leave to begin with. The last two seasons have seen the most turnover on that side of the ball, which is why the defense has seen a decline in production.
This Sunday’s game may be the last time we ever see Anthony Barr wear a Vikings uniform. He’ll be entering free agency, and Vigil is also set to hit the open market. If the team ends up parting ways with Zimmer, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest that Kendricks may end up being a cap casualty under a new regime.
The Vikings are currently $11,379,839 over the cap and will need to create an additional $10 million in cap space to account for free agency and the draft. Kendricks is set to make $13.53 million in 2022, making him the fourth-highest-paid player on the roster.
That’s is why Rick Spielman and Co. need to evaluate young linebackers like Dye and Surratt, who they drafted recently. There’s a strong possibility that Minnesota’s future at linebacker may not even be on the roster. But the front office and coaching staff still need to do their due diligence, providing these younger players a chance to showcase their skills in a game.
For the linebacker room, the season finale against the Bears represents a changing of the guard. Barr and Vigil are likely on their way out, and who knows if Kendricks will survive the offseason on his current contract.
The Vikings need to have a plan in place for the future of this group. This game presents an opportunity to figure out where to go from here.