Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
During Mike Zimmer’s end-of-year press conference, he made a surprising acknowledgement when talking about the Minnesota Vikings’ much-maligned defense.
“I probably miscalculated some things going into the season when we lost all the guys that we lost the year before,” Zimmer said, noting that the team either cut or lost via free agency two Pro Bowl defensive linemen and three cornerbacks.
The miscalculation was the team believing their development projects from years past were ready to take the next step into bigger roles and that rookie corners along with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (a trade acquisition) could fill the shoes of players who spent years and years perfecting Zimmer’s defense.
You can see why they might believe in their own project players. The 2015-2019 Vikings were routinely elite on defense and the roster was largely home grown. Players like Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Harris developed into key starters or stars despite not having been first-round picks. So why not the next wave?
Because drafting is inconsistent. Suddenly the middle and late-round swings didn’t connect for home runs -- or even singles. Developmental draft picks Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jaleel Johnson, Jalyn Holmes and Armon Watts all had previous experience under Zimmer coming into this year and none of them made a significant impact. Combined they managed just five sacks. That’s the same amount as Ngakoue had in six games as a Viking.
They miscalculated how difficult it would be for rookie corners to transition into the NFL. Top pick Jeff Gladney, who played the most snaps of any rookie corner, allowed a 124.7 quarterback rating on throws into his coverage, per PFF. Third-round pick Cameron Dantzler only gave up a 94.0 rating but was injured three separate times.
Still they had other players who had been in the pipeline. Corner Holton Hill, who had been on the team since 2018, won the starting job out of camp and first-round pick Mike Hughes was looking to take the next step. Both players struggled and then got injured. Hill was cut and Hughes ended the season on IR.
In total, the Vikings relied on a lot of risky bets. Players like Johnson and Holmes hadn’t so much as earned rotational roles in the past. Hill barely played during his first two seasons and Hughes was injured the previous two seasons.
And betting on rookies is a risky proposition, especially in a season without a regular offseason program.
Cap space was an issue heading into 2020 but the Vikings got some space back when Michael Pierce opted out. They also spent unwisely by franchise tagging Harris and acquiring Ngakoue, who clearly was not a fit.
There’s a lot to take away in order to get the calculations right next time. One being that a few star players can’t carry a defense. As good as Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks were this season, they could only do so much. And when Danielle Hunter went out with a season-ending injury, the pass rush fell like a house of cards.
The Vikings didn’t use the bargain bin in free agency to find a situational pass rusher or nose tackle or veteran corner (or two). They put all their eggs in stars and projects. Players like Dre Kirkpatrick, Logan Ryan, Ron Darby, Snacks Harrison and Adrian Clayborn signed for reasonable prices elsewhere. The difference between a few average veterans and the bottom tier players the Vikings used might have been the difference between a bottom five defense and a unit good enough to make the postseason.
The theory of being good in a lot of places rather than great in a few places might lead to some tough decisions. Hunter reportedly wants to be the highest paid defensive end in the league or be traded. Anthony Barr is set to make $15 million on the cap next year. Harris is a free agent. Smith is entering the final year of his deal.
Over the last few years the Vikings have tried to keep everyone. Maybe this time they can’t keep everyone.
There’s another side to the “miscalculation” that Zimmer assuredly wasn’t addressing in his comments and that’s the offense’s ability to make up for a flawed defense. The Vikings ranked 27th in pass attempts in a year in which they needed to lean heavily into the passing game to overcome their defensive woes. Kirk Cousins threw for 518 more yards in the second half than the first half of games as he chased opponents from behind after often playing things safe early in the game.
The Vikings have so much work to do on defense that they might not wave a magic wand and end up with a top five defense again next year. It needs to be a priority to get ahead by throwing the ball.
While the run-first philosophy might not be adapted, it’s part of the math of the NFL in 2020. This year the Vikings ranked 11th in points scored, yet they produced the third highest total in team history. Zimmer said he thinks offense won’t be as explosive next year. But after a wildly entertaining regular season, will the NFL really want to tighten things up? Probably not. The Vikings will need to be prepared to still win shootouts. Seasons like 2017 in which they were a No. 1 defense now feel far away.
Calculating correctly in 2021 won’t be just about getting the math right on which players can handle roles and which dollars to spend on the right places. It’ll be about a fundamental shift to the strengths of the team.
If that doesn’t happen, it’s possible we’re having the same conversation with the head coach in a year.