Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
Mike Zimmer has said in the past that he enjoys the spring portion of the offseason. During OTAs and minicamp, he can try some different things with his defense in practice without feeling the pressure of the upcoming season and he’s in his element as a teacher.
Routinely during these pad-less sessions, you’ll see Zimmer working one-on-one with a cornerback, showing them where he wants their hands or how to move their feet on a particular play. He’s usually got a smile on his face while doing it. The way you feel about summer weekends at the cabin is the way he feels about walking around the field during minicamp.
This year Zimmer is enjoying it a little more. First, because of the obvious: There was no minicamp last year. The Vikings’ head coach was pinned in at his ranch trying to avoid COVID-19. Last year he described his daily routine of Zoom sessions with the team in the morning, tape grinding in the afternoon and episodes of Chicago PD at night. So the sheer fact that Zimmer can be back in the room with his staff drawing X’s and O’s on a white board has made him a happy man.
But even more than having his offseason normalcy back, Zimmer has a defense full of good players again. This week the Vikings re-worked Danielle Hunter’s contract, eliminating any chance of a training camp holdout and single-handedly bringing back a pass rush that was non-existent in 2020.
The Vikings also re-signed Sheldon Richardson, who has ranked in the top 20 in QB pressures among defensive tackles for four years running. His presence answers the question of where the interior pressure is coming from considering the middle of the D-line previously had two nose tackles and no pure rushers before Richardson’s return.
“Our guys in the front office have done an outstanding job,” Zimmer said on Wednesday. “It’s probably going to look completely different on the defensive side of the ball than it did last year with the guys coming back and the additions that we made. I am excited about that.”
Richardson gives Zimmer some flexibility. He can mix and match defensive tackles as he sees fit while continuing to develop last year’s fourth-round pick DJ Wonnum and the two draft pick DEs. Getting Richardson and having young players to develop would be like you getting a bonus at work and free 18 golf for the summer.
“As far as the defensive line, you can never have too many of those guys,” Zimmer said.
Hunter and Richardson are the final pieces of a completely revamped defense that now has a veteran cornerback group too. Last year at this time we were talking about Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney and Cam Dantzler vying for jobs. Only one of those guys was at this year’s minicamp and the projected Week 1 starters are future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson and veterans Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander. Now the promising rookie Dantzler will have to fight for his playing time.
For the former defensive backs coach Zimmer, he can now teach the finer details of the scheme rather than trying to get multiple guys to even understand the NFL game.
While Zimmer may be at his most joyful when he’s breaking down a technique with a veteran corner, the effect of this overhauled and very talented defense is raised expectations. The Vikings’ front office moved heaven and earth salary cap wise to give their head coach the talent necessary to return to the top-10 standard he set from 2014-2019. They gave our one-year deals and moved up pay dates and added void years and set up Anthony Barr to potentially hit free agency a year early, all so they could get back to the top of the league in defense.
So it has to work.
In a season in which Zimmer enters as one of the Vegas odds-on favorites to be first coach fired, the Vikings have done it his way. There were other offseason avenues they could have taken instead. They could have added veteran offensive linemen or adjusted the scheme to include another receiver or traded Kirk Cousins or cut bait on veterans allowing for a patient approach of continued development from young players they’ve drafted. They chose an all-in approach on Zimmer’s defense, banking on a major bounce back and along with that a return to the playoffs and expectations of winning in the postseason.
For Vikings fans, this is a good thing. They are going to be back inside US Bank Stadium for the first time since 2019 and they want to see a competitive team. And this wasn’t a rebuilding type team anyway with Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen surrounding Cousins on offense.
Whether going with an all-defense approach to free agency was the right approach will be determined during the season. But we can say this for now: The franchise has been relevant during the Zimmer era by doing things the Zimmer way. If there’s going to be a pivot season in which he’s either in his final year or he’s given a deal to coach in Minnesota for life, it’s appropriate that it will be determined by doing it his way with a stacked defense.
And if it all goes the way they expect, he’ll be a happy man again at minicamp next year.