Time for another defensive revamp.
As mentioned in our previous free agency preview, the Vikings acquired 10 potential starters in free agency last season on a budget of about $30 million. Of those 10, nine were on the defensive side of the ball, and eight were one-year contracts with the lone exception of Dalvin Tomlinson. Of those eight, seven played 457 or more snaps (Stephen Weatherly was traded). That means over 4,200 defensive snaps are entering free agency, and based on the team’s porous defense a year ago, it’s unclear if any of those pending free agents will return.
It seems likely the Vikings will take a hybrid approach to solving this offseason’s set of defensive problems. “We plan to try and improve our team,” Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said at the combine of his free agency approach, but in all likelihood any free agency activity the Vikings undertake will be supplemented by the draft, as well as the development of in-house talent.
But as Adofo-Mensah also mentioned, the offseason is like a “puzzle” with many iterations, and it’s impossible to know which approach the Vikings will take to fill their numerous openings on the defensive side of the ball. That forces us to consider free agents at virtually every defensive position who have the capability to start — knowing full well the Vikings have limited funds and will only get to choose a couple of them.
Needs: At least one starter
Danielle Hunter’s status is one of the Vikings’ biggest offseason storylines. Assuming he returns to the team, the Vikings will still need help at the opposite defensive end spot. D.J. Wonnum, Kenny Willekes, Patrick Jones II and Januarius Robinson could help form a nice rotation, but Wonnum struggled last season in a big role, finishing 97th of 120 edge rushers in pass rush productivity, per PFF.
EDGE Haason Reddick (CAR): The lines are going to get blurry when we talk about edge rushers going forward now that Donatell is instituting 3-4 concepts. (He’s already on record saying that Hunter could be both a defensive end and an outside linebacker.) In that type of interchangeable system, Haason Reddick would be an ideal fit, coming off a big year in Carolina where Reddick bet on himself. Playing on a one-year deal, Reddick notched 15 sacks and 44 pressures on Carolina’s diverse defense, primarily rushing from an outside linebacker position. Reddick would probably require an eight-figure contract, which is pricey unless the Vikings clear a lot of space.
EDGE Uchenna Nwosu (LAC): After a slow start in 2021, Nwosu turned into one of the better edge rushers in the NFL in the second half of the year — his first opportunity in a mostly-full-time role. From Week 10 on with the Chargers, Nwosu finished 18th in pressures to set himself up nicely heading into free agency. Nwosu is 25 years old and a former second-round pick with plenty of upside, he’s a 3-4 fit, and PFF estimates his cost at under $9 million per year.
EDGE Charles Harris (DET): Harris is a former first-round pick that — get this… found second life in Detroit, of all places, after being declared a bust. Harris flamed out on the Dolphins and Falcons before getting a bigger role with the Lions and thriving. He finished 20th in pressures last year, lining up in both two- and three-point stances. He had seven pressures and two sacks in Detroit’s upset win over Minnesota, fits the 3-4 mold and turns just 27 years old this week.
Needs: Pass-rushing specialist
The big bodies of Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce weren’t able to fix Minnesota’s run defense last year, and the Vikings still lacked pass-rushing punch from the interior of the defensive line. From the sounds of it, Donatell will be running a defense with multiple fronts that will call for fewer four-man looks, but odds are when the Vikings put two interior rushers on the field they’ll want another pass-rushing threat. Unfortunately, this free agency class isn’t rich with penetrating DTs.
DT Maliek Collins (HOU): In 2019, Collins finished 12th in pressures in his contract year in Dallas, but he had the misfortune of hitting free agency in 2020 when money wasn’t being tossed around very generously due to the pandemic. His 2020 year was rough with the Raiders, but he rebuilt his stock with a solid campaign in Houston in 2021 on a one-year deal. Might be worth a shot if the price is right and the Vikings deem him a scheme fit.
DT Tim Settle (WAS): Far from a household name, but he’s been an effective pass-rusher when called upon in Washington. Former fifth-round pick.
DT Maurice Hurst (SF): Injuries and inconsistency kept him from lasting in Las Vegas, and leg injuries prevented him from accomplishing anything last year in San Francisco. But Hurst finished in 11th pass-rushing productivity in 2019 when he got the biggest chance to play, and he’s never finished with a PFF grade below 70. Probably a cheap acquisition.
Needs: At least one starter
Both Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell have singled out Anthony Barr as a potential scheme fit in their new defense. That comes as a mild surprise considering his age, injury history and price tag, but maybe a reunion is in the works? If not, though, here are some other available options that won’t break the bank, assuming the Vikings don’t want to elevate Troy Dye, Chazz Surratt or Blake Lynch into an every-down role. (We’ll focus more on traditional linebackers here since some of our edge selections would fall into the outside linebacker category in a 3-4.)
LB Kyzir White (LAC): Flashed strong coverage skills and strong tackling skills in his four years with the Chargers. Not the most consistent player in the world but could be reasonably asked to play every down. Would play an inside linebacker role in a 3-4 look and would not cost a fortune. Only turning 26 later this month.
LB Jayon Brown (TEN): An injury brought his 2020 season with the Titans to an end early, while ankle and hamstring injuries affected him throughout the 2021 campaign. Yet Brown was one of the league’s top young linebackers in the early years of his career. He finished eighth via PFF in 2018 while playing over 800 snaps and posting the fourth-best coverage grade, and he ranked 17th in 2019. That’s the type of talent that’s worth a gamble, even if injuries have been a recent issue.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (NE): Coming off his best season in a contract year with the Patriots. His tackling has almost always been sound, and while he’s knocked for his coverage, Bentley has only allowed an 87.8 passer rating for his career, which is not terrible.
Needs: Two starters, one in the nickel
After selecting three corners in the draft’s first three rounds in a three-year span, it’s a tough break that the Vikings only have one of those prospects remaining in Cameron Dantzler. The Vikings will need to find another outside corner to start opposite him, as well as a nickel to replace Mackensie Alexander. As difficult as cornerback is to play as a rookie, the Vikings may need to prioritize this spot in free agency unless they want to roll with Harrison Hand or Kris Boyd next season.
CB Darious Williams (LAR): He wasn’t as superb in 2021 as he was the year prior, but Williams played great in Los Angeles’s final two playoff games and earned a Super Bowl ring. At almost age 29, Williams has just two years of mileage as a full-time starter. The corner stands at just 5-foot-9 but has a knack for tackling and making plays on the ball. His friendly relationship with the former Rams staffers who are now in Minnesota wouldn’t hurt the recruiting pitch.
CB Charvarius Ward (KC): At age 25 and coming off three good years as a Kansas City starter, Ward won’t be cheap, but he could be a high-level starter for several years if the fit is right. Ward is big and physical at 6-foot-1 with great tackling skills and a career 79.7 passer rating against.
CB Bryce Callahan (DEN): Makes all the sense in the world considering his connection to Ed Donatell from his years in Denver. Was one of the top slot corners in football in 2017, 2018 and 2020 before a knee injury affected his 2021 season. Very strong in coverage with a career 73.8 passer rating against.
CB K’Waun Williams (SF): A trusted nickel for seven years in the league, the last five with San Francisco. Age could be a concern as he’s turning 31.
Needs: Starter next to Harrison Smith
Camryn Bynum seems likely to nab this starting job, but the Vikings are so thin at safety they could still be seeking a veteran backstop in case of injury. Maybe an old friend like…
S Anthony Harris (PHI): The league’s former No. 1 safety in 2019 is 30 years old now and not that expensive. He’d fit well as a free safety while Donatell sends Harrison Smith down into the box.
S Duron Harmon (ATL): I stumped hard for Harmon last year before the Vikings chose Xavier Woods, and I’ll do it again, even though his season in Atlanta wasn’t spectacular. He’s far from a liability in coverage, and his tackling skills are sound. Comfortable in the free safety role.
S Kareem Jackson (DEN): One of the most consistent safeties in football from 2018-20 before a blip in 2021. Turning 34, so his tank may be running low, but he’d have no trouble with the scheme because of his success under Donatell in Denver.