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The Vikings' defensive starters if the season started today

The defense will look a lot different in 2020.
Danielle Hunter

While the Minnesota Vikings wanted to keep things similar on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is poised to look much different in 2020.

In the opening weeks of free agency, the Vikings have lost five starters on the defensive side of the ball and a sixth has been tossed around in trade rumors despite a franchise tag.

This leaves the Vikings' starting lineup in flux at the moment, but the team will try to find a way to fill their holes with 12 draft picks in next month's NFL Draft.

Defensive end - Danielle Hunter, Ifeadi Odenigbo

The Vikings took a hit with the expected departure of veteran end Everson Griffen, but they might be in good shape even if they don't use a top pick on someone to replace him.

Odenigbo has been a training camp star for the past couple seasons and in his first opportunity with the Vikings, he shined in 2019 by collecting seven sacks. Although his pass rusher productivity rating (6.2) didn't match up with Griffen's (7.3), he should thrive with more playing time.

Minnesota also still has Hunter, who notched 14.5 sacks for the second straight season. As one of the premier pass rushers in the game, the Vikings have him locked up through 2023.

Defensive tackle - Michael Pierce, Shamar Stephen

While the Vikings thrived on the edges in 2019, their penetration in the middle left a lot to be desired. With Linval Joseph on the decline, the Vikings moved on and replaced him with free-agent acquisition Pierce.

Nicknamed "The Juggernaut," Pierce has the strength needed to disrupt the pocket. Moving to Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense may also allow him to develop his pass-rushing chops which is aided by a powerful bull rush.

Who will be lining up next to Pierce is a question at this point. The Viking coaches love Stephen, but after ranking 116th among defensive tackles in PRP (1.2) and run stop percentage (3.8%), they can do better.

An internal name to keep an eye on is Armon Watts, who only played 53 snaps last season, but registered a 5.7 PRP rating which would have ranked 37th among defensive tackles.

Linebackers - Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks

The Vikings primarily use nickel as their base defense, so they use Barr and Kendricks while splashing in Ben Gedeon and Eric Wilson for sub-packages. (NOTE: Wilson is a restricted free agent and has a second-round tender.)

Barr was a disappointment after signing a six-year, $67 million contract in free agency last spring, but it's curious to see where he goes from here. He's a year removed from ranking first among linebackers in PRP and third in coverage snaps per reception, but seems to need a bigger impact to justify his salary.

While Barr wasn't the same, Kendricks rebounded to his old form and became an All-Pro for the first time in his career. Kendricks led the NFL with 14.1 coverage snaps per reception and recorded a team-high 110 tackles.

Cornerbacks - Mike Hughes, Holton Hill ... Kris Boyd?

It's become a joke that Zimmer will only draft cornerbacks with his first-round pick, but it may have become a necessity after this offseason. After the departures of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander, Hughes has the most starts of any corner on the roster...at five.

There's a chance the Vikings may roll the dice by putting Hughes in the starting lineup, but his results were up-and-down in 2019. It's possible that the Vikings could use both first-round picks on corners in the draft with names such as Florida's C.J. Henderson and TCU's Jeff Gladney as possible targets.

Such a scenario would push Hughes into the slot while the Vikings would have to learn on the fly to stay afloat.

Safeties - Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris

At this moment, we at least know that Smith will remain on the Vikings. One of the pillars of the Minnesota defense, Smith remains one of the top safeties in the game, grading fourth by Pro Football Focus and making the Pro Bowl for the fifth straight season.

The bigger question remains around Harris. The Vikings slapped the franchise tag on Harris just before he was going to hit free agency, but that doesn't mean he'll stay in Minnesota.

Rumors have circulated that Harris is being coveted by the Cleveland Browns (and old friend Kevin Stefanski), but nothing has materialized into a trade. With the Vikings more focused on extending their running back, it doesn't look like they'll pay the third-graded safety in the game, which is a complete head-scratcher.

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