The 2019 Vikings defense showed was good – not great – and showed signs of possible future regression along the defensive line and secondary, but the linebackers certainly did their part. But while Eric Kendricks had an All-Pro season, Anthony Barr seemed to be stuck in the same malaise that has surrounded him since his rookie season.
2019 in Review
After a 2018 season that didn't live up to his standards, Kendricks had a tour de force in 2019, notching his first All-Pro selection and becoming one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. Perhaps aided by the retention of Barr, Kendricks was all over the field leading the Vikings with 110 tackles and was first among linebackers with 14.1 coverage snaps per reception, according to Pro Football Focus.
While Kendricks thrived, Barr took a slight step back from his strong 2018 season. In his contract year, Barr ranked third among linebackers in coverage snaps per reception (16.0), first in pass rusher productivity rating (13.8% pressure rate) and 21st in tackling efficiency (14 attempts per missed tackle).
Barr's tackling efficiency went up to fourth among linebackers with 20.3 attempts per missed tackle, but his snaps per reception was nearly cut in half (8.8) and his PRP rating plummeted to 32nd (6.9%). This is not the type of output the Vikings were thinking of when they gave Barr a five-year, $67.5 million contract last spring.
Outside of Barr and Kendricks, the Vikings had a revolving door that included Ben Gedeon, Eric Wilson and Cameron Smith, but none made a major impact on a defense that prefers to use a nickel package as their base defense.
The salary cap situation
Kendricks will be paid roughly $10 million in 2020 in the second year of a five-year, $50 million extension signed in 2018, and with an All-Pro season in his pocket that number is unlikely to be renegotiated.
Barr's cap number is also unlikely to be renegotiated but will take a significant hike. Barr will count $12.7 million against the cap (as opposed to $5.6 million in 2019) and that number will inflate all the way to $18.1 million in 2023.
This is for the sake of Mike Zimmer wanting continuity on his defense, but they'll need to figure out a way for Barr's production on the field to justify his cap number. Outside of that, Wilson and Kentrell Brothers will hit the market as free agents.
Potential free-agent targets
The Vikings prefer to run a nickel package on the field, which leaves Barr and Kendricks as the primary linebackers. Because of this, Minnesota is extremely unlikely to pursue an upgrade over Gedeon, Smith or whomever they would want to throw on the outside opposite of Barr. If they let Wilson or Brothers walk, however, they could be in the market for a backup linebacker or special teams ace.
One potential target that would make sense in the anticipated departure of Jayron Kearse (who played some linebacker over the past couple seasons) could be Deone Bucannon. The former first-round pick struggled with the Giants last season, but he could be worth a flyer to see if Zimmer can plug him in the role that a Wilson departure would create.
Outside of that, there aren't many impact free agents that the Vikings could go after.
Potential draft targets
With needs all over the field, it would be shocking to see the Vikings decide to take a linebacker early in the NFL Draft. If they wanted to get crazy, however, Isaiah Simmons could be worth a look.
Much like Buchanan, Simmons is a player that doesn't have a defined position as Pro Football Focus charted him with 100+ snaps at five different positions for the Clemson Tigers last season.
Simmons is simply good at playing football and applying big hits. For a coach like Zimmer, adding Simmons could be another interesting card in his deck that he could use in coverage, rushing the passer or even dropping him back as a safety.
A similar selection would be Wisconsin's Zack Baun, who has plenty of explosiveness and an ability to process quickly. As someone who could also fill in at both positions, he could be a rich man's version of Wilson, who could provide depth as well as another impact player for Zimmer to use.
A later option that could have the desired effect is Texas Tech's Jordyn Brooks. Much like the previous options, he's a fast athlete that can help the Vikings get to the quarterback more often. But he's more of a sub-package player who could be used in the Gedeon role or even as a special teams defender to start his career.
The Vikings are unlikely to make a big splash at linebacker, but much like last year, when they drafted Smith in the fifth round out of USC, they'll be looking for a player that can do a variety of things in addition to providing depth behind Kendricks and Barr.
The bigger storyline here is how the Vikings are going to get more out of Barr on the outside. The addition of Dom Capers to the defensive coaching staff could play a big role in this as he oversaw the breakout of Clay Matthews during his time with the Packers. Although Green Bay's defense struggled as a whole, Capers is known for finding ways to make players better at getting after the quarterback, so he might have a wrinkle or two that could make Barr more impactful.
With the Vikings having more pressing needs on the defensive side of the ball, this might be one of the less interesting positions to watch but could have some interesting developments as the team gets to the draft and OTAs.