Since head coach Mike Zimmer arrived following the 2013 season, the Minnesota Vikings' defense has made plenty of strides. After allowing the most points in the NFL in 2013 (30.0 points/game), they made the jump to #11 in the league in Zimmer's first season (21.4 points/game) and moved all the way up to #5 in 2015 (17.9 points/game).
According to Doug Farrar of SI.com (and formerly of Football Outsiders), it appears that Zimmer, George Edwards, and company might be just getting started.
Farrar believes that the Minnesota Vikings are putting together the NFL's next great defense, and Zimmer has a lot to do with it, but just as important is how the players fit into the scheme.
Many of the pieces were already in place when Zimmer arrived in Minnesota before the 2014 season, and he added the concepts he'd perfected over the years as one of the NFL's most highly respected defensive coordinators. Zimmer prefers a base 4-3 defense with heavy nickel looks based on the opponent's personnel, with aggressive cornerback play and interchangeable safeties. His linebackers must have the range to drop into coverage, but they must also flow to the ball and implement the A-gap blitzes and fake inside blitz coverage looks Zimmer has drawn up. The Vikings also like to design overload blitzes with late pre-snap movement to take offenses by surprise on passing downs. It's a defense that looks simple at first, only to reveal all kinds of wrinkles that make it special.
Farrar then highlights several players and their fits in the scheme. Chief among them are linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen, safety Harrison Smith, and defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
One of the players he doesn't specifically highlight is cornerback Xavier Rhodes, despite the level of play he displayed towards the end of the 2015 season. Instead, Farrar says that whether the Vikings make the truly big jump they could potentially make is largely based on how Rhodes and his fellow cornerbacks perform this season.
Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn, and Mackensie Alexander. Those are the names of the cornerbacks who will need to step up if the Vikings are to compete for a championship. Waynes and Rhodes are young players still adapting to the complexities of the NFL. Munnerlyn is a valuable rotational player (especially in the slot), and 2016 second-round pick Alexander has the ability to play outside or in the slot. Munnerlyn is entering the last season of his current contract, so Alexander is one to watch. Rhodes has come the closest to that shutdown status, but he's only three seasons into his career, so it comes and goes at this point.
The Vikings have built themselves one of the best defenses in the National Football League, and it's important to remember just how young this team is. In fact, if the younger players on the roster can beat out their more experienced veteran counterparts, there's a chance the Vikings' defense in Week 1 at Tennessee could look something like this:
DE - Everson Griffen (28 years old at start of 2016 season)
DT - Linval Joseph (27)
DT - Sharrif Floyd (25)
DE - Danielle Hunter (21)
LB - Anthony Barr (24)
LB - Eric Kendricks (24)
CB - Xavier Rhodes (26)
CB - Trae Waynes (24)
CB - Captain Munnerlyn (28)
S - Harrison Smith (26)
S - Anthony Harris (24)
Couple of notes on those projected starters.
-I honestly don't know who's going to start at the third linebacker spot in the Vikings' base defense. If it's Chad Greenway (32), it wouldn't be surprising, although there have been positive things coming out of OTAs thus far about second-year man Edmond Robinson (24).
-I don't have any intel about the other starting safety next to Harrison Smith. . .but based on the limited run he got last year, I'd really like to see Harris get a real shot at the job. It could easily be Andrew Sendejo (29) or Michael Griffin (31).
-Terence Newman (38) is still shown as the starter at the other cornerback spot. Frankly, I don't expect him to hold off Waynes for a whole lot longer.
But even if a couple of older players do slide into the starting lineup this year, they're going to have solid young talent backing them up. More importantly, they're players that are fits for the Zimmer/Edwards defense. As we saw last year in the Vikings' trip to Arizona, the Vikings can play without some of their more important pieces and still hold their own. With the talent that this team has on the defensive side of the ball, I think we can expect them to be good for a very long time.