Mike Zimmer has coached several top 10 defensive units over his career going back to his first defensive coordinator job in Dallas back in 2000. Only once - in 2003- could he claim to have the best defense in the league. The Cowboys were #1 in yards allowed and #2 in points allowed that year.
Last year, the Vikings defense was ranked 3rd in yards allowed, and 6th in points allowed - one of his best rankings since 2003. Only his 2013 Bengals were slightly better, ranked 3rd in yards allowed and 5th in points allowed.
Heading into the 2017 season, there are several reasons the Vikings could have the best overall unit in the NFL. Here they are.
They Haven’t Lost Much
First off, the Vikings have lost very little in terms of defensive personnel from last year. I’d say Captain Munnerlyn was the only significant loss at nickel CB, but that loss may have been a calculated one based on having Terence Newman and MacKenzie Alexander as possible replacements. Chad Greenway, who retired, had an excellent career but was not a big factor for this defense on the field the past couple years.
All the rest of the starters last year have returned.
Young Veterans Are Getting Better
The Vikings defense has many players in the prime of their careers and among the top players in their position. Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, and Everson Griffen top this list.
But beyond this top core group of players, there are several more poised to enter those ranks. Danielle Hunter, Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr top this list. Hunter has shown he can be a superstar edge rusher. Barr has been a top LB, but is looking to regain that form after a down year last season. Kendricks has steadily improved at LB as well, and if that progress continues, should get him there this season. Even Trae Waynes, who’s had a slow start to his career at CB after being drafted in the first round, improved as the year went on last year and is showing in camp so far that he can start and play at a high level outside this season.
Overall, these two groups represent 8 of the 12 positions on defense (including both base LB & nickel CB). Add to that Terence Newman potentially starting at nickel CB this year, who has been one of the better performing CBs in the league the past couple seasons, and that brings the count to 9 of the 12 positions being filled by either a top player, or promising one nearly there.
The two remaining positions are 3-tech, base LB, and strong safety. Andrew Sendejo, while not a top SS in the league, is at least average, if not slightly above. At 3-tech, the likely starter this year is Datone Jones, a former 1st round pick the Packers used as an edge rusher, but who Vikings DL coach Andre Patterson felt would be better suited inside, where he played in college. It remains to be seen how Jones will perform at 3-tech, but given his background and ability, its not much of a leap of faith to think he’ll be at least average, perhaps better depending on how soon things come together for him returning to the interior line. Base linebacker, who comes out in nickel situations, could be filled most likely by either Edmond Robinson, Emmanuel Lamur, or Ben Gedeon. Early reports suggest Robinson and Gedeon may be leading contenders. While neither have Greenway’s experience, they both have younger, healthier and more athletic bodies than Greenway had the past few years. I would be more surprised if any of them proved to be a downgrade, rather than upgrade, over Greenway’s performance in recent years. In any case, base LB is only on the field about a third of the time, given how often defenses play nickel these days.
Depth is Also Improving
Beyond the very talented and accomplished starters the Vikings defense brings to the field, the quality of the depth looks to be improving as well. That is important too as invariably there are injuries during the course of the season, and having less drop-off to the depth players helps a unit through injuries without a big drop-off in performance. Guys like MacKenzie Alexander, Jayron Kearse, Anthony Harris, Kentrell Brothers, Brian Robison, and several others along the defensive line could provide some quality reps in rotation, or take on some spot duty without severely compromising the overall performance of the unit. Alexander may even get some starts at nickel CB, depending on his development in camp and pre-season, and that of Newman. either way, the DB group depth looks better overall than last year.
Changes Bring Upgrades
Where there are changes at the starting position this year, they could all prove to be upgrades over last year. I mentioned base LB as a likely upgrade with Chad Greenway’s retirement, and left-end also appears that way, as Danielle Hunter supplants Brian Robison in the starting job. Then there is 3-tech. Shariff Floyd basically missed the whole season last year, and was replaced by depth players- mostly Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen- none of whom played particularly well. That leaves the potential for upgrade there more of a possibility, with Datone Jones and several others competing for rotational reps there.
That leaves outside CB. Presumably if Trae Waynes takes over the starting job there, he’ll have to beat out Terence Newman. That suggests he would be an upgrade. The Vikings coaching staff may also feel Waynes is stronger outside than Alexander is in the slot, and move Newman to the slot for that reason. Either way, the improvement of Waynes - who played 581 snaps last season - only about 200 fewer than Rhodes and Newman - will help improve the secondary overall. I suspect Newman may indeed become the starting nickel CB this year, allowing the 38 year old to have fewer reps and help bring Alexander along. As the best performing CB for the Vikings last year, its hard to imagine him not on the field most of the time.
Not A Lot of Mismatches For Offenses to Exploit
When you have the combination of being strong at many positions, and weak at none of them, that leaves very few easy mismatches for offenses to exploit. A good QB knows where he’s going with the ball on Wednesday or Thursday when there are obvious mismatches in the secondary. Taking those away means taking away the easy plays an offense likes to go to and makes them work a lot more for what they get. At the same time, they have to defend their own weak points, which can cause stress.
And stressing an offense often leads to mistakes. Forced throws and bad passes. Sacks or TFLs. And turnovers. But just the fact of taking away the easy plays, not allowing any easy completions or runs, and being able to challenge every player, every down, makes it harder for an offense to drive the ball effectively - forcing them into difficult down and distance situations that puts added pressure on them.
The Vikings look to be in this position to start the season- just as they were last season.
Competition Facing Losses
The other factor influencing the Vikings getting to the #1 ranking on defense is what’s happening with some of their key competitors - the other top defensive units in the league. Denver, Seattle, Houston, and New England for example. Of those units, all are facing at least one key loss heading into this season, with the exception of Seattle. Houston has losses in their secondary, while Denver, and New England have losses up front. New England has made other changes as well, but hard to say how they will impact performance. Seattle’s key players on defense are beginning to get on the wrong side of 30, so there is some potential for marginal decline.
Overall, the Vikings have the most continuity of the top defensive units entering the season, and age of key players is not a concern.
This last aspect of defensive performance is hard to gauge, but certainly when it comes to coaching, the Vikings defense is as well coached as any in the league. Mike Zimmer, Andre Patterson, and Jerry Gray in particular are very well regarded around the league.
They also look to be adding some new wrinkles to their defensive looks this year that could help create mismatches. They have been experimenting with switching Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter around at either DE position, using more sub-packages for the defensive line, having Terence Newman play safety, among other things. The fact that all the key personnel have been in the system now for multiple years together makes it possible to introduce more wrinkles, and incorporate more looks, as necessary to keep things fresh and opposing offenses off-balance.
The Vikings defense has been in the top tier for the past couple years, and most key positions are held by players performing at a high level and in their prime. This year, with guys like Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Trae Waynes looking to enter their prime, the Vikings defense could take another step forward.
What Chance Does the Vikings Defense Have at Being the Best in the NFL this Year?
This poll is closed
75%+ - Excellent Chance
50-75% - Good Chance
25-50% - Not Likely, but Possible
25% or Less - Probably Not