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Football Outsiders on the Vikings defense: Could they be even better?

It’s certainly a possibility

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

We’re moving right along in our series of questions with Football Outsiders writer Scott Kacsmar in conjunction with the release of this year’s Football Outsiders 2018 Almanac. The first few days of questions focused on the Minnesota Vikings’ offense, and now we’re going to move on to the other side of the football.

Last season, the Vikings fielded one of the best defenses in the National Football League, finishing #1 in the NFL in both points and yardage allowed. They bring back nearly all the starters, and added a lot more pieces in free agency (though it should be noted that these questions were sent to Scott before the Vikings added safety George Iloka earlier this week). So, what does he think of this year’s version of the Zim Reapers?

On defense, the Vikings only lost one starter from 2017, and they replaced him with a former Defensive Rookie of the Year in Sheldon Richardson. Is there reason to believe that the Vikings’ defense won’t be every bit as stingy in 2018 as they were in 2017?

The concern is mostly about injury since the Vikings had the healthiest defense in 2017. They only accumulated 4.9 adjusted games lost to injury. Those teams often see more injuries the following year, averaging a rank of 15.3 the next season after a No. 1 finish. They also have dropped an average of roughly seven spots in the DVOA rankings, so they’re not only more injured, but they’re also less effective the following season. Minnesota had the No. 2 defense by DVOA last year, but defenses are not as consistent as offenses on a year-to-year basis.

The other concern would be that the Vikings were historically great on third-down defense, producing the lowest conversion rate since 1991. They were embarrassed in the playoffs when the Eagles converted 10 of their first 13 attempts on third down, but usually teams that are outstanding on third-down defense also regress the following year.

The reasons to be optimistic that the defense will still be one of the best in the league are the level of talent, the coach’s history, seemingly an upgrade with Sheldon Richardson, and also the potential for more takeaways. Minnesota only ranked 22nd in takeaways per drive last year, so that is an area where they could get better (or luckier on some tipped balls and aborted snaps).

If the Vikings’ defense does have a weak spot, or at the very least something that’s merely “average” rather than outstanding, it’s the lack of turnovers that Scott mentions in his answer. The Vikings, as a team, only had 19 turnovers in the regular season in 2017, though thanks to the way their offense performed they still finished with a +5 in the giveaway/takeaway numbers. It would be helpful for the Vikings if they could generate a few more turnovers this year, certainly.

However, this defense has talent on top of talent on top of talent. There are legitimate stars on all three levels, and not only that, but there’s incredibly solid depth at all of those positions as well. The one exception to that is the linebacker spot, but with the way the Vikings have managed their roster they’re not going to play a lot of base 4-3, and can use their defensive backs in a manner that could mitigate a lot of the issues if something were to happen to either Eric Kendricks or Anthony Barr.

We’ve got one final defensive question for Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders that we will be presenting you with tomorrow, so keep your eyes out for that. And, once again, for some of the NFL’s best statistical analysis, be sure to grab yourself a copy of the Football Outsiders 2018 Almanac to peruse while you’re waiting for the regular season to start.