The Vikings made a big change, both figuratively and literally, in the middle of the defensive line this offseason when they released nose tackle Linval Joseph and made their only splash in free agency by signing Michael Pierce to a three-year, $27 million contract.
The expectation was that the 6-foot, 340-pound Pierce would provide a run-stuffing presence in the middle and also help free up linebacker Eric Kendricks to make plays. Joseph had been a very good player during his six seasons with the Vikings, but his play had declined a bit in 2019 and age wasn’t on his side. Joseph is 31 years old and has played 10 NFL seasons, while Pierce is 27 and had only played four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
Pierce, however, won’t add another season to his resume in 2020. He informed the Vikings on Tuesday that he is opting out for the season because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Pierce reportedly has asthma and other respiratory issues that put him in a high-risk category.
While Pierce is making a wise move, coach Mike Zimmer is now going to have to look down his depth chart for a replacement. Jaleel Johnson was listed behind Pierce on ESPN’s depth chart for the Vikings, but Zimmer also could look to Armon Watts to play alongside Shamar Stephen at the 3-technique.
Watts, listed at 6-foot-5, 295 pounds, was a sixth-round pick by the Vikings from Arkansas in 2019. He had 1.5 sacks, one pass break up and a forced fumbles in seven games and one start as a rookie.
Finding a replacement for Pierce will be among the most pressing matters for the Vikings as training camp gets underway. Here are five other defensive storylines to follow as camp begins.
NEW LOOK ON THE SIDELINES
When Zimmer took over as the Vikings’ coach in 2014, he hired George Edwards as his defensive coordinator and Jerry Gray as defensive backs coach. The trio had a six season run that came to an end after last season.
Edwards left when his contract expired and is now the senior defensive assistant under new Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. Gray is now the defensive backs coach for the Green Bay Packers.
Zimmer decided to split the defensive coordinator duties between his son, Adam Zimmer, and Andre Patterson. Patterson will continue to coach the defensive line and Adam Zimmer will remain in charge of the linebackers. Continuing to coach specific positions works in part because of Mike Zimmer’s constant involvement on this side of the ball and the fact that he calls the defenses on game day.
The most interesting addition to the defensive coaching staff was made in February when longtime NFL coach Dom Capers joined the Vikings as a senior defensive assistant. Capers served in the same role last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars and has 32 years of NFL coaching experience. He was head coach of the Carolina Panthers from 1995 to 1998 and coach of the Houston Texans from 2001 to 2005. Capers also was defensive coordinator for the Packers from 2009 to 2017.
It remains to be seen how much of an impact Capers will have in Minnesota, but it’s notable that he’s best known for running a 3-4 scheme (Zimmer runs a 4-3) and frequently using his linebackers in blitz packages. Zimmer likely hired Capers in order to get new ideas and find a way to incorporate more 3-4 philosophies into what the Vikings run.
COMPETITION AT THE CORNER
Zimmer’s pride and joy seems to be developing cornerbacks and he’s going to have his work cut out for him this summer. Starting right corner Xavier Rhodes was let go after a terrible 2019 season, and Trae Waynes (the left corner) and Mackensie Alexander (the nickel corner) signed with Cincinnati as free agents.
Considering the nickel corner plays enough in today’s pass-happy NFL to be considered a starter, that means the Vikings need to replace three starters. Assuming the regular season is played as scheduled, meaning the pandemic doesn’t alter things, the Vikings will face Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Deshaun Waton, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan before the bye week.
That will be without having had any on-the-field offseason work, limited time in training camp and no preseason games. The expectation has been that Zimmer would try to convince general manager Rick Spielman to sign a veteran free agent who remains on the market (such as Logan Ryan) but that hasn’t happened.
That means the competition for the starting three corners will include Mike Hughes (a first-round pick in 2018), Jeff Gladney (a first-round pick in 2020), Cameron Dantzler (a third-round pick in 2020), Kris Boyd (a seventh-round pick in 2019) and Holton Hill (an undrafted free agent in 2018).
Hughes is almost certain to win one of the starting jobs but the key for him will be staying healthy. He tore his ACL in his rookie season after only six games and his season ended after 14 games last year when he suffered a broken vertebra in his neck. Hughes is a smart player and could end up playing the majority of his time inside in the nickel.
Unless he struggles throughout camp, it’s likely Gladney will grab one of the starting jobs on the outside and the other competition likely will come down to Dantzler, Boyd and Hill, who is a talented player but has had off-the-field issues and missed the first eight games last season because of separate suspensions for violating the NFL’s policies on performance-enhancing substances and substances of abuse.
Everson Griffen spent 10 seasons with the Vikings and developed into a top-level pass-rushing right end under Zimmer. After offseason issues that limited him to 11 games in which he had 5.5 sacks in 2018, Griffen returned last season and finished second on the Vikings with eight sacks.
Griffen voided the remaining years on his contract and likely expected to sign elsewhere as a free agent. That has yet to happen and Zimmer said Saturday he would welcome Griffen’s return. Right now, it appears that Ifeadi Odenigbo will take over the starting spot opposite Danielle Hunter.
Odenigbo was drafted by the Vikings in the seventh round in 2017 out of Northwestern but spent time in 2018 with the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals. He played in one game with Arizona in 2018 before returning to Minnesota that same season.
Odenigbo got his chance with the Vikings last year and played in 16 games, finishing third on the team with seven sacks. He also recovered two fumbles, including one which he returned for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Could Odenigbo be the latest player from Zimmer’s defense to go from unknown to standout?
BLITZING FROM BARR?
Anthony Barr became the Vikings’ first first-round pick under Zimmer when he was selected ninth overall in the 2014 draft out of UCLA. Barr’s length (6-foot-5) and abilities made it seem as if he was destined for stardom and yet that has never really happened.
He had four sacks as a rookie and that remains his career high. Barr appeared set to sign with the New York Jets during the 2019 offseason, but decided he did not want to leave the Vikings and returned on a five-year, $67.5 million contract. He then had 1.5 sacks in 14 games.
So why would anything change in 2020? Simple, Capers’ presence in the defensive coaches’ room. Barr could be the primary beneficiary of Capers’ 3-4 concepts being used by the Vikings. There is no question that the Vikings’ best linebacker is Kendricks, who only had a half-sack last season but caused nightmares for opponents and made splash plays time and time again.
Barr’s salary-cap hit was a reasonable $5.6 million last season but it jumps to $12.7 million this season before there is a potential out in his contract. That’s good reason for the Vikings to want to get as much out of Barr as possible. Maybe, Capers holds the key to that.
This is an area where Zimmer likely looks for comfort after stressing out about the fact the nose tackle and cornerback positions are unknowns.
Harrison Smith is one of the most versatile and accomplished safeties in the NFL and will make $8.35 million this season, while carrying a salary cap hit of $10.75 million. Lining up alongside him at safety will be Anthony Harris, who was given the franchise tag by the Vikings after last season and will make $11.441 million this season.
That’s not a cheap investment in two safeties and one has to wonder if the Vikings original intention was to trade Harris in the spring in hopes of getting a high draft pick back in return. The issue is that Harris doesn’t bring as much to the field as a safety like Jamal Adams, who landed the Jets two first-round picks last weekend in a trade with Seattle.
If the Vikings wanted to trade Smith, the return might be far more significant but he’s basically a coach on the field and as long as Smith has his fastball, he likely won’t be going anywhere.
So are the Vikings wise to take a combined $22.2 million cap hit on their two safeties, or should they have used the money they are paying Harris elsewhere? If Smith and Harris can keep the secondary playing up to Zimmer’s usual standards they will have definitely earned their money.