In the Mike Zimmer era, the Minnesota Vikings have done plenty of damage on offense, but defense has always been their calling card. After a long run of success, though, some of the most integral parts of their elite defenses have moved on to new teams.
Where does that leave the Vikings in 2020? To find out, we caught up with Eric Thompson of the Daily Norseman for a chat.
Acme Packing Company: Starting on defense, the Vikings experienced some high-profile departures but also made some noteworthy additions, both in the draft and, most significantly, through a recent high-profile trade. What’s your read on the defense heading into 2020?
Eric Thompson: There are a lot of new parts on the defense, but some of those parts were in need of replacement. Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen are gone from the defensive line. Both players will be missed — especially since Joseph’s replacement Michael Pierce opted out — but they were also on the back end of their careers. Xavier Rhodes looked like an extra in “The Walking Dead” last year. Vikings fans weren’t too torn up about the Bengals overpaying Trae Waynes, who seemed to plateau as an average starting corner. Mackensie Alexander joined Waynes in Cincinnati, which means Mike Hughes and Holton Hill will be the starting corners while rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler compete for first team snaps in nickel packages. The addition of Yannick Ngakoue was pretty thrilling, but now we’ll have to wait at least three weeks to see him paired with Danielle Hunter. Ifeadi Odenigbo was very impressive in situational pass-rushing last year; we’ll see how he does with a bigger role now that Hunter is out. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris remain as one of the best, if not the best, safety duos in the league. They’re the only two safeties on the roster though, so an injury could quickly derail the continuity there. Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Eric Wilson return to form a dependable linebacking corps as well.
With Mike Zimmer at the helm, you always have to like your chances on defense. There is a lot of potential with this group. That said, there will probably be some bumps in the road early on with all the new pieces and a truncated preseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some missed assignments lead to big plays for opponents early on. I’m not sold on Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson being the answer in the middle of the line either.
APC: What are your expectations for Yannick Ngakoue this week and throughout the season?
ET: By all accounts, outside of getting used to some new terminology and assignments, it sounds like he should be ready to hit the ground running with his new team. And with Hunter out, his new team is going to need it. I wouldn’t put Ngakoue among the best of the best at edge rusher, but he is certainly well above average and I would expect him to match the kind of production he had in Jacksonville. If Hunter comes back healthy, they could be one of the better pass-rushing bookends in the NFL.
APC: Harrison Smith has long been the biggest name in the Vikings’ secondary, but he’s heading into his age-31 season. Do you see any reason to think there’s a chance for slippage or decline in his level of play?
ET: Smith may not be the best safety in the NFL anymore, but he’s still one of the very best at his position. He remains the main catalyst for Zimmer’s defense and allows the rest of his teammates to thrive. Anthony Harris doesn’t lead the league in interceptions without Smith flying around the field. He seems to put on about three miles of running before the snap every game, and his instincts on reading plays are still incredible. Most of the different coverage and blitz looks are started by where Smith lines up and moves pre-snap. His pass coverage may have slipped a bit, and there might be times where he allows a deep completion or two, but overall he still has plenty of great football left in him.
Stay tuned for part two of our Q&A later this week.