Christmas Day last year was not one that Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer cares to remember.
The Vikings were taken apart on national television 52-33 at New Orleans that afternoon, giving up their most points in a game since 1963. After the game, Zimmer, long regarded for the top defenses he has produced as a coordinator and a head coach, was downcast.
“This is a bad defense,” he admitted. “Worst one I’ve ever had.”
Flash forward six months, and Zimmer is in a much better mood. The Vikings have beefed up their defense considerably.
“Our guys in the front office have done an outstanding job,” said Zimmer, whose Vikings concluded spring drills on Wednesday. “It’s probably going to look completely different on the defensive side of the ball than it did last year with the guys coming back and the additions we made. I’m excited about that.”
The Vikings, who finished in the top four in NFL total defense three straight years from 2017-19, ranked just 27th in 2020 and were 29th in scoring defense as well. They lost many of their best players for all or part of the season — two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter missed the entire season with a neck injury, four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr missed the final 14 games with a shoulder injury, former all-pro linebacker Eric Kendricks was out for the last five games with a calf injury and nose tackle Michael Pierce opted out of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
All four of those players are back. And they’ve been joined on defense by a bevy of notable free-agent signees: cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander; defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson; defensive end Stephen Weatherly; safety Xavier Woods, and linebacker Nick Vigil. Alexander and Weatherly returned after playing for the Vikings from 2016-19, and Richardson re-signed after being with them in 2018.
“We have all the pieces, I feel like,” Richardson said.
The Vikings also still have safety Harrison Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who was one of the few key players on defense who did not miss playing time in 2020. Smith, a holdover from the 2017 defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in both scoring and total defense, also likes what he sees out of this revamped unit.
“We’ve got a good mix of young guys and vets,” Smith said. “I think it’s got a lot of potential.”
With all of the talent on hand, the Vikings will have competition for playing time when training camp gets underway July 28. Richardson has started 118 of the 121 games he has played in eight NFL seasons, including 16 for Minnesota in 2018. But he might be coming off the bench behind starters Pierce and Tomlinson in a three-man interior line rotation.
“We anticipate that he’s going to be the pass-rushing guy in there,” Zimmer said. “Not that Dalvin and Michael can’t do that, but that’s kind of where we see him being worked in.”
With Hunter expected to return to his customary spot at left defensive end, there should be plenty of competition to start at right defensive end. The top candidates for the spot are Weatherly and second-year player D.J. Wonnum, but several others also could be in the mix.
At linebacker, Barr and Kendricks are in line to play just about every snap, if they remain healthy. The third linebacker spot is wide open, with Vigil and second-year player Troy Dye the top candidates for the position.
Woods is line to be the starting free safety, replacing Anthony Harris, who departed as a free agent. And Alexander is expected to be the nickel back.
Perhaps the best battle at training camp will be at cornerback. Peterson, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, is in line to start at one spot but the other one could be wide open between Breeland, who started in the Super Bowl the past two seasons with Kansas City, and second-year man Cameron Dantzler.
The Vikings played far too many young players on defense in 2020, when they not only had injuries but also played without a number of veterans they let go from 2019. Dantzler was a bright spot, starting 10 of the 11 games he played as a rookie.
The Vikings also started rookie Jeff Gladney at the other cornerback spot. But Gladney was arrested April 5 in Dallas on a charge of third-degree felony family violence assault, and his future with the team is uncertain. He was absent for all of spring drills.
Zimmer is fond of saying, “You can never have too many cornerbacks,” and general manager Rick Spielman obviously has listened. The Vikings have a whopping 11 on the roster, including Gladney.
The most important one is Peterson, who showed some slippage last season with Arizona and was signed away as a free agent. But Zimmer is expecting Peterson, who turns 31 in July, to not only be a valuable mentor to the team’s many young defensive backs but to have a bounce-back season.
“When he got here, I had him come to my office and sit down,” Zimmer said. “A lot of these guys that are eight-year Pro-Bowl players and things like that, they really don’t want to be coached. … (I) asked him, ‘Do you want to be coached?’ He was like, ‘Coach, I want to be coached. I want to get back playing really good.’ He’s done a great job this spring. … Just really trying to give him more tools in the toolbox.”
That has given Zimmer yet another reason to be happy about his revamped defense. And he’s not the only one feeling that way.
“I was pretty excited about what I saw when I came back,” said Hunter, who showed up for a mandatory minicamp last Tuesday on a reworked contract after skipping three weeks of organized team activities. “I think we’re pretty stacked on defense from the D-line to the linebackers to the DBs.”