The Vikings have certainly been busy this offseason.
Between further bolstering the offense largely through the NFL Draft and making some splashy defensive moves in free agency, Minnesota is doing what it can to bounce back from a 7-9 campaign in 2020.
ESPN recently asked its NFL beat reporters to address three topics regarding their respective teams:
Offseason summed up in three words or fewer
Biggest question still to be answered
Courtney Cronin responded to the first item with "Defense, defense, defense." She wrote:
In order for the Vikings to bounce back from a 7-9 finish and make the postseason in 2021, the defense needs to return to form. This group should show dramatic improvement from the one [Head Coach] Mike Zimmer called the "worst" he has ever had. Last year's inexperience is primed to become this season's adeptness along with several players who missed significant time due to injury returning this fall.
Cronin highlighted restructured deals with Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter and pointed to defensive free agents who have been signed since March: Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, Mackensie Alexander, Nick Vigil, Stephen Weatherly, Bashaud Breeland and Sheldon Richardson.
In looking at Minnesota's offseason goals, Cronin said the Vikings worked to "[fix] the defense so the offense doesn't have to shoulder such a heavy load, while taking another step forward after finishing fourth in yards and 11th in points."
And lastly, she focused primarily on the offensive line for the "question still to be answered."
Will the projected starting five of Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Wyatt Davis and Brian O'Neill be ready to go Week 1? We didn't see the Vikings first-rounder Darrisaw take snaps as the first-team left tackle in OTAs or minicamp, partially due to the fact that Minnesota wanted to ease him into the mix and because he was limited while recovering from a groin strain this spring. Additionally, will the Vikings use the $13.5 million in cap space to bring in a No. 3 receiver to give the offense another layer in the passing game? And most importantly, who starts at defensive end opposite Danielle Hunter? The Vikings notched a franchise-low 23 sacks in 2020.
Kendricks Ranked in Top 3 of All LBs
It seems Eric Kendricks has been underrated by league pundits since the Vikings drafted him in 2015.
It's been tougher and tougher to overlook him, though, and CBS Sports' Jordan Dajani recently ranked Kendricks as the NFL’s No. 3 overall linebacker behind Bobby Wagner (Seahawks) and Fred Warner (49ers). Dajani wrote:
Linebackers who can cover extremely well help their defenses in a big way, and Kendricks is one of the best. He has the highest PFF Grade (90.6) of all linebackers since 2019, and was tied for first among all linebackers in interceptions last year with a career-high three picks despite missing five games. Even with missed time, he still recorded 107 combined tackles, as he is an important piece in stopping the run as well. According to Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune, the Vikings gave up at least 390 yards in four of their final five games last season with Kendricks out due to injury, and allowed 463 rushing yards in back-to-back losses to the Bears and Saints.
No linebacker has recorded more passes defended over the past five seasons than Kendricks. Now back healthy, expect him to have another huge season in 2021. According to the Star Tribune, Minnesota's star linebacker had three big plays in pass coverage during the second day of the Vikings mandatory minicamp earlier this month that were worth writing about.
The Vikings are slated to face both Wagner and Warner during the upcoming season, starting with Wagner in Week 3 when Minnesota hosts Seattle at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Dajani said that Wagner "is still the best inside linebacker in football," even at age 31.
Whether it's stopping the run or making an impact in defending the pass, Wagner can do either at a high level. His consistency is another reason he earns the No. 1 spot on our list, as he has missed just one game over the last five seasons. Lavonte David and Demario Davis have been consistent presences over the past 10 seasons, but no player has recorded more tackles than Wagner in that time frame (1,213).
The Vikings are scheduled to visit the 49ers on Sunday, Nov. 28, and – assuming he is healthy – could have their hands full with Warner.
Warner was a player we ranked at No. 9 last year, saying that he was flying under the radar since he was part of a talented defense. He's becoming more of a household name now, however, as some of the 49ers defensive talent has left while Warner just continues to get better. Even after two impressive seasons, Warner managed to put up career numbers in 2020 with 125 combined tackles, two interceptions, seven quarterback hits and a sack. He warranted an AV of 19, which was far better than any other inside linebacker, and earned his first Pro Bowl nod as well as an All-Pro selection.
Dejani's rankings behind Kendricks were as follows: Darius Leonard (Colts), David (Buccaneers), Devin White (Buccaneers), Roquan Smith (Bears), Davis (Saints), Deion Jones (Falcons) and Tremaine Edmunds (Bills).