EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have loaded up on defense this offseason, bringing in a handful of notable veterans to help erase the bitter taste of a disappointing 2020 season on that side of the ball.
Minnesota finished 27th in the league with 393.3 yards allowed per game and were also 29th at 29.7 points allowed per game.
It's safe to say those numbers aren't up to the standard of Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
"I'm not used to that level of performance from one of our groups," Zimmer said Wednesday in a videoconference with the Twin Cities media.
Some of the fresh faces include cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, while cornerback Mackensie Alexander and defensive end Stephen Weatherly are also back in Purple after one season with another team. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce is also expected to return after he opted out of the 2020 season.
And, of course, there is defensive end Danielle Hunter, who didn't play a single snap in 2020 because of a neck injury. The missed season came on the heels of back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances and a combined 29.0 sacks from Hunter in 2018 and 2019.
Minnesota's pass rush languished without Hunter, recording a franchise-low 23.0 sacks since the stat became official in 1982.
But Zimmer expects Hunter to be a key part of the defense in 2021 and beyond.
"Well, I know he's talked to [Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator/defensive line coach] Andre [Patterson]. I have not talked to him," Zimmer said. "He's been sending back videos of his workouts, and they're very, very impressive.
"So, we're excited to get him back on the field," Zimmer added. "He's a great team guy, he's a terrific player, and he's one of the best people that I've been around in professional football."
Hunter has 54.5 sacks in 78 career games, with 49 starts in that span.
Here are four other topics Zimmer discussed Wednesday:
1. Replacing Reiff
Perhaps the biggest hole left to fill on Minnesota's roster is at left tackle, a spot manned by Riley Reiff for the past four seasons.
But the Vikings released Reiff earlier this month and he promptly signed with the Bengals, who added him to play right tackle.
Zimmer said Wednesday he is well-aware that spot remains unfilled at the moment, but he added the Vikings still have plenty of time this offseason to get it resolved.
And, Zimmer noted, there are multiple in-house candidates who could be the left tackle in 2021.
"At this point, we've got Rashod Hill back, we've got [Olisaemeka] Udoh back, we've got [Brian] O'Neill back, we've got [Ezra] Cleveland," Zimmer said. "So,we'll be able to take take of those situations. All of those guys are good players, and we'll continue to figure it out and go from there."
Hill chose to return to the Vikings earlier this month. While he has been the Vikings swing tackle in recent seasons, he could jump into a full-time starting role if called upon. He has 17 starts in five seasons in Purple.
Udoh has played just 35 offensive snaps in his first two seasons after being a sixth-round pick in 2019. He offers plenty of promise with his size and athleticism and could be an important depth piece — possibly as a swing tackle — once the 2021 season rolls around.
O'Neill [right tackle] and Cleveland [right guard] were starters in 2020, but both could play left tackle if needed. O'Neill would simply flip sides, while Cleveland would go back to the position he played in college.
View photos of S Xavier Woods signing his contract and touring TCO Performance Center.
2. A productive offseason
A year ago at this time, Vikings coaches were forced to work from home at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And even though Zimmer has some fresh faces on his coaching staff on both sides of the ball, he likes what he sees from his group of coaches in socially distant (and masked) meetings at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
"You know – it's crazy because all the coaches are in the building now – we've had some of the best meetings that I've had in eight years, probably," Zimmer said. "We're dissecting every little thing that we do, going through everything with a fine-tooth comb."
Zimmer said one area of focus is tweaking his defense a little bit to keep up with a rapidly evolving league, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
"I've been really impressed with the coaches that are in there, but also, the offenses have changed so much in the last four or five years, it's time that we need to do some things differently and change and adapt," Zimmer added. "I'm actually really excited. I can't wait to get back on the field with the players and get them going."
View photos of CB Mackensie Alexander signing his contract at TCO Performance Center.
3. And hope for on-field work this spring
The Vikings — and every other NFL team — endured a virtual offseason in 2020 before getting back together for training camp.
The old-school Zimmer said on the videoconference that he would prefer to have some sort of on-field work this spring to help numerous people get acclimated to one another.
"We finally got an email today about the offseason. I'm hopeful that we are able to get out on the field," Zimmer said. "I think it's important not for just the young players, but the new players [and] the coaches.
"It just helps with the process of trying to build a football team, in my opinion," Zimmer added. "I really don't know. Again, we'll do what they tell us to do."
Tom Pelissero of NFL Network on Wednesday morning tweeted out details of the email Zimmer referenced.
The highlights of the email including prompting each team to have the necessary COVID supplies, and organizations may be permitted to relax restrictions if enough coaches, players or other staff members get vaccinated.
4. Indifference about the 17th game
The big league-wide news announced this week was that the NFL will officially expand to 17 games … beginning with the 2021 season.
For the Vikings, that means a road trip to Los Angeles to play the Chargers for the extra game.
Zimmer approached the situation with humor, as well as some indifference.
"Well, I was wondering if the coaches were going to get paid more now, too, but I guess that's out," Zimmer quipped in reference to players getting a larger revenue share. "You know, I really haven't thought about it, to be honest with you. I know we're going to LA, I guess it is now, so it's another West Coast game.
"I don't know if they'll put it at the end of the year, the beginning of the year, the middle, or whatever," Zimmer added. "It's just something else they tell us to do, and we do it like good soldiers."
The AFC will get the extra home game in 2021, while the NFC will get it in 2022.
The preseason has also been shrunk to just three games going forward. Teams who get one fewer home game (like the Vikings in 2021), will be at home for two of the three preseason games.
Minnesota will then play an extra home game in 2022 but play one home preseason game and two on the road.