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Personnel Changes Could Impact Scheme Tweaks for Vikings Defense

The Vikings are virtually in unchartered territory.

Not since Mike Zimmer's first season (2014) has the team faced so much potential change on the defensive side of the ball.

Sure, Zimmer is back, and he promoted defensive line coach Andre Patterson and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer as co-defensive coordinators, providing a continuity that has been in place for six seasons of top-10 — and sometimes better — rankings.

There's plenty of proof that improvements have been made during the Zimmer era from a team that finished 2013 near or at the bottom in multiple rankings, but there's also the freshness of a 2019 season in which dominant moments dipped a bit.

Zimmer spoke last Wednesday with members of the media in a formal podium session and in a separate scrum with folks who made the trek from the Twin Cities to Indianapolis.

Based on his comments last week, it sounds like the offseason could be reloading personnel and refining scheme with some new influences from Senior Defensive Assistant Dom Capers, who built most of his career on success with a 3-4 defensive front.

Potential scheme changes?

The addition of Capers in February prompted questions to Zimmer on if there will be more use of a 3-4 front instead of the 4-3 used widely by generations of Vikings.

"If that's what we had to do, but I don't think it would be drastic, like going to a 3-4," Zimmer said. "It might just be changing some of the pressures, coverages and fronts."

Zimmer reminded that the Cowboys switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 when he was defensive coordinator in Dallas for Head Coach Bill Parcells. After two seasons with a 4-3 under Parcells and Zimmer, Dallas pivoted to a 3-4 in 2005.

"That part is always about personnel, so if we get two big 5-techniques and a nose tackle and two big outside linebackers, yeah, I could see that, but you have to commit to that before free agency and the draft," Zimmer said. "When I was in Dallas with Parcells, we drafted Chris Canty and DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears and signed a 3-4 nose tackle. You have to commit to those things before the draft starts."

Spears and Ware were first-round selections, and the Cowboys added Canty in the fourth round in 2005. Veteran La'Roi Glover helped the transition, manning the nose tackle spot that season, and he was backed up by free agent Jason Ferguson, who became the starter in 2006.

Zimmer also added that Capers' resumé includes experience as a secondary coach and head coach, "so there were a lot of things there."

Potential personnel changes?

A complete reconstruction is unlikely, but there could be a need for more replenishment on the defensive side of the ball than in recent years — either up front, on the back end, or both.

On the line

Zimmer said he "expects" Everson Griffen will be back with the Vikings after reports that the defensive end has voided his contract.

If that's the case, the Vikings will be able to rely on Griffen (74.5 career sacks) and Danielle Hunter (54.5) as the starting defensive ends. Minnesota also could continue to innovate as it did when sending the Pro Bowlers inside against New Orleans in the Vikings upset of the Saints in the Wild Card round.

The tactic created matchups that were better for the Vikings and kept Griffen and Hunter from getting chipped on the edge.

Ifeadi Odenigbo carded the first 7.0 sacks of his career, working in the rotation at defensive end and also kicking inside in certain situations in 2019.

"We use him in different positions because that's how we use him," Zimmer said. "You're talking about 3-technique pass-rushers, so on third downs most of the time he went inside, and he was able to get some things done in there because he's a powerful, physical rusher. He's not a huge guy but in that down and distance, he can go in and play. Do I think he could play full time at end? Yeah." 

Zimmer was not asked specifically about Stephen Weatherly, who has played in 49 games over four seasons but is at the end of his rookie contract. Weatherly has primarily appeared as an edge rusher but also has kicked inside.

The Vikings pumped up their interior pressure by signing Sheldon Richardson to play at the 3-technique in 2018. After succeeding at that on a one-year deal, Richardson signed a multiyear agreement with Cleveland.

Minnesota then brought back Shamar Stephen (after a year in Seattle) to start alongside Linval Joseph. Stephen does a good bit of unnoticed work that might have helped Eric Kendricks have what most consider his best year in the NFL, but the Vikings didn't really replace the interior pressure that Richardson brought or that Sharrif Floyd was able to deliver before injuries derailed his promising trajectory.

"We are always looking for a 3-technique pass rusher," Zimmer said. "There will never be a day where we don't look for one and hope we find one because they get good matchups, typically, on guards, and then if you can get that guy on a good matchup, it helps the two ends, too. Is it a priority? I don't know. We're always going to look for that guy."

In the secondary

As for the back end of the defense, cornerbacks Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Marcus Sherels, as well as safeties Anthony Harris, Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse are scheduled to become free agents.

The position group also will be led by new defensive backs coach Daronte Jones and assistant Roy Anderson, who was recently added to the staff.

Zimmer was asked about the potential turnover at cornerback.

"Well, I don't know that we'll have an entirely new corners room," Zimmer said. "It is what it is. If it is that way, then we just have to do a good job of keeping guys in there and making sure they can play and trying to help them as best we can. We're not going to cry because we don't have some of those guys. Our job is to figure out how to get guys in there and get them to play."

The Vikings are poised to return the likes of Mike Hughes, Holton Hill and 2019 undrafted rookie Kris Boyd.   

"They have the ability to do it," Zimmer said. "During the season I gave them an assignment that I wanted them to do every single day, and they did it. That tells me that they want to do it. I think that's half the battle." 

Zimmer also was asked specifically about replacing Harris, who has generated the most buzz among the media after tying the NFL lead with six interceptions in 2019.

"I think the biggest thing is that whoever that is has to have some smarts because those guys do a lot on the back end," Zimmer said. "I love Anthony. If he doesn't come back, I think he's earned whatever he's gotten, but if you put up the positions that are the most important on defense, it's probably not going to be safety. We'll figure out a way if he's not back."

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