The Vikings have built a stout defense under Head Coach Mike Zimmer, with playmakers lurking at every level.
Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus tabbed a pair of Minnesota's defensive stars — safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr — as two of the best defensive players in the NFC.
Smith ranked at No. 7 on McGuinness' list. He recorded 87 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries, two interceptions and two passes defended in 2015.
Smith has developed into the best safety in all of football in the past two seasons. No safety in that span has graded higher than Smith, as the Viking earned positive marks in coverage, as a pass-rusher, and against the run in both seasons. His pass-rushing productivity (grade) of 26.5 was the best of any safety in the NFL last year.
Smith is an impressive player all-around, which gives the Vikings some versatility defensively. The former Notre Dame player is good enough to play close to the line of scrimmage and impact offenses against the run, act as an occasional pass-rusher, and drop deep in coverage when asked to do so. There's also something to be said for the fact that he can lay a big — but legal — hit in today's NFL, setting the tone for a Vikings defense that continues to get better.
Barr came in at No. 10 on the list. The third-year linebacker made his first Pro Bowl in 2015 after notching 80 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
One of the best defenders to come into the NFL over the past two seasons, Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr is quickly developing into one of the best LBs in the NFL. At (a grade of) *93.4, Barr was second only to (Panthers linebacker Luke) Kuechly in terms of overall grade last season, with his ability as a pass-rusher particularly impressive. Barr has rushed the passer 226 times over the past two seasons, racking up eight sacks, 10 hits, and 29 hurries. While that represents a small percentage of his defensive snaps, it's a handy trait to have, and allows the Vikings some versatility defensively.** *
Barr graded positively in all three aspects of his game this season — not just as a pass-rusher — but the big improvement in his game from his rookie year in 2014 to 2015 was in coverage, where his grade jumped significantly. Targeted 59 times in 2014, Barr allowed 91.5 percent of those targets to be caught. In 2015, 49 passes were thrown into his coverage, with just 77.6 percent of those passes hauled in for catches. A defender who is only getting better, Barr has developed into one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL very quickly, and after two seasons, appears to be only getting better.
Joseph tabbed as one of NFL's top interior rushers
Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated recently ranked the top interior defensive linemen in the NFL, with a familiar name making the cut.
Farrar listed Minnesota defensive tackle Linval Joseph at No. 7.
If you want a good example of why Joseph is such a major factor in the Vikings' defense, watch his performance against the Rams in Week 9 of last season. Not only was he a constant thorn in Todd Gurley's side, he also proved his speed when the 6' 4", 328-pound Joseph crossed half the field to take the speedy Tavon Austin down on an off-tackle run. The only thing that's keeping Joseph from a top-five ranking based on last year's play is the fact that he missed four games with turf toe, but his dominance when healthy is something to see. Joseph isn't a sack artist per se—he has just 12.5 in his six seasons—but he brings a lot of pressure with his strength and quickness. Moreover, he's one of the league's best run defenders, and when Mike Zimmer sets him up angled towards the center in a Stunt 4–3 look, he's just about guaranteed to blow through protection and create tackles for loss. Joseph is a rising name on what might be the NFL's next great defense.
Joseph played 12 games in his second season with the Vikings, finishing with 71 tackles (43 solo), eight tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hurries and one-half sack.