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Monday Morning Mailbag: An Undermanned Vikings Defense & Harris' Future at Safety

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Does the fact that we started four rookies on defense Friday take a lot of the heat off of Coach Zimmer, or does it show Zim's unwillingness to adapt the defense to fit the personnel? Also, when did we forget how to tackle?

— Rob Langston in Akron, Ohio

We'll start of by diving into the disaster that was the Vikings defensive performance on Friday. To Rob's point, the defense did start four rookies in D.J. Wonnum, Blake Lynch, Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler.

But there were a handful of other players that saw extensive snaps that likely wouldn't be on the field if the Vikings were able to field their full defense with the likes of Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Michael Pierce.

Eric Wilson started at linebacker alongside Lynch, while Hardy Nickerson also played 40 snaps. No disrespect to Lynch and Nickerson, but they are the backups to the backups (Troy Dye and Todd Davis) and were put in a tough spot against a high-powered offense.

So yes, clearly the Vikings were short-handed in some areas. But there are also some areas where the team just hasn't seen the progression needed from some players, mostly along the defensive line. Many of the players there were already on the roster this season. Lynch joined Minnesota as an undrafted free agent and recently was called up from the practice squad. Nickerson signed with the Vikings in August and has gone back-and-forth from the practice squad to 53-man roster.

Is there heat on Zimmer? Sure, but that's because he's the head coach and also calls the defensive plays. Is it all on him? Of course not, especially when the team has been ravaged by so many defensive injuries. That's just unfortunate luck. I'd also note that Zimmer has tried to adapt the defense, reducing some of what he's done in the past when he had more dominant units.

But no matter where you stand on Rob's questions, there is no denying that Friday's performance was tough to watch. The Saints ran the ball effectively from the very first play, which was an 11-yard gain by Alvin Kamara.

As far as the tackling goes, analytics website Pro Football Focus had the Vikings missing 15 total tackles Friday. And the season total from PFF is at 134 missed tackles in 15 games. So no matter who has been in there this season, tackling has been an issue all season, not just on Christmas Day.

View game action images as the Vikings take on the Saints on Christmas Day during Week 16.

What a national embarrassment to watch the beloved team lose so bad. Can we expect coaching, GM and all front office changes next season? We need a fresh start. Is that too much to ask for 2021?

— Raj in North Carolina

When that schedule came out in the spring, people immediately circled the Christmas Day game between the Vikings and Saints. It was two NFC teams with strong track records, and the recent playoff history suggested all the makings for a fun holiday game.

Instead, the Vikings got flat-out embarrassed on national television. There's no other way to put it.

What does it mean going forward? Well, we'll likely find out in the next week or two.

Even with the frustrating 2020 season, Zimmer is still 63-47-1 in Minnesota. And that seven-year run includes a pair of division titles and three total playoff appearances.

Rick Spielman has made some great draft picks over the years and has provided a strong measure of stability in the organization, something that is rare these days.

I'm not about to speculate on the job status of anyone. That isn't my role, and it's up to ownership to decide that.

Ownership has to weigh whether or not they believe Zimmer and Spielman are the right men for the jobs (remember, both signed multi-year extensions this past offseason), while also determining if they want to make changes going forward.

We'll see how the Vikings play in the final week of the 2020 season, and how the franchise approaches the 2021 offseason.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.

Other than Josh Metellus, what's the plan for the safety position going into the upcoming years!?!?! Harrison Smith will age out, and there are question marks abound with Anthony Harris. Granted they've both been tasked with so much underlying responsibility, but thoughts on them and their position going forward.

— BethAnne in Las Vegas

A great question from BethAnne, especially now that the focus begins to really shift toward the offseason.

We'll start with Smith, who signed a multi-year extension way back in the summer of 2016 that is nearing its end. He will be 32 at the start of next season (and is a future Hall of Famer if you ask me), so I think he'll be around for a few more years.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Harris. He was able to make plays all over the field a year ago, tying for the league-lead with six interceptions. The Vikings used the franchise tag on Harris this offseason to buy time and retain his services, but the splash plays from 2019 didn't happen this season. A lot of that likely has to do with the roster turnover around him, but Harris doesn't have any interceptions with one game to go. He's an unrestricted free agent after Sunday, so it remains to be seen if he'll be back in Purple, or if he'll want a fresh start somewhere else. Harris has been a great leader in the locker room, developing into a consummate pro after beginning his career as an undrafted free agent in 2015.

It's hard to know much about the other safeties since Smith and Harris have played so much in 2020. Harris hasn't missed any of Minnesota's 1,016 defensive snaps, and Smith has played 972 of them, which is at 95.67 percent.

George Iloka played 45 snaps before his season-ending injury, while Metellus has played just 16 defensive snaps in 2020. Curtis Riley has played just one snap, and Myles Dorn (an undrafted free agent) missed the entire season with an injury.

If Harris returns, the Vikings are obviously set again at starters and would hope to develop the young players behind them. But if Harris moves on, the Vikings could throw one of the young guys into the mix while also looking at that position in the draft.

There's one game to go, but we'll have lots of offseason storylines to go to starting in January.