Since Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer teamed up in 2014 the team has been the best defensive club in the NFC, allowing 1,848 points. The next closest squad is the Seattle Seahawks, who have allowed 1,900 points under coach Pete Carroll.
Last year the Vikings ranked second in the NFC, allowing 303 points, which was topped only by the Bears, who allowed 298.
Still, a lot of people around the club, including Zimmer, felt the team could use a fresh start on defense and that, along with the salary cap, has led to a lot of turnover on the roster.
Spielman said that no matter who starts on defense this season, the expectation is that the defense will be among the best in the league.
“The expectations are always going to be very high,” Spielman said. “Even though we have some young guys coming in we still have a core part of our defense together with Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, we have [Eric] Kendricks and [Anthony] Barr at linebacker, Danielle Hunter, we were able to sign Michael Pierce in free agency when we lost Linval Joseph. We have a core group of young guys that still are the bread and butter of our defense or the heart of our defense.
“And now we’ll implement that in with some of the young guys that we’ll be bringing in and trying to get them up to speed. But when you have that type of talent on defense you just build around those core guys that we do have.”
Replenish the defense
The Vikings made 15 picks in the 2020 draft, the most of any team in the league since the NFL went to a seven-round draft in 1994.
Six of the first eight selections were on the defensive end — cornerbacks Jeff Gladney (No. 31 overall) and Cameron Dantzler (No. 89), defensive end D.J. Wonnum (No. 117), defensive tackle James Lynch (No. 130), linebacker Troy Dye (No. 132) and cornerback Harrison Hand (No. 169).
Was this an especially important draft for the team?
“I would say every draft is important. I take seriously the importance of each draft,” Spielman said. “This year, you know, maybe a little bit different because of the turnover, especially on the defensive side of the ball. We had that defense together for six years, I believe, and you know with our cap constraints and decisions we had to make in the offseason we knew we had to replenish a lot of the talent that we lost during free agency this year.”
The fact is that those 15 draft picks, along with the 12 rookie free agents, will need to help the roster for more than just the 2020 season.
“We’re looking at our salary cap and we continue to look at it two or three years down the road and where we’re going to be,” Spielman said. “To get this many young guys in that we feel we have a really strong draft class coming in, they have to come in and prove it, but to alleviate some of the pressure that we have on the cap we’re going to be relying on a lot of these young players to contribute and carve out specific roles for our team, whatever they may be,” Spielman said. “I think the other thing, too, would be that our coaches do such a great job developing these young guys when they do come in, although we’re a little bit hand-tied right now because we’re just doing the virtual meetings.
“All the young guys are learning the system right now, and coaches have gotten extra time to spend with them in the meetings, especially the rookies, but you know we also have to get them developed on the field as well. I know Coach Zimmer and his staff have a plan in place and whenever we’re able to get back we’re going to have to really accelerate their development.”
Spielman and the draft scouts have been known to find some real gems in undrafted rookie free agents, such as Harris, wide receiver Adam Thielen, punt returner Marcus Sherels, wide receiver Chad Beebe, fullback C.J. Ham and linebacker Eric Wilson.
There could be some similar standouts this season in wide receiver Quartney Davis of Texas A&M and cornerback Nevelle Clarke of Central Florida.
Clarke played college ball with Mike Hughes, the Vikings’ No. 1 draft pick in 2019. He finished his career with 108 tackles and five interceptions and was also invited to play in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
Spielman said the team has always tried to focus on those undrafted players and this year spent $473,000 to sign those 12 players, the most since Zimmer came on as head coach.
“We had some extra time this year and so we really tried to hone in on some of the top college free agents that didn’t get drafted, and we feel we were able to land some of those guys,” Spielman said. “I’ll hold judgment until we get them in here, but I felt we added some talent and that has been a little bit of our MO over the last couple of years is being aggressive financially to go out and get the top talent that did not get drafted.
“I think we have a couple of guys that will definitely be able to come in and compete for spots.”
• Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren has created the Big Ten Conference Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition for student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors, chancellors and presidents to work together for racial equality. There is no better leader in the country for this role than Warren. He and his wife, Greta, also made a personal donation of $100,000 from the Warren Family Foundation to the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
• The Timberwolves, Cavaliers and Warriors will all have a 14% chance of landing the No. 1 draft pick in the 2020 draft. The Cavs drafted Andrew Wiggins No. 1 overall in 2014 and then traded him to the Wolves, who traded him to the Warriors this season.
• The Gophers hockey team has signed defenseman Carl Fish for next season. Fish graduated from St. Paul Johnson and played the past two seasons in the NAHL with Bismarck. He scored 24 points (five goals, 19 assists) last season in 39 games.
• Gophers defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere, who was awarded the Big Ten Outstanding Sportsmanship Award last week, is still looking to make an NFL camp.
• While Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association continue to hash out a plan for the 2020 season, one thing seems likely and that’s a 20-man taxi squad that will allow teams to call up any minor leaguer who isn’t on the 30-man roster. This could be a huge boost to the Twins, who have a great farm system.
• Former Twins playing in Korea: Byung Ho Park is hitting .222 with six homers and 17 RBI; Taylor Motter is hitting .114 with one homer and three RBI; and Drew Rucinski is 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 38⅓ innings pitched.
• NFL Network analyst Michael Robinson said the Vikings running backs group with Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison and C.J. Ham is the best in the league.