Perhaps there was no better way for the 2020 Minnesota Vikings playoff hopes to officially come to an end. A team whose leading sacker hasn’t played for the team in two months couldn’t get to an injured, immobile 41-year old quarterback. But they’ll be remembered for letting Alvin Kamara run in six touchdowns (it should have been seven had Sean Payton not let Taysom Hill run in a score late in the game). Mike Zimmer, dealt the worst hand he’s gotten since arriving in Minnesota before the 2014 season, couldn’t mask his team’s deficiencies on a national stage. Heading into the off-season, fixing the Minnesota Vikings defensive line needs to be the team’s main goal.
Return of the Veterans
The most obvious way for us to improve the defensive front is getting Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce back. Hunter missed the season with a neck injury, and Pierce opted out due to Covid-19 prior to the season. Between Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson, the Vikings only got two sacks out of their starting interior defensive linemen and little to no pressure outside of that. Pierce weighs in at 6-0, 340 pounds and is a force in the running game. While he isn’t as much of a pass rushing threat, he can’t be any worse than what Stephen has given the team since 2014.
Hunter, meanwhile, has been a stud pass rusher since entering the league in 2015 and is a solid run defender, too. The Vikings rank 28th in run defense this season and the contain (or lack thereof) by the defensive ends in the run and play action games have been problems for us all season. With those two in the mix, a line consisting of inconsistent young players at least stabilizes with those two.
Better Roles for Role Players
Johnson will likely be gone in 2021 as his contract expires with Minnesota. If coach-favorite Shamar Stephen returns, it should be for no other reason than to provide depth along the line. Meanwhile, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo leads the current roster with 3.5 sacks after accumulating seven sacks in what many believed was a breakout performance in 2019. There is likely a place for Odenigbo in Minnesota, but probably not as an every down lineman.
Guys like Jalyn Holmes have been thrust into the starting lineup but have provided little as starters. Holmes provides decent depth and can probably take some snaps away from Hunter and another defensive end when needed. Armon Watts has played more snaps than Zimmer and company would like but he still has flashed in spots and can provide some depth on the inside. These guys can be more effective just by not being asked to be full-time contributors on the Minnesota Vikings defensive line.
A Compliment for Hunter
After the departure of longtime defensive end Everson Griffen, it appeared that the Vikings would enter the season with Odenigbo opposite Hunter. A trade for former Jaguar Yannick Ngakoue looked to be the bookend on the other side of the line. But then Hunter’s neck never got better and Ngakoue, despite leading the team with five sacks, was shipped out of town during the team’s bye week.
It would be surprising if the Vikings did not spend money in free agency or use a high draft pick to address the other defensive end position. With an improving but young secondary, one would think that Zimmer would want to do all he can to improve a pass rush that in turn would help an inconsistent secondary.