The Vikings must rebuild their defense to be seen as Super Bowl contenders

Vikings offseason Xavier Rhodes
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It might not have been the defense that let them down in their blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, but that’s likely going to be the focus of the Minnesota Vikings’ this offseason.

Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer has gone on record noting that the NFL is a young man’s game and seemed open to the possibility of moving on from former Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

There’s certainly a backdrop to this. Minnesota’s defense is aging and remains one expensive unit. It needs to get younger with a new group of coaches leading that side of the ball. It’s the only way these Vikes are going to remain relevant in the NFC.

The idea: Minnesota needs to allocate more of its resources to the offensive line, while finding a way to get cheaper and younger on defense. There’s good news on this front, too.

The cap: Currently $12.3 million over the cap, general manager Rick Spielman and Co. have the NFL’s worst cap situation with free agency set to open in about five weeks. Things will change swiftly on this front.

  • The Vikings can save a whopping $40-plus million against the cap by releasing aging veterans Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph and Harrison Smith on the defensive side of the ball.
  • Joseph and Smith could also restructure their contracts, something the Vikings would like in order to keep them in the mix. Griffen and Rhodes are almost certainly gone.
  • While he’s received criticism in recent seasons, Spielman has done a tremendous job working the cap. His Vikes can save another $12-plus million by releasing offensive tackle Riley Reiff and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Minnesota has replacements in that of Brian O’Neill and Irv Smith Jr., respectively.

That’s a lot to work with: Assuming Minnesota makes these necessary moves, it is looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million in cap room. Based on current numbers, that would rank within the top 20. Not great. But better than where they are right now.

  • The Vikings will want to re-sign impressive 28-year-old safety Anthony Harris after he led the NFL in interceptions with six this past season.
  • Outside of that, there’s not much to look at. We fully expect Minnesota to let Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander walk in free agency. It’s time for some new blood at corner in Minnesota.
  • This should put the Vikings in a darn good situation to add one or two free-agent defenders coming off their rookie deals — long-term options on a unit riddled with aging veterans.

Ideal free-agent targets: Here’s a look at players the Vikings might want to consider adding to help them get younger on defense and improve the offensive line.

  • Vic Beasley: Still only 27 years old, Beasley is coming off an eight-sack performance with the Atlanta Falcons. That came after two seasons in which he recorded a combined 10 sacks. The former NFL sack leader (15.5 in 2016) is not going to be back in Atlanta and could take a prove-it deal. He would replace Everson Griffen opposite the dominating Danielle Hunter.
  • Artie Burns: Before finding himself in the dog house with Pittsburgh this past season, the 24-year-old Burns had started 31 games in his first three NFL seasons. A former first-round pick, he has the physicality that Zimmer likes on defense and could potentially compete for a starting job on a smallish free-agent contract. At the least, he’d add to a young core that includes Mike Hughes, Holton Hill and Kris Boyd.
  • Andrus Peat: This would be Minnesota’s big free-agent acquisition. Josh Kline and Pat Elflein are not the long-term answers at guard in Minnesota. Ideally, the Vikes would upgrade both spots this spring. Peat, 26, is already a two-time Pro Bowler and is seen as one of the best guards in the NFL. If Minnesota can afford $13-plus million annually in free agency, it has to be on a guard of this ilk.

One blockbuster trade: There’s a certain wide receiver in Minneapolis that has caused major drama. But he’s not the star Minnesota should look to trade this spring.

  • There have been rumors that star running back Dalvin Cook could pull a Melvin Gordon-type holdout should Minnesota not back up the Brink’s truck for him. Cook is coming off a 2019 season that saw him record 1,654 total yards and 13 touchdowns.
  • It was a major breakout performance from a young back that had played 15 combined games in his first two seasons. Signing Cook to a lucrative long-term deal would be a risk.
  • It’s in this that I recommend enticing the New York Jets to give up All-Pro safety Jamal Adams for Cook. It’s purely hypothetical, but New York wants a true fit in Adam Gase’s system to work with young quarterback Sam Darnold. Free-agent acquisition Le’Veon Bell did not provide that last season.
  • In turn, the Vikings could either turn to impressive young back Alexander Mattison to be their starter or sign a cheaper veteran off the streets. Adams himself would eventually take over for Harrison Smith, creating an elite safety duo with Anthony Harris.

The NFL Draft: While we have Minnesota addressing the interior of its offensive line in Round 1, a majority of the rest of the draft should be spent on the defensive side of the ball.

1- Cesar Ruiz, guard, Michigan: Minny needs to find an upgrade along the interior line to help Kirk Cousins under center. The team is invested in Cousins. And based on this unit’s performance in the NFC Playoffs, guard is of an utmost need. Ruiz has been a fast riser up the draft boards and could solidify this position for years to come.

2- Cameron Dantzler, cornerback, Mississippi State: Physical corners. Whether its Adam Zimmer or Dom Capers really calling the shots here, that’s what Minnesota values on defense. At 6-foot-2, Dantzler is just that. He could play both on the outside and in nickel situations. Great value here.

3- James Lynch, defensive tackle, Baylor: At some point, the Vikes are going to have to consider getting younger along the interior of their line. An elite pass rusher from that area, Lynch would provide an immediate impact and be a long-term option.

3- Collin Johnson, wide receiver, Texas: Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are missing the size. Irv Smith is more of an athletic freak at tight end. Minnesota needs a big-body receiver. At 6-foot-6, that’s exactly what Johnson is. Who knows? Maybe he’ll make the impact Laquon Treadwell failed to make in this role.

Bottom line

As noted, Minnesota needs to get younger on defense and start exhausting more of its draft/financial capital on the offensive line. This is the only way the Vikings are going to overcome both average quarterback play and a lackluster offensive line to remain credible in the NFC.

It’s akin to retooling on the fly. Moving on from Cook would be a bitter pill to swallow. But a safety of Jamal Adams’ ilk provides more bang for the buck in today’s NFL.

Getting younger in the secondary and on the edge would be absolutely huge, especially with the built-in talent this roster has at those areas.

More importantly, finding multiple upgrades along the offensive line is key. If that means moving on from aging veterans on defense, so be it.

This blueprint would help Minnesota in 2020 and into the future.