After last season, Mike Zimmer was miserable. His Minnesota Vikings missed the playoffs for the second time in three years, and a shoddy defense was a primary reason.
“Honestly, at the end of the season, I was kind of down in the dumps when I kept looking at the depth chart and knowing what kind of salary-cap space we had,” the head coach admitted Wednesday.
But things are looking up now for Zimmer. The Vikings have been creative in free agency with the cap, and rebuilding has begun on what Zimmer said was a “pretty barren” defense.
“They’ve gotten me rejuvenated with the guys they’ve brought in,” Zimmer said about general manager Rick Spielman and team executive Rob Brzezinski.
The Vikings have signed free agents Dalvin Tomlinson at defensive tackle, eight-time Pro Bowl selection Patrick Peterson at cornerback and Xavier Woods at safety, and they agreed to terms with linebacker Nick Vigil. They re-signed defensive end Stephen Weatherly and cornerback Mackensie Alexander; both players spent the 2020 season elsewhere after leaving as free agents. And they got linebacker Anthony Barr to take a pay cut after there was a chance he might be released because of cap reasons.
Barr, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, will return after missing the final 14 games of last season after shoulder surgery. The Vikings also will get back two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter, who missed all of last year due to neck surgery; nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic, and 2019 all-pro linebacker Eric Kendricks, who missed the final five games of 2020 due to a calf injury.
The Vikings still don’t appear to be as good as in 2017, when they were No. 1 in the NFL in both scoring defense and total defense. But they look way better than last season’s defense, which ranked 29th in scoring defense and 27th in total defense when far too many young players were used and Minnesota went 7-9.
“I’m not used to that level of performance from one of our groups, (but now) I’m actually really excited,” Zimmer said. “I can’t wait to get back on the field. …It’s going to look completely different (in 2021).”
Still, there is much work to be done before the Vikings are truly back on defense. Zimmer admitted he needs to make some scheme adjustments to get the unit back to the level he wants.
“The offenses lately have been getting us to think because we have to adjust here, adjust there, do this, do that,” Zimmer said. “Some of these things we’ve talked about and it’s just too hard to implement during the season. Some of it is big change, some of it is minor tweaks. … It’s time that we need to do some things differently and change and adapt.”
Zimmer stressed he wants the defense to “play fast” and “play physical.” That could be helped by Tomlinson, whom Zimmer called “very physical” and a “really good athlete.” The 319-pounder will line up at three-technique defense tackle alongside the 340-pound Pierce, giving the Vikings 659 pounds of bulk in the middle.
“They’re both really, really good run players who can push the pocket,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer lauded the signings of Peterson and Woods to help the secondary. Peterson, who turns 31 in July, last week quashed speculation that he could be moved to safety, and Zimmer reiterated that he won’t change positions.
“He’s always been a great corner,” Zimmer said. “He wants to continue to get better and wants to continue to play longer, and we’re hopeful that we can help him to do that.”
As to whether Alexander or Jeff Gladney will be the nickel back, Zimmer wouldn’t speculate but said he has talked to both players about what different things they might be called upon to do. As for Woods, he’s in line to be the starting free safety alongside strong safety Harrison Smith.
“I watch all the tapes, and I think he’s got another level to go to,” Zimmer said of Woods, who admitted this week he “didn’t have a good season” in 2020 with Dallas. “I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder. … I like bringing in guys when other people say they’re probably not good enough somewhere else.”
Put it all together, and the Vikings’ defense looks a lot better at the end of March than it did at the start of the month.
“I’ve texted Zim and (co-defensive coordinator) Adam (Zimmer) and said, ‘Your defense seems to be getting better,’ ” said Cowboys radio analyst and former NFL quarterback Babe Laufenberg, who is close to both Zimmer and his son. “Obviously, it looks like a lot of great moves.”