Going into the offseason, the defense was the biggest issue that the Vikings had to address. They have been almost torn apart the past few seasons on that side of the ball. Minnesota made moves in both free agency and the draft to remedy this.
How will the front 7 adjust to the new defensive scheme?
The Vikings have run the 4–3 defense continuously since 1986, the longest current run in the NFL. However, new head coach Kevin O’Connell has announced that the Vikings will revert to the 3–4 in 2022 under new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Donatell is looking to make the switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 with 3 defensive linemen, and 4 linebackers.
Za’Darius Smith played in the 3-4 defense with the Packers. Danielle Hunter has also but hasn’t done so since his time at LSU in 2014. Since then, Hunter has only played in a 4-3 scheme with the Vikings. In his final and best year at LSU, Hunter had 30 solo tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 13 tackles for a loss. He also had one forced fumble, and one fumble returned for a touchdown. As for Smith, he had 41 solo tackles, 13.5 sacks, and 17 tackles for a loss in his best year in Green Bay.
On the inside, there will be Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks. The former played in it during his time at UCLA where he started for three years and set the UCLA record for career tackles with 481. Additionally in his final year, Kendricks was awarded the Butkus Award which is given annually to the top linebacker in college football.
Most recently, Hicks played in a 3-4 scheme during his time with Arizona where he recorded his best career numbers with an average of 82 solo tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception over three years. Given their experience with the newer scheme, they should be fine as well.
It is looking like the nose tackle will be played by Dalvin Tomlinson who has not done so since his collegiate play at Alabama in 2016. However, he was a part of a Crimson Tide team that was the #1 in rushing defense and tied for #1 in total defense. That year, Tomlinson had 17 solo tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, and one forced fumble. Since then, he has mostly played in a 4-3 defense for the Giants and Vikings.
The Vikings also signed Harrison Phillips from the 2021 No. 1 defense in the NFL, the Buffalo Bills. Defensive coordinator and former Vikings DC and head coach, Leslie Frazier, put that defense not only in total defense, but six other major defensive categories including points allowed, pass defense, and third down defense.
Bringing Experience to the Line
The only team that surpassed 400 yards of total offense in a game against Buffalo was Tampa Bay, and 75 of its 488 yards came in overtime on the drive that won the game. Otherwise, the Bills yielded more than 300 yards in only five games and more than 30 points in only three. As part of that defense, Phillips got 60 solo tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 13 QB hits, and one sack. However, similar to Hunter, he was part of a 4-3 defense and hasn’t played in a 3-4 defense since his time at Stanford in 2017. In his final and best year at Stanford, Phillips had 37 solo tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 17 tackles for a loss. He also had two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Jaylen Twyman is the only player on the line that has seemingly never played in the 3-4 scheme. His only backup that has played in a 3-4 would be rookie, Esezi Otomewo who did at the University of Minnesota. There, Otomewo recorded 81 tackles and 7.5 sacks in four seasons. While Twyman is the given starter at this point, Otomewo has had more experience with this scheme and has the potential to take this job over. We’ll see.
Overall, the front seven players look to be in great shape to be one of the top defenses in the NFL even with a relatively new scheme.
How has the depth at the corner position improved?
The defensive backs were one of the biggest concerns going into the offseason. The pass defense allowed about 11.7 yards per completion and 29 touchdowns through the air. For the majority of the season, opposing offenses targeted Bashaud Breeland 88 times and he allowed 64% of passes thrown his way to be completed for an average of 13.9 yards per completion. Breeland also allowed the most touchdowns on the team with 7. On the other side of the lines, Patrick Peterson allowed 64% of passes thrown his way to be completed for an average of 11.5 yards per completion. Though those numbers for Peterson are better than both 2019 and 2020, it still isn’t the best. Even with the Vikings resigning him to a 1-year deal, he is not a long-term solution.
More Talent, but questions remain
On paper, the cornerback room has more talent now, but it depends a lot on how well Cameron Dantzler does in his third season. According to the Pioneer Press, Dantzler is up to 191 pounds and still might add more. He showed signs of being an excellent player as a rookie, starting 10 games and recording two interceptions, three tackles for loss, and a forced fumble. Last season, Dantzler fell behind Bashaud Breeland but still started seven games, playing 685 snaps. In those games, he gave up fewer catches, yards, and touchdowns, doubled his total pass breakups, and cut his missed tackles in half. Hopefully, his numbers will improve this year with his increased weight.
Draft picks and signings
The Vikings also drafted Andrew Booth Jr. to compete with Cameron Dantzler and Patrick Peterson. Booth mainly fell in the draft because of injury concerns. If he’s healthy, he’ll help the Vikings in the short-term and the long-term. In the slot, the Vikings signed Nate Hairston, who played for the Broncos last season, and Chandon Sullivan, the former Packer who is the favorite for this role.
Overall, the unit is seemingly improved from prior years but none of that is proven. We won’t know how much of the on-paper talent is theoretical or realistic until Week 1.
Will first-round draft pick, Lewis Cine, or veteran, Cam Bynum, be the starter?
Harrison Smith has been a staple at the safety position both on the Vikings and in the NFL as a whole. He has never ranked outside of the top 20 and scored in the top three by PFF in 2015, 2017, and 2019. Over his career, Smith has only given up an extremely low 57.6 QB rating on throws in his direction. However, he is now 33 which does make him closer to the end of his career than the beginning. The Vikings clearly want Smith around until the end to teach the next round of safeties as they chose to restructure his contract instead of moving on.
In the first round of the draft, the Vikings took defensive MVP of the championship-winning Georgia Bulldogs, Lewis Cine. Based on his numbers alone, Cine would fall in the top 3 safeties of the draft. He was at the top of the list in speed and had the second highest jump. Cine also had the second-biggest arms and was the second-fastest in the 10-yard dash. He’ll be competing with Camryn Bynum to start alongside Smith. But the long-term plan is that he’ll eventually replace Smith.
Bynum was able to give an impressive rookie showing in 2021 and him starting over Cine would not be surprising. After getting in for just nine plays in the first seven games, Bynum gained a starting position when Smith tested positive for COVID-19 and was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. Bynum ended up getting an interception and 12 tackles in that first game against Baltimore. In his second game, he had a sack and six tackles. When Smith returned, Bynum still started but as a nickel back. As a rookie, he had a total of 20 solo tackles with one being for a loss and one QB hit. While his time on the field was limited, he made the most of it and gained a lot of “confidence” entering his second season.
Both players are biding to replace Xavier Woods, who left as a free agent to sign with the Carolina Panthers. The future looks very bright after Smith ultimately retires from the Vikings. Here’s hoping that when that time comes, the duo of Bynum and Cine will be at the top of the league’s best safety duos.