Why The 2015 Minnesota Vikings' Defense Could Be Dominant
This offseason the Minnesota Vikings have emerged as everyone's favorite surprise playoff team, and for good reason.
The Vikings have everything you want in a team on the rise, including: a promising young quarterback coming off a solid rookie year in Teddy Bridgewater; the return of one of the most exciting players in the NFL in superstar running-back Adrian Peterson; and most importantly, a young defense filled with loads of potential.
This Vikings' defense could be primed for a dominating season, backed by the efforts of some of their emerging players.
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2012 first-round pick Harrison Smith is easily one of the most underrated players in the NFL. At the age of 26, Smith is already one of the NFL's premier safeties. Smith is one of the rare safeties in the NFL who can cover one side of the field as a deep-safety, drop down in the box as a run-defender or pass-rusher and be effective in man-coverage.
This type of versatility is only found in the NFL's elite safeties (Earl Thomas, Eric Weddle). And that's what Smith is, elite. Smith is highly athletic and versatile, as evidenced by the wide-ranging things he is asked to do in Mike Zimmer's scheme.
Smith is one of the NFL's best open-field tacklers, which is essential because safeties are typically the last line of defense to prevent a big play. Smith isn't one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the NFL, but his awareness and ability to take perfect angles to ball-carriers is what sets him apart. Rarely is Smith out of position on a play and that is a testament to his intelligence on the field.
Smith's proficiency as a pass-rusher is also an interesting facet of his game. Smith rushed the passer 38 times last season, accumulating two sacks, three hits and five hurries in the process. This type of production as a pass-rusher is impressive and could lead the Vikings to increasing Smith's snaps as a pass-rusher this season.
Smith was Pro Football Focus' second-highest graded safety last season mostly as a result of his effectiveness against the run. If Smith repeats his performance from last season, it will be hard for people to continue to strip him of the recognition he deserves.
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2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes has quietly become one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. Rhodes has the prototypical build of an NFL cornerback and has the physicality to operate in press-coverage, something he is typically asked to do.
Rhodes' play was a little uneven in the beginning of the season, but he seemed to switch a gear towards the season's midpoint.
Rhodes produced a four-game stretch last season, in which he was matched up against the likes of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Jordy Nelson, where he was arguably playing like the best corner-back in the NFL. Over that period he was thrown at 22 times, allowed only seven receptions for 54 yards, while notching seven pass breakups and one interception. Quarterbacks targeting Rhodes over that time had a passer rating of just 22.2.
Those are Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman numbers Rhodes was putting up during that stretch and that is high company to be placed in. This is not to say that four games is a sufficient sample size to elevate a player to the NFL's elite, but what it does say is that Rhodes is capable of producing at that level.
The most important thing for Rhodes is for him to be able to produce at this level throughout the season. A true shut-down corner can revolutionize a defense, the same way Revis did for the New England Patriots last season.
If Rhodes emerges as an elite cornerback, coupled with Smith at safety, this secondary could be one of the NFL's best.
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2014 first-round pick (sensing a theme here?) Anthony Barr was emerging as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate last year before his season was cut short because of injury. Much of his "rookie of the year buzz" had to do with Barr's explosiveness on the field. This was especially prominent when Barr was used as a pass-rusher, garnering four sacks in limited pass-rushing snaps.
Barr was aggressive against the run, displaying the burst and power that proved why he was a first-round talent in the first place. His aggressiveness sometimes worked against him though, as he would typically over-pursue ball-carries, explaining his 22 missed tackles (most out of 4-3 outside-linebackers).
Barr is by all accounts still a raw player in the NFL, but if his game shows signs of maturing on the field this season, he could be very dangerous. Barr's talent could propel him to be one of the most feared defenders in the NFL, but that will only happen if he improves his awareness and angles to the ball-carrier.
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2010 fourth-round pick Everson Griffen was, to a surprise to many, awarded last offseason with a five-year extension worth $42.4 million. This extension, in terms of yearly averages, put Griffen up there with the best 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL. While Griffen showed flashes of being a promising pass-rusher in a rotational role, his contract didn't come close to matching his actual production on the field throughout his time in Minnesota.
Flash forward one offseason later and the Vikings are looking pretty smart for locking up Griffen; he broke out last season as a full-time starter, becoming one of the most productive pass-rushers in the NFL. Griffen was tied for the fifth-most total pressures out of 4-3 defensive-ends last season with 64 in total.
That type of pass-rush production alone is worthy of the $42.4 million extension Griffen was signed to last offseason, but Griffen also awarded the Vikings with stoutness in run defense. Griffen used his power and length to leverage defenders and make plays against ball-carries consistently last season.
The defensive talent on the Vikings' roster doesn't just stop after these four players. Former 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd has emerged as one of the most stout run-defenders in the NFL. Next to Floyd is the massive nose-tackle Linval Joseph, forming one of the best interior duos in the NFL.
In terms of talent, this defense is loaded. If these players come close to reaching their full potential this season, the Vikings' defense could be leading this team to the playoffs.