5 potential unsung impact players on the Vikings defense in 2020

Vikings defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo spoke recently with reporters about the virtual off-season and the chance to be a starter in 2020.

The Minnesota Vikings defense is going to have a vastly different look during the 2020 season.

George Edwards is no longer the defensive coordinator, with his contract not being renewed after the 2019 season. In steps Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer, who will step in and share duties with Mike Zimmer keeping a close eye.

The NFL is a business and players have to do what’s best for their individual situations. Nowhere is that more evident than the Vikings, who had eight defensive starters or contributors depart in NFL free agency. The list includes Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Stephen Weatherly, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and Andrew Sendejo.

If you ask coaches, every departure or injury is a chance for somebody else to step up. So with so many holes to fill in 2020, who will fill those voids? Vikings fans already know all about Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. That’s the core of the Vikings’ defense.

Here are five less popular names to keep an eye on as we wait for training camps to start and the season to get closer.

Eric Wilson

Eric Wilson is one of the many examples of a player who starts out on special teams before making an impact elsewhere. Wilson played 16 games at linebacker for the Vikings, and got six starts last season with Barr and Kendricks missing games due to injuries. Wilson had 62 tackles, including six tackles for loss, three sacks, forced a fumble and had a fumble recovery. He’s fifth on the team in tackles among players returning from last season.

Wilson made the most of his opportunities when he had the chance, and could get a bigger role this year at linebacker even with Barr and Kendricks back.

Michael Pierce

After four seasons in Baltimore, Michael Pierce has joined the Vikings’ defensive line to fill the void left by Linval Joseph. At least that’s what the team hopes. Pierce made 14 starts at defensive tackle for the Ravens last season, recording 35 tackles, two for a loss, three quarterback hits and a half sack. He also had a fumble recovery and three quarterback hits. He helped lead the Ravens to the No. 5 rushing defense in the NFL last season.

Pierce is a big man who’s expected to disrupt the middle of the line of scrimmage. At 6 feet, 340 pounds, he can back squat in excess of 600 pounds.

Ifeadi Odenigbo

He’s still learning what it takes to be a consistent player on the defensive line in the NFL, but Ifeadi Odenigbo made a splash in 2019. In just his second season, he played 16 games and had 23 tackles, including seven tackles for a loss, seven sacks and 13 quarterback hits. The highlight of his 2019 season was at the L.A. Chargers, scooping up a Philip Rivers fumble and taking it 56 yards for a touchdown.

Look for Odenigbo to provide a more consistent presence on the defensive line, and compete for snaps with Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson.

Kris Boyd

The Vikings lost five players in the secondary in the off-season, and the returning players other than Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith are young. The Vikings don’t want to give their rookies too much to handle, so that makes second-year player Kris Boyd a candidate to fill a role. Coaches have raved about Boyd in the off-season. He led the special teams unit in tackles last year and in 16 games, made 22 tackles, had two tackles for a loss, one pass defended and one fumble recovery.

Look for Boyd to take a step forward in his second season with the Vikings.

Hercules Mata’afa

Hercules Mata’afa became a fan favorite at training camp last year, and you can’t blame the fans with a name like that. After making a splash in training camp, Mata’afa appeared in six games last season on the defensive line and made one tackle, a tackle for a loss and had one pass defended. Coaches say he was impressive in the team’s virtual off-season, and could be poised to make a jump this year.

The Vikings also drafted four rookies in the secondary, so keep an eye on Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, Josh Metellus and Brian Cole II.