Vikings defense will rely on veterans with several holes to fill in 2020

Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints is pursued by Danielle Hunter #99 of the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 05, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. ((Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images))

One of the most interesting position battles for the Minnesota Vikings at Training Camp was an afterthought, until about two weeks ago.

Michael Pierce, the team’s biggest off-season acquisition, made it official he was opting out of the 2020 NFL season. He suffers from asthma, and a battle with pneumonia in recent years has him concerned about playing football due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pierce signed a three-year, $27 million deal in free agency to play nose tackle for the Vikings, effectively replacing Linval Joseph. Now, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson has a competition to monitor leading up to Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers.

“We’ve got great competition in that room at that position, and I think we’re going to be just fine,” Patterson said last week.

He pointed to Shamar Stephen, Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson and their efforts last year in a Week 10 win over the Cowboys. Dallas featured the No. 1 offensive line in the NFL at the time, and one of the game’s top running backs.

Ezekiel Elliott finished that night with 20 carries for just 47 yards.

In addition to Stephen, Watts and Johnson, Hercules Mata’afa and James Lynch will get looks at defensive tackle.

“When it’s all said and done, I’m going to put the best two defensive tackles out there that give us the best opportunity to be successful,” Patterson said.

It’s one of many questions the Vikings defense faces as it gets ready for the 2020 season. Gone are Joseph, Stephen Weatherly, Everson Griffen and a majority of the starting secondary last season.

No Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Jayron Kearse, Mackensie Alexander or Andrew Sendejo. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris will provided much-needed leadership to a secondary whose only returning experience is Mike Hughes and Holton Hill.

Despite the departures, the Vikings aren’t straying from having high expectations on defense. Not when Mike Zimmer is your head coach.

“I guess I’ve kind of been out of the loop. I didn’t know we were supposed to be bad,” Smith said. “It’s just the reality of the NFL and football, that’s how it is most places every single year. We have a lot of talent, we have a lot of confidence in the guys coming up. We have a lot of confidence in the coaches. I think it’ll be good.”

Patterson isn’t worried about what the defense will look like in 2020. The Vikings have one of the most dominant defensive ends in the NFL in Danielle Hunter, they’ve got Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr to lead the linebackers and arguably the best safety due in football between Harris and Smith.

“We do still have a lot of good returning football players on our defense. We’ve got Pro Bowl players at every level of our defense, there’s not very many teams that can say that,” Patterson said.

That said, replacing Pierce will be a key ingredient to the Vikings’ defense this season. Many teams try to pressure the quarterback or stop the run game up the middle. The Vikings use their defensive tackles to free up the linebackers to make plays.

Last year, Kendricks led the Vikings’ defense with 110 tackles. He was named All-Pro and a Pro Bowl selection. Patterson said Stephen had a lot to do with that.

“I think Eric Kendricks will tell you that part of the reason he went to the Pro Bowl are those two big bodies sitting in front of him. They allow him to run from sideline to sideline, and be free. Their No. 1 job in their life is to not let anybody touch Eric,” Patterson said. “If you watch film and you ask Eric Kendricks if he had to pick anybody to go to the game with and he makes sure that that guy is there, I guarantee he’d tell you it’s 93. Because 93 is not going to let anybody get to the second level and block Eric.”

Patterson said he had some advice for Pierce after he opted out for the season: Hire a good trainer, and a better nutritionist.

“My biggest thing for him was No. 1, stay safe, make the correct choices out there while you’re away. Then No. 2, get you a great trainer that makes sure you stay in shape and find you someone that can cook you meals to make sure you’re eating the correct meals,” Patterson said.

They hope to have Pierce back in 2021, but for the next four weeks, the job is to find 11 guys who can find a way to be on the same page against Aaron Rodgers in Week 1 after an off-season that’s been anything but normal.

Smith said having new faces in the mix can be energizing and refreshing.

“I think everyone is hungry and that’s what it’s about, just getting 11 guys on the field that want to chase the ball and have success, and have success for one another,” Smith said.