Sunday slant: The Minnesota Vikings’ most valuable defender?

The Vikings are stockpiling defensive talent, making it difficult to choose which defender is the best among them.

The Minnesota Vikings defense had a breakthrough in 2015 not seen in these parts in some time, claiming the No. 5 defense in points allowed. Just years prior, the year before Mike Zimmer took over as head coach, the Vikings had given up the most points per game – 30 – in the league. Last year, it was just under 19 points per game.

Yet, one man after another, the Vikings’ defenders claim there is plenty to improve upon for 2016, and, of course, they are right. Despite passing the eye test for improved pass defense and cultivating the belief that they could effectively limit some of the better offenses in the NFL for the first time in these players’ purple histories, they point to the desire to clean up the two-minute defense and end-of-half situations.

Their hope is that another year in Zimmer’s defense will allow them to hone in the details rather than trying to simply ingest big-picture concepts, but who will be the players most crucial to that effort?  This year, the Vikings broke through in another regard: respect among peers. Two defenders, Linval Joseph and Harrison Smith, were named to the NFL Networks top 100 players for 2016, a list based strictly off comments from players around the league. It remains to be seen if other defenders, like Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr, make the top 60, which hasn’t been made public yet.

Griffen is critical to the Vikings getting edge pressure on quarterbacks, and plenty of that needs to be generated with Aaron Rodgers getting Jordy Nelson back, and Jay Cutler throwing to Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White. Griffen easily led the Vikings with 10½ sacks and an additional 14 quarterback hits. But 24 of the 34 tackles the NFL credited to Griffen happened in the running game, showing he is much more than a one-trick pony.

Barr is perhaps the team’s most versatile defender. He gives Zimmer the flexibility to disguise his bad intentions and keep quarterbacks guessing if Barr is bringing his impressive pass rush or dropping into coverage. In addition to generating 3½ sacks, he had eight quarterback hits, seven passes defensed, three forced fumbles, and his 54 tackles were evenly split at 27 apiece in run and pass situations.

Smith’s production was similar, with 1½ sacks, six quarterback hits, three passes defensed, 25 tackles on running plays and 24 on passing plays.

“He’s a straight baller,” Captain Munnerlyn told NFL Network about Smith. “… The things he does on the field are unbelievable.”

“They call him Hitman for a reason,” Xavier Rhodes said of Smith. “He’s just going to go with his gut, he’s just fearless.”

But it was Barr that claimed Joseph is the best player on the Vikings – not just the defense. Yet, Joseph has perhaps the greatest disparity in production on run defense and pass defense – rarely being used in the obvious passing situations. He was acquired for his ability to stuff the run and he does nearly as well as anyone in the league, the proof being in his 38 tackles in running situations and only four when teams passed.

“This year, he’s really made undeniable that he’s one of the top interior defensive players in the league. He’s not the guy that’s going to be talking smack just to talk smack,” Bears guard Kyle Long said of Joseph. “He’s extremely strong at the point of attack, nasty and wants to body slam when given the opportunity. He plays really hard. You put those three things together and he’s a terror across from you.”

So who is the Vikings’ best defender?

Ask most players on the defense and they point to Joseph’s freakish strength to manhandle offensive linemen and take on double teams. But among the general population within the Vikings fan base, Joseph is underappreciated, perhaps because he doesn’t the highlight reels. He knows his forte and performs the yeoman grunt work within the often-overlooked trenches.

Barr might be the most athletic combination of size and speed … or is it the Tazmanian Devil spinmeister in Griffen?

The fact is the Vikings defense has made such strong strides not only because of Zimmer’s presence, but also because they are now stockpiling young talent that fits exactly what Zimmer likes to do best – have versatile players that him options and disguises when needed most.

The answer to who is the best defender in purple might lie in what the moment calls for, so take your pick. One can make a compelling argument for any of those four, but the way Zimmer likes to play it is having everyone do their job and let the playmakers make an impact when presented the opportunity.

In other words, the best defender in Minnesota is one feeding off the other candidates at that time. The individual parts are becoming more impressive each year, but the sum of them is what drives the whole … and drives up their rankings and recognition.


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