The Minnesota Vikings suffered a devastating 31-24 loss on Sunday in the Wild Card round to the New York Giants, officially ending one of the most memorable seasons for the team in recent years.
Although Minnesota was the betting favorite, many fans and analysts had predicted New York to advance. The reasoning was primarily based on the Vikings’ tendency to keep games close throughout the regular season. While the offense often caused this by stalling out in the second and third quarters, what caused the downfall in every loss was the team’s defense.
Led by defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, the unit ranked worst in the league in combined yards and points allowed, and 31st in passing yards allowed. Switching from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme this year was a major adjustment by Donatell, who has likely coached his last game for Minnesota, and it showed until the very end.
However, some players looked to have regressed in aspects unaffected by the change. Some of these Vikings on defense are fan favorites who have been on the team since Minnesota’s 2017 conference championship run, making their potential departures even more difficult for fans to stomach.
Harrison Smith, the defense’s starting safety and team leader for the past decade is likely bound for Canton. This season, he noticeably took a step back. Smith is now 33 years old, so his speed and tackling skills are now nowhere near that of his prime. He is set to have a $20 million cap hit for the team next year, something the front office will likely deal with by cutting him.
2019 first-team All-Pro middle linebacker Eric Kendricks has been with the Vikings since 2015 and had been one of the league’s underrated defenders for years. In Sunday’s game versus the Giants, he looked like he forgot who he was. His coverage on underneath routes was poor and he lacked any urgency when chasing the ballcarrier, almost like he was jogging during plays. Fans will certainly be disappointed to see him go, but with a backup in Brian Asamoah who takes up far less money and has shown great potential, it makes sense to cut Kendricks.
Some guys have only recently gotten meaningful time in Minnesota and could be gone before next season. Defensive end Jonathan Bullard and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks both signed with the Vikings before the season in moves that seemed tactical, but neither made much of an impact this year and will likely be released.
Defensive backs Chandon Sullivan and Camryn Bynum both got their first opportunities to shine in significant roles this year but looked lost in nearly every game they played. They were admittedly depth guys who mainly played due to starters’ injuries, but their play this season showed why they were never on the field before then. Minnesota will likely have safety Lewis Cine and cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. back next season, the team’s top choices of last year’s draft.
Veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson is a toss-up to return, he is past his prime but is definitely serviceable in such a rough cornerback situation. Peterson will be a free agent this offseason, and if the money is right he could play a big role in developing younger guys next year.
Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter, the edges of the Vikings’ ferocious defensive front, were inconsistent all year. Smith started the season strong with seven sacks in the first half of the season, but lingering injuries limited him to just a sack and a half in the second. It was difficult to see how much regression there was talent-wise for Hunter, as the scheme change completely disrupted the play style that he had been so dominant at for years. Contract restructures or trades are the most likely scenarios for the duo, so getting rid of either for nothing is very unlikely.
The Vikings have not had a true rebuild in just under a decade meaning many fans are experiencing this kind of turnover for the first time. Losing such iconic franchise players will certainly be tough for many of the purple and gold faithful, especially those who are new to team teardowns. It may be a long road for a solid defensive foundation, but the necessary demolition will begin this summer.