Mike Zimmer's Reloaded Vikings Defense Ranked No. 1 in the NFL by The Athletic

Could the Vikings have the best defense in the NFL? Sheil Kapadia thinks so.
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Last season, the Vikings' defense finished 28th in the NFL in yards allowed per game, gave up 40-plus points three times, and almost drove Mike Zimmer insane.

One year later, there's reason to believe Minnesota could once again have one of the best defenses in the league.

In fact, The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia has the Vikings at the very top of the league in his ranking of all 32 defenses. That's a surprising thing to see at first glance, but when you consider Zimmer's track record and all of the talented veterans who were either out with injury or on other teams in 2020, maybe it shouldn't be.

Let Kapadia explain:

It’s pretty simple to explain away the Vikings’ struggles last season. They had the third-worst injury luck of any defense, according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric, and they had the most injured defensive line. The Vikings didn’t get a single snap from edge defender Danielle Hunter or defensive tackle Michael Pierce.

This year, not only are both players back, but Minnesota added Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson. With Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr still in the mix at linebacker, the Vikings project to have one of the league’s top front sevens. There are some questions on the back end, but the Vikings added veterans Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander to give themselves options at cornerback. Cameron Dantzler figures to improve in his second season.

On paper, it’s probably not the most talented group, but coach Mike Zimmer is one of the smartest defensive minds in the NFL. The Vikings finished first, third and fourth in defensive efficiency from 2017 to 2019. Barring another bout of terrible injury luck, they’re talented enough to get back into that range this season.

Putting the Vikings in the No. 1 spot might be ambitious, but betting on Zimmer having a top-five defense is usually a smart decision. From 2015 to 2019, the Vikings were consistently towards the very top of the league in both traditional and efficiency-based statistics. For the most part, you're betting on Zimmer himself. Even with a talent-deficient group of youngsters and backups last year, his dominance on third down and in the red zone continued.

Since Zimmer took over in 2014, no team has been better in either of those categories. When it comes to red zone defense, it's not even close.

Last year told us that Zimmer could still get it done on third downs and in the red zone with almost anyone out there. The issues were early downs, run defense, and giving up big plays in the passing game.

So the Vikings went out and overhauled their personnel in the offseason. They brought in Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Xavier Woods, Mackensie Alexander, Bashaud Breeland, and Sheldon Richardson in free agency. Add that to the returns of Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, and Anthony Barr and some key holdovers in Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Cameron Dantzler, and at least on paper, this defense is loaded with talent at all three levels.

Expecting Zimmer to figure out how to put all those pieces together seems like a safe guess. Even with question marks involving the pass rush (who steps up at the DE spot opposite Hunter?) and at cornerback (does Peterson still have it?), the pieces are all there for this Vikings defense to be a nightmare to opposing offenses once again. If everything breaks right, this unit could even be as good as the 2017 group.

So in that lens, yeah, putting the Vikings at No. 1 in these rankings is understandable. Now they have to go out and live up to the hype.

Also of note is that the Broncos, Kapadia's team with the No. 2 defense, are coming to Minnesota next week for joint practices and a preseason game. That'll be a lot of defensive talent on display at once. Tampa, Washington, and Pittsburgh round out the top five.

Elsewhere in the NFC North, the Bears check in at No. 12, the Packers at No. 16, and the Lions are down at No. 28.

The more pivotal area for the Vikings is probably their offense, which Kapadia ranked 15th in the NFL due to some concerns about coaching changes and potential injury regression. As always, the offensive line is a weakness until proven otherwise as well.

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