The Vikings' 2020 season, in which they finished with a disappointing 7-9 record and missed the playoffs, was undone by a number of factors. Injuries, free agent departures, and a COVID-19 opt-out depleted the team's overall talent level, which made everything more difficult.
But looking specifically at their play on the field, one area of weakness stands out: the trenches. On both sides of the ball, the Vikings struggled mightily at the line of scrimmage. Their perennially-underperforming offensive line had a woeful season, particularly the interior trio of Dakota Dozier, Garrett Bradbury, and a few different right guards. And with no Danielle Hunter or Michael Pierce, the Vikings had one of the worst defensive lines in the NFL as well, which was highly unusual for this franchise.
The Vikings finished with 23 sacks, which is their lowest total ever (the stat was first officially recorded in 1982). They surrendered 39 of them, giving them a -16 differential that was tied for second-worst in the NFC. Sacks aren't a perfect stat for measuring line play, but that number gives you some idea of the team's inability to get after opposing quarterbacks and protect their own.
With that in mind, the Vikings approached this offseason looking to get better up front. Their marquee free agent pickup was former Giants defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who will pair with Pierce to give the team a massive duo of run-stoppers in the middle of their defensive line. Then they used their first-round pick on left tackle Christian Darrisaw to replace Riley Reiff, and a third-rounder on guard Wyatt Davis. Both rookies could start in Week 1.
The Vikings expect to get Hunter — one of the best pass rushers in the game — back from injury this year, but he has yet to report to offseason activities due to frustration with his contract situation. They also brought in defensive ends Stephen Weatherly, Patrick Jones II, and Janarius Robinson via free agency and the draft.
But was it enough?
The best-case scenario on the offensive line is that Darrisaw and Davis are capable starters right away and maybe even become consistently good players later in their rookie seasons. Wishful thinking would also include left guard Ezra Cleveland continuing to improve, third-year center Garrett Bradbury making a major leap, and right tackle Brian O'Neill getting slightly better in pass protection. If all of that happens, the Vikings will have their best offensive line since at least 2017, and maybe in over a decade.
The problem is that those are a lot of 'ifs.' Relying on rookies on the offensive line, even when they're as talented as Darrisaw and Davis, is always risky. Bradbury hasn't shown a lick of pass protection ability through two seasons, and I still feel like Cleveland would've been better suited at tackle than guard. Plus, the team's depth on the O-line is quite suspect. Turning to awful 2020 guards Dozier or Dru Samia at any point would be disastrous, and key backups like Rashod Hill and Mason Cole don't inspire a ton of confidence.
On Monday, Pro Football Focus released its rankings of all 32 offensive lines in the NFL. The Vikings came in at 26th and until proven otherwise, that feels fair. Only time will tell if Minnesota's decision to refrain from signing any notable offensive linemen in free agency will work out.
The good news is that the Vikings still had an efficient and explosive offense last season despite their poor pass protection on the interior. Even slight improvements in the O-line's play could help offset any potential regression or short-term injuries for skill position stars like Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook.
The situation with Minnesota's defensive line is equally intriguing (and worthy of concern, particularly due to the unknowns surrounding Hunter). Tomlinson and Pierce should be a menacing duo against the run, but neither is a true three-technique known for generating consistent interior pressure. That's one thing PFF pointed out when talking about the Vikings' defensive line, which it ranked 15th in the league.
Pierce and Tomlinson both rank in at least the 83rd percentile of interior defenders in run-defense grade over the past four seasons. The concern for Minnesota is whether anyone besides Hunter will be able to generate consistent pass-rush production given that Tomlinson isn't a formidable penetrating 3-technique.
Outside of Hunter, there isn't a player on the roster who is a proven, dynamic pass rusher. Weatherly is a fine veteran — although he's arguably worse than Ifeadi Odenigbo, who he's replacing on the roster — and young players like D.J. Wonnum, Jones, and Robinson still need plenty of development. A sophomore surge from Wonnum or instant production from one of the rookies is the best-case scenario, but not something that can be counted on.
That's not even mentioning the possibility — one I still believe is unlikely — that Hunter takes this holdout seriously and demands a trade. It's also not a guarantee that he comes back and is immediately the same elite player he was prior to having neck surgery last fall.
If the Vikings are going to make one more move this offseason that would have a real impact, it should be to add a veteran pass rusher. That could be a DE like Justin Houston or Trent Murphy, or it could be a DT with penetration ability like Geno Atkins or old friend Sheldon Richardson.
As things stand heading into the 2021 season, the Vikings have a very strong roster on paper. They've got a solid QB, great weapons, a stout linebacker corps, and a secondary that is loaded after the recent addition of Bashaud Breeland. Ultimately, success or failure this season will likely come down to how much the team improves in the trenches.
Whether or not they did enough this offseason in that department is still to be determined.
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