Last week, I broke down where Vikings offensive players stood in Pro Football Focus's positional rankings. Now that PFF has released its defensive rankings, it's time to do the same for that side of the ball. They ranked the top 32 players at each position, with the exception of slot cornerback, which has just ten. Let's see how the Vikings fared.
Danielle Hunter: No. 10 Edge Defender
Former Vikings on the list: Yannick Ngakoue (No. 24)
It didn’t take long for Hunter to develop into a quality run defender in the NFL following his third-round selection out of LSU back in 2015. He ranks in the 87th percentile of all qualifying players at the position in run defense grade across the past six seasons. However, 2019 was the first season that Hunter made a big leap as a pass-rusher. He put up an 84.5 pass-rushing grade — over 10 points higher than his previous career high — and 88 quarterback pressures in 2019. He’ll look to build on that in his return from a 2020 season lost to injury.
This feels too low for Hunter, who was the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks and whose 29 sacks across 2018 and '19 trailed only Chandler Jones among edge rushers. But given that Hunter missed all of last year with a herniated disc in his neck — an injury that creates some uncertainty about his ability to return to his 2019 level of play — I get it. He also only has one season of grading as a truly elite pass rusher in PFF's eyes. Still, assuming he stays healthy in 2021, I think Hunter belongs in the top five at the position. He's too physically dominant and productive to be any lower than that (again, if he's healthy).
By all accounts, Hunter is in great shape and ready to go. However, he's currently in the early stages of a potential contract-based holdout that may not be resolved for a while. The Vikings desperately need to get this situation figured out and have Hunter return to his old havoc-wreaking ways this fall; their pass rush doesn't have much else going for it.
Dalvin Tomlinson: No. 17 Interior Defender
Former Vikings on the list: Sheldon Richardson (No. 31)
Michael Pierce’s absence last season highlighted that Minnesota had a clear need on the interior, and they addressed it by signing Tomlinson in free agency. Tomlinson isn’t quite the penetrating 3-technique that made sense for the Vikings on paper next to Pierce, but he is a very good football player. He ranks in the 83rd percentile in PFF run-defense grade since 2017 and showed some ability to get after the quarterback as a pass-rusher from nose tackle alignments in 2020.
This feels pretty fair. Tomlinson was a somewhat surprising signing by the Vikings early in free agency, but we probably should've seen it coming. Mike Zimmer loves having two big defensive tackles in the middle to stuff the run and command double teams, allowing his linebackers to have tons of space. Tomlinson was arguably the best DT on the market and the Vikings made sure they got him. It's going to be fascinating to see how the former Giants star pairs with Michael Pierce this year, particularly in the pass rushing department. Can Tomlinson create some interior pressure? We'll find out.
Michael Pierce: No. 26 Interior Defender
Pierce’s role as a run-stuffer is well defined, and there are few better than him in that role. The undrafted free agent out of Samford earned a 91.1 run-defense grade across the first four seasons of his career in Baltimore, ranking fifth among all qualifying players at the position. Minnesota missed that ability from Pierce after he opted out last season, stumbling to a 30th-place finish in expected points added allowed per run play.
Pierce should probably be closer to the middle of this list with his new teammate Tomlinson, but like Hunter, he missed all of last season, so it's understandable. Pierce was truly a dominant run defender for the Ravens and also showed a little bit of juice to get after quarterbacks. If he can learn some things from Tomlinson and Andre Patterson and add to his game in that department, that would be massive. It wouldn't be surprising to see some early rust from Pierce in 2021 after opting out last year, but I'm expecting big things from him.
Eric Kendricks: No. 3 Linebacker
Showing there is more than one way to get it done, Eric Kendricks played a more conventional college position than Fred Warner but has been the other superstar linebacker in coverage over the past couple of years. Including the playoffs, Kendricks has 17 pass breakups and the highest PFF coverage grade among all linebackers (91.7) over the past two seasons.
PFF has Kendricks behind just two off-ball linebackers in the NFL: Bobby Wagner and Fred Warner. While some people who haven't watched the Vikings very much might think this is too high for him, it absolutely isn't. Kendricks has been one of the best all-around LBs in football over the past two years, dominating in coverage while continuing to be a reliable tackler and run stopper. When he got injured late last season, the Vikings' defense fell apart. Kendricks remains generally underrated despite playing at a consistently elite level since 2019, so it's nice to see him get some well-deserved recognition here.
Harrison Smith: No. 2 Safety
Former Vikings on the list: Anthony Harris (No. 13)
Smith’s rookie season was in 2012, and he has never had a poor healthy season since that point — the kind of consistent excellence that Smith has been able to maintain for the Vikings is freakish at the safety position. The former Notre Dame star had a relative down year in 2020, but he still recorded five picks, five pass breakups and better-than-average grades in every facet of play.
I love seeing the respect PFF has for Smith, who was snubbed for the 2010s All-Decade team despite being a potential future Hall of Famer. He's had an incredible nine-year career and remains one of the league's best safeties as he heads into his age-32 season. Despite playing on a 2020 defense lacking in experience and talent, Smith tied for a career-high with five interceptions and, along with Kendricks, kept things from being even worse than they could've been all year. With that said, I was a little surprised to see him this high. I probably would've put Smith a couple spots lower, simply because of his age and his not-quite-elite play last season. Still, with a defense that should be much better overall this year, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Smith return to his 2017/2019 form as arguably the best safety in the game.
Not ranked: LB Anthony Barr, S Xavier Woods, CB Patrick Peterson, CB Cameron Dantzler, CB Mackensie Alexander
Analysis: Barr and Peterson might be past their peaks, but I think Dantzler has a great shot to be fairly high on the outside cornerback rankings this time next year. Alexander cracking the top ten slot corners after a strong 2021 wouldn't surprise me either.
Other former Vikings ranked: Xavier Rhodes (No. 30 CB), Trae Waynes (No. 31 CB)
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