The struggles of the Minnesota Vikings defensive line ended up being the main reason the team missed the playoffs in 2020. The two impact players who are expected to come back and bolster the line in 2021 are Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce. Hunter missed the season with a neck injury, and Pierce opted out due to Covid. With them both returning, it is expected that the team can get more from a unit that contributed only 14 sacks all season. With that said, the Vikings still need more from their defensive line in 2021. Expecting two veterans to not miss a beat after missing an entire season and turn the line’s fortunes around is dangerous. The Vikings will need to take an aggressive approach this off-season to make the defensive line dangerous again.
Improving the Minnesota Vikings Defensive Line Should Be a Priority
Neck injuries are tricky, and the herniated disc in Hunter’s neck could hinder his production early in the season. Fans are expecting Hunter to bounce back because he still only 26, but he can not be counted on to come back at 100 percent and play a full game in week one. It might take several weeks for him to even start feeling like his old self.
This is not to say the Vikings need a replacement for Hunter. They simply need to get solid depth behind him so that he can ease back into playing shape. Ifeadi Odenigbo could be this guy if he is pushed back into a reserve role in 2021. He is a restricted free agent who may have been in over his head as a full-time starter in 2020, but he knows the defense and showed in 2019 he can come off the bench and be productive.
Michael Pierce has more than just a full season off working against him. First, he has yet to play a snap for the Vikings. He signed a three-year, $27 million deal after four seasons in Baltimore, so the team expects him to continue to be a high-end player. He should be a good fit, but with Covid, he never even got on the practice field for the team in 2020.
Second, Pierce has had issues keeping his weight down in the past. How will a full season off and away from the training facility affect his weight? Can he come back not only at a good playing weight but also conditioned? Because of these questions, the Vikings need to look for a solid reserve nose tackle who can hold their own and spell Pierce. Relying on an unknown commodity in Pierce could be disastrous for the Vikings if he shows up out of shape. They don’t need another Yannick Ngakoue trade right before the season to fill a hole they had all off-season to address.
The Other Half of the Vikings Defensive Line
Even if Hunter and Pierce come back and perform how they have always played, they still only account for half of the defensive line. Minnesota still needs help from their other defensive end spot and their three-technique (defensive tackle) spot. The Vikings will likely move on from Jaleel Johnson who never appeared to get comfortable at the NFL level. He only provided 1.5 sacks at the three-technique spot in 2020 and he was constantly pushed backward in the running game. This is a spot where the team could look for a game-changing talent with the 14th overall pick in the draft.
The defensive end spot opposite Hunter needs to be addressed as well. Ngakoue was supposed to be this guy, but his refusal to change his game to play the run resulted in him being shipped away during the team’s bye week. His five sacks in six games ended up leading the team by season’s end. Rookie D.J. Wonnum flashed occasionally and racked up three sacks, but he has a long way to go and should not be counted on to fix the line’s problems. Minnesota will need to aggressively pursue a starting defensive end either in free agency or, if the right guy falls to them, draft one at the 14th pick.
The return Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce in 2021 should improve the defensive line immediately. But their returns should not be looked at as the cure-all. There are still two other starting spots with glaring holes next to them. On top of that, the line’s depth is thin and will be counted on to help Hunter and Pierce ease back into playing shape. Minnesota needs to attack these holes to improve their 27th ranked defense and get them back into the playoffs in 2021.
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