Vikings hope family reunion on defense sparks resurgence
Published 9:05 pm Monday, September 6, 2021
EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings have been trying to keep their window for championship contention pried open as long as possible, committed for at least another season to lean on the standouts they’ve enjoyed on defense even if they’re not getting any younger.
This time, they even turned the clock back a bit by bringing back a bunch of former players. They couldn’t wait to return, either.
“I left because I thought the grass was greener on the other side, to be honest, and it wasn’t,” said defensive end Everson Griffen.
The Vikings under head coach Mike Zimmer have fielded one of the most effective if not dominant defenses in the league, routinely landing in the top five in most statistical categories. That run came to a humbling end last year, when a weary Zimmer near the end of the season called that group the worst he’s ever had.
Without the time to wait to rebuild it through the draft, the Vikings dived headfirst into free agency and loaded up on polished veterans such as eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson, even if he’s past his prime. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson was the biggest prize. Safety Xavier Woods was another solid addition.
The Vikings also took the shopping spree on a unique tack toward several of their former players, seeking the mutual familiarity that provides a potential bonus from the others on the market who’d never suited up for Minnesota before.
“We’ve always had a special locker room, a lot of guys who are close, a lot of guys who look after each other,” safety Harrison Smith said.
The Vikings signed defensive end Stephen Weatherly, a seventh-round draft pick in 2017 who worked his way into the rotation and spent one year with Carolina only to be cut at the beginning of the offseason. Mackensie Alexander, their second-round draft choice in 2016 who became a reliable nickel cornerback after some early career struggles, played one year for Cincinnati and then decided to re-sign with his original team in dire need of more experience at the position.
When defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson became available during the summer, the casualty of a salary cap savings move by Cleveland, the Vikings snatched him up for the luxury of a proven starter in a backup role to free agent prizes Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson. Richardson played only one year in purple in 2018, but his absence from the interior pass rush and run stopping was palpable the past two seasons.
Then came Griffen, who first came to Minnesota as an immature fourth-round draft selection in 2010 and flourished into one of the best pass rushers in team history once he became an every-down player in 2014. He also spent only one year away, playing for Dallas and Detroit, and quickly realized that he appreciated the place where his NFL roots grew the best.
The 2018 team that all four of the returners were together on ranked fourth in the league in yards allowed and ninth in points.
“In my opinion, I never left. You know what I mean?” Alexander said.
Alexander was as stubborn of a young player as Zimmer encountered, remarking often in 2019 about how far he’d come since his rookie year. Two seasons later, the raves from the coaching staff have continued from Alexander, who’s slotted in behind Peterson and Bashaud Breeland for a regular role in the slot.
“I’m shocked at how Mackensie has matured over the year he left. He’s studying really hard. He’s communicating really well. He’s really growing into a solid pro,” said co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer, the head coach’s son.
Alexander could hardly disagree.
“You’re highly touted coming out of high school. You’re one of the best in college football. You come here to a team, and you think it’s going to go your way. Every guy comes in young thinking they want it to go their way and this is how it’s supposed to be. You dream about it, right?” Alexander said. “But it didn’t happen for me like that. So for me it’s just understanding that and being patient with the process. I harp on the young guys about that, just being patient and listening, see what they want you to do and be the best at it.”