The Minnesota Vikings are reloading on defense, and Mike Zimmer likes what he sees so far.
Minnesota slipped to 14th in the NFL in total defense in 2019 after being ranked in the top four the previous three seasons. Eight notable players from last year’s group, including four starters, were either released or left as free agents.
The Vikings added free-agent veterans Michael Pierce at nose tackle and Anthony Zettel at defensive end, then selected nine defensive players among their 15 picks in last week’s NFL draft.
Zimmer spoke last Sunday to team broadcaster Paul Allen, and the video was posted Wednesday on Vikings.com.
Zimmer, entering his seventh season as the Vikings’ head coach, was mostly asked about the defensive additions: Cornerbacks Jeff Gladney (first round), Cameron Dantzler (third) and Harrison Hand (fifth); defensive ends D.J. Wonnum (fourth) and Kenny Willekes (seventh); defensive tackle James Lynch (fourth); linebacker Troy Dye (fourth); and safeties Josh Metellus (sixth) and Brian Cole II (seventh).
Pierce will take over for the departed Linval Joseph, but the Vikings need to replace defensive end Everson Griffen and top reserve Stephen Weatherly.
Ifeadi Odenigbo is the leading candidate to replace Griffen but the Vikings are intrigued by the 6-foot-5, 258-pound Wonnum, who was recommended by defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson.
Wonnum, who played at South Carolina, has drawn comparisons to Vikings star defensive end Danielle Hunter because of his length and body frame, and because Hunter also was raw when the Vikings used a third-round pick on him in 2015.
“(Patterson’s) been talking about him for quite a while,” Zimmer said. “He said that if we can get him in that specific round, he would jump on the table for him … I said, ‘Man, those highlights were pretty good.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to get him to do that all the time.’ ”
Zimmer likes Lynch because he’s an “extremely hard-working, smart guy” and because he had 13½ sacks last season for Baylor. Zimmer has wanted the Vikings to get better pass rushing at three-technique defensive tackle.
“I do feel good about these guys, and even more so I feel good about our coaches in getting these guys up to speed right away,” Zimmer said of the defensive linemen.
At cornerback, the Vikings lost starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes and primary nickel back Mackensie Alexander. Zimmer likes the competition the rookies will provide with holdovers Mike Hughes, Holton Hill and Kris Boyd.
“I feel good about them,” Zimmer said. “Gladney is a tough, competitive guy. Cameron Danzler is a big, tall, long guy that really has some unique skills. So, now we’re starting to add five or six guys in there that have opportunities to go in and play. Let them fight it out and find out who can learn the fastest and wants to be the best competitor.”
Starters Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris at safety remain on the roster, but Metellus and Cole will need to step in as replacements for departed reserves Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse.
“They both run pretty well,” Zimmer said. “I think Cole, he’s got great measurables; he had really good times and height and weight and speed, so we felt good about him. (Metellus) is a strong, physical guy that I think he should start out on special teams right away.”
Zimmer also sees Dye as likely playing a key role on special teams.
With the coronavirus pandemic likely canceling all spring drills, the Vikings on Monday began a voluntary virtual offseason program. Zimmer doesn’t know when he will see his players on the field again.
While Zimmer likes the additions, he didn’t deny that whenever the Vikings do hit the field again, the offense could be ahead of the defense.
“One of the good things is we’ve got a ton of guys on offense coming back, so we may be a little bit more involved offensively with a lot of things that we’ve done in the past and defensively we may have to go at a little slower pace,” he said.
The No. 14 that wide receiver Stefon Diggs wore before being traded last month to Buffalo has gone to wide receiver Quartney Davis, signed as an undrafted free agent. … NFL publicist Brian McCarthy wrote on Twitter that the league still plans to announce the 2020 regular-season schedule by May 9.