Mike Zimmer got his defensive wishes granted in free agency, but Vikings' offense is left vulnerable

A defensive coach by trade, Mike Zimmer took over free agency and rebuilt his defense the way he wanted it. Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS – Upon his way out the door in New England in the mid-1990s, Bill Parcells famously proclaimed that, “If I’m going to be asked to cook the meal, I’d like to be able to pick the groceries.”

What the Hall of Fame coach was referring to was the desire for control over roster decisions that would correlate to the success of his team. He wanted more than just a say in the players whose efforts would result in the wins and losses that ultimately fell on his shoulders.

Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer took a page from his mentor’s book in free agency, making it abundantly clear if he’s going to be tasked with turning around a team that fell short of the playoffs with a 7-9 record, he’s going to do it his way by fixing the issues he deems the most dire.

Zimmer’s laundry list of items included Minnesota’s ineffective pass rush, bare-bones secondary and depth that had him “down in the dumps” late last season.

The Vikings guaranteed a whopping $41.6 million on defense to the likes of Dalvin Tomlinson ($20.8 million), Patrick Peterson ($8 million), Xavier Woods ($1.75 million), Nick Vigil ($1.05 million), Stephen Weatherly ($500,000) and Mackensie Alexander ($137,500). Anthony Barr got $9.4 million guaranteed on a restructured deal that makes him a free agent after the 2021 season, a move Zimmer lobbied heavily for behind the scenes.

Zimmer took control at the wheel and steered the Vikings towards going all in on defense. After all, it was his unit that ranked 29th in points and 27th in yards allowed last season; a unit that was the cause of so much turmoil and embarrassment for the 64-year-old head coach that he had no choice but to pursue every possible fix that presented itself.

“I’m not used to that level of performance from one of our groups,” Zimmer said. “You know -- it’s crazy because all the coaches are in the building now -- we’ve had some of the best meetings that I’ve had in eight years, probably. We’re dissecting every little thing that we do, going through everything with a fine-tooth comb. I’ve been really impressed with the coaches that are in there but also, the offenses have changed so much in the last four or five years, it’s time that we need to do some things differently and change and adapt. I’m actually really excited. I can’t wait to get back on the field with the players and get them going.”

If all these moves pan out, the decisions Zimmer vouched for in free agency will be deemed a success. But that’s a big “if” that can’t be determined until we see whether Tomlinson is an effective pass rusher as a three-technique, if Woods bounces back to the level he demonstrated in Dallas from 2018-19 and the if cornerback position is transformed by the additions of Peterson and Alexander.

The Vikings defense-first focus is an anomaly in an NFL that remains fixated on high-octane offenses. During the years Minnesota went to the playoffs under Zimmer (2015, 2017, 2019), the Vikings ranked fifth, first and fifth, respectively, in points allowed per game while ranking 16th (2015), 10th (2017) and 8th (2019) in scoring.

In Zimmer’s world, success is rooted in holding teams to around 20 points per game while fielding a top-15 offense that doesn’t turn the ball over often. While Minnesota’s offensive needs aren’t as conspicuous as they were defensively, the Vikings have quite a bit of work to do as they continue to build this roster.

Zimmer, however, doesn’t appear too concerned.

“Our offense has been pretty darn good,” Zimmer said. “They’re sixth in the league last year. We do have some holes, yeah, that we’ll fill, but we’ve still got time to do that. There’s still a lot of players out there right now and there will be some out there in the draft. When we looked at the defense after the season and evaluated it, it was pretty barren in there. So we had to address that.”

That answer might lead you to believe the Vikings are a piece or two away on the offensive side of the ball, even after letting left tackle Riley Reiff walk in free agency. In fact, there was little acknowledgement from the Vikings coach that the offense needs much work at all. And that’s a problem.

For example, when asked how the Vikings will address Reiff’s departure, Zimmer said, “At this point we've got Rashod Hill back, we've got (Oli) Udoh back, we've got (Brian) O'Neill back, we've got (Ezra) Cleveland. So we'll be able to take care of those situations. All of those guys are good players and we'll continue to figure it out and go from there.”

Hill is a career backup. Udoh’s NFL experience is limited to 31 snaps at right tackle in a meaningless Chicago game in 2019 and two snaps as a jumbo-package lineman in 2020. O’Neill is the team’s starting right tackle and Cleveland, as Zimmer later said, is a guard.

The Vikings chose to prioritize their defense over fixing their offensive line issues that have haunted this franchise for years. After making their splashy defensive signings, Minnesota traded for Mason Cole, one of the worst pass-blocking centers in the NFL and re-signed Dakota Dozier, the team’s starting left guard in 2020 who had the worst pass-blocking grade among any guard, according to Pro Football Focus.

Problems aren’t typically solved by bringing in players who cannot effectively execute what’s required to fix the issue. The Vikings need to be as serious about the offensive side as they were in addressing the defense, or those issues won’t go away. That means utilizing their pick at No. 14 on a starting-caliber offensive lineman, preferably a tackle, even if Zimmer is tempted to draft another edge rusher to complete his defense.

It’s abundantly clear who called the shots for the Vikings in free agency. Zimmer did it his way, successfully commandeering the Vikings plans to meet his needs on defense. For a coach who embarks on the first year of a three-year contract extension this season, the pressure to win is now.

If Zimmer is going to go down with the ship, he will have done it his way.

But if the Vikings continue to leave their offense exposed and vulnerable, all these defensive signings Zimmer and Minnesota’s front office worked so hard to pull off could be for naught.