EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings fielded one of the NFL’s worst pass rushes in 2022. Last week, they traded their most productive edge rusher, sending linebacker Za’Darius Smith to the Cleveland Browns in an exchange of draft picks. Their other edge rusher is seeking a contract upgrade, and the only notable edge player they have acquired this offseason, Marcus Davenport, just so happens to have totaled 0.5 sacks in 15 games during the 2022 season.
All of which begs a few questions. What exactly is the Vikings’ plan to match their 2022 production, much less improve upon it? Whom, if anyone, will opponents need to devise game plans against? And how much can new coordinator Brian Flores reasonably be expected to elevate the Vikings’ play with scheme alone?
From the top, the plan appears hinged on a sharp philosophical turn from last season’s passive approach. Former defensive coordinator Ed Donatell tried to limit big plays by relying on a standard rush of four men or fewer on 78% of opposing dropbacks, the 12th-highest rate in the NFL. But the Vikings’ pass-rushers did not produce nearly enough to validate that approach, finishing No. 27 in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric (33.7%), No. 30 in pressure rate (25.3) and No. 23 in sacks per dropback (5.5%).
When he was hired in February, Flores said he wanted to reserve judgment on a specific approach until he had a better feel for the Vikings’ returning personnel. But his history suggests he likes to blitz heavily and rely on man-to-man coverage behind it.
In two seasons as the New England Patriots‘ de facto defensive coordinator, Flores blitzed at the NFL’s eighth-highest rate (31%). And in three seasons as the Miami Dolphins‘ head coach, he blitzed at the league’s fourth-highest rate (35.6%).
At the very least, he said at the time, it’s important to present the possibility of a “zero blitz” — essentially sending all available rushers, including the deep safety — at regular intervals.
“I think if you’re willing to give a blitz zero presentation and send them,” Flores said, “then obviously offensively they’ve got to prepare for it and have some answers for it, and then it becomes a cat-and-mouse game. Is it zero, or is it not zero? Any way you slice it, you’ve got to be ready for it. That’s part of the philosophy or the thought process.”
That element of unpredictability can give defenders an advantage when they rush, but ultimately there is no substitution for skill. The Vikings got double-digit sack totals from both Smith (10) and fellow outside linebacker Danielle Hunter (10.5) last season, but rarely were they producing in unison. Smith recorded 8.5 sacks in the season’s first seven games and Hunter 7.5 in an eight-game stretch between Weeks 9 and 16. Smith still finished with a higher pressure rate (10.5%) than Hunter (9.2%), but Smith’s second-half decline — while playing through a lingering knee injury — helped precipitate last week’s trade.
Hunter regained his health after two injury-filled seasons but has stayed away from the Vikings’ voluntary offseason program, likely as he seeks a contract upgrade from his scheduled $4.9 million base salary in 2023. So for now, the focus is on free agent acquisition Marcus Davenport, the No. 14 overall pick of the 2018 draft who recorded nine sacks in 11 games during the 2021 season for the New Orleans Saints.
Davenport recorded solid pressure totals during his five years with the Saints, putting up at least 20 in each season. Over the past two seasons, his 10.2% pressure rate ranked No. 16 among the 123 players with at least 500 pass-rushing snaps over that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But of his half-sack performance in 2022, Davenport said: “I’m very critical. I’ve been upset. I’m still upset. But that’s just fuel for the future. I go over my play and see that I didn’t capitalize as much as I had success in matchups and putting pressure on. I wasn’t necessarily being the smartest player to know when to capitalize and how to capitalize, using my teammates and using the scheme.”
Davenport will presumably play opposite Hunter in the Vikings’ 3-4 scheme, giving them starters at the two key pass-rushing positions who are both under 30 years old. (Davenport will turn 27 in September, while Hunter will turn 29 in October.) But established depth is thin behind them, and the most notable rookie edge player they’ve acquired is undrafted free agent Andre Carter II, who had 15.5 sacks for Army in 2021.
More of the Vikings’ approach will reveal itself as on-field work intensifies this spring and summer. For the time being, however, Davenport represents a more significant part of their plan than some realized when he signed a one-year, $13 million deal two months ago.
This spring, Davenport has been wearing No. 0 during the Vikings’ Phase 2 on-field workouts, a revelation that triggered social media snark about his pending 2023 sack total.
Outdoor Vikings football workout NEWS: Pass rusher Marcus Davenport is here and officially wearing number 0. pic.twitter.com/wZNs2ugUH2
— Kevin Seifert (@SeifertESPN) May 3, 2023
But a second listen of his comments after signing his contract in March suggest a deeper meaning.
“Really I just want to start from zero,” he said, “and work with my coaches and from there develop. … As far as the past, and all for all future references, I’m really trying to let go of everything and look forward.”
How can Minnesota Vikings solve their pass-rush questions? – ESPN – Minnesota Vikings Blog