MINNEAPOLIS -- The fact that the Minnesota Vikings head into the 2014 season in need of secondary help should come as no surprise -- not for a team that allowed the most passing touchdowns, the second-most passing yards and the most points in the NFL last season. What might be more startling is just how long the Vikings have had a blighted secondary, and how unable they've been to alleviate at least some of the problem through a favorite method of some of their rivals.
The last time the Vikings had a player intercept more than four passes in a season was 2005, when Darren Sharper marked his migration from Green Bay to Minnesota with a nine-interception, two-touchdown season in just 14 games. Since 2006, the Vikings have intercepted just 104 passes -- the third-fewest in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- and have been unable to use turnovers to mask the league-worst 30,875 passing yards they've allowed.
The Packers and Chicago Bears haven't been much better, allowing the 15th- and 11th-most passing yards since 2006, but unlike the Vikings, they've had secondaries able to stop drives with turnovers. Green Bay's 178 interceptions are the most in the league since 2006, followed by Chicago's 159. In fact, the three teams with the most interceptions since 2006 -- the Packers, Bears and New England Patriots -- all rank in the bottom 15 of yards allowed, and the Packers and Patriots have given up the 5th- and 12th-most touchdown passes, respectively (the Vikings have allowed the third-most).
What can change the Vikings' long-running turnover drought? New coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme won't necessarily accomplish it naturally; the Cincinnati Bengals tied for 16th in interceptions since Zimmer took over in 2008, though they did pick off 23 more passes than the Vikings in that time. A Minnesota defense that ranked even in the middle of the league in takeaways would be a major improvement.
Safety Harrison Smith has shown signs of being a ballhawk -- he tied for the team lead in interceptions as a rookie (with three), brought two of them back for touchdowns and posted two more interceptions in just eight games last season. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn also returned his last four interceptions with the Carolina Panthers for touchdowns. Though cornerback Xavier Rhodes doesn't have a NFL interception after posting only eight in three years at Florida State, he's got the height and leaping ability to take passes away from receivers.
But the Vikings' lack of takeaways are part of the reason a player such as Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert could make so much sense in the draft, particularly if Minnesota trades back from the eighth pick. Gilbert had seven interceptions last season for the Cowboys, bringing two back for touchdowns, and has both the closing speed and vertical leap to create turnovers. Putting him opposite Rhodes, with Munnerlyn in the slot, would give the Vikings a nice setup for years to come: two physical corners and a heady slot corner, all with Smith playing behind them. That kind of a secondary would have enough big-play ability that a rise in takeaways would seem likely, along with a decrease in porous pass coverage.
That was particularly evident last season when opponents tried to stretch the Vikings deep; they allowed a league-worst 14 touchdowns on passes that traveled 15 yards or more last season, according to ESPN Stats &Information, while intercepting just six passes. Those long-traveling passes can naturally turn into interceptions, and it's probably no coincidence that five of the nine teams that picked off the most deep passes -- including the Bengals -- went to the playoffs last year. Even if the Vikings' secondary isn't completely airtight next season, turnovers can be a salve, as the Kansas City Chiefs proved; they allowed 11 touchdowns of 15 yards or more, but intercepted 10 such passes on their way to an 11-5 record.
As the Vikings assess their secondary needs, finding a way to create more turnovers is certainly worth their consideration, especially when some of the teams around them have been so effective at using them to paper over some of their own flaws.