How the Vikings will have to rebuild defense after free-agency losses

So now what?

As the dust settles following the first wave of free agency, the Minnesota Vikings are left to navigate a defensive reboot. The production lost with the departures of Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Rhodes, Stephen Weatherly, Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse is significant and will leave this franchise feeling the effects as it turns to this new chapter.

Outside of a couple of depth additions, the Vikings haven't made any sizable moves on defense. Nose tackle Michael Pierce was signed to a three-year deal, making him the heir apparent to Joseph. Beyond that ... crickets.

To see this many players -- many of whom were staples in Minnesota's defense over the past several seasons -- walk out the door might feel like a shock. But the turnover not only was foreshadowed -- it was expected.

"At the end of the day, it ends up being a young man's game, so the more that we as coaches can help develop these young guys, the quicker we can help develop them, the better it is for them," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said in January.

The Vikings will need to get creative. From now through the April 23-25 NFL draft, they must figure out how to navigate the inevitable growing pains expected as players step into new roles.

Rebuilding the secondary

The Vikings are not feeling the effects of losing a top shutdown corner. Rhodes' recent decline made him a liability and forced Zimmer to turn to a cornerback rotation, so replacing him was where this was headed.

Waynes was solid but never lived up to his first-round draft status with a pedestrian 109.9 passer rating allowed in 2019 and earned way more with the Cincinnati Bengals ($42 million) than Minnesota could have afforded. Alexander, who also signed with the Bengals (one year, $4 million), is probably the biggest loss among the three starters given the difficulty of the nickel position, where he flourished the past two seasons.

The Vikings have a talented former first-rounder in Mike Hughes as well as Holton Hill and Kris Boyd to fill those spots. Hughes' position flexibility is a benefit to Zimmer, who could play him in the slot or outside. By the end of last season, Hughes was already taking on part of Rhodes' workload and finished with a 93.2 passer rating on 65 throws in his direction.

The Vikings liked Hill's talent so much that they stuck with him in 2019 despite a suspension that kept him out for half the year. Boyd filled in on limited occasions outside but might be in line to take on a bigger role.

"They're still a ways away a little bit," Zimmer said. "But one thing that I think, especially those two guys, Hughes and Hill, and Boyd, they have the ability to do it. Like, during the season, I gave them an assignment that I wanted them to do every single day, and they did it. That tells me that they want to do it. I think that's half the battle."

The free-agent market still has players the Vikings could sign to inexpensive veteran deals with the likes of Aqib Talib, Tramon Williams, Prince Amukamara and Tramaine Brock. But the draft is where they can truly begin to rebuild the secondary. Of any year to date under Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, 2020 is one in which the Vikings need to hit on their draft picks.

With five selections in the top 105, including picks at Nos. 22 and 25, the Vikings could be in play for projected first-rounders in Florida's CJ Henderson, LSU's Kristian Fulton and Alabama's Trevon Diggs and slot them in as Day 1 starters.

Safety also is a position of need and can certainly be addressed in the draft. Given the uncertainty of Anthony Harris' situation after he received the franchise tag and is rumored to be on the trading block, Minnesota might need to find another starter and some depth. Given other pressing needs at corner and defensive end (not to mention receiver), the Vikings could wait until Day 2 to address safety.

Defensive line production

It isn't just that the Vikings lost the heartbeat of their defense with Griffen deciding to move on after 10 years. Minnesota also has to address how it will modify its rotation at defensive end.

The Vikings might choose to ask more of Ifeadi Odenigbo, who is a prime example of the team's draft-and-develop philosophy paying dividends. Of any defensive end on the roster, Odenigbo appears most ready to take over Griffen's duties as a starter.

The versatile Odenigbo, a seventh-round pick in 2017, also allows Minnesota co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson to move him from the outside to the interior after he totaled 25 pressures and seven sacks last season.

The Vikings could draft a defensive end. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has the Vikings selecting Iowa's A.J. Epenesa 25th overall in his latest mock draft. A high draft pick spent on a defensive end addresses a need now and for the future. Griffen averaged 9.5 sacks a year over the past six seasons. Replacing his production will be difficult, but it shoots to the top of the Vikings' priority list.

Several defensive linemen already on the roster could be in line for bigger roles. On the interior, Jaleel Johnson and Armon Watts could see increased snaps on pass-rushing downs. Johnson's ceiling is high, and he has improved considerably over the past two seasons.

The Vikings also can look to the middle rounds of the draft to bring in another interior defensive lineman. That's what they did with Johnson (fourth round) in 2017, Jalyn Holmes (fourth) in 2018 and Watts (sixth) last season. Those moves now will be judged more closely if these players take on more significant roles.