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Better, worse or the same? Vikings' defense undergoes reboot

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Vikings' Odenigbo, Mattison primed for breakout seasons (1:15)

Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin breaks down why DE Ifeadi Odenigbo and RB Alexander Mattison are poised to have breakout seasons in 2020. (1:15)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Better, worse or the same?

That's the question facing the Minnesota Vikings' defense as it undergoes a period of transition in 2020 after bidding adieu to nine veterans, including Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander.

The Vikings began their roster revamp in free agency by signing nose tackle Michael Pierce to replace Joseph and made nine of their 15 picks in the draft on defense. Player development is the theme for the defensive line and cornerback group, as both will feature new players taking on starters' roles.

When Mike Zimmer and his staff arrived in 2014, they inherited the NFL's worst defense and turned the Vikings into a vaunted unit. As they go through a soft rebuild in 2020, all eyes will be on Minnesota's D to see if the adjustments made with a new crop of starters will yield significant strides for a team trying to reach the playoffs in back-to-back years, which would be the first occurrence under Zimmer.

Defensive line

Additions: Michael Pierce (free agent), Anthony Zettel (free agent), D.J. Wonnum (draft), James Lynch (draft), Kenny Willekes (draft) and David Moa (undrafted free agent)

Losses: Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Stephen Weatherly.

Returners: Danielle Hunter, Shamar Stephen, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts, Hercules Mata'afa, Eddie Yarbrough and Stacy Keely.

Better, worse or the same? Worse.

The good news: Hunter is still a force and Odenigbo appears ready to become a three-down lineman and replace Griffen coming off a season in which he notched seven sacks and 26 pressures.

The bad news: Minnesota was hit with a COVID-19 curveball this week when Pierce, the Vikings' biggest free-agent acquisition, opted out for the 2020 season due to respiratory concerns. That leaves them with a hole to fill at nose tackle, inevitably leading to shuffling the interior of the defensive line.

Johnson can play three-technique and nose tackle, which gives the Vikings some flexibility if they expand the fourth-year lineman's role from a backup to a starter. Stephen generated just six pressures and one sack in 2019 at three-technique and is best positioned as an early-down lineman against the run, so there's a chance he could move over to nose to replace Pierce and allow co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Andre Patterson to try Holmes, Watts, Mata'afa and Lynch at the position to bolster the interior pass rush.

The Vikings are winning the numbers game at defensive tackle. It's different at defensive end given Odenigbo is set to become a starter (assuming Griffen doesn't return at the last second -- don't rule out the possibility) and there's little depth. Patterson will spend much of this season developing rotational edge rushers in Wonnum and Willekes. Yarbrough and Zettel could also fill out those roles.

Linebackers

Additions: DeMarquis Gates (free agent), Troy Dye (draft), Jordan Fehr (undrafted free agent) and Blake Lynch (undrafted free agent).

Losses: Kentrell brothers.

Returners: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Ben Gedeon, Eric Wilson and Cameron Smith.

Better, worse or the same? Better.

No big losses, two Pro Bowlers and a promising rookie. The Vikings linebackers could very well end up the strength of this team in 2020. Continuity is key at this position.

All-Pro Kendricks is coming off his best season (12 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and 4 tackles for loss) and Barr is still a consistent pass-rushing threat and is one of the league's better off-ball linebackers. Wilson has already surpassed Gedeon as the third linebacker in the base 4-3 formation and has been all over the place from pass coverage to special teams.

Speaking of special teams, that's often where the Vikings often find their biggest contributors from the linebacking corps, where fourth-rounder Dye could see his biggest impact along with the occasional snaps on defense in pass coverage. The Vikings drafted Dye because they were intrigued by his coverage skills and athleticism to get downhill quickly. He may end up following Barr's trajectory given the similarities with their size and skill sets.

Cornerbacks

Additions: Jeff Gladney (draft), Cameron Dantzler (draft), Harrison Hand (draft) and Nevelle Clarke (undrafted free agent).

Losses: Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander.

Returners: Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, Mark Fields, Nate Meadors, Kemon Hall and Marcus Sayles.

Better, worse or the same? Better.

The Rhodes, Waynes and Alexander lineup had run its course in Minnesota. Alexander was developing into a solid nickel corner but would have eventually been replaced by Hughes. It was in the best interest for the long-term health of the secondary to move on from a unit that required so much help over the top from its safeties given the deficiencies in the passing game caused by Rhodes' 123.8 passer rating when targeted and Waynes' 107.9 passer rating allowed.

Minnesota's pass defense ranked 15th in 2019 and gave up more than 230 yards per game after ranking third in 2018 and second in 2017. Something had to change.

The Vikings now have a host of young cornerbacks and the luxury of time to develop them into starters, a course that has typically taken three years in Zimmer's defense. Hughes' aptitude for the nickel position is huge and could allow the Vikings to get away with not signing a veteran cornerback in camp if Gladney, Hill or Dantzler are ready to assume starting roles on the outside.

Either way, depth is no longer an issue at corner. The Vikings are starting from scratch and will have new starters at every spot. This unit won't resemble a finished product in 2020, but is in good shape for the future.

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1:28

Pierce first Viking to opt out due to the coronavirus

Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin details how the team has handled the positive COVID-19 diagnosis of head trainer Eric Sugarman and adds that DT Michael Pierce has opted out of the season.

Safeties

Additions: Josh Metellus (draft), Brian Cole II (draft) and Myles Dorn (undrafted free agent).

Losses: Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse.

Returners: Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris.

Better, worse or the same? Same.

Minnesota has arguably the best safety tandem in the NFL between Smith and Harris. They were relied on so often to help bail out the cornerbacks (i.e. why the Vikings played so much quarters coverage in 2019, more than any other team according to Pro Football Focus) and are part of a unit that has limited quarterbacks to a 49.5 passer rating over the last two seasons, the best in the NFL.

"They've got a really good chemistry," co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Adam Zimmer said. "They have great communication with the rest of the defense as well, so they can help communicate with the corners and help communicate with the linebackers. They do a great job of making in-game adjustments when we have to make those. It's a good duo to help make the whole defense better."

The Vikings have some real depth at the position, too, having spent two Day 3 picks on Metellus and Cole II. Metellus played up in the box at Michigan and was a forceful run stopper while Cole thrived in blitz packages and attacking downhill.