EAGAN, Minn. -- The 2020 season was supposed to be a reboot, not a full rebuild, for the Minnesota Vikings' defense.
After all, Minnesota lost five starters and nine players overall on defense this offseason. While the offense appeared mostly set, the Vikings' defense added nine players in the draft and was primed for a youth movement.
"I mean, I guess I've kind of been out of the loop -- I didn't know we were supposed to be bad," Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl safety, said.
The Vikings got better Sunday morning, when they swung a huge trade two weeks before they host the Green Bay Packers in Week 1. Minnesota sent a 2021 second-round and a conditional 2022 fifth-round pick (which could go as high the third-round) to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for Pro Bowl edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
The move restores the Vikings' defense to elite status. Minnesota has long valued having two premiere edge rushers. When they lost out on trying to bring back Everson Griffen weeks ago, the focus shifted toward making an even bigger splash with Ngakoue.
"We’ve been looking for another pass-rusher for quite awhile," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think that’s important when you have a young secondary as well."
Fourth-year defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo was primed to take over Griffen’s role at right defensive end throughout the offseason. With Ngakoue soon to be in the fold, Minnesota is expected to move Odenigbo inside on pass rushing downs, a role he’s filled throughout his career.
Since the start of 2016, Ngakoue, 25, is one of five players with at least 35 sacks and 10 forced fumbles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The others are Chandler Jones, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Frank Clark.
Ngakoue had a pass-rush win rate of 21% as an edge rusher last season, per NFL Next Gen Stats, which ranked higher than Griffen (17%) and Hunter (15%), Ngakoue's new teammate.
Minnesota's defensive line is now anchored by two 25-year-old edge rushers. Hunter, who became the fastest player to reach 50 career sacks last season, has presided at left defensive end throughout his career and should stay there this season, according to co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Andre Patterson. That should work out well considering Ngakoue played 61% of his snaps last season at right end.
The defense is loaded with playmakers and a promising group of young players. The prioritization of shoring up the front seven after the departure of Griffen and Linval Joseph along with Michael Pierce's decision to opt out was important. What the Vikings are able to do up front will have a direct correlation to the success of their young cornerback group.
Ngakoue was franchised by the Jaguars this offseason and had yet to sign his $17.8 million tender. The Vikings have $12.9 million in cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management System. Sources told ESPN Ngakoue will make $12 million this season with the Vikings. Because he did not sign his franchise tender by July 15, Ngakoue cannot work out a long-term deal with the Vikings until next offseason.
Ngakoue so desperately wanted out of Jacksonville he is willing to take almost a $6 million pay cut to play for a contender. He can also build the next part of his career opposite another one of the game's rising stars in Hunter.
The Vikings are going to use most of their cap flexibility on Ngakoue and still have to make some moves to create space. But getting to this point was possible because of other moves that didn't happen this offseason.
Last week, Minnesota tabled contract extension talks with running back Dalvin Cook after both sides failed to come to an agreement. The Vikings had other items on their to-do list and opted to move on. The deal wasn't pulled, per a source, but Minnesota was no longer interested in negotiating.
Now comes the interesting part. If Cook still wants to sign an extension before the start of the season, is that number the same as it was weeks ago, or did he cost himself millions by not signing? If he doesn't sign anything and has a great season, Minnesota could place the franchise tag on Cook next offseason.
It's clear the Vikings have to find a way to make the financials work. That means someone such as left tackle Riley Reiff, who has a $13.2 million cap hit, is a prime candidate for a contract restructure.
Ngakoue, Cook and Harris, are all entering contract years. The 2021 offseason will be a huge test for the Vikings' cap wizard, Rob Brzezinski, to make the numbers work while negotiating a long-term extension for Ngakoue or opting for a second consecutive franchise tag.
And what about Hunter? He has missed the past 11 practices with a "little tweak" of an unidentified injury, according to Zimmer. But sources told ESPN the precautionary measure is to ensure he won't miss much time.
"It won’t take him long to get ready to play football, even if we just put him in on third downs or pass-rush situations," Zimmer said. "But he’s been in great shape, he looks great. I don’t think it’d take long. We’re being cautious with him, which, rightfully so."
Without Hunter, the Vikings' defensive line becomes pedestrian. With him and Ngakoue, Minnesota has the best edge-rushing duo in the NFL.
Come Week 1, the Vikings' splash move will reintroduce one of the fiercest defenses in the NFL.