The Vikings’ next general manager, whenever hired, will have influence over the hiring of the 10th head coach in franchise history. Those moves over the coming weeks will establish the new hierarchy at TCO Performance Center. Then they can turn attention to a choose-your-adventure roster that has 17 players headed for unrestricted free agency — including five starters listed below — and contractual decisions to be made with quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive end Danielle Hunter, among others.
Let’s take a deep dive into what the Vikings’ new leadership will be considering once they turn to those questions. Below are five prominent players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March, and how they played in 2021. Statistics like quarterback hurries, missed tackles and yards after the catch are charted by Pro Football Focus.
1. Linebacker Anthony Barr: Upon the front office asking him to take a pay cut, Barr renegotiated his contract to stay in Minnesota for what might’ve been an eighth and final Vikings season. The former Pro Bowler dealt with more injury issues when his right knee started giving him trouble in training camp. He sat out a few weeks before undergoing arthroscopic surgery in late August, delaying his debut until Week 5 vs. Detroit. He played 704 defensive snaps (62.5%), missing two additional games against the Chargers in Week 10 and the Lions in Week 13 when knee and hamstring issues arose. Still managing the knee injury through midseason practices, Barr wasn’t very effective in his first four games. He missed nearly as many tackles — five — than the seven solo takedowns he made. His lone impact play was the clutch, tipped interception off Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in overtime.
But Barr said he got healthier, and improved, the more he played. In the last five games, he was credited with 22 solo tackles, one for a loss, two sacks, two quarterback hits, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. He possibly ended his Vikings tenure on a high note with his first multi-interception game against the Rams and second multi-sack game against the Bears in the finale. Barr, who turns 30 in March, been a longtime team captain and leader, relaying plays in the defensive huddle and making adjustments. But he spoke like he’s prepared to move on from the Vikings — three years after he nearly did the first time.
“I could have easily folded and shut it down, but that’s not how I’m built,” Barr said. “That’s not in my DNA. I catch a lot of flack for being injured all the time, and I don’t really care about playing. I don’t know where people come up with all that stuff. It’s a convenient excuse or whatever, but I love football. It’s given me so much opportunity. My coaches and my teammates respect me for what I was going through, and playing games that I probably shouldn’t have been playing and being able to gut it out.”
Barr was the first draft pick under Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman in 2014, and perhaps it’s only right should he leave with the defensive schemes that established one of the NFL’s better-to-best defenses from 2015 through 2019. The resonating image will be Barr and Eric Kendricks standing over center in Zimmer’s famed ‘A-gap’ blitz schemes.
Below is a third-down sack in the Dec. 9 win against the Steelers, set up by Barr (#55) for Kendricks (#54).
This zone blitz has Barr and defensive end D.J. Wonnum (#98) dropping into coverage. It’s Barr and safety Harrison Smith who sell the blitz over the Steelers’ right side, which leads to Pittsburgh’s incorrect protection call against the Vikings’ left-side blitz. Barr bails last, recovering quickly to get underneath Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth while Kendricks is unblocked thanks to the pre-snap setup. The intellect, connection and experience between defenders like Barr, Kendricks and Smith are a main reason why the Vikings could consistently generate a pass rush despite losing their top pass rushers. The defense fell short when needing just a standard four-man rush — like end-of-half/game situations — because they lacked the talent up front.
2. Cornerback Patrick Peterson: The longtime leading Cardinals defender signed a one-year deal in free agency when Arizona let him walk. He instantly became the leader in a young, patchwork cornerback room, taking Cameron Dantzler and Kris Boyd under his wing. He played 803 defensive snaps (71.3%). He was flagged for three penalties, including a third-down holding in the Nov. 28 loss at San Francisco. Not the most aggressive or surest tackler, he missed seven tackles, including six in coverage.
The least-targeted Vikings corner, averaging eight snaps between throws, Peterson surrendered 37 catches and deflected five passes on 64 targets. They included three touchdowns — two in the Sept. 19 loss against his former team in Arizona; one was a scramble drill by the ridiculously-mobile Kyler Murray, while the other was a busted coverage by Peterson on a 77-yard catch and run by receiver Rondale Moore.
Peterson got his first interception of the season in the Jan. 9 finale, when Bears quarterback Andy Dalton lobbed up a prayer that Peterson returned for a 66-yard touchdown. The pick ensured he has at least one interception in each of his 11 NFL seasons.
“I thought my season was pretty solid,” Peterson said before the season finale. “I expected to get targeted a little bit more. I was really pumped for a little bit more, having an opportunity to get my hands on a couple footballs. … I feel like my coverage has been tight, I feel like my technique has been tight. I feel like I could tackle a little bit better.”
Peterson, who turns 32 in July, brought savvy coverage skills at an otherwise inconsistent position for the Vikings defense. But he only left his right side of the defense to shadow one opposing receiver — the Packers’ Davante Adams. Adams had little trouble producing in the Vikings’ Nov. 21 win over Green Bay, so Zimmer switched to doubling Adams in the Jan. 2 rematch. That didn’t work, and Peterson was back following Adams by the second half.
Adams still got loose for three touchdowns against the Vikings in 2021, though none were on Peterson. Below is one of the two scores he gave up in Arizona, although it’s difficult to fault him as Murray and DeAndre Hopkins made this happen.
Peterson had a season-high two deflections in the Oct. 10 win against the Lions. His intellect showed off on this third-down throw as the Vikings run a “sticks” coverage, with defenders crowding the first-down marker. Peterson aligns outside, sitting on a likely out route with the receiver aligning tight — closer to the middle of the field.
3. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson: The veteran signed a one-year deal in June to be a backup defensive tackle for the first time in his nine-year NFL career, but he ended up starting seven games — at defensive end, where options were thin without Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen or Stephen Weatherly. Richardson played 637 defensive snaps (56.6%), second on the D-line. He was penalized three times, all for early jumps, and missed just three tackles. He knew to get his hands up against Browns quarterback — and former teammate — Baker Mayfield, deflecting two third-down throws in the Oct. 3 loss to the Browns. Richardson was second on the team with 37 quarterback pressures, with three-quarters of that production in the second half of the year.
His impact became greater as the season progressed. He turned 31 in November, just as he started an impressive transition to the edge, where his size helped the defense gain some control at the line of scrimmage. From the edge, Richardson broke through more frequently with four of his six tackles for losses. But he was still playing out of position; the 290-pounder didn’t offer much speed on the edge. However, he chased down Bears running back David Montgomery to force a fumble in the Dec. 20 win at Chicago — made official only after he convinced Mike Zimmer to challenge the missed call.
“The dude just can play all up and down the line,” nose tackle Michael Pierce said last month. “Being able to understand all the calls, drops in coverage sometimes. You’re gonna be hard-pressed to find too many guys that can do that.”
But Richardson is a defensive tackle, and perhaps best suited for the role that Vikings coaches initially envisioned as a pass-rushing specialist. The defense did well against the run in the Oct. 31 loss to the Cowboys, holding Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to 3.3 yards per carry. But that went up to 3.9 yards when Richardson (#90) was on the field. He didn’t have any tackles for losses in the first seven games of the season.
4. Tight end Tyler Conklin: The one-time special teams contributor and backup stepped into the starting role when Irv Smith Jr. underwent knee surgery just before the season opener. Conklin played a career-high 892 snaps (81.6%) on offense, and just one on special teams. He finished third on the team with 61 catches on 87 targets, and fourth with 593 yards and three touchdowns — all career highs in the last year of his rookie contract. He was penalized four times, including a third-down hold that negated a 37-yard completion to Justin Jefferson in the Oct. 3 loss to the Browns. Conklin’s season-high 70 yards came against the Seahawks, with nearly half after the catch. He had his first multi-touchdown game in the Nov. 14 win against Chargers, including a fourth-and-goal scoop to take the lead. He had the surest hands on the team, dropping just one pass, but is not elusive, breaking two tackle attempts.
Conklin didn’t step into Smith’s role, exactly. He was mostly deployed as an in-line blocker for as coordinator Klint Kubiak’s offense pivoted to three receivers. He led all NFL tight ends with 98 pass-blocking snaps for an offensive line that needed the help. It was more like the old Kyle Rudolph role, which meant undesirable matchups against defensive ends that didn’t always work out for the Vikings.
“He puts in all the dirty work,” running back Dalvin Cook said last month. “He blocks, he just be quiet, he does his job. I think Conklin is the true definition of a pro. Just giving him the credit.”
Over half of Conklin’s 593 yards came after the catch. But there were fewer opportunities to spring him deep as Kubiak called the lowest play-action rate (25.9%) in the system’s third season in Minnesota. The longest catch of Conklin’s career came in the Oct. 17 win at Carolina, where Cousins had one of his best play-action passing days of the year against an aggressive Panthers defensive front.
Conklin (#83) immediately has room on this route with Panthers linebackers and safety Jeremy Chinn (#21) eager to pounce on Cook on first down. Fullback C.J. Ham throws a key block and releases on a route that causes Chinn to hesitate, giving Conklin even more space for the 40-yard catch and run. The Vikings put up a season-high 571 yards at Carolina, with whom Kubiak interviewed recently for its open coordinator job.
5. Safety Xavier Woods: He replaced Anthony Harris as the primary deep safety in single-high coverages and was a reliable starter after signing a one-year deal last offseason. Woods played a team-high 1,234 snaps, the only defender to play all 1,126 snaps, in addition to 108 snaps on special teams. He delivered some big hits and was penalized four times, including twice for unnecessary roughness; one flagged hit put Panthers receiver Terrace Marshall in the concussion protocol. Woods missed six tackles and forced two fumbles, including one deep in Panthers territory that led to a Vikings touchdown in the Oct. 17 win at Carolina.
He had a career-high 10 deflections and three interceptions in coverage, including a pick against his former team when Harrison Smith deflected a pass by Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush. Woods surrendered four touchdowns — two in the Nov. 21 win against the Packers; receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling ran past him for a 75-yard touchdown.
“I just wanted to win,” Woods said this month. “I wanted to win and make the playoffs, so it didn’t turn out as well as I thought it would be. I had my ups and my downs, but I just wanted to win and make the playoffs, but we didn’t do that. So, I consider [the one-year contract] a fail.”
This is the other touchdown tabbed against Woods vs. the Packers.
Receiver Davante Adams (#17) heads toward Woods — standing at the goal line — on an over route, but the play is made possible because quarterback Aaron Rodgers has all day to direct Adams to the open space in the end zone.