Vikings LB Anthony Barr needs to shine next season
By: Grant Schwieger
The Minnesota Vikings have set themselves up for a make-or-break year in 2021. They restructured the contracts of Anthony Barr, Adam Thielen, and Britton Colquitt to make more cap space for this season and push more money down the road. Every free agent they signed this year is on a one-year deal besides Dalvin Tomlinson, and even his contract has voided years in the future to create more space for this season. Kirk Cousins is set to have a cap hit of $45 million in 2022 so something likely needs to be done with him after this season as well. Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman need Minnesota to have a bounce-back year after a disappointing season a year ago. Everyone involved needs the Vikings to return to the upper echelon of the NFC this year, and there are five specific Vikings that need to step up for that to occur.
5. Anthony Barr
Anthony Barr has become a very polarizing player during his time in Minnesota. There are groups of fans who constantly bark about his contract being too much, and others, including Mike Zimmer, who will not hesitate to go to bat about the importance of Barr to the Vikings’ defense.
A lot of Barr’s value stems from intangible things that fans cannot pick up on just watching games on TV. He is the one Zimmer communicates with on game days and is vital in getting the rest of the defense lined up and positioned correctly. This allows his running mate Eric Kendricks to roam freely. Kendricks has made a name for himself over the last few seasons as one of the best linebackers in the NFL, however, Barr is scrutinized for being the most expensive LB on the team.
Zimmer’s defense will certainly benefit from having Barr back on the field in 2021 after he missed almost all of 2020, but there is no question Barr can take his play on the field up to the next level. He has shown he can be an elite LB in all aspects of the game, run defense, pass-rushing, and coverage. It has just been a few years since we have seen them all on display at once. Every healthy season of his career has seen Barr register 100+ snaps in run defense, pass-rushing, and coverage, and it has been documented many times that he is a player opposing offenses need to keep an eye on. If both numbers 55 and 54 can be problems for opponents this season, the Vikings’ defense should take a big leap forward.
4. Patrick Peterson
While the rest of the Vikings on this list are entering at least their second year with the team, Patrick Peterson’s role and impact on this team could not be left off the list. When his career wraps up, Peterson could be looking at induction into the Hall of Fame. However, if he was still playing like a Hall of Famer, he likely would not have hit the free-agent market. At age 31, Peterson may not be in his physical prime anymore, but he still is the same player mentally that he was when he was widely regarded as a true lockdown cornerback. Minnesota may have paid a little bit for that mental aspect when they signed him to a deal that was more expensive than most expected. That is not to say he is no longer able to perform well as a #1 CB, he has still shown flashes of that in camp.
Arizona played man coverage at one of the highest rates in the league the last few years, and Peterson has performed much better in zone than in man coverage.
The good news is Mike Zimmer has always run much more zone coverage than man, so there is reason to expect Peterson’s 2021 season to be better than his last couple. Minnesota desperately needs a true #1 CB again after Xavier Rhodes declined and then departed, and Peterson gives them the best chance for that in 2021. He likely will not play the 1,000+ snaps like he regularly did each season for the Cardinals, but 700-800+ snaps of good CB play would do wonders for Zimmer and his defense.
3. Irv Smith Jr
For the final three players on this list, it is not the case of a player returning to a previous form like Barr and Peterson, but more a young player needing to take the next step in their career. Irv Smith Jr has largely been in Kyle Rudolph’s shadow since he was drafted in 2019 but got a chance at the end of 2020 to show what he was capable of doing as a top tight end.
Smith had a top-five PFF receiving grade among all TEs after Week 5 last season, an indication that he can be a huge help to Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense. The reason for this arbitrary cutoff, however, is that his first four weeks of the season were not good. If he can put together a full season that was like his last nine games, that would be beneficial for the Minnesota offense and for Smith himself as he works towards his second contract. The issue of who the Vikings’ third wide receiver will be would not be nearly as important if Swervin’ Irvin can break through and prove to be a competent TE1 and reliable receiving option.
2. DJ Wonnum
DJ Wonnum might be the player on this list that requires the biggest jump in performance to have a positive impact on this team. Many Vikings fan’s first thought when they hear Wonnum’s name is his strip-sack on Aaron Rodgers to seal the win in Green Bay. Unfortunately for Wonnum, he did not have many other highlights on the season. He had only 22 pressures on 273 pass-rushing snaps, which is a less than stellar rate.
The good news about Wonnum is that the reports out of camp thus far have been positive. He was listed behind Stephen Weatherly on the first Vikings depth chart, but in his sixth NFL season, we know what Weatherly brings to the team. It might not be awful, but it also will not be elite either. Wonnum has the athletic ability to potentially be a much higher impact player for this team, which is why he makes this list. Zimmer and Andre Patterson have been creative with Wonnum this summer, playing him standing up at edge rusher, with his hand in the dirt, and even a little off-ball linebacker.
Fans at US Bank Stadium last Saturday went nuts when Wonnum dropped back in coverage and secured a pick-six. There are no promises that he develops into a quality edge rusher this season, or ever, but he is the Vikings’ best bet to make a big leap this season. The Vikings defensive line is a Wonnum progression away from having a monster lineup all the way across with Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce, and Sheldon Richardson all in the mix already.
1. Garrett Bradbury
The 2021 Minnesota Viking who undoubtedly needs to step up this year is center Garrett Bradbury. Not only would progression from Bradbury immensely help Kirk Cousins and the rest of the purple and gold offense, but it will also help Bradbury prolong his career. With another disappointing season, Minnesota could look to replace the guy they selected 18th overall in 2019 to be their center of the future. The issue for Bradbury so far in his career has mostly been his pass blocking.
Plays such as the one above where he loses his rep almost immediately occur way too often and wreck the play before it can get going. His PFF pass-blocking grades in the last 2 regular seasons have both ranked dead last among centers in the NFL. An improvement to average or even slightly below average would be a massive stride for a team whose interior offensive line play over the last few seasons has been some of the worst the league has ever seen.
The good news is that Bradbury has shown signs of being a capable NFL center. His athleticism makes him valuable in the run game out in front of Dalvin Cook. After Week 10 last season, he was actually the fifth-highest ranked center by PFF and had the third-highest run-blocking grade. He fell off after that point in the season, but he exemplified the ability to be the player Minnesota hoped for in a first-round pick. Excelling in the run game and holding his own pass blocking for an entire season would be a massive leap and a step in the right direction for protecting Kirk Cousins and giving him time to find the elite playmakers he has around him.