Vikings building shape-shifting defense

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In their first two drafts since Mike Zimmer became their head coach, the Minnesota Vikings have used 10 of their 13 picks on pieces for Zimmer's defense. Six of those players will help populate the first two layers of the Vikings' defense. The group includes:

  • A 6-foot-5 linebacker who can line up as a defensive end;

  • A 6-foot-3 end who also rushed from the inside in college;

  • A 6-foot linebacker whom the Vikings feel can play the middle or the weak side;

  • And a 6-foot-6, 240-pound end whose 4.57-second 40-yard dash was the fastest at his position during the NFL scouting combine.

Make no mistake: As the Vikings build their defense in Zimmer's image, they're creating a unit that can shift its shape quickly. While the coach's base defense is a standard 4-3 look, his blitz packages are built on triggering confusion. That becomes much more likely with a front seven full of lithe, speedy players who can rush from a number of different spots or drop into coverage. The Vikings were already using players like defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith in that fashion last year, and the team's two picks on Friday -- UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks and LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter -- only served to advance that strategy.

"Any time that you can get guys that maybe can play multiple positions or do multiple things, it just gives coaches that many more tools to work with," general manager Rick Spielman said. "Coach Zim and the staff are great at identifying strengths of each player and trying to adjust the scheme according to what these guys can and can't do."

During his second year in Dallas and Cincinnati, Zimmer had defenses that ranked fourth in the league in yards allowed. The Vikings were 14th last season and have designs on taking another step this season. Eventually, they hope to have a defense where cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes can be largely left to handle receivers in man coverage, allowing Zimmer to dial up more aggressive blitz packages and sapping precious tenths of seconds from quarterbacks to diagnose pass rushes and find receivers. Eventually, the Vikings could have a nickel package with a fearsome pass-rusher (Barr) and solid coverage linebacker (Kendricks) playing behind Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Tom Johnson and Robison. Gerald Hodges could become a factor, too, and once Scott Crichton and Hunter are ready, the Vikings' options will be even more varied.

"Man, I can't wait to play in it," a giddy Kendricks said on Friday night. "They feed a lot to the linebackers, and you've got the front going on. You've got my boy AB [Barr] coming off the edge but also behind the ball sometimes. I don't know too much, but I am eager to learn."

He'll join a team that returns most of its key defensive players from a year ago, which means Zimmer could be able to delve even deeper into his playbook. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings were eighth in the league, sacking opposing quarterbacks on 6.9 percent of their dropbacks despite blitzing just 28.6 percent of the time (18th most in the league). Zimmer has never called a particularly heavy volume of blitzes, and the Vikings generated pressure on only 32.9 percent of their blitzes last season, but as they diversify their scheme and get more comfortable with it, the group only figures to improve.

It takes talented, versatile players to make that happen, however, and what became clear again on Friday was how committed the Vikings are to finding them.