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Mini-rookie camp at Winter Park gives first glimpse of season to come

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer talks with 2014 draft pick Scott Crichton (72) during stretching at the rookie mini camp last Friday afternoon in Eden Prairie. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

What happens when the unit which is designed to stop the opposing’ offense finishes the season dead last in four important categories and 30th or 31st out of 32 teams in another four?

Change, that’s what happens.

The Minnesota Vikings’ defense brought much consternation through the entire 2013 season, basically blowing five leads late in the game by allowing the opponent to march down the field for game-winning drives.

The Vikings were last in touchdown passes per game (2.3), first downs passing per game (15.4), completions allowed per game (26.2) and most importantly, points allowed per game at a whopping 30.

Teams held the ball the second longest versus the Vikes at 33:18 time of possession, while allowing opponents to convert third down 44 percent of the time.

Those miserable stats, combined with a circus-like quarterback carousel, cost Leslie Frazier and the majority of his staff their jobs.

To answer the question posed in the first paragraph, you go hire a defensive minded coach like Mike Zimmer and pick defense, defense and more defense in the draft and in free agency.

You replace the bad parts with much younger and improved ones.

That’s what the Vikings did during the offseason, signing massive defensive tackle Linval Joseph and slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

Then they proceeded to select seven defensive players from their 10 picks in the NFL Draft, with a couple of things in common – speed and a high ceiling.

One of Zimmer’s strengths during his long NFL tenure has been the ability to coach players up. This was the approach General Manager Rick Spielman took in the NFL draft, by selecting players who not only have speed, but also raw ability which can be harnessed by the new Viking head coach.

The No. 9 overall pick was UCLA’s outside linebacker Anthony Barr and he fits that mold exactly.

Barr is a Chris Doleman clone, just a bit bigger at 6-5 and 255 pounds.

The Bruin is raw and has a higher ceiling than most coming out of college, since he has played the linebacker position for only two years, after starting out as a running back.

Zimmer will put Barr in as a pass-rush specialist, where he excelled at UCLA with 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks.

His weakness does include run support, but in Zimmer’s defense, at least early in his career, rushing the passer will be Barr’s job.

 With Barr’s intangibles of size and speed, Zimmer sees a treasure of potential.

“I love taking guys with talent and coaching that, because those kind of guys you can take them a lot further,” Zimmer said after the first day of the NFL Draft. “He is still learning a lot of different things and we will be able to teach him a lot.”

Hopefully that will include putting grass stains on the jerseys of Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford, who are the some of the NFC’s best QB’s.

The Vikings took a break from their rebuilding of the defense by trading up and selecting Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32.

The cache’ to trade up cost much less than trading up to No. 22 for the sliding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, since it would have required a first-round pick next year.

For Bridgewater, it cost only a fourth rounder and the Vikes’ second rounder to stop his slide.

Bridgewater will have the luxury of playing in Norv Turner’s offense, which has produced such names as Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Philip Rivers and Ladainian Tomlinson.

There are some red flags on Bridgewater, such as his slight frame, small hands and his ability of throwing the vertical pass.

But those should be overshadowed by his high completion percentage, low interception rate (threw only 24 picks in 1,100 attempts) and his strong pocket presence.

Turner will work with Bridgewater to develop his vertical passing, but the Vikings do have some strong receivers who can pick up yards after the catch in Greg Jennings, Cordarralle Patterson and Jarius Wright.

Bridgewater should be in the mix for starting QB duties, as he battles Matt Cassel starting in July and the start of training camp in Mankato.

But Bridgewater’s character was also an important virtue.

“His character is so high,” Zimmer said. “I keep talking about the kind of players that we want to come in in here and to represent the fans here.”

After Bridgewater, the Vikings continued their picking of falling players, like defensive end Scott Crichton and offensive lineman David Yankey.

Both were projected to be selected much higher than they were, with Crichton adding big time depth on a strong defensive line and Yankey potentially slated to win the left guard position.

Add in a slight reach of running back Jerick McKinnon, the Vikes went defense the rest of the way, including safety Antone Exum, who fell to the sixth round due to a knee/ankle injury he suffered earlier in the year at Virginia Tech.

All the defensive draft picks were graded well and every one of them possesses speed.

With the outdated Tampa Two defense gone, that alone will be an improvement. But with the new, fresh players coming in and a new aggressive style of defense to be coached, the rebuilding of a sieve defense is off to a good start.

Brian Wierima
Detroit Lakes Newspapers Sports Editor for the last 15 years. St. Cloud State University graduate, who hails from Deer Creek, MN.