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Cutting Xavier Rhodes Just the Start of Inevitable Collapse of Vikings Defense

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 15, 2020

Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes stands on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

You could see it coming from Duluth, Rochester, Woodbury or any other Minnesota city that's more than a mile from Minneapolis. The Minnesota Vikings invested so heavily in their star-studded defense in recent years that it was obvious the bubble would eventually burst. 

It's happening. 

Seven members of the 2019 Vikings defense possessed contracts worth at least $10 million per year, according to Spotrac. More than half of them were at least 29 years old, which usually represents the wrong side of one's football prime.

No other NFL team had more than four defensive players with eight-figure salaries, and the league average was 2.6 per payroll. 

It partly explains why the Vikes found themselves in a massive salary-cap crunch before they were forced to release veteran starters Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph on Friday, just ahead of the 2020 free-agent signing period. With star edge-defender Everson Griffen hitting free agency after he voided the remainder of his contract, Minnesota will have some (limited) cap flexibility when the gates open on the new league year Wednesday.

But a defense that took a step backward with frequent lapses in 2019 will be in substantially worse shape without three experienced starters who have a combined nine Pro Bowl nods between them. 

Rhodes looked like he lost a step despite making the Pro Bowl last season, Griffen is 32 and Joseph is 31. With that in mind, the Vikings can't be faulted for letting any of them get away. But there's also little doubt that they're still a lot worse off without them. 

We're talking about 50 percent of the starting defensive line, a 2017 first-team All-Pro corner and, in Griffen's case, the reigning team leader in quarterback hits with 24. 

Minnesota went all-in on a defensive core that featured those three as well as top pass-rusher Danielle Hunter, safety Harrison Smith and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. But Rhodes and Joseph are gone, Griffen will be difficult to retain, and heavily utilized defensive backs Anthony Harris, Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes are also on the verge of unrestricted free agency. 

Brett Duke/Associated Press

Some of those players weren't consistent assets in a tough 2019 campaign (especially for a secondary that posted the sixth-worst opposing completion rate in the NFL), but without Rhodes, Joseph, Griffen, Harris, Alexander and Waynes, a top-heavy D would be an utter shell of its former self. 

If the Vikings are forced to rely heavily on unproven 2018 first-round corner Mike Hughes and a cheap free agent (or either Alexander or Waynes) at cornerback, they'll be in huge trouble. And there'd be even more pressure on that watered-down coverage unit if they can't bring back Griffen and/or Harris, both of whom were tremendous assets in 2019. 

Griffen is likely to entertain suitors in free agency, according to the Star Tribune's Ben Goessling, while Harris was the league's highest-graded safety at Pro Football Focus last year. The 28-year-old should have plenty of tread on his tires, which means he's likely to command a massive deal on the open market following a season in which he tied for the league lead with six interceptions. 

The Minnesota defense still put up impressive overall numbers in 2019, but in most respects, that unit was short of elite. And for a seven-week stretch midway through the year, Minnesota was one of the NFL's worst defensive teams. With that much expensive talent, that's a problem.

The Vikings are at risk of falling off a cliff because there's such a small middle class on the defensive depth chart, which is a shame, considering they've won just two playoff games in the Mike Zimmer era, which started in 2014.

That doesn't necessarily mean the Vikings are destined for a rebuild, though, because the offense might be positioned to bail out the rest of the team. 

In fact, quarterback Kirk Cousins can do that in multiple ways. First, he can agree to a long-term contract extension that gives the front office more short-term financial flexibility by reducing his 2020 cap number from $31 million to, well, a price that is lower than $31 million. Then, Cousins can build on the highest-rated season of his career (107.4) with an even better one in 2020. 

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The lower cap hit would give Minnesota a fighting chance to re-sign both Griffen and Harris, which has to be the dream scenario. That would take a lot of pressure off the rest of the team, as would another strong season from Cousins and top weapons Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. 

The Vikes were one of just three teams that ranked in the top 10 on both sides of the ball in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders in 2019. For years, it's been all about the defense there. But they at least became a balanced team last season, and there's a good chance they will become heavily reliant on the offense at the dawn of a new decade. 

Can the Vikings continue to contend even if the defense becomes a liability? We're about to find out. 

                         

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter. Or don't. It's entirely your choice.

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