Anthony Barr’s choice came from his gut.
The 27-year-old free-agent linebacker had a $15 million-per-season offer from the New York Jets on March 11 and told his agent to take the deal. But his stomach churned as he considered leaving Minnesota after five seasons — four as a Pro Bowler — for that big pile of cash.
The hesitation was a product of the Vikings creating bonds in a “draft, develop and pay-your-own” system. That manifested itself when Barr changed his mind and signed a five-year, $67.5 million deal — a smaller pile of cash — with the Vikings on March 12.
Now that culture is on the clock.
The Vikings defense is at a crossroads. They have finished in the NFL’s top five in fewest yards allowed the past three seasons but have only one playoff victory in that time as they grow older. Keeping Barr, a foundational piece, was crucial.
“I don’t know my exact thought process was unfinished business, but it was something to that effect,” Barr said of his decision to stay.
That flip was the headline for the defense’s offseason, during which General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer doubled down on their homegrown process. Six Pro Bowlers on defense have been retained, breeding continuity, lofty expectations and the need for a pipeline of younger and cheaper reserves. Tackle Sheldon Richardson was the only starter lost in the offseason.
The starters are referenced as “a brotherhood.” The least experienced in the system is entering his third season; the other 10 enter their fifth season together. For many, like Barr, the huddle is home.
“It was more so about being in a place I wanted to be, with the people I wanted to be with,” Barr said. “I do feel strongly about what we have built here. I definitely want to continue that.”
The Vikings’ ambitious to-do list for the past calendar year — re-signing defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Eric Kendricks, and keeping receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen happy with new deals — was completed when Barr returned.
Spielman then doubled down on the process. Everson Griffen re-signed a restructured contract, taking a pay cut to give them cap space. The defense’s top free-agent signing, defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, was a 2014 seventh-round pick and is now the answer to losing Richardson in free agency.
“We feel this organization is a family,” Spielman said. “That’s why, I think, our approach — whether it’s right or wrong — [means] that we’re able to get guys like Anthony Barr to come back, to get guys like Shamar to come back, to keep guys when we have to make tough business decisions.”
With Stephen, the Vikings regain another 300-plus-pound defensive tackle next to Linval Joseph. He’ll be asked to shore up a run defense that leaked last season, but defensive line coach Andre Patterson will need to get creative to replace Richardson’s strong interior pass rush.
“What [Stephen] does isn’t sexy — it’s not,” Patterson said. “But it’s great for the whole defense, not just the D-line. The linebackers, the DBs, they all have an appreciation for what he does.”
Those familiar faces will front some “out of the box” adjustments Zimmer has teased ahead of his sixth Vikings season. However, a simplified approach greeted defenders this summer. They devoted more time to the basics, emphasizing turnover creation and situational defense, as Zimmer lamented last season’s focus on countering run-pass options (which the Eagles rode to a Super Bowl victory in 2017).
Those changes, according to Zimmer, diverted the Vikings from the fundamentals that were rooted in their No. 1-ranked defense from two years ago.
The Vikings’ defensive architect likely still has some tricks up his sleeve, which he says become easier to install when defenders stack up years together.
“If you put something new in, you have less mistakes,” Zimmer said, “because they’ve been doing it for so long and they’ve communicated for a long time.”
The inherent challenge for a defense with high-priced starters is maintaining the pipeline required to add depth and role players. The draft, free agency and the practice squad are components of a Vikings farm system that has produced late-round or undrafted contributors from defensive end Stephen Weatherly to linebacker Eric Wilson and safety Anthony Harris. Growth can take years.
“Sometimes it takes a while for them to learn the systems, learn the techniques,” Zimmer said. “But it’s a really vital part of professional football. You see a lot of these guys that aren’t ready until Year 2½ or 3 sometimes.”
Weatherly — entering Year 4 — is expected to play a pivotal role in 2019 as the defensive line’s version of the NBA’s sixth man. He’ll come off the bench and rotate with Griffen and Danielle Hunter at defensive end and replace a defensive tackle on passing downs.
Like the starters, Weatherly has earned freedom to choose pass-rush moves how he sees fit in certain game situations. That leeway is only gained over time.
“It meant a lot to get the trust from everybody,” Weatherly said, “and then Coach Zim letting me continue playing the way I’ve been playing. It meant a lot. You work for three years to get an opportunity. If you take advantage of it, more doors open up.”
But problems can arise when inexperienced defenders are forced into action.
In the Vikings’ Week 4 loss in Los Angeles last season, Barr and then-rookie cornerback Holton Hill miscommunicated; a pre-snap read wasn’t proper, leading to Rams receiver Robert Woods’ 31-yard touchdown over Barr, even though Woods was supposed to be Hill’s assignment.
Coaches and veterans will take those lumps if the young defender shows confusion on the field; starters need to know if one link in the chain isn’t operating as expected. Such lessons have been relayed to this roster’s reserves, who may play pivotal roles in the latest Lombardi chase.
“It’s the quiet mistakes that hurt us,” Barr said. “You can make a mistake, but if you communicate, you can make up for the lack of presence or what-not. As long as they’re vocal, we’ll live with the results.”