The guys at PackersNews.com give their predictions for Saturday night's game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
In 2013, the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings had two of the NFL’s worst defenses.
The Packers finished that season well into the bottom third of the league in points allowed (No. 24), defensive passer rating (No. 30) and yards allowed (No. 25).
The Vikings were even worse, probably the worst in the league: No. 32 in points, No. 30 in passer rating and No. 31 in yards.
Since then, though, these defenses have taken decidedly different paths.
The Vikings have been one of the league’s best the last three years and this season probably rate with Jacksonville atop the NFL.
The Packers, on the other hand, have continued to mostly flounder despite general manager Ted Thompson spending his top draft pick on a defensive player (and six picks in the first two rounds total) every year since then. They’ve at best made it to the middle of the league in the major defensive categories, and for the last two years they’ve been as bad as anybody on that side of the ball.
So what happened? Why do the Vikings come into Lambeau Field on Saturday with a top defense and the NFC North title in hand, while the Packers continue to struggle just getting a couple stops a game?
The answer isn’t complicated.
First, Rick Spielman, the Vikings’ general manager, has simply blown away Ted Thompson when it comes to drafting defensive players over the past seven or eight years.
Second, the Vikings hired a top defensive mind as their head coach.
What sets Minnesota apart is its sheer quantity of good defensive players. After consulting three NFL scouts, the consensus was the Vikings have seven defenders who are either Pro Bowlers or only a notch below: Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter.
If you’re looking for Packers who belong on that list, you have Mike Daniels and the ascending Kenny Clark. That’s it, based on this season.
So how did the Vikings accumulate that talent? Spielman drafted six of the seven and signed the other (Joseph) as an unrestricted free agent.
Smith (No. 29 overall in 2012), Rhodes (No. 25 in ’13) and Barr (No. 9 in ’14) were first-round picks. Thompson had a shot at only one of them, Smith. The Packers’ GM picked one slot before the Vikings in ’12 and selected Nick Perry instead of the safety who has since been voted to two Pro Bowls.
But the other four Vikings standouts were on the board when Thompson picked.
Griffen, who would have been an outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 defense, was a fourth-rounder (No. 100 overall) in ’10. That year Thompson picked defensive lineman Mike Neal in the second round (No. 56) and traded up for safety Morgan Burnett (No. 71) in the third.
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Kendricks was a second-rounder (No. 45) in ’15. Thompson drafted Damarious Randall at No. 30, so he could have either picked Kendricks there or traded back, gained an extra pick, and still gotten him.
And Hunter was a third-rounder (No. 88 overall), also in ’15. Thompson drafted Quinten Rollins at No. 60 that year.
The defensive talent gap between these teams is stunning, and give all the credit to Spielman. He has hit on pick after pick over the last several years, whereas Thompson has hit only twice since 2010, on Daniels (fourth round) in 2012 and Clark (first round ’16).
Signing Joseph in ’14 also was a great use of free agency. The New York Giants thought they had enough talent on their defensive line to let Joseph walk, and Spielman ponied up $6.25 million a year for five years. It worked out so well the GM extended Joseph’s deal last August, adding four years and $50 million in new money, including $11.15 fully guaranteed.
Teams have wasted a lot of money in free agency over the years. But Joseph is proof there are good signings to be had.
Spielman also committed to that side of the ball by hiring Mike Zimmer as coach in ’14 after the defense had bottomed out in ’13. That meant the Vikings would have one of the league’s best defensive minds as long as he’s coach.
Zimmer has been running NFL defenses since 2000, and in those 18 seasons (which includes this one) he has ranked in the top 10 in points allowed in almost half those years (eight) and in yards exactly half (nine).
By comparison, Packers coordinator Dom Capers has run an NFL defense for 24 seasons, or six years more than Zimmer. He has the same number of top-10 finishes in points (eight) as Zimmer and two fewer in yards (seven).
It’s more than fair to say that Thompson’s defensive drafting since winning the Super Bowl in the 2010 season is a big black mark on his record. He’s as draft-oriented a GM as there is in the league, so that’s on him.
Spielman has had some drafting advantages – Thompson has picked no higher than No. 21 overall since 2010, whereas Spielman has picked in the top 12 four times in that span. But that doesn’t account for the huge difference in defensive talent. Spielman simply has picked much better players that were available to both teams.
But for all the Vikings have done for building a first-rate defense, it bears pointing out that you can't say the same for the position that matters above all, quarterback.
While Thompson replaced Brett Favre with another sure-fire Pro Football Hall of Famer in Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings have utterly failed at manning the game’s most important position. If you don’t get that right, there’s a really good chance the rest won’t matter.
Ever since Daunte Culpepper's career nosedived in 2005 with Randy Moss' departure and later a severe knee injury, the Vikings have come up short at quarterback because of mistakes of commission and omission.
Spielman drafted Christian Ponder at No. 12 overall in 2011; passed on Russell Wilson with the third pick of the third round in 2012 in favor of cornerback Josh Robinson; traded up for Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32 in ’14 with Jimmy Garoppolo still on the board; and traded first- and fourth-round picks for broken-down Sam Bradford last year.
Spielman made a nice move signing Case Keenum as a backup last offseason, and Keenum has rewarded him (9-3 record as a starter, 98.9 rating). But he’s not the answer, either. If the Vikings don’t win the Super Bowl this season – and I’m betting strongly against them – it’ll be because of their quarterback.
Still, kudos to Spielman. He caught the Packers this year, and he did it the old-fashioned way, via the draft. That’s supposed to be Thompson’s thing.