Return of Anthony Barr a key upgrade for Vikings defense

EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings initiated an aggressive makeover of their defense this year, following a collapse so severe it triggered a December declaration from veteran coach Mike Zimmer that the group was the worst he’s ever had.

One of the enhancements for 2021 is a player who never left: four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Anthony Barr.

He’s back from a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2020 season in the second game, and his presence on the field ought to be as vital as any of the newcomers.

“I was able to reflect and realize I’m very blessed and still very fortunate to be in this situation that I am and to take advantage of the time because it is precious and it is fleeting,” Barr said Wednesday.

Only safety Harrison Smith and wide receiver Adam Thielen have been with the Vikings longer than Barr, the first draft pick of the Zimmer era that started in 2014. His impact over seven seasons has not always matched his keen intelligence and enviable skills, but last year it became clear that Barr is one of those players who’s immediately missed when he’s gone.

Zimmer pushed hard for the Vikings to re-sign Barr in 2019 when he became a free agent. Barr was so intent on staying he backed out of a verbal commitment to the New York Jets after a sleepless night, once the Vikings increased their contract offer.

Pressed hard against the salary cap this offseason, the Vikings had to cut stalwarts Riley Reiff and Kyle Rudolph among others to create space for other signings. Barr was in danger of joining them, but he agreed to void the final two years of his deal and take a pay cut of a little more than $2 million for this season. The team gained nearly $9 million in cap charge savings this year by doing so, and in turn Barr gets to be eligible for free agency again in 2022. He’ll make $10 million this season through salary and bonuses.

“I didn’t want my last game being the one in which I got hurt and then missing an entire year. I didn’t want that to be my last memory as a Minnesota Viking,” Barr said.

The Vikings began on-field practice this week, opening their drills at team headquarters Wednesday to reporters, and their attendance rate was high. Barr was one of several veterans with workout bonuses tied to participation in the sessions.

The highest-profile player among only a handful of absences was defensive end Danielle Hunter, another key cog the Vikings had to play without in 2020. He hurt his neck during training camp and never returned to the field.

There’s a contract matter that’ll need to be addressed, with the $72 million deal that Hunter signed three years ago now well below the market rate for star pass rushers. There’s no telling how this will play out. Hunter, for his part, has not been available to the media for an interview in 13 months.

“I’ve spoken to him a few times this offseason,” Barr said. “He’s going about things the way he thinks he needs to, and I support him 100 percent. He’s a friend and obviously an incredible player, and we’d love to have him whenever he does decide it’s time to show up and get back to work. I know he’s grinding and working and feeling great. We’ll accept him with open arms when he comes back.”

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