The Big Fat Comprehensive Look at the Vikings Offseason
The Minnesota Vikings had a record of 15-18 in the last two seasons combined. Yet, newly hired general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah still opted to keep the roster’s core intact, or as he would call it – a competitive rebuild. Others would call it ‘reloading.’
The goal of that strategy is simple — trying to stay competitive while setting the team up for future success at the same time.
However, the Vikings were not over .500 in two consecutive seasons, so just keeping the foundation in place won’t make the team competitive unless the front office finds a way to make the team better.
The fan base and the media members were torn if the franchise should enter a rebuild, not a competitive rebuild, a complete teardown of the roster. Some wanted the team to trade away veterans like Kirk Cousins, Harrison Smith, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen.
The new GM did the complete opposite. The first step was to ensure continuity at the quarterback position for at least two seasons. In these two seasons, the franchise can try to acquire the next franchise passer and even have him sit and learn from Cousins for a season if they find him next offseason.
The offense stayed almost the same personnel-wise. The franchise appears to think that a few additions and tweaks to the design of the offense can place the unit among the top-ten offenses.
The passers of the Minnesota Vikings stay the same. Cousins is the starter. Early reports suggest that the second-year player Kellen Mond is improving. He could be the eventual Cousins successor, but first, he has to fight against Sean Mannion for the backup spot.
Nothing changed with the most important position. Cousins is good but not great unless Kevin O’Connell can discover hidden production by better play-calling and a newly designed offense like he did with Matthew Stafford when the Rams won the Superbowl in February.
Just like the quarterbacks, nothing dramatically changed. Dalvin Cook will be the featured back, while special teams demon, Nwangwu will be the third guy on the depth chart. However, the team added a halfback in the draft – Ty Chandler. Chandler will be in a camp competition with Alexander Mattison for the primary backup position behind Cook. At the very least, the running back play should be consistent to 2021, barring injuries or a surprising regression of the workhorse Cook.
C.J. Ham is part of the group, too. It’s unclear how much of a role he’ll have in O’Connell’s system, as he did not have a fullback in Los Angeles. He is a phenomenal special teamer and can be useful as a tight end and, therefore, should continue to be part of the roster.
Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are the top targets for Cousins. Thielen evolved into a great red zone threat, while Jefferson is possibly the best receiver in the league. O’Connell’s Rams had three or more wide receivers on the field on 87% of the plays. The Vikings, meanwhile, had only three of them on the field on 60% of offensive plays.
As a result, the third receiver will be much more critical. KJ Osborn had a solid year in 2021 and is the favorite to be the third guy. His top contenders are Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the second-year player, rookie Jalen Nailor, and veteran Olabisi Johnson.
The first position with significant changes. Former day-two draft selection Irv Smith Jr. missed the entire 2021 campaign with a meniscus injury. He was supposed to play a big role in the passing game. Tyler Conklin tried his best to replace him, and he had success. Conklin left during free agency, just like Chris Herndon. Smith Jr is expected to be healthy when the season starts. However, the backup position is a question mark.
The team signed Johnny Mundt in free agency, blocking specialist Ben Ellefson is still on the roster, while seventh-round pick Nick Muse and Zach Davidson, a second-year project, are the young guys competing for a job. Mundt is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last October. It’s hard to say if the position improved, even if it wasn’t very good last season. A healthy Smith Jr is an upgrade over Conklin, as he’s just a better athlete.
The strength of the Vikings’ line is the two tackles. Brian O’Neill is playing at a Pro Bowl level every season, while Christian Darrisaw has shown signs of dominance as a rookie. Now he has a full and healthy offseason, which should only improve his game.
The problem is the interior line. Ezra Cleveland is solid. He isn’t wowing anyone, but he’s doing his job. Garrett Bradbury is an often discussed weak spot. His run blocking is slightly below average, while his pass protection is among the worst centers in the league every season. The coaching staff seems committed to him in the last season of his rookie contract.
Unless the team signs a player, like J.C. Tretter, who the fans want to see, he’ll be the starter. Hopefully, he can come closer to the potential that Spielman has seen in him since he is still the highest-drafted center in the last 20 years.
A lot changed at the right guard position. Last year, Oli Udoh started most games and returned the trust with subpar play. Especially the league-high 16 penalties were unacceptable. Therefore, the new general manager brought in two free agents and a rookie to compete for the job. Ed Ingram, the second-round selection from LSU, and Chris Reed, the free-agent signing from the Colts, are the top candidates.
Jesse Davis, the disappointing 2021 right tackle of the Dolphins, is expected to be converted back to his initial position, right guard. 2021 third-round selection, and highly-touted college player, Wyatt Davis, is also still on the team. He is a big mystery. If he can play as well as he did collegiately, he could easily be a starter in the NFL. However, since he hasn’t played as a rookie despite the struggles of the line, it is doubtful that he can earn the job at this point.
If one player of the bunch turns out to be even an average guard, something that is likely, considering the number of options, the Vikings line will be much improved. If none of them is starting caliber, the position might be cursed.
The organization put a lot of resources into the defense in an attempt to fix the unit. Per EPA/play, Mike Zimmer’s defense was surprisingly slightly above average. However, the situational defense was a disaster. Allowing conversions of countless crucial third and fourth downs and allowing opposing offenses to score regularly in the final minutes of each half does not lead to winning many football games.
In addition to a lot of new faces, the new coaching staff implements a new scheme. The Minnesota Vikings will run a 3-4 base defense for the first time in decades.
Last year’s defensive tackle tandem of Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce was supposed to be the new Williams wall. Both of them played well when they were on the field, but the rushing defense was still bad, making it likely that the scheme was the problem.
However, Pierce was cut and replaced by Harrison Phillips. Qualitatively speaking, Phillips is a slight downgrade, but his availability makes him an upgrade over Pierce, who only played in eight games over two seasons.
Dalvin Tomlinson and Armon Watts remain on the defensive line. Both are solid players, and Watts improved a lot last season. If he can make another jump, the front three is an excellent unit. James Lynch and Jaylen Twyman are two potential rotational players. Both have shown impressive play in college. Twyman missed his rookie campaign because he was shot when he visited his family. He is fully recovered now. James Lynch is a good bet to fill the void of a player who left in free agency, Sheldon Richardson, as an interior pass-rushing threat.
It’s hard to predict if the team upgraded the defensive line as the scheme is entirely different. From a talent perspective, it should be about the same.
The edge position was a disaster in 2021. As Zimmer has shown why he is still one of the elite defensive minds, his team still finished second in the league in sacks. Once Hunter and Griffen ended their seasons early, the defensive end play was not good. D.J. Wonnum is a solid backup, but if he has to play on running downs, opposing offensive tackles just push him out of the play, leaving a big running lane behind.
It’s relatively easy to say if Adofo-Mensah managed to improve the position group of the edge rushers. If one of Danielle Hunter and free-agent acquisition Za’darius Smith is healthy, the problem is fixed. If both are healthy, they are a nightmare for opponents. It will be interesting to see if one of Kenny Willekes, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones, and Janarius Robinson can step up and be a solid alternative.
Eric Kendricks is the anchor of the defense. His counterpart will not be Anthony Barr this time, as he is still a free agent. Adofo-Mensah signed Jordan Hicks as his replacement. In addition, he addressed the position with his third-round pick when he selected Brian Asamoah. Chazz Surratt, Troy Dye, and Blake Lynch will compete with Asamoah for the top backup job.
Barr was no longer the impact player he used to be, and he missed a lot of time with injuries in recent years. Jordan Hicks, on the other hand, is dependable and a solid starter.
Since Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes left in the 2020 free agency, the Vikings have a gaping hole at the position. In 2020, they went into the season with the injury-prone Mike Hughes and the two draft picks, Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. The results were not pretty.
In 2021, Patrick Peterson fixed some of the problems but, on the other side, played Beshaud Breeland, and the results once again were not pretty. In the slot, Mackensie Alexander is no longer on the team. Chandon Sullivan and Nate Hairston play at his position, which should be a slight upgrade.
The organization has Peterson, Dantzler, and the 42nd overall selection, Andrew Booth Jr. Dantzler, meanwhile, escaped Zimmer’s doghouse. If he can get his confidence back, he would almost function as a huge addition to the team. The new scheme is a good fit for him. Booth is a first-round talent who fell in the draft because of injuries.
The three potential starters have a good chance to be a solid trio and, therefore, an improvement over last year’s group. However, Peterson is not getting young and is not a great scheme fit. There is a world in which Booth and Dantzler start over him, even if it’s more likely that the young guys fight for the spot opposite of Peterson.
Harrison Smith has been the fixture on the backend of the Vikings’ defense for over a decade now. His running mates changed multiple times. This season, he’ll probably play next to the first pick of the new regime, Lewis Cine. Nowadays, rookie safeties come into the league pro-ready, so the national champion should hit the ground running. He’ll replace 2021 safety, Xavier Woods, who had moments of excellence paired with moments of tragedy. A level of play we can expect the rookie to match.
The top backup will be Camryn Bynum, a player who most people thought before the draft will start. Depth is essential, and it’s not a bad thing to have good backups.
It’s hard to predict if the secondary got better overall. If the players, especially Cine, Booth, and Dantzler, progress in a good way, it will be a better unit than in 2021 and 2020. If they don’t, and Peterson and Smith show regression, it could even turn out worse than in 2021, which would be a big disappointment as the organization invested the top two picks in the backend of the defense.
The young players could need time, something to remember in September when they play in their first professional game against the back-to-back MVP, Aaron Rodgers.
Kene Nwangwu is back as a dynamic kick returner. The job of the punt returner is in question because Dede Westbrook is no longer on the roster. The kicker Greg Joseph and the punter Jordan Berry return to the team but face competition in camp. Gabe Brkic is an undrafted free agent, just like Ryan Wright. Fans have to wait and see how it’ll turn out. It is an open competition.
The team looks about the same as last season, with an additional star pass rusher and some added youth in the secondary. Also, the team finally addressed the right guard spot. The organization puts a lot of faith in the coaching staff to turn the ship around.
A competitive rebuild means that the team actually has to compete, and with a few scheme tweaks, some new faces on the team, and the new optimism in the building, the team should be better, and fans can expect a fun season.
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who has a fable for numbers and stats. He chose the Vikings as his favorite team, despite Christian Ponder being the quarterback at the time. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Arguing about the Vikings on Twitter is one of his favorite things to do. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt