2 Vikings’ Rookies Will Have a Big Opportunity on Sunday

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After winning five straight games, the Vikings are in a comfortable position to win the seventh seed in the NFC as they have a 1.5 win lead over the eighth seed, hold the tiebreaker over the Saints and Falcons, but also have a strong 6-2 record within the NFC, which is also commonly used as a tiebreaker. A victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday would even strengthen that position.

2 Vikings’ Rookies Will Have a Big Opportunity on Sunday

 Rookies Will Have a Big Opportunity on Sunday
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Of course, the preferred way of making the playoffs is by claiming the division, automatically securing a home playoff game in the wild-card round. As long as the Lions are in a two-game reach, the Vikes control their own destiny as the two NFC North rivals meet twice at the end of the season, in Weeks 16 and 18. Keeping pace with perhaps the best Lions’ team in years is a tough task, especially without some key players.

Kirk Cousins remains out for the season, Marcus Davenport is still on IR, and Justin Jefferson is questionable. Just this week, the Vikings added a couple of important players to the long injury list as both defenders Jordan Hicks and Akayleb Evans are out. Hicks is on IR after undergoing a lower leg procedure, and Akayleb Evans, who has been struggling with minor issues all year, will miss his first contest in 2023 because of a calf injury.

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Both starters have been quite fantastic, way exceeding expectations. Hicks stayed with a pay cut after a down year and has become the heart and soul of the defense as the primary communicator. Evans entered his sophomore campaign as an unproven defensive back and has claimed a starting job, quietly looking like a veteran with plenty of experience in the NFL.

Without Evans handling the outside cornerback duties opposite of Byron Murphy, the Vikings have two candidates to pick up his snaps. It will either be rookie Mekhi Blackmon or second-year player Andrew Booth. Third-rounder Blackmon has been the first man off the bench in the cornerback room for most of the season and should be expected to start on Sunday.

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Throughout the 2023 season, Jordan Addison’s former college teammate at USC has been on the field for 201 defensive snaps, logging six pass breakups and 14 combined tackles, and he caught his first interception last week against Jameis Winston.

The rookie has a big chance to prove that he can be a long-term solution at the cornerback position and a contributor not just in 2023 but also in the future. General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah can then dial back his spending in free agency but also in the draft to look for solid cornerbacks.

A similar chance has Ivan Pace. The undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati came in like a wrecking ball, blowing up the expected starting duo of Hicks and Brian Asamoah after the departure of veteran Eric Kendricks. However, all Pace did was perform well in practice and on the field, showing that he deserves to play a significant role.

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He will likely take over as the team’s top snap-getter at the second level. Hicks played every snap in six of the nine games prior to suffering his injury in Week 10, while Pace has logged a total of 50% of the defensive reps. His role will massively increase. Another aspect will be the green dot. Hicks is the guy on the field that calls the plays and shifts into audibles, serving as Brian Flores’ right-hand man on the field.

That is usually the job of a veteran with experience in the NFL to make the right checks. Pace has worked in that role in the preseason and will take over for Hicks. The rookie has been outstanding all year, providing great help in the rushing game but also putting pressure on the quarterback.

Similar to Blackmon, Pace has the opportunity to show that he can be a building block for Minnesota’s defense for years to come as the team’s top linebacker.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt