Kevin O’Connell Is Especially Intrigued by 1 Rookie

No Love for Kevin
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell looks on before a wild card game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings entered the draft with only five draft picks but exited with six new players after trading down a couple of times. New offensive weapon Jordan Addison is certainly the main addition after hearing his name called in the first round.

Minnesota also found some reinforcements for new defensive coordinator Brian Flores who was appointed to fix the struggling defensive unit. Defensive backs Mekhi Blackmon and Jay Ward and defensive lineman Jaquelin Roy might play a role in that rebuild. The same can be said about a couple of undrafted Vikings.

Kevin O’Connell Is Especially Intrigued by 1 Rookie

Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah had a strong class of undrafted free agents. Linebacker Ivan Pace had a highly productive college career in Cincinnati as an electric pass rusher from the middle linebacker spot. His size — he is a couple of inches too short for NFL standards — dropped all the way into the pool of UDFAs, but his talent is that of a real draft pick.

Kevin O'Connell Is Especially Intrigued by 1 Rookie
Nov 26, 2022; Amherst, Massachusetts, USA; Army Black Knights outside linebacker Andre Carter II (34) warms up before a game against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports.

Similar things can be said about edge rusher Andre Carter out of Army. Like Pace, Carter was a productive college player, especially since his 2021 campaign was phenomenal. He fired up 15.5 sacks in that season. Of course, that led to some early-round draft buzz, but the production declined in 2022. The pass rusher recorded just 3.5 sacks in his final college season. According to many different outlets, Pace and Carter were two of the top-ranked UDFAs.

Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell praised the 6’6″ defender during his media session of rookie minicamp after his team gave him $340,000 in guaranteed money to lure him to Minnesota:

He was under consideration for us to be drafted a couple times, and through the dialogue and really trying to figure out how we still get him here, we felt like we gained an extra draft pick with him, we really did. Obviously the length, the athleticism, his production — when you watch him on tape you see a guy that is arrow up, gonna ascend, and how good can that be is what we challenge all of our guys here to do.

The pass rush is one of the strong suits of the Vikings’ defense and the team in general, even after trading away Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith. Minnesota still employs Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport as the projected starters and D.J. Wonnum and Patrick Jones as the two backups. Luiji Vilain also made the roster last season. He was signed as a UDFA last year but only saw the field on defense in two games.

Sep 17, 2022; West Point, New York, USA; Army Black Knights outside linebacker Andre Carter II (34) tackles Villanova Wildcats running back DeeWil Barlee (28) during the second half at Michie Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports.

If Carter wants to make the team, he must beat out one of the five players. He has the talent and the upside but needs to improve his technique and rebuild his body to NFL standards, something he couldn’t fully do while in the Army. He can now focus on football for the first time in his life. That is another wrinkle that gets O’Connell fired up, other than his raw talent:

For a guy like Andre, we’re really looking forward to seeing him build on the career he had at Army. He’s a professional football player now, he gets to focus in on that as his job and really thrive in that with some great coaching. He’s a great kid, really excited to have him a part of our team, and looking forward to seeing what he’s able to do.

Because of the mysterious secondary, the Vikes need to have an intense pass rush in the upcoming season. One of the young guys, Andrew Booth, Akayleb Evans, and Mekhi Blackmon, is expected to start opposite Byron Murphy, the top free agent addition. If the front can pressure the QB to force him to throw the ball out quickly, it would make the job of the guys in coverage much easier.

Jan 9, 2022; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores watches from the sideline during the second quarter against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

O’Connell is not concerned by the lack of production on Carter’s stat sheet in 2022:

A lot of times, just like in our league, a dynamic pass rusher can have a ton of production but what happens? They get circled in the scouting report. If we’re coaching against a double-digit sack type player, we’re gonna have a plan for that guy, whether it’s chips, whether it’s taking the slide to him, matchups when you can, and trying to put him in less ideal situations than just rushing downhill one on one. 

Don’t know for sure if that was always the case, I’m sure there were some things that, looking back on it, he’s looking forward to improve, add to his pass rush move catalog. He’s got one of the best position coaches in the league in Mike Smith to do that, Flo (Brian Flores) has a great plan for him. Can’t wait to see him get a ton of reps in the preseason.

Carter has the physical tools to make the team; even more importantly, he has excellent coaches who believe in him. Expect him to be on the field a lot in the three preseason games against the Seahawks, Titans, and Cardinals.

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