Not 1 — But 2 — ‘X Factors’ Identified for 2023 Vikings

Aug 24, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Latavius Murray (25) in the huddle in the first quarter against Seattle Seahawks at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

The Minnesota Vikings offensive line improved in 2022 under first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell and his offensive line coach Chris Kuper.

Barring a bizarre step back, the Vikings offensive trenches are no longer hideous.

Not 1 — But 2 — ‘X Factors’ Identified for 2023 Vikings

And if the franchise wishes to make more noise in the playoffs than last year — Minnesota won 13 games in 2022 but flopped in Round 1 of the postseason at home — two men, in particular, must thrive, according to The 33rd Team. Those men are the starting offensive guards, Ed Ingram and Ezra Cleveland, per Andy Benoit.

Not 1
Aug 14, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Vikings guard Ed Ingram (67) defends against Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Vernon Butler (94) in the first half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

Benoit, a former analyst with the Los Angeles Rams under Sean McVay from 2020 to 2022, now writes for The 33rd Team, an NFL think-tank and analysis site (that also employs ex-Vikings GM Rick Spielman). He labeled ‘x-factor players’ for each NFL team this week and nominated Ingram and Cleveland for the Vikings.

He diagnosed one of the Vikings major problems versus the New York Giants in the aforementioned playoff loss, “Despite having invested a 2020 second-round pick in left guard Ezra Cleveland and 2022 second-rounder in right guard Ed Ingram, Minnesota constantly had to fight to hide and overcome deficient play at guard. And as luck would have it, in the Wild Card Round, they faced a Giants defense that was uniquely formidable inside and up front with stalwart Leonard Williams and outright stud Lawrence.”

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Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Minnesota Vikings guard Ezra Cleveland (72) on the sidelines before a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports.

The Giants chipped off the Vikings 31-24 at U.S. Bank Stadium on January 15th, ending a once-promising season peppered with forever memories.

“Advantaged up front, Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, the most aggressive blitzer in the NFL, was able to throw a curveball and take a more coverage-oriented approach, which the Giants did via uncommon split safety and zone looks, especially in the first half. While Cleveland and Ingram both have the mobility to perform better in Minnesota’s foundational wide-zone rushing attack, the bigger concern is their vulnerability in pass protection,” Benoit continued.

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Aug 20, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Ty Chandler (32) celebrates with Minnesota Vikings guard Ed Ingram (67) after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings offensive line personnel finished 2022 ranked 13th per Pro Football Focus, a mark usually residing between No. 20 and No. 32 in recent years before O’Connell came to the Twin Cities.

Benoit concluded about Ingram and Cleveland, “Physical and even mental mistakes have been far too common with both players, which is why Minnesota gave up an NFL-worst 6+ quarterback hits per game – by far the most in the league (ahead of Denver) and nearly double the league average. And many of these were big hits. Kirk Cousins, for all his mild ups and downs, has always been one of the more courageous quarterbacks in the pocket. But if the Vikings are to get better in 2023, Cousins must require that courage far less often.”

May 26, 2021; Eagan, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Ezra Cleveland (72) participates in drills at OTA at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

For the most part, Benoit is correct. Suspect or downright bad offensive guard play plagued the Vikings for most of the Mike Zimmer era, so fans exhaled when O’Connell and Kuper flipped the script in one offseason. Meanwhile in 2023, Minnesota also needs someone — or perhaps two men — to emerge as productive cornerbacks in addition to free-agent newcomer Byron Murphy. The maturation of Andrew Booth and Akayleb Evans on the fly may be just as crucial of an ‘x-factor’ as Ingram and Cleveland.

Vikings training camp kicks off July 29th.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Vikings obsession dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ Basset Hounds, and The Doors (the band).

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