Yes, the Vikings are Rebuilding, but Only a Specific Portion of the Team
The Vikings are rebuilding their defense, and DC Brian Flores is still expecting his side of the ball to be competitive.
“We got a talented group,” Flores explained in this week’s press conference, “I think Kwesi and K/O have done a good job of putting this group together. It’s also a group that’s, a training camp that I think is going to be very competitive. There’s a lot of competition amongst the groups. We’ll let that competition play out here on the field, in the meetings, in the walkthrough, and obviously in the preseason games.”
Embracing competition is vital and yet there’s a certain amount of coach speak going on. Similar to a politician spouting bold promises in a pre-election interview, an NFL coach will tout the benefits of competition in a training camp presser. To be sure, there will be competition but that’s nothing that anyone is surprised about.
What’s notable about the competitions for the Vikings defense is simply that so many of them are lacking in clear-cut favorites. Who is going to emerge as the second and third corners, backup EDGE, free safety, and defensive tackle beside Harrison Phillips? One might also be monitoring what’s taking place at linebacker given that so little is known beyond just Brian Asamoah and Jordan Hicks.
Indeed, the competitions are many, so Flores’ comments do come with some added weight.
The Vikings are Rebuilding the Defense
The offense doesn’t need to be rebuilt. Last season’s 8th-best finish (at least in terms of scoring) proves the point.
Stepping back a bit further provides more reason for optimism about what the offense can do in the present and the future. Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, K.J. Osborn, Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Ed Ingram, and T.J. Hockenson are all operating on rookie deals. In other words, 7 of the 11 starters are on cost-controlled deals. Moreover, Alexander Mattison — fresh off signing his 2-year deal — is only 25 whereas Josh Oliver — fresh off signing his 3-year deal — is only 26.
Yes, the offense has both talent and youth, a commendable partnership that speaks to that unit’s ability to have success in 2023 and beyond.
What about the defense? Well, that’s a different story.
Last season, the Vikings finished tied for 28th in points allowed (25.1 per game) and 31st for yards allowed (roughly 390 yards per game). Making matters even worse is that the current talent is far less promising than on offense.
To be sure, there are some excellent players. Danielle Hunter stands out as the clear-cut best player, a pass rusher capable of terrorizing quarterbacks on a weekly basis. Getting his contract squared away so that he’s fully available will be crucial for what Flores wants to accomplish in 2023.
Adding Harrison Smith, Josh Metellus (there is a major hype train), Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, and Byron Murphy into the mix helps to stabilize the defense’s floor. True, we aren’t talking about flawless defenders but they’re still solid contributors who will be part of getting the defense back into respectability.
A critical detail to help prove that Minnesota is actively rebuilding its defense rests in how Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has chosen to spend his money. Right now, the Vikings have the 28th-highest budget for NFL defenses, per Spotrac. Put differently, Minnesota has allocated just a bit beyond $80 million in 2023 cap space for the defense.
Over the Cap offers a bit of a different conclusion — around $86.75 million going toward the defense — but the underlying truth is still present. The youth movement taking place on defense means the team hasn’t committed major money to that side of the ball. Defensively, the emphasis is more on the rebuild portion of Kwesi’s competitive rebuild. The offense will keep the Vikings competitive while the defense rebuilds itself.
The highest-paid defenders are Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith, a pair of veteran carrovers from the previous regime. The crazy thing is that the pass rusher has the 38th-largest cap hit and the safety the 46th-largest cap hit for defenders in the current season (per Spotrac).
The major reason why the so little cap space is being kicked over to the defense is because of all of the recent high-end picks on defense. Coming out of the 2022 NFL Draft, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah spent five of his initial six picks on the defense. During the most recent offseason, a lot of veterans — Eric Kendricks, Patrick Peterson, Za’Darius Smith, Chandon Sullivan, Dalvin Tomlinson — left the team and the GM did very little to replace them in free agency. The plan, quite evidently, is to allow some of the players from the draft to fill those gaps.
Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth Jr., Akayleb Evans, and Brian Asamoah are all getting a lot of attention this offseason. Esezi Otomewo is flying under the radar, but he’s still a favorite to make the roster as one of the team’s defensive ends.
Meanwhile, the most recent draft class featured Mekhi Blackmon, Jay Ward, and Jaquelin Roy, all of whom will be on the final roster. The top two UDFA signings — Ivan Pace Jr. and Andre Carter II — are also on defense.
The wild thing, folks, is that the Vikings only have five defenders who are carrying a cap hit above $3 million for the upcoming season. That reality means the defense is chock-full of youth. Even the free agents who were grafted in — Byron Murphy and Marcus Davenport — are young. The CB is 25 and the edge rusher is 26.
Flores will need to embrace competition to help his youngsters develop into the best version of themselves. There will be bumps along the way as the team works through growing pains. However, the hope is that Minnesota will take a step toward re-creating the defensive dominance that characterised a good portion of Mike Zimmer’s time at the helm.
We’ll get our first glimpse of the new defense when Minnesota takes on Seattle in the first preseason game. That will take place on August 10th.