Vikings Have Out-of-Nowhere Rookie of the Year Candidate

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Ivan Pace Jr. is the Minnesota Vikings top storyline from the last month bar none.

General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah scooped the 22-year-old following the 2023 NFL Draft from undrafted free agency after every NFL general manager passed on his scouting report. The man was evidently ‘too small’ for an off-ball linebacker, causing Pace Jr. to hit the UDFA wire.

Vikings Have Out-of-Nowhere Rookie of the Year Candidate

Now, in addition to likely experiencing regular season playing time out of the gate in September, Pace Jr. even has fringe Defensive Rookie of the Year odds, according to sportsbooks.

Vikings Have Out
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Pace Jr. had no such odds one month ago, but his climb up the Vikings depth chart is as surprising as it is seismic. There’s a universe where he actually starts it’s a possibility, not a lock in Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And oddsmakers evidently believe the Pace Jr. smoke is somewhat valid, as the Cincinnati alumnus has a +10,000 probability of winning the DROY award.

Of course, +10,000 is an extreme longshot, but it’s noteworthy because the man wasn’t drafted in April. His unforeseen emergence is real.

Ivan Pace Jr. of Colerain High School wins boys athlete of the year award during their Sports Awards, sponsored by TriHealth, on Thursday, April 18, 2019, at Cincinnati Music Hall in Cincinnati. © Albert Cesare / The Enquirer.

Last week, head coach Kevin O’Connell was asked to describe Pace Jr.’s impact on Brian Flores’ new defense thus far, and he replied, “Really in every facet of the game, how we’re playing defense, the communication, pressure, no pressure. Has the athleticism to run sideline to sideline, maybe cancel out some mistakes, if we lose a gap here and there, he’s shown to be able to get off blocks for a guy that, when I watched his tape in college, he was almost unblockable, and that’s translating in a lot of ways.”

Pace Jr. has one major item in his favor  the Vikings linebackers aren’t Pro Bowl-caliber defenders. Jordan Hicks and Brian Asamoah are penciled in as the starters, and while those men are notable among Vikings fans, the LB room is beckoning someone to emerge and seize the day. Moreover, the team’s linebacking depth after Hicks and Asamoah consists of Troy Dye and Troy Reeder — two men who almost seem below Pace Jr.’s roster placement at the moment. For context, Dye and Reeder live on the ‘roster bubble,’ and well, Pace Jr. does not.

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Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (0) jogs back to the locker room after pregame ceremonies recognizing seniors on the roster before the first quarter during a college football game against the Tulane Green Wave, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. © Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK.

O’Connell also mentioned about Pace Jr., “It could be a great look for a play, getting a lineman up to him on the second level, and he somehow avoids that block and makes the play while doing his job. So he doesn’t, you know, undress any other facet of a defensive call. He did great with the green dot the other day in Seattle. So really, gold stars all the way around right now for Ivan, and as I’ve challenged him to do, you’re not just trying to compete to make our team. Let’s see where you can go and possibly help us win football games from the jump.”

Sportsbooks have apparently noticed Pace Jr.’s rise to prominence, at least in training camp and the preseason, because UDFAs aren’t supposed to have DROY odds. They’re also not supposed to be on deck for immediate defensive snaps in their rookie seasons. It even took Adam Thielen a year to get action in the Vikings special teams plans in 2013-2014.

Frontrunners to win the award include Will Anderson (EDGE, HOU, +400), Jalen Carter (DT, PHI, +700), and Tyree Wilson (EDGE, LV, +950).

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).

All statistics provided by Pro Football Reference / Stathead; all contractual information provided by