Vikings Need More Impact from 2023 Rookie Class than Last Year

Rookie minicamp highlights from Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mekhi Blackmon's first practice as a Viking after being selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. Blackmon is a cornermback from USC drafted by Minnesota in Round 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft.

The Vikings rookies reported to 2023 training camp early this week amid high hopes that the six draftees can contribute at a higher level than last year’s draft class which also is being counted on to stay healthy and step up their level of play this season. 

Vikings Need More Impact from 2023 Rookie Class than Last Year

All eyes will be on these last two draft classes at camp, starting with the most recent first-round picks — wide receiver Jordan Addison and safety Lewis Cine. 

Addison has question marks about his health after sustaining a reportedly minor injury at rookie camp in May, which kept him out of OTA and minicamp practices in later May and June. GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Coach Kevin O’Connell, the offensive assistants, and the training staff surely are hoping Addison can stay on the field this season since he is being counted on as a starting receiver in three-wide receiver sets with Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn. Addison could make a significant impact and be an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate with his skill set, including excellent route-running and so much attention on Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson allowing Addison to face a lot of single coverage. 

More Impact
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There also is the 140 mph driving incident that he must overcome and prove he can stay trouble-free and injury-free.  

Cine has recovered from his broken leg in Week 4 last season. He’s a talented athlete, but the question is whether he can beat out returning starter Cam Bynum at the safety spot opposite Harrison Smith. Or will new defensive coordinator Brian Flores find a spot for Cine in nickel defenses where fourth-year man Josh Metellus seems ahead of Cine thus far? At a minimum, Cine should be a big special teams contributor, as he was on track to be last year.  

Both rookie classes significantly contribute to the cornerback competition, which is the position of most concern on the team entering training camp since the top four corners from late last season are all gone. Key free-agent signee Byron Murphy is expected to claim CB No. 1, which was Patrick Peterson’s spot in 2022, and Murphy is likely to move to the slot in obvious passing situations, thus opening up his outside corner spot. 

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2022 second-rounder Andrew Booth Jr. has the talent to grab the other outside corner spot, but knee problems limited him to six games last season, and he was hurt a lot in college. If he can stay on the field, he’ll battle with another ’22 draftee — Akayleb Evans — who was impressive until concussions ended his rookie season early. And this year’s third-round pick Mekhi Blackmon was a fine corner at USC who should be in the mix for a starting outside or slot corner spot (along with fourth-round pick Jay Ward who can play safety or slot corner). 

Two or three of these young corners need to emerge as starters and play well in Flores’ more aggressive scheme — that blitzes a lot so the corners often are one-on-one against wide receivers. 

I see the cornerback play along with the pass rush (led by Danielle Hunter once his contract situation is resolved and free agent signee Marcus Davenport) as keys to defensive improvement. The Vikings’ high-powered offense that ranked seventh league-wide last season could well be better in O’Connell and Kirk Cousins’ second season working together (the first time in his six-year Vikings tenure that Cousins has had the same system, play caller and OC in successive seasons).  

Other players from the last two draft classes being counted on are guard Ed Ingram and linebacker Brian Asamoah who are projected starters in their second seasons. Ingram started every game last season and was an effective run blocker but shaky in pass protection. He needs to improve to help solidify the offensive line that has all five starters back, and they all are either first or second-round picks.  

Vikings LB Pretty
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Asamoah steps into the departed Eric Kendricks inside linebacker position. Asamoah looked good and added speed to the D in limited snaps last season, so he needs to show he’s a consistent playmaker to help the defense improve from last year’s No. 31 ranking. 

I always said players improve most in their second season once they adjust to life in the NFL, better understand schemes, and what it takes to be successful in terms of preparation and taking care of their bodies. Other 2022 draftees to watch in training camp and preseason games are running back Ty Chandler (5th round) and wide receiver Jalen Nailor (sixth round), who flashed at times last year, and fifth-round defensive end/tackle (and ex-Golden Gopher) Esezi Otomewo. 

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Among the later-round picks in the most recent draft, we’ll see if fifth-round defensive tackle Jaquelin Roy and seventh-round running back DeWayne McBride can contribute this year while we’ll be watching the development of fifth-round quarterback Jaren Hall who will see a lot of playing time in the three preseason games when Cousins and most of the starters are held out (as O’Connell did last year).  

These battles for starting positions and roster spots make training camp and the month of August interesting in the NFL. 

Around the NFL Observations: 

1. I think the Giants’ franchise-tagged running back Saquon Barkley made a wise decision to sign a one-year contract for $11 million, including incentives, and not hold out after the two sides did not reach an agreement on a long-term deal by July 15. It’s a strange reality that running backs are having a hard time getting paid (not good for backs such as ex-Viking Dalvin Cook) compared to positions such as wide receiver. The 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey is the top-paid back at $16 million per year, and he also is a great receiving back which increases his value, while Jefferson will soon be at $30 million-plus per year as the highest-paid wide receiver when his extension is finalized.  

Josh Jacobs has not reported to Raiders camp as last year’s league-leading rusher holds out rather than sign his $10.1 million franchise tender or negotiate a one-year deal similar to Barkley’s. I would advise Jacobs not to do what Le’Veon Bell did when he sat out the entire 2018 season rather than play under the franchise tag placed on him by the Steelers. Bell signed with the Jets in 2019, but he never made up the $14.5 million he would’ve made under a second straight franchise tag with Pittsburgh the previous season, and he never played as well after missing a season.     

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl