Vikings Offseason Road Map to a Playoff Return in 2024
This past Sunday was extra painful for the Vikings as they watched two divisional rivals — Green Bay and Detroit — look very impressive in gaining wild card round victories. For the Packers and their latest star QB Jordan Love, it was amazingly easy in their 48-32 win over the second-seeded Cowboys in a game the Packers led 27-0 late in the first half. The Lions and Jared Goff delivered their first home playoff win in 32 years in a hard-fought game against their former quarterback, Matthew Stafford, and the Rams.
Vikings Offseason Road Map to a Playoff Return in 2024
With the Packers and Lions in the NFL’s Final 8 and perhaps headed further and with the Bears having won four of their last six games and owning the top pick in April’s draft (along with the 9th overall pick), it’s clear the NFC North is on the rise. The Vikings will have to make several key moves to challenge for the division title and a playoff spot in 2024.
The Vikings are a team that can return to the playoffs with some astute moves. They have more salary cap room ($39 million) entering the offseason than they are accustomed to in recent years, but they have several big-ticket players to deal with.
Here’s how I see the road map for GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Coach Kevin O’Connell to get back to double-digit wins and a spot in the 2024 postseason while building a sustainable Super Bowl contender:
1. Fortify the most important position at quarterback by re-signing Kirk Cousins (who should be fully recovered soon from his torn Achilles) and drafting a QB in the first round of April’s draft.
After the erratic play of the QBs who replaced Cousins over the last nine games, the best path forward for the short and long term is for the Vikings to re-sign Cousins (who was the third highest-rated QB in passer rating when he was hurt in Week 8) before he hits free agency to a two-year, $90 million contract and draft a future starter from a highly regarded draft class.
They have the No. 11 overall pick and may need to trade into the top 10 to get their highest-rated QB outside the first three — Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, and Jayden Daniels — who should be gone in the top five. It could be either J.J. McCarthy, Michael Penix, or Bo Nix that the Vikings target and that young QB could sit for a year or two behind Cousins as Patrick Mahomes (No. 10 overall pick in 2017) did for one year behind Alex Smith before he was league MVP in his second season and a Super Bowl champ in Year 3.
Sounds like a great plan if the Vikings are fortunate enough to find another Mahomes (or close to it since he’s an all-timer).
2. Re-sign Danielle Hunter and improve the team’s depth of impact pass rushers: after a decent start to the season sack-wise, the Vikings D wound up with 43 sacks, ranking 19th, and they had 22 takeaways to rank 20th (with the pass rush a key factor leading to turnovers). Those numbers need to improve.
Hunter had his best season with 16.5 sacks and a league-high 23 tackles-for-loss, along with 83 tackles. Like Cousins, he can’t be hit with the franchise tag. He has stayed healthy the past two years and is the team’s best defensive player, who I would call a must-sign in the range of $25 million per year plus lucrative incentives if he ranks among the top three sackers (he was fifth this season).
It would be helpful if the Vikings could re-sign edge/OLB D. J. Wonnum, who is headed to free agency after his best season with 62 tackles, eight sacks, and 15 QB hits. Perhaps his late-season torn quad will make him more affordable and less in demand.
More pass-rush help on the edge and among interior D-linemen should be drafted and added in free agency. The team shouldn’t waste any more money on Marcus Davenport, who played in only four games for his $13 million (unless they can get him to sign an incentive-laden deal with a minimum base salary).
3. Get Justin Jefferson signed long-term: this is a no-brainer to extend the contract of the best wide receiver in the league and the team’s top star who showed his commitment to the team by playing all out in the season finale at Detroit when he could’ve come out of the game at O’Connell’s suggestion. One thousand seventy-four receiving yards in 10 games was a great achievement, and he deserves the $30 million-plus per year deal that should be forthcoming.
Jefferson’s extension should be finalized before free agency opens in mid-March because, with a large signing bonus, his cap hit of $19.743 million under his fifth-year option in his rookie deal can be reduced significantly to help the team sign other players.
4. Hockenson needs a quick rehab: at the time of his ACL injury (as a result of a low cheap-shot hit from Lions safety Kerby Joseph, who, by the way, did the same thing to Rams tight end Tyler Higbee on Sunday), Hockenson was among the league leaders in receptions with 95 (for 960 yards and 5 TDs). He was greatly missed in the last two games.
The Vikings will again have one of the league’s best passing games in 2024 if they have Cousins, Jefferson, Hockenson, and star rookie Jordan Addison in his second season, but they need Hockenson back healthy by the season opener.
5. Fix the running game and pass protection issues by drafting better interior offensive linemen and making Ty Chandler the starter: it was disappointing to see another season with a lackluster running game, considering all of the high draft picks on the offensive line and the addition of one of the league’s best blocking tight ends in Josh Oliver.
O’Connell should’ve made Ty Chandler the starter much earlier in the season as Chandler is much more explosive in the run and pass game than Alexander Mattison, who is worth keeping as a good No. 2 back. Re-signing Cam Akers on a bargain deal to add depth is a good idea if he recovers well from his Achilles injury.
Perhaps some tweaks to the running game scheme are in order, too (the coaches should study what the Packers have done late in the season with Aaron Jones and his four straight 100-plus yard games).
The Vikings allowed 47 sacks, the 10th most, but part of that was the backup QB holding the ball too long and not getting the ball out as quickly as Cousins. The offensive line needs to be better throughout, but especially in the interior three, with center Garrett Bradbury and guards Ed Ingram and Dalton Risner (a free agent) playing more consistently in both pass protection and run blocking. Another mid-round draft pick or free agent signing should come to add competition at these spots.
The Vikings have two talented tackles who have played at a Pro Bowl level at times, but neither Brian O’Neill (who battled an ankle injury) nor Christian Darrisaw (great in the first half of the season, so-so in the second half) played consistently at that level over the entire season. The Vikings need them to stay healthy and step up their play in 2024 to lead the O-line to greater heights.
6. Get better secondary play: the young corners were a concern going into the season, and DC Brian Flores did his best to protect them with heavy blitzing, but they were really exposed once top corner Byron Murphy (who had an up-and-down season) missed the last three games with a knee injury. Flores started three safeties because the corners were shaky.
Akayleb Evans had a lousy season overall with his lax coverage, which was costly in Cincinnati when he couldn’t cover Tee Higgins (and Flores should’ve ensured there was safety help for the overmatched Evans). It was a similar situation with rookie Mekhi Blackmon, who looked good early but got worse as the season went on, playing too soft in coverage (and he allowed the winning TD catch by Courtland Sutton at Denver when he didn’t at least knock Sutton out of bounds on his leaping grab).
2022 second-round corner Andrew Booth has made no impact in his limited play in his first two years. He and 2022 first-round safety Lewis Cine are headed to draft-bust status if they don’t make a big leap forward next season (coach these guys up or send them packing!).
Josh Metellus came on as a good blitzer, but he was too often beat in coverage, and Cam Bynum also needs to improve his coverage skills and play consistently as he did in his two-interception game against Brock Purdy in the Monday night home upset of the 49ers that was the best game of the season for the Vikings.
We’ll see if Harrison Smith decides to return or retire, and if he leaves after a tremendous career, Cine should have a chance to prove he was worth the first-round pick.
The bottom line is to hit free agency and draft hard to improve the talent level in the secondary, especially at cornerback, where the Vikings had only five interceptions from their group.
7. Keep Greg Joseph and Ryan Wright must improve or be replaced: Joseph finished the season strong, making his last 14 kicks (five field goals and nine PATs). He’s consistent with most of his kickoffs, resulting in touchbacks. He’s worth re-signing for a slight raise above his 2023 $2 million salary.
Wright was fine with his gross punting average (48.7 to rank 12th), but after a rookie season in 2022, when he was among the league leaders with 32 punts downed inside the 20, he dropped to half as many with 16, which ranked 30th. That has to improve in his third season if he can hold off a training camp challenge that is sure to come. Wright has been a good holder for Joseph, which helps his job security.
8. Find more impact players in the draft and free agency to improve the roster on both sides of the ball: Adofo-Mensah and his scouting staff must hit on more draft picks, especially compared to the 2022 class so far (and perhaps 2022 third-round linebacker Brian Asamoah can stay healthy and step up his game next season). More late-round and undrafted gems are needed, such as LB Ivan Pace (102 tackles and 2.5 sacks plus a big interception to clinch the shutout victory in Las Vegas).
Addison was an excellent first-round pick. Cine, not so much so far. The team must hit with impact starters on early-round draft picks and find other starters and quality depth players in the later rounds. And better finds in free agency with a cleaner injury history than a player like Davenport.
Around the NFL Observations from Wild Card Weekend:
1. Divisional playoff weekend is setting up as a terrific bunch of games, with all four matchups having intriguing storylines.
In Saturday’s two games, Green Bay and Houston are dangerous young teams with nothing to lose as they face top seeds San Francisco and Baltimore, respectively. The Packers and Texans have poised and confident QBs coming in hot as Jordan Love and C.J. Stroud both played fantastic with three TD passes and no turnovers in wins over Dallas and Cleveland, respectively (who both had top-five defenses in the regular season and were shredded by these young QBs).
Aaron Jones and the Packers offensive line also will test the third-ranked 49ers run defense after Jones ran for 118 yards and three TDs against the Cowboys. The pressure is on Niners QB Brock Purdy to play well as he did most of the season, but he had a few games where he turned it over, such as the Monday night loss with two picks against the Vikings. I expect NFL leading rusher Christian McCaffrey to have a big game running behind all-pro tackle Trent Williams against Green Bay’s 28th-ranked run Defense.
For the Ravens, Lamar Jackson is 1-3 in playoff games with a 68.3 passer rating and has a lot of pressure on him compared to Stroud, who can play loose after beating the No. 1 ranked Cleveland D in a game when tackle Laremy Tunsil and the Texans O-line shut down elite pass rusher Myles Garrett (no sacks or QB hits or TFLs). And the Texans D is coming off a game with two Pick 6’s and four sacks of Joe Flacco. But I see Jackson and the Ravens’ stout defense (that leads the league in sacks) controlling this game.
I’m picking the 49ers and Ravens, but I don’t think it will be an easy game for either team.
2. In the early game on Sunday, the Lions get another home game in front of their roaring fans as they take on the Buccaneers, who they beat 20-6 in Week 6 at Tampa. It was a thrilling victory for the Lions and their fans against Stafford and the Rams in a game where both QBs played well under emotional circumstances as they faced their former teams.
The Lions and Jared Goff must avoid a letdown against a surging Bucs team with a determined and hot QB in Baker Mayfield and an aggressive defense that will blitz Goff often. It should be closer than their last meeting, but I think the Lions get the W and will be headed to the Bay Area for the NFC title game.
3. Look out for the Chiefs: with Rashee Rice having a breakout performance (8 for 130, 1 TD) to give Patrick Mahomes a second viable weapon with Travis Kelce and the Chiefs second-ranked D having a dominant game against Miami’s No. 1 offense, the matchup on Sunday night in Buffalo shapes up as a great finish to the weekend.
Josh Allen was on fire in the first half of the wild card round win over the Steelers. He threw two TD passes and ran for a 52-yard TD in snowy Buffalo in that first half before adding a third TD pass in the second half to put the game away.
The Bills beat the Chiefs 20-17 in Week 14 in Kansas City and have won six straight games. But the Chiefs played well in eliminating the Dolphins, and with their two-time Super Bowl-winning coach (Andy Reid) and QB, they have re-established themselves as a threat in the AFC. Mahomes and Allen have split their six games, but Mahomes has won both playoff meetings. This is the first true road playoff game of Patrick Mahomes’ career (other than his three Super Bowls). I like the Bills this time to win a close game.
4. It will be an interesting week or two on the head coaching front, with Bill Belichick interviewing in Atlanta and Jim Harbaugh talking with the Chargers. Heads could roll in Philly after their late-season meltdown and in Dallas, where owner Jerry Jones was “floored” by the Cowboys’ home blowout at the hands of the Packers.
Lots of head coaching and GM jobs will be filled in the coming days, and the Vikings will be happy when the Lions’ excellent offensive coordinator, Ben Johnson, departs Motown for a head coaching job (which is sure to happen as he’s already interviewed with several teams).
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