Two Vikings Questions for Camp beyond QBs

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The Vikings news this offseason has been dominated by the quarterbacks (Kirk Cousins leaving and Sam Darnold and J.J. McCarthy coming aboard) and the Justin Jefferson extension.

The Vikings defense improved significantly last season (from 31st in 2022 to 16th in 2023) but faded late as injuries piled up (especially with the loss of ILB Jordan Hicks and corner Byron Murphy). It was less attention-grabbing, but there was a flurry of activity in free agency and the draft on defense with comings and goings this offseason.

Two Vikings Questions for Camp beyond QBs

Most notably, Jonathan Greenard, Andrew Van Ginkel, and first-rounder Dallas Turner have joined the mix at edge/OLB, along with new starting inside linebacker Blake Cashman. Vets Jerry Tillery and Jonah Williams were signed on the defensive line, and Shaquill Griffin will add a veteran outside corner, while rookie fourth-rounder Khyree Jackson could be a big help at corner.

Miami Dolphins linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (43) and defensive tackle Zach Sieler (92) celebrate a sack against the New York Giants during the second half of an NFL game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, October 8, 2023. © Jim Rassol / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Gone are last year’s defensive starters Danielle Hunter and D.J. Wonnum on edge (along with the always-injured and absent Marcus Davenport) and Jordan Hicks at ILB.

It’s hard to predict the defense can be better without the four-time Pro Bowler Hunter, who ranked fifth in the league with 16.5 sacks. With Wonnum’s eight sacks and Davenport’s two, along with Hunter, their combined total of 26.5 represented 61.6% of the team’s 43 sacks.

It was great news when Brian Flores stayed on as defensive coordinator. It’s certainly possible the defense will be better as returning players are more comfortable in his system in Year 2. I think it’s positive that he gave input on the players who have been added to fit his system. As the Vikings break in a new starting QB, Flores’ D may have to be better than last year for the Vikings to return to the playoffs and navigate the tough NFC North.

I think Cashman is faster and more athletic than Hicks, so that should be an upgrade at inside backer along with Ivan Pace Jr. in his second season (after an All-Rookie season in 2023 for the undrafted Pace). The D-line may be a bit better. The big question is if the team can get enough production from the newcomers on the edge to effectively replace Hunter and Wonnum, especially in the all-important pass rush.

I like Greenard and Van Ginkel’s potential impact, but the super-athletic and fast Turner is seemingly the player who can truly be a difference-maker as a potential 15-plus sack edge rusher. He needs to bulk up a bit and develop quickly, but he has already shown his explosiveness in team drills at OTAs and minicamp.

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I saw defensive end Jevon Kearse’s impact first-hand when my Tennessee Titans team drafted him at No. 16 overall in 1999 (one spot before Turner was picked this year). Kearse had 14.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, and 57 tackles and was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was one of the major reasons we went from an 8-8 team in 1998 to a Super Bowl team in 1999.

It will be fun to watch Turner when the full pads come on in training camp as he battles with two excellent tackles in Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill. That should only help his development, as I saw happen with Chris Doleman in the mid to late 1980s (after Doleman was a high first-round pick). He and OT Gary Zimmerman — two future Hall of Famers — went against each other in drills at Vikings camp, which helped both of them immensely. In the same way, O’Neill benefitted greatly in his first couple of seasons as he worked against Hunter.

Another key is obviously how much the young cornerbacks can improve this season after Akayleb Evans, Mekhi Blackmon, and Andrew Booth, Jr. were too inconsistent in 2023. Throw Jackson in that mix, along with how well Griffin will play and if Murphy can stay healthy, and there are plenty of question marks at corner.

I still say the Vikings would be well served by putting some of their $11.2 million in 2024 salary cap savings from the Jefferson deal towards signing another quality vet corner. The best candidate is five-time Pro Bowler Stephon Gilmore, who had a fine season in Dallas last year and remains unsigned.

It’s never easy to incorporate a bunch of new starters on defense where players must be in sync, or it can be disastrous with botched coverages and missed assignments on run defense. This is a huge challenge for Flores and the defensive coaches this season, and along with the quarterback, play could well be the key to a successful season.

What about the Kicker?

I thought Greg Joseph was a good NFL kicker. His stats weren’t always the best, but he had plenty of game-winning kicks, especially in the 13-win season of 2022. He also was one of the best kickoff men in the league, but perhaps with the new kickoff rules, booting it out of the end zone would be less advantageous.

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I’ve seen too many rookie kickers gag in the NFL to trust sixth-round pick Will Reichard in his rookie season despite his fine career at Alabama (and I do like that he kicked in a lot of big games before huge crowds in the SEC and the college football playoffs). John Parker Romo — who will provide competition for Reichard — was an All-XFL kicker, for what that’s worth, but hasn’t been able to stick with the Saints, Lions, or Bears.

This is an area to watch in training camp and preseason games to see how these two kickers perform. But the true test will come in regular season games for whoever Kevin O’Connell chooses for the role (and it’s always possible the team could wind up bringing in a more proven veteran kicker).

More Pre-Training Camp Observations

1. Jets on J.J.: Jefferson is a team captain and really wants to step up his leadership role further after signing his extension. Here are some interesting comments about his conversations with McCarthy: “Of course, having Kirk was a little bit easier.”

“Having J.J. come into the building, a new energy and a new soul…I love his confidence. I love his attitude. And with him coming off a championship, you can’t have more confidence than that. I told him confidence is key. There’s going to be people to come and help and of course, I’m going to be that main person in his ear, to try and teach him and prepare him for what we’re about to go through.”

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“It’s not an easy job to come out here and perform at the highest ability, especially as a rookie. But I can definitely be that main person he can lean on and help throughout the way.”

2. It’s great news for the Vikings that McCarthy said he will stay in Minnesota with his fiancée during the five-week break before training camp. “I’m just going to be in the facility as much as I possibly can, focused on building habits I can rely on in training camp,” McCarthy said.

This shows his work ethic, dedication, and determination to challenge Darnold for the starting job, which has to be music to the coaches’ and GM’s ears.

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