Grading the Vikings Defensive Position Groups

We are now officially halfway through the NFL offseason and only a few months away from Week 1 of the 2023 NFL regular season. Sure, we are still a ways away, but once the NBA and NHL conclude, look for the attention to turn to the NFL as anticipation for the regular season grows. Though there is still substantial time for rosters to shift here and there, it feels like a good time to take stock of the rosters post-free agency and draft. Let’s take a look at how the Vikings’ position groups hold up on a grading scale in comparison to defenses around the NFL.

Defensive Tackles
Starters: Dean Lowry, Harrison Phillips, and Khyiris Tonga

This position is met with two new starters in Lowry, coming over from the Packers, and Tonga, elevating to the starting spot. Lowry is a solid addition to the position but is going to need help filling the shoes of Dalvin Tomlinson. Tonga played well in 2022 with the limited snaps he was given, it will be fun to see how he does when he claims the reins of the nose tackle position under Brian Flores’ system. Phillips was a constant for this team in 2022, playing all 17 games. His production is slightly above average and is a solid piece for the defense.

Behind the starters, Ross Blacklock and James Lynch own the next two spots. Blacklock is a decent piece, but do not expect much from the depth at defensive tackle here. The grade for this position is going to hinge largely on how Tonga grows into his starting role. There are reasons for optimism but currently, this group sits at an unspectacular C+.

Edge Rushers
Starters: Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport

It looks as though Hunter will be sticking around for the 2023 season, much to the delight of Vikings fans. Hunter has proven that he can be a top 10 edge rusher in the league. It will just be a matter of him staying healthy and playing consistently. However, his running mate, Za’Darius Smith, from 2022 has moved on to the Cleveland Browns and left a hole that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah tried to fill through free agency. The Vikings signed Davenport on a 1-year $13 million prove-it deal. Davenport will have a tough time living up to what Smith did in the first half of the 2022 season, however, if Davenport can return to his 2021 form, this free-agency signing will look like a steal.

As for depth at the position, the Vikings have two young players that have shown flashes of potential in Patrick Jones II and D.J. Wonnum. While they could make some big plays, they likely will not end up producing at a higher level than an average backup at the position. Davenport will be the deciding factor for this group which currently sits at a solid B+.

Starters: Jordan Hicks and Brian Asamoah II

After cutting Eric Kendricks, the Vikings have the tall task of replacing one of the most productive linebackers in the team’s history. The onus will fall squarely on the shoulders of second-year player Brian Asamoah II. Asamoah had some great standout moments in his rookie season and has received an abundance of praise from head coach Kevin O’Connell. He only played 119 snaps last year, there is a lot of anticipation surrounding what he could grow into this year. According to PFF, Hicks graded out as the 7th best linebacker in the NFL last year. If he can keep up his production as he ages (he will be 31 this upcoming season), this linebacker squad could hold up well.

Troy Reeder and Troy Dye provide solid depth at the position. Reeder was a good pick-up for the Vikings this offseason as he could slot in as a starter in case of injury without experiencing too much of a drop in the quality of play. This positional group is going to come down to Asamoah’s growth in his second year in the starting spot. This group grades out at a B-.

Starters: Byron Murphy and Andrew Booth Jr.

Here is where things start to get dicey. Murphy is coming over from the Cardinals and Booth started one game in his rookie season last year for the Vikings. So these two are relatively new faces at the position with Patrick Peterson and Cameron Dantzler out of the picture. Murphy is a solid young player with plenty of potential and room to grow. Booth struggled a bit in his six games last year after spending the rest of the season on the injured reserve. Booth is a huge question mark for this defense.

Rookie Mekhi Blackmon provides some hope at the position in case Booth struggles. Additionally, Akayleb Evans had some flashes last season. The cornerback position is unquestionably the weakest for the Vikings, however, it is full of young, raw talent, and potential that Flores and O’Connell can build upon. Right now, the positional group grabs a D.

Starters: Harrison Smith and Camryn Bynum

Harrison Smith is a fan favorite and has been one of the best safeties in the NFL over the last decade. He has been a cornerstone for the defense since he came into the league in 2012. While he is starting to get up there in age, at 34 years old, he has maintained an above-average level of play for his position. Bynum played 100% of the Vikings’ defensive snaps in 2022. He is a reliable player and great in the run game, though he struggles in coverage.

Lewis Cine played three games last year in his rookie season before losing the rest of his season to injury. It will be interesting to see if Cine can battle Bynum for a starting spot throughout the year. Cine has the potential to be a starting safety after being a first-round pick last year. The team also has Josh Metellus as able to slot in with familiarity with the system. Smith has carried this group for the last decade, now it is time to see someone else step up and carry this position as Smith ages. Largely because of Smith, this position is at a generous B-.

The defense was a struggle for the 2022 Minnesota Vikings which is why it is no surprise that there are no A’s to be found on this offseason report card. However, there are plenty of young pieces up and down the roster that have the potential to step into a large role and produce for the squad. Free agency additions in Murphy and Davenport should go a long way in mending the defense and all eyes will be on the development of second-year players in Asamoah, Cine, and Booth Jr. Brian Flores should have the tools to turn this defense into a competent one that can support the offense even with the losses of veterans. The success of the Vikings in the 2023 season will hinge primarily on the unproven defensive side of the ball.

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