Last year, I predicted that the Minnesota Vikings would be great. The NFC North was regressing, the Vikings were improving, and they had figured out their staff. They rewarded my prediction by going 13-4, with a seemingly unstoppable offense, questionable defense, and good special teams. This year, I am completely flipping the script. I think the Vikings will be terrible in 2023, and a record of 5-12, 6-11, or 7-10 is entirely reasonable. Here’s why:
The Kirk Cousins experiment was fun, but its results are sputtering out. Paired with three of the NFL’s premier playmakers (Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and TJ Hockenson), Cousins posted his worst PFF grade in over four years. At 35 years old, he’s regressing, and I rank him more as a mid-20’s QB than a top-15 one for 2023.
The Vikings remain fantastic on offense, but pieces will be leaving in the offseason. Whether that’s through free agency, cuts, or trades, the Vikings’ 2023 offense will look a little different than in 2022. Rumors out of Minneapolis say that Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook, solid pieces within the offense, are refusing to take a pay cut, meaning they are cut candidates. I lean towards Cook staying, but Thielen leaving. Although nowhere close to his 2010’s self, Thielen is a reception machine, and his lack of presence will be most felt in the red zone. Backup running back Alexander Mattison and center Garrett Bradbury are also free agents, and it is unlikely they will return. None of the names I mentioned are game-changers, but the offense will worsen a bit. With a combination of Kirk’s regression, pieces moving in free agency, and trades, it’s hard to see the Vikings repeating their seventh-best offensive performance in 2022. I think the offense will still remain good, but my main problem concerns the defense.
To start the 2023 offseason, the Vikings will lose two key pieces on defense due to free agency. Firstly, their best cornerback in Patrick Peterson. Once thought of as an afterthought, Peterson put up an impressive season for the Vikings in 2022. He posted an 80.7 PFF grade, was prime in the clutch multiple times (Buffalo game!), and was debatably the only bright spot for Minnesota’s lackluster secondary. Turning 33 in February, Peterson will certainly look for a large payday for the last time in his career, and the Vikings do not have the funds to keep him.
Defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson will also be on the move. In Tomlinson’s two years with the Vikings, he has recorded five sacks and served as a reliable run-stopper. The former New York Giant will be highly sought after by young teams hoping to break into the playoff picture, and I don’t see him returning to the Twin Cities.
“So what?” you might be wondering. The Vikings will still have their star-studded defensive core of Za’darius Smith, Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith, and Eric Kendricks. Right?
Not exactly. Difficult decisions are coming to Minnesota. As previously mentioned, the Vikings are in cap hell ($23 million above the cap), and this number will only be inflated by massive extensions to Justin Jefferson and TJ Hockenson. In order to retain these two (which will be at the top of the management list), defensive cuts or trades to this key quadruplet WILL have to be made. Currently, I have Minnesota making two key defensive cuts/trades:
Firstly, and surprisingly, I believe Za’Darius Smith will be on the chopping block. Smith has been an underrated player throughout his career, and the Vikings rewarded him with a 3-year, $42 million dollar contract last year. Smith tailed off at the end of last season due to injury, but proved he was still a dominant force with a strong first-half showing. However, there are a number of indicators that lead me to assume that Smith’s time as a Viking is coming to an end. To begin with, in 2024, Za’Darius will command a hefty salary of $14.5 million. With the Vikings already over the salary ceiling and multiple contract extensions on the horizon, keeping Smith appears improbable. Secondly, the Vikings would save nearly $13 million dollars in a trade (or cut) with another team, and can attain a quality asset at the same time. As previously stated, Smith looked dominant in the 2022 season, and contenders may be looking for pieces to push them over the top. A trade could prove to be a big win for the Vikings organization, as they get to both save money and build towards the future.
My second cut/trade involves long-tenured veteran Eric Kendricks. Underrated for his entire career, the 2015 second-round pick was feared for his high IQ, constant motor, and great coverage. However, in 2022, everything fell apart for Kendricks. He was often missing on key plays, contributed to one of the league’s worst run defenses, and missed easy tackles. His pass coverage fell off a cliff, going from a perennial top-10 coverage player to 76th as a linebacker. Cutting or trading Kendricks would save about $10 million dollars, and backup Jordan Hicks would minimize the damage from his departure.
In total, Minnesota would save about $23 million, and put themselves $3 million dollars below the cap. While these moves are less than ideal, they are an important step towards building a better future in Minnesota.
But for now, this Vikings defense will be terrible, maybe even historically bad. Right now, their defensive line will feature a tandem of Harrison Philips, Ross Blacklock, Patrick Jones, DJ Wonnum, and James Lynch, just to name a few. In 2022, these five players combined for a whopping 10.5 sacks. The 2022 Bears D-Line, often considered one of the worst in NFL history, recorded 9.5 sacks. Yikes.
The linebacker corps becomes much more solid with Danielle Hunter and Jordan Hicks, but even then, they remain questionable. Hunter is in the last year of his deal and could be a potential trade candidate come the deadline. Hicks is solid, but will be 31 going into the 2023 season. Regression is definitely a possibility.
Finally, we move onto the secondary. There is room for improvement, but SHEESH. To me, they undoubtedly have the worst cornerback group in the NFL. Cameron Dantzler is an average corner at best who will now be going against wide receiver ones. Andrew Booth Jr has potential aged 23, but has only ever started one game. Finally, Chandon Sullivan, Kris Boyd, and Duke Shelley are backups at best. This group has a tough task ahead facing premier quarterbacks in 2023.
I’m a fan of the safety tandem of Harrison Smith and Lewis Cine, but even then, this duo could become a disaster. Cine is young but has also only started one game like Booth. Smith is Canton-bound, but 34 years old. You get the gist.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, Vikings fans are confident that Brian Flores will turn the defense around. However, I disagree. Fans seem to use former defensive coordinator Ed Donatell as a scapegoat to suggest that the Vikings defense was abysmal in 2022, but neglect his otherwise solid track record in putting out impressive defenses. As a defensive backs coach in 2018, Donatell led a ferocious Bears secondary that had 20 (WOW!) interceptions. Furthermore, Donatell molded a superstar in Eddie Jackson, showing he has no issues with player development. As the Broncos’ defensive coordinator from 2019-2021, Donatell posted two top-10 seasons in defensive points allowed. He was instrumental in turning safety Justin Simmons into a superstar talent, rejuvenating the career of Kareem Jackson, and bringing in Patrick Surtain as a top corner in the NFL. Perhaps Donatell’s Vikings methods were outdated, but I place more blame on how terribly the Vikings defensive roster is constructed.
That was a lot. It can’t get worse, right? Unfortunately, it does.
Minnesota will be playing a first-place schedule next year, and they are in no position to compete. Although it is an overall .497 team record schedule, this is misleading. To start, they’ll be playing five 2022 playoff teams (all four conference championship teams), including the Bengals, 49ers, Chiefs, Chargers, and Eagles. They’ll be facing a very sneaky NFC South with up-and-coming Atlanta and Carolina teams. In the AFC West, the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders have their eyes set on the postseason after disastrous 2022 campaigns. In the division, every game will be a battle. The Lions are now the odds-on favorites to win the NFC North and are set to make major improvements on the defensive side of the ball while retaining a top-5 offense. Chicago has the most cap space in the league, a franchise QB, and the first overall pick. They’ll be looking to go from worst to first. Even Green Bay will remain feisty after losing Aaron Rodgers, as they have a young defense as well as cap space and draft capital to make improvements on the offense.
“But you’re forgetting the Vikings are competing! They’ll be adding a bunch of talent through free agency!”
Not really. As previously mentioned, the Vikings are currently $25 million over the cap (before cuts), and this is without Justin Jefferson’s and TJ Hockenson’s extensions. The Vikings could sign a premier free agent for a ton of money, but this could jeopardize Jefferson or Hockenson staying in the Twin Cities. Furthermore, a big-time signing would just lead to more cuts, meaning Minnesota wouldn’t be gaining much talent overall. These factors lead me to believe that the Vikings will spend as little money as possible to retain both superstars and try to make budget cuts and signings to fix massive holes in the team all around. This will be VERY hard to do.
“Okay? The Vikings will just address all their needs through the draft.”
According to Tankathon, the Vikings retain the 4th-least valuable draft capital for 2022. They have no second-round pick (Hockenson trade), and their first-round pick is low at 24. The Vikings only have five picks in total, meaning they also won’t be adding quality depth. 2023 could prove to be another terrible draft that Vikings fans are used to.
Perhaps I’m totally wrong, but I just don’t like this Vikings team. It’s old, regressing, and has countless fundamental problems. Only time will tell.