The first year of the Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell era is in the books. It delivered an unexpected division championship but a disappointing playoff exit at the first attempt. The 31-24 defeat to the New York Giants was not how Vikings fans expected the season to end — one that provided several enjoyable moments but finished with an air of disappointment. So, where do Vikings go from here?
Where Do Vikings Go from Here?
The motto when Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell came in was a competitive rebuild. The Vikings were competitive this season after keeping most of their roster intact. A few additions, particularly the midseason trade for T.J. Hockenson, along with a fresh approach and change in culture, led to a 13-win season. However, this Vikings team still looked some way short of genuine Super Bowl contendership.
After a full year in the building, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell should better grasp what they have and need to improve. This offseason should see more focus on the rebuilding part of the remit. There are several areas the Vikings need to look at.
Everyone except wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell was new in the building in 2022. The new culture seems to be taking shape, and the Vikings managed 13 wins despite most of the statistics saying they shouldn’t have anywhere near that number. That points toward good coaching.
O’Connell had a solid first year as a head coach and playcaller. There’s plenty he can improve, something he had been open about himself and was to be expected. If you were expecting the finished article as a head coach, O’Connell wasn’t the appointment to make. The next step for the head coach is to show improvement in all areas in Year 2.
Now, for the elephant in the room.
The future of defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. The Vikings defense was once again bad, however, consistently creating turnovers got them out of bad situations. The trouble came when the turnovers didn’t happen, like the playoff game, which was a defensive disaster.
Donatell is getting the ire of the fanbase, with demands for his immediate removal. I expect significant turnaround on the roster and for Donatell to get another year to try and implement his scheme.
Life after Kirk Cousins needs to be firmly on the Vikings agenda. That could mean drafting a rookie quarterback this year or waiting for next year. Cousins will be the starting quarterback again in 2023. The big question is whether he gets another extension or the Vikings see out the final year of his contract.
Both routes have advantages. If the Vikings want to compete, extend Cousins and draft for the future — bringing in a rookie that won’t have the pressure of being an immediate starter. On the flip side, if you don’t think Cousins can take you to the Super Bowl, tet the contract play out, and get out of it as soon as possible.
Cousins turns 35 this year, so the future needs to be at the forefront of the Vikings thinking. I believe Cousins gets an extension for one more year, but that will be the final time, and the Vikings draft a quarterback in 2024.
Minnesota has a pronounced problem — a roster filled with aging veterans whose abilities are waning as their cap hits get more extensive, resulting in backloaded contracts worsened by continual extensions and restructures. There was always going to be a time when these contracts needed to be addressed. This offseason would seem the opportune time.
Minnesota needs to create cap space, which likely means longstanding popular players will have played their last game as a Viking. Players like Adam Thielen ($19.9 million), Harrison Smith ($19.1 million), Za’Darius Smith ($16.9 million), Dalvin Cook ($14.1 million), Eric Kendricks ($11.4 million), and Jordan Hicks ($6.5 million) are all players that could be moved on to create cap space.
How that happens remains to be seen, and how much savings and dead cap there would vary from player to player. One thing is for sure: Minnesota has to do something to achieve the most critical task for this year’s offseason.
Fixing The Defense
The Vikings offense isn’t perfect. Bringing in a talented wide receiver who can take the pressure off of Justin Jefferson would be nice. The Vikings interior offensive line still struggled against the better defensive lines. However, that side of the ball is clearly Minnesota’s strong suit while the defense continues to be the weakness. So while a quarterback, wide receiver, and interior offensive linemen should be on the Vikings radar, defense is the main priority this season — again.
Resources were poured into the defense this season, with the bulk of the money spent in free agency going to that side of the ball. Za’Darius Smith, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, and Chandon Sullivan were signed. Patrick Peterson returned for a second year, and Danielle Hunter stayed in Minnesota despite speculation. The Vikings also used a draft pick on defenders in each of the first five rounds of the draft.
Unfortunately, all three defensive backs the Vikings selected were plagued by injuries in their rookie season. The hope is for a clean bill of health for Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth, and Akayleb Evans in 2023.
Cine only made it onto the field for two defensive snaps before breaking his leg playing special teams in Week 4. Development of the 2022 rookies would certainly help the Vikings, notably linebacker Brian Asamoah, who impressed this season. There is a lot of work to be done if the Vikings are going to have a defense that can get this team back to the playoffs and be capable of making some noise once.
Free Agency or the Draft
At this time of year, attention immediately turns to the draft. But free agency starts on March 15, although the salary cap looks grim at this point. Expect the Vikings to be busy.
There are 17 players on the roster about to hit free agency who need to be re-signed or replaced. Minnesota will make cap space, likely bidding farewell to some of the aforementioned aging veterans. Expect the bulk of the money made available to once again go toward defense.
There are a lot of good defensive players hitting free agency this year, and the Vikings need to be in the mix to grab one or two of the better ones. The Vikings need help at linebacker, slot cornerback, outside cornerback (particularly if Peterson doesn’t return), and an interior pass rusher. That’s just for starters.
It’s set to be another busy offseason in Minnesota, with many important decisions to be made, starting with the future of the defensive coordinator, which should come soon. Big decisions need to be made aptly if the Vikings are to repeat the relatively successful results of this season.