If there is such a thing as Christmas in the NFL, it comes every year at the end of April. Teams and fans open new presents- new players they hope will be future All-Pros or at least have a meaningful, positive impact on the team’s fortunes. But like little kids excited about what could be in those presents under the tree this time of year, we tend to forget about the presents we got last year: second-year players still on the roster who could (and often do) impact the coming season more than the in-coming rookies do.
As Vikings fans, it’s easy to forget about last year’s draft class because only one player started and the rest didn’t play much. And unless they’re out on the field on game day, we don’t have any visibility into their progress or development. Coaches don’t make a point of providing progress reports on backups during the season. The Vikings 2022 draft class also took the brunt of the injuries the team suffered last season. First-round pick Lewis Cine missed most of the season with a gruesome ankle/foot injury. Second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. missed most of the season with a meniscus injury, and fourth-round pick Akayleb Evans missed nearly half the season with multiple concussions. Even Ty Chandler missed eight games with a thumb injury. From a draft capital perspective, two-thirds of the Vikings draft capital last season was on injured reserve. Those four players missed more games than all the starters combined.
On to 2023...
Chalk it up to bad luck. Apart from Andrew Booth Jr., who would’ve gone top half of the first round instead of #42 last year if he didn’t have an injury history and wasn’t able to test, the other players didn’t have an injury history red flag. Stuff happens. Derek Stingley Jr., had an injury history too and missed half of last season- and he went #3 overall.
In any case, the 2022 Vikings draft class is all back this year and healthy- or will be soon. And they’ll be called upon to step-up and have bigger roles this year than last. Let’s take a look at which players from last year’s draft class may have the biggest impact on the coming season. I included a link to the post-draft profiles I did on them last year.
Booth will likely be a starting outside cornerback for the Vikings this season. Certainly there will be competition for those spots, including Akayleb Evans and potentially a top draft pick, but Booth has the inside track for one of those spots based on his skill set. He was described in some scouting reports as equally good in man or zone schemes, and he graded as such in college, but watching him in the few coverage reps he had last season, he is clearly more comfortable in man coverage. Some of the better scouting reports indicated that too- and it comes across on the field. Fortunately, the Vikings will be moving to a more man-heavy scheme under Brian Flores, replacing Ed Donatell’s ‘give away the underneath routes’ very-heavy-zone scheme. My guess is that there’ll still be some hiccups- Booth hasn’t played much- and durability will remain a concern, but Booth is a much better fit in Brian Flores’ coverage scheme and could show a lot of improvement.
Asamoah will replace Eric Kendricks as the three-down inside linebacker this season. He only played 121 snaps on defense last season (most rookie linebackers didn’t play much last season either), but he was the highest PFF graded linebacker in the 2022 draft class, including the highest graded in coverage. He could be out there for 1,000 snaps this season- as Kendricks was every year when healthy. He’ll likely be asked to blitz more as well. Adding a younger, more athletic linebacker than Kendricks was last season could have a significantly positive impact on the Vikings defense this season. Hopefully Kendricks trained him well last season to take over his job, as Chad Greenway did with Kendricks back in 2015.
Ingram started at right guard last season, and will do so again this season. He certainly had his struggles last year, as most rookie offensive linemen do, but finished third in PFF grade among the eight starting rookie guards last season, and not far behind the best. The encouraging thing about Ingram was that he was able to show improvement over the course of the season. For example, he had six sub-50 PFF game grades (poor) in pass protection in the first half of the season, but only two during the second half. Forty of his 63 allowed pressures last season came in the first half of the season as well. He had only four penalties all season and was a decent, if unspectacular run blocker.
As one of the weak links in the offensive line last season, how much Ingram is able to improve this season is likely to be a key factor in how much the offensive line- itself the weak link in the Vikings offense- will be able to improve. If he’s able to continue along the path of improvement he displayed over the course of last season, he should be at least a league-average guard or better this season.
Cine suffered his compound fracture week four last season, but was able to benefit from his rookie off-season and training camp. He didn’t appear to seriously challenge Cam Bynum for his starting safety spot in training camp, but had he remained healthy may have done so over the course of the season. Bynum himself had come off an impressive rookie season, but had a big setback in coverage last season.
Cine appears to have made a full recovery- which seemed doubtful in the immediate aftermath- and my guess is that Cine will challenge Bynum for the free safety spot this year. We’ll see if he’s able to overtake Bynum, but even if he doesn’t right away he’ll likely see the field in sub-packages. Cine has the skillset to be an upgrade over Bynum, but he’ll need to get up to speed on the mental aspects of the position at the NFL level to overtake him.
How aggressive the Vikings are in pursuing a WR2 in the draft will be a reflection of how they feel about the receivers on the roster behind JJ. Of those, Jalen Nailor seems to be getting the most mentions between Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah this off-season. KJ Osborn is ahead of him on the depth chart, and maybe Jalen Reagor is or was too, but my guess is that Nailor will get the opportunity to compete for WR2 this year.
He had only 59 snaps on offense last season, but made the most of those- certainly much more than Reagor did. He finished the season with a 91.6 PFF grade and 5.77 yards per route run- both higher than JJ. Obviously all the caveats here- very limited snaps, most of his production came in garbage time at Green Bay, and half his snaps in the backups game at Chicago. But still he made the most of the time he was given on the field. And that’s how you earn more snaps and move up the depth chart as a WR4 or WR5. He’s got the speed and acceleration to be a bona fide deep threat to complement JJ, and showed promise as a route runner that can get open. Vikings WR coach Keenan McCardell said there were other position groups more in need of a first-round pick when the Vikings were contemplating what to do early in the draft last year, but also pounded the table for Nailor later in the draft. So, it would seem Nailor had the strong support of his position coach early on and it’s doubtful he lost it based on his on-field performance last season. We’ll see how far Nailor can go, but he seems likely to at least have the opportunity for an expanded role this season.
Evans will have the opportunity to compete for a starting job this year too, although he could be going against corners drafted higher than him. Still, Evans has all the desired physical traits- especially as a press-man corner- and is physical as a run defender too- something Brian Flores looks for in a cornerback. He does lack some anticipation, and can take some extra steps at times, but he’s got enough going for him where he could develop into a quality starter. He got a ‘welcome to the NFL route running’ lesson from Stefon Diggs in the Buffalo game on a couple reps last season, but I wouldn’t hold that against the rookie in considering his future potential. Overall, Evans could be at least a capable backup or rotational player that can step in when needed without a big drop-off. But with more refinement and time on task, he could develop into a starting-caliber cornerback.
Should the Vikings move on from Dalvin Cook, Ty Chandler could see his role increased this season as more of a scat-back type complement to Alexander Mattison. As a smaller back at 5’11”, 204 pounds, Chandler isn’t going to move the pile, but what he does have is speed and the ability to accelerate through small creases (I believe his 1.46” 10-yard split time is second only to Kene Nwangwu and DK Metcalf among all players currently in the league). And when he does get past the first line of defenders, he can force missed tackles and he’s got breakaway, sub-4.4” 40 speed. Chandler is also a good third-down back, as he’s a threat as a receiver as well. He can turn wheel routes into big plays and even make some wide receiver-like catches on seam routes downfield. He had some good reps as a pass blocker too. Chandler has more experience as a running back than Kene Nwangwu, so I’d expect Chandler to be the #2 running back behind Mattison.
DT Esezi Otomewo may pick up more snaps than the 90 he had last year as he develops, but the addition of Dean Lowry will likely keep him as a rotational 5-tech this year. Still, he has the tools to become an eventual starter if he’s able to develop. As a traits-based project and fifth-round pick, he’s on track with his development so far. Should he succeed in earning more reps and continuing his development, he could challenge for a starting job next year.
OT Vederian Lowe is the third swing tackle behind Oli Udoh and Blake Brandel. With a good off-season and training camp that shows significant development, he could displace Brandel on the depth chart, but that’s likely his ceiling this year.
TE Nick Muse is pretty well down the depth chart, behind Hockenson, Oliver, Mundt and Ellefson. He was a practice squad player last season. Best case for Muse this season is he could overtake Ellefson as more of a receiving tight end with Oliver and Mundt more blocking tight ends (although Oliver has some untapped potential as a receiver too). It’s also possible the Vikings move on from Mundt now that they have Oliver, and go with Ellefson and Muse as backups. Mundt was one of the worst offensive performers last season and while he’s near the veteran minimum salary and knows the system, the addition of Oliver doesn’t bode well for him.
The 2022 Vikings draft class is one we’ve hardly seen anything from so far- largely due to injury but also being non-starters. The release of some older veterans this off-season makes room for several players from this draft class to have expanded roles and in most cases will likely have the inside track on competing for starting jobs compared to all but maybe the top couple draft picks this year. We’ll see how it pans out. I’m sure having a few mid- or late-round picks turn into impact players as rookies would work out fairly well too.
Which of the following players from the 2022 Vikings draft class do you expect to have the biggest breakout season this year?
This poll is closed
Andrew Booth Jr.
Brian Asamoah Jr.