Coming out of the ‘22-’23 season, it was clear that the Minnesota Vikings (holders of one of the most sputtering defenses in the league) needed to make significant changes when faced with stopping offenses.
Fans clamored for Ed Donatell’s firing after just one season, and that’s what they got. Brian Flores, coming to the Vikings after just one year in Pittsburgh, was named Donatell’s replacement in early February.
Some veteran players found themselves headed out the door behind Donatell, with LB Eric Kendricks being released (signed with the Los Angeles Chargers) and did not re-sign CB Patrick Peterson (signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers).
Other departures included CB Cam Dantzler, who was claimed off waivers by the Washington Commanders.
Peterson was arguably the most impactful of the three, stepping up in big time situations to end games with a clutch pick while providing a positive locker room (and airplane cabin) presence. Kendricks’ long tenure as a Viking brought consistency to the defense, even if he was seemingly always just short of being a shutdown presence.
The Vikings’ defensive spiritual leaders will now fall squarely on SS Harrison Smith and Inside Linebacker Danielle Hunter. Beyond those two, new signing LB Marcus Davenport will replace Kendricks, and the impactful Za’Darius Smith will continue to bring a solid pass-rush presence.
Beyond the aforementioned players, the rest of the defense still needs some personnel work, consisting of mostly young and relatively unproven players. These players, such as cornerbacks Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans, linebacker Bryan Asamoah, and safety Camryn Bynum will have to use next season to prove themselves further.
Evans, for one, is particularity confident that he will be able to do so. Booth Jr. showed some early season flashes but didn’t have much a chance at proving himself after a season-ending knee injury in the week 11 blowout loss to the Cowboys. Lewis Cine will also have another shot after a nasty leg injury ended his season early.
Just watch what I do this season https://t.co/g5Bj41ciiP— Akayleb Evans (@AkaylebEvans) April 13, 2023
Starting lineups are never guaranteed in NFL offseasons, but especially so in the case of the Vikings. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert wrote that as many as 9 of the 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball will be new next season.
Let's take a look at what options the Vikings have at their disposal heading into the 2023 season.
- Carryovers: S Harrison Smith, S Camryn Bynum, CB Andrew Booth Jr., CB Akayleb Evans, S Lewis Cine
- Departures: CB Patrick Peterson, CB Cam Dantzler Sr., CB Chandon Sullivan
Cornerbacks, Cornerbacks, Cornerbacks.
The Vikings have used 4 of their last 10 first round draft picks to draft cornerbacks, yet, the position remains their most pressing need due to the departures of 3 cornerbacks from 2022’s squad.
Thankfully, the Vikings have been able to hold consistency at the safety position, but Harrison Smith is getting old, and is having a more limited impact on the team (his veteran presence and commitment to the organization notwithstanding). Bynum did well, but was adjusting to his first NFL schedule, leaving room for improvement.
Rookies Lewis Cine (the Vikings’ highest pick in 2022) and Andrew Booth Jr. suffered major injuries last year, and the jury has plenty of deliberation to do until their cases can be settled.
Despite the high draft capital spent on the cornerback position in the last decade, that position is the secondary’s (and maybe even the whole team’s) biggest personnel need this year in the draft.
- Carryovers: Za’Darius Smith, Jordan Hicks, Danielle Hunter, Brian Asamoah
- Additions: Marcus Davenport
- Departures: Eric Kendricks
Even though they are aging, and their contracts did not necessarily match their levels of production, Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter look likely to be difference makers again next year for the Vikes. The two combined for 20 sacks, with Smith sitting out a few games midseason due to injury. Hunter, the younger of the two, averaged a sack (and change) per game through the first 7 weeks last year. Smith could also benefit with the familiarity of having a season in purple under his belt.
These two were the key pass-rushers from last season, and both look likely to return. Davenport will also bring another element to the pass-rush of Minnesota, having plenty of experience as a DE but being listed as an outside linebacker for the purple. Davenport had consistently put a thorn in Minnesota’s side throughout his time as a Saint, and I for one am happy he’s with the good guys now.
Hicks and Asamoah will anchor down the inside LB positions. Hicks has been a lunchpail presence offering consistency in place of top-end production. The strong, silent type if you will. 129 tackles, 86 solos, 3 sacks and a pick in ‘22-23 exemplify he is a solid but not flashy asset. Asamoah is young and relatively unproven, but has earned enough praise from HC Kevin O’Connell to make one think that there is more ceiling from Asamoah. Asamoah, though not like-for-like, will be replacing the departed Eric Kendricks. Those are some big shoes to fill in his second year.
- Carryovers: Harrison Phillips, Khyiris Tonga, Jonathan Bullard
- Additions: Dean Lowry
- Departures: Dalvin Tomlinson
The defensive front for the Vikes this year will look much different from last season due to the veteran presence of one of Green Bay’s Finest joining it’s ranks. Dean Lowry should be an exciting pickup for fans as he played extensive snaps for the Packers. Lowry had a bit of a down year in 2022, but had a stellar 2021 with 5 sacks, 4.5 stuffs, and 42 tackles.
Khyiris Tonga will continue his development after being drafted by the Bears in 2021, and has spent his career in the NFC north. He had a respectable 29 tackles last season with 4 stuffs and .5 of a sack. Reliable, yes, remarkable, yet to be seen. Kind of like that bridge you never thank while driving over it.
Harrison Phillips will be looking to utilize his own veteran presence to help Lowry make the switch between rivals. Phillips started 17 games last year, and put up a more-than-respectable 9.5 stuffs. Johnathan Bullard is also set to return to provide a capable backup presence.
Should the Vikings use yet another first round pick on a cornerback in this year’s draft? How else do you see the Vikings’ defensive personnel improving this off season? Let us know in the comments.