clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Vikings Roster Thoughts

Differences from last year are more significant than they seem

Arizona Cardinals v Minnesota Vikings

After a couple weeks of vacation and tracking the Vikings from a far- France and Italy in this case- I’m back at it and looking forward to the season ahead.

I was surprised to see how some of the roster decisions unfolded over the past couple weeks. On both offense and defense, it wasn’t just who made the roster and who didn’t, but also how many were kept at each position group. Those decisions were insightful into the Vikings’ scheme plans this season on both sides of the ball. It was also revealing how much - or how little really - preseason performance affected those decisions in many cases. It was also interesting how much the Vikings were able to use their practice squad to retain some players that could end up being meaningful contributors over the course of the season.

With all that in mind, here are my thoughts on the Vikings roster at this point heading into the regular season, broken down by position group.

Quarterback (3)

It was no surprise that Kirk Cousins and Nick Mullens made the roster as QB1 and QB2 respectively, but the Vikings electing to spend a roster spot on Jaren Hall was a bit surprising, although Hall did show some improvement over the course of the pre-season. Kevin O’Connell talked about the rule change that allows teams to activate a rostered and dressed quarterback during the course of a game should QB1 and QB2 be unable to go- as was the case in the playoffs last season with the 49ers- and how that affected the decision to keep three quarterbacks on the roster- something the Vikings and most teams have not done in recent years. In fact, last season only 12 teams did so.

By my count via Spotrac, only 15 teams have kept 3 QBs on the roster at the moment, so the Vikings were one of the few teams that have been influenced by the rule change. Of course it is unclear if any team would’ve been willing to give Jaren Hall a roster spot had the Vikings elected to waive him and try to get him to the practice squad- and perhaps more teams may at least consider it with the rule change- but the Vikings were one of a just under half of NFL teams to allocate three roster spots to quarterbacks. A relative lack of conviction (and/or better sense of which players would make it to the practice squad) may have contributed to the decision to keep Hall on the roster. At least for now.

Running Back/Fullback (4)

With Kene Nwangwu being placed on injured reserve (IR), the Vikings have three running backs and fullback CJ Ham on the roster. They recently signed Myles Gaskin to be RB3, while signing 7th round draft pick DeWayne McBride to the practice squad. McBride proved to be a bit underwhelming in the pre-season, while Nwangwu missed pretty much all of training camp and preseason with what Kevin O’Connell described as a lower back injury. He will now miss at least the first four games of the regular season as well.

The plan appears to be a running back-by-committee approach, with Alexander Mattison as the primary back with Ty Chandler likely to get significant reps in rotation. Mattison was a bell-cow at Boise State and can handle a heavy workload, but Chandler has looked good all off-season and will likely see the field more often than Mattison did last season as a change of pace back versatile as a runner, receiver, and blocker.

It’s unclear what will happen down the road with Gaskin and Nwangwu once the latter is ready and eligible to return from IR. Nwangwu’s role as a kick returner has been somewhat diminished by the new kickoff rule, so it’s not certain Nwangwu will be automatic in returning to the active roster once he’s healthy enough to do so. How Myles Gaskin and either/both Brandon Powell and Ty Chandler, who look to be kick returners, look in Nwangwu’s absence will likely impact Nwangwu’s future with the team. Gaskin is a journeyman back that’s not going to leapfrog either Chandler or Mattison, but he has been versatile as a runner, receiver, and blocker. More of the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type back. Still, he’s got a lot more experience at running back than Nwangwu, who didn’t help himself by missing the month of August.

Lastly, fullback CJ Ham is both a team captain and the highest paid player in the running back room. That speaks to the regard the Vikings’ organization has for Ham, who is more of a special teams captain than much of a contributor offensively. It’s doubtful Ham will see the field more on offense with the addition of Josh Oliver.

Wide Receiver (5)

The Vikings kept five wide receivers last season and did so again this season. It was clear early in the off-season that Justin Jefferson, KJ Osborn, Jordan Addison, and Jalen Nailor would make the roster, which left only 1-2 spots left between the other half-dozen or so players in the position group. Ultimately wide receivers five and six contribute almost exclusively on special teams, so that again proved to be a key deciding factor.

Brandon Powell was acquired to challenge Jalen Reagor for the punt returner job and won it. He had a decent pre-season as a receiver as well. He’ll also likely be tried at kick returner, which allows him to contribute more on special teams. Reagor had a good training camp and preseason, but ultimately had too much to overcome from last season. He had muffed punts and wasn’t reliable as a wide receiver, and the Vikings weren’t willing to look past that when they made their final cuts. Reagor has off-set language in his contract, so whatever he makes with another team will off-set the $2.4 million in dead cap the Vikings took on by cutting him. Reagor is reportedly taking a spot on the Patriots’ practice squad but could be promoted during the season which would help off-set some of the Vikings’ dead cap hit. The Vikings were said to be fielding some trade interest in Reagor before the final roster cuts, but no deal was reached.

The Vikings’ spent a 2024 5th round draft pick and a 2023 7th round pick to acquire Reagor from the Eagles last year. Vikings’ GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was asked about that this week, and he defended the decision by saying he will continue to take risks to build the roster, and that he should be judged by the portfolio of moves he makes overall rather than one specific move.

But beyond Brandon Powell as punt and kick returner, other wide receivers were not seen as contributing much on special teams- most of them didn’t get many preseason reps on special teams either- which made it difficult at best for them to gain a roster spot. Trishton Jackson, who was injured earlier this month, was given a spot on the practice squad along with Thayer Thomas. Thomas showed he isn’t a candidate for punt returner during the preseason but graded well on special teams when not returning punts on limited reps.

Tight End (4)

With the extension of TJ Hockenson, which was a question of when, not if, the Vikings now have the most expensive tight end position group in the league. By a sizeable margin as well. Hockenson is now the highest paid TE by average annual contract value (AAV) and TE2 Josh Oliver, with an AAV of $7 million, makes the Vikings’ TE tandem the most expensive in AAV by over $5 million to the next highest team.

The Lions didn’t want to pay Hockenson, who had indicated he wanted a top contract last year, so they traded him at the trade deadline last season and opted to start over at tight end this year. Tight ends can take a notoriously long time to develop, so getting a top receiving TE just entering his prime was a great move by the Vikings after Irv Smith Jr. didn’t pan out.

Clearly the new regime values tight ends in their scheme and plan to use them extensively. There are several reasons for this. First, the Vikings faced base defense only 15% of the time when using double TE sets last season vs. 54% league average. The Vikings also faced a relatively high percentage of two high safety coverages last year as well. Both of these stats suggest opposing defenses didn’t respect the Vikings’ run game- and they were right. The Vikings’ run game was a major drag on offensive efficiency and the Vikings didn’t do particularly well when running double TE sets. Having a credible blocking TE in Josh Oliver will likely cause defenses to use more base defense and single-high safety coverages to better defend the run- or yield more yardage on the ground.

The Vikings are at the forefront of what may be a league trend toward more double TE sets to combat the rise in two high safety coverages defensively. Given what they like to do offensively- throw it to JJ- and their offensive shortcomings- the run game and pass blocking- it makes perfect sense for the Vikings to go this route to improve their offense while also countering a league trend defensively. In this sense, the Vikings’ investment in the TE position group is a more aggressive bet- but a well-placed one too.

Beyond Hockenson and Oliver, Johnny Mundt has been hailed as the best TE3 in the league by Kevin O’Connell. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that comment, but having Mundt as TE3 is much better for the Vikings than TE2.

Lastly, the Vikings elected to go with four tight ends and gave a roster spot to Nick Muse as TE4. I was borderline on whether the Vikings would go with four TEs despite the indications of greater use of double TE sets (and therefore a greater need for more than one backup), thinking CJ Ham could serve as a backup if need be. That may be the case, but Muse had a good camp and will also contribute on special teams. He was the highest PFF graded special teamer for the Vikings in preseason, albeit on limited snaps, and Vikings beat reporter Mark Craig also said he told him he is the backup long snapper on a recent podcast. Whatever it takes.

Offensive Line (9)

With Chris Reed on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list to start the season which means he’ll miss a minimum of four games, the Vikings have nine offensive linemen on the active roster now. Beyond the five starters- Darrisaw, Cleveland, Bradbury, Ingram, and O’Neill, the Vikings have Oli Udoh as swing tackle, Austin Schlottmann as backup center who can also play guard, Blake Brandel as backup guard who can also play tackle, and newcomer David Quessenberry as another backup tackle.

It’s clear from all the shuffling of players on and off the roster at the back end of this position group, along with the interest in Dalton Risner at guard, that the Vikings are not happy with their depth in this position group and even the starting guard spots. It also appears, with the trade of Vederian Lowe and cutting of guys like Josh Sokol- who also had a decent preseason- that the Vikings are no longer interested in developmental projects at the backend of this position group. They brought in a veteran in Quessenberry to replace Lowe, and Udoh and Brandel both have several years in the league, if not a lot of starts- especially Brandel who looked good in preseason action at guard. That leaves it an open question about how they feel about the development of Ed Ingram, which may have been the reason they hosted Dalton Risner for a visit last month. One wonders if the Vikings have on-going interest in signing Risner, given no offer was extended during his visit.

It was a bit surprising that the Vikings traded Lowe, who showed a good deal of improvement over last season, but I get the focus on having veteran guys they can count on for a decent level of play. The starting tackle positions are long-term roster locks, so there isn’t a need to develop another starting caliber guy. The Vikings got the 6th round pick they spent on Lowe last year to reuse next year.

The Vikings signed UDFA Alan Ali to the practice squad, who is primarily a center but can play guard also. They added Hakeem Adeniji, Henry Byrd and Tyrese Robinson- all released from other teams- to the practice squad as well as they continue to look to improve this position group.

Henry Bryd was a UDFA signed and released by the Broncos this year. He gave up only one hurry in 36 pass blocking snaps at left guard during the preseason, while also grading well (82.3) in run blocking and overall (81.9) according to PFF. He’s listed as 6’5”, 310 pounds. Bryd, out of Princeton, is also a great athlete (9.8 RAS at guard) with great length too (33.625” arms). Promising practice squad signing to be sure.

Adeniji struggled for three seasons with the Bengals as a backup tackle, grading poorly according to PFF in all aspects of the position.

Tyrese Robinson is a UDFA signed last year and released by Washington this year but played well at right guard in preseason, yielding just one pressure (a sack) on 59 pass blocking reps. He had an 83.7 pass blocking grade according to PFF, with a 59.1 run grade and a 70.1 overall grade on 78 snaps this preseason. He’s listed as 6’3”, 317 pounds. Not particularly athletic (3.07 RAS) but good size and length (33.125” arms) for the position.

Interior Defensive Line (5)

The Vikings kept only Harrison Phillips, Dean Lowry, Khyiris Tonga, Jonathan Bullard, and rookie draft pick Jaquelin Roy on their active roster at iDL. OLB Marcus Davenport will probably shift inside on passing downs a certain amount, which will take some reps from this group. But the Vikings were able to leverage a couple decent practice squad signings in Sheldon Day (who had a good preseason- top PFF overall grade defensively for the Vikings at 90.6) and TJ Smith.

I had them releasing Esezi Otomewo, who was their 5th round draft pick of a year ago, but who has struggled since being drafted and probably wasn’t a good fit for Brian Flores’ scheme. He was indeed cut and has since signed on to the Jaguars practice squad.

It will be interesting to see how this group performs this season. They have the capacity to be a stout run-stopping unit- and returning veterans did well in that respect last season- but none of them has shown much as pass rushers recently. But in Brian Flores’ scheme they don’t need to be. Still, it would be nice to see a resurgence from Dean Lowry as a pass rusher- and maybe he’ll be helped in that respect by the scheme. Jaquelin Roy will hopefully ramp up in rotation within this group, and it would be nice if he proved to be more of a pass rushing threat as well.

Outside Linebacker (5)

The Vikings go with five here- Danielle Hunter, Marcus Davenport, DJ Wonnum, Patrick Jones II, and UDFA Andre Carter II.

All except Wonnum were not surprises for me, but I continue to question the Vikings treating Wonnum, who’s never had an overall or pass rushing PFF grade above 58 (below average) after three years in the league, as a roster lock. Wonnum didn’t play in preseason after an unremarkable off-season. And as a nearly $3 million cap hit this year, he’s not a particularly good value for his level of performance as a backup relative to his competition.

Be that as it may, the Vikings were able to sign Luigi Vilain, who had a good off-season and preseason, and Benton Whitley (who showed some flashes in August) to the practice squad.

Two names to watch for the future in the this group: Marcus Davenport and Andre Carter II. Davenport was signed to a prove-it year contract and it will be interesting to see how he approaches his new situation and role in a new scheme. Carter was a big UDFA signing by the Vikings who could see some reps this season as he develops into a potential starter next year. He has a lot of potential, but also needs to develop both his body and his craft. He’s showing signs of progress already.

It will also be interesting to see how Brian Flores’ scheme affects pass rush production in this group. With a blitz-heavy approach, I could see this group’s production impacted by more DBs and LBs getting pressures supported by this group. We’ll see how it pans out, but overall this is a good position group that could get better over the course of the season.

Inside Linebacker (4)

No surprises here. After William Kwenkeu was lost to injury, it wasn’t terribly surprising to see Troy Dye get the last spot here as a good core special teamer. Jordan Hicks and Brian Asamoah were locks going into camp, and it was clear early on that Ivan Pace Jr. was making the roster too.

It appears that the Vikings may go with Pace and Hicks as the starters- at least initially given the injury to Brian Asamoah that has caused him to miss a good deal of August. But from the get-go, someone must have forgotten to tell Brian Flores that Pace wasn’t a first-round draft pick, because he’s definitely been treated like one. And for good reason. Pace did everything you could want from a first-round draft pick at linebacker in college except be a few inches taller. He seemingly has had little difficulty adapting to the NFL game and continues to show the flashes that made his college highlight reel so exciting. He’s a perfect fit for Flores’ scheme as a downhill, blitzing linebacker that could prove a game-wrecker if he continues to build on his college performance.

But a note of caution. Neither Pace nor Hicks are good in coverage. Pace’s preseason PFF grade was heavily influenced by his poor coverage grade (lowest on the team), which could improve given his lack of experience, while Hicks was terrible in coverage for the Vikings last year and that’s unlikely to change. The one thing that could change from last year is that in Flores’ scheme, the linebackers may not be called upon to cover as much as was the case last year. Flores will use more three safety personnel which could lighten the coverage load for the linebackers. They may also use all three linebackers including Asamoah (who is better in coverage) at times too. We’ll see.

The Vikings also brought back LB Nick Vigil by signing him to the practice squad. Vigil was a good special teamer for the Vikings in 2021.

Cornerback (5)

This position group is the most concerning one to me. While Byron Murphy Jr. has looked good in training camp, he’s never graded above average according to PFF and he missed the last half of last season due to injury. Akayleb Evans is also slotted to be a starter, had a 40.5 coverage grade last season and missed half of it with multiple concussions. Mekhi Blackmon is a promising rookie, but a rookie nevertheless and subject to rookie growing pains. Andrew Booth Jr., CB4, has yet to live up to his potential. He had a coverage grade of 41.7 last year and missed a lot of the season due to injury. CB5 is Najee Thompson, who made the team as a special teamer. He didn’t even play on defense during the preseason.

Overall, that leaves the Vikings with four cornerbacks, three with a significant injury history and three with little experience and not much success at this point.

Vikings’ GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah responded to the question about the limited number of cornerbacks on the roster this week by saying that two safeties (Cam Bynum and Jay Ward) have experience playing cornerback. Additionally, the Vikings managed to sign veteran JoeJuan Williams (who was their highest PFF graded CB in coverage during the preseason) to the practice squad, along with Jaylin Williams and CJ Colden Jr.

Nevertheless, there is a quantity over quality aspect to the additional potential cornerbacks. Indeed, no cornerback on the Vikings’ roster has had a season coverage grade above 63.9. This group is going to need a lot of things to go right for them this year, both in terms of development and injuries, and even then they’ll likely need a lot of help from the pass rush- which they should get.

Safety (6)

Not many predicted Theo Jackson getting a roster spot over JoeJuan Williams, but Brian Flores may use safeties to play in the slot more than expected. Jackson will also be a core special teamer- like he was last year. Lewis Cine, Jay Ward, and Theo Jackson have all played in the slot during their college careers, and all three got reps at slot corner during the preseason, along with Josh Metellus and Cam Bynum. By contrast, only Mekhi Blackmon had more than a few snaps in the slot among CBs on the roster.

So, if safeties are being asked to play the slot corner position in nickel defense, it makes sense to have six on the roster- just as it did to have six cornerbacks when cornerbacks are being asked to play the slot position in nickel defense. Similarly, if cornerbacks are only playing outside, keeping only four (with a special teamer added in) makes sense.

Obviously this is a significant departure from past rosters and defensive schemes, and it does make sense in the context of Brian Flores’ scheme. Flores needs defensive backs who can tackle because a common counter to his blitz-heavy scheme are quick moves outside- screens, pitches, sweeps- that force defensive backs to tackle without much help. Safeties are typically bigger and better tacklers than cornerbacks. But they’re also usually a bit slower and not as quick and agile in coverage.

On the other hand, who’s covering Mike Evans, AJ Brown, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen, Kadarius Toney, DJ Moore, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, Christian Watson, Drake London, Chris Olave, Jerry Jeudy, Davante Adams, JaMarr Chase and Tee Higgins, and Amon-Ra St Brown? Until some of the defensive backs develop into good players, the Vikings and Brian Flores will be faced with matchup issues with receivers pretty much every week. The Vikings won’t be able to count on a heavy blitz every play to help out their defensive backs. They still need to cover, and when they do go with a zero blitz, cover without any help over the top.

Special Teams

No surprises with the specialists. Long-snapper Andrew DePaola and punter Ryan Wright were unchallenged, and Greg Joseph won the kicking contest early on.

But there will be new returners for the Vikings this year. Brandon Powell will return punts, and possibly kicks as well- although Ty Chandler is also listed in that role. Either way, will the kick returners do well enough to make Kene Nwangwu’s services superfluous? Nwangwu has been a good kick returner for the Vikings, but how many kicks will actually be returned this year? The new rule suggests fewer, but we’ll see.

The other aspect of special teams is how well the special teams units will perform this year. It looked like there might be more turnover among core special teamers this year, but at the end of the day only Najee Thompson replacing Kris Boyd is the only significant one.

Bottom Line

The Vikings roster decisions signal significant changes from last year on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Vikings have made major investments at the tight end position that signal a greater use of double tight-end sets. Last year the Vikings were among the heaviest users of 11 personnel, but those days are likely over. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a small narrowing in the gap between run and pass play percentage, but the main purpose in using double TE sets is not necessarily to run more often, but to be more productive when doing so. With more effective tight ends, the double TE formation could prove to be a difficult one for defenses to counter, particularly when teams like the Vikings break the huddle with the option to call a run or pass play at the line of scrimmage. Cousins can view the defensive formation and make the most advantageous call based on game situation and the defensive formation, knowing the Vikings have the personnel to succeed with a run or pass.

Defensively, this roster signals a radical departure from the defensive scheme of last year. A real 180-degree change in philosophy and approach. While just about everybody will appreciate a more aggressive approach defensively than last season, the approach is not foolproof. Like the Dolphins under Flores, the Vikings will give up some big plays when the feast or famine approach occasionally backfires. The key will be in how much the Vikings personnel will be able to limit the damage- and how often they can prove to be game wreckers for opposing offenses. The Vikings will be facing a lot of young quarterbacks this season, and a couple others that have been rattled in the past by Flores’ scheme (Jared Goff among them), so they could enjoy some good success in these instances. But be prepared for occasional deep balls and screens that go the distance when the counters to Flores’ scheme hit home.

Bottom line, the changes in personnel on both sides of the ball signal changes that may not be fully appreciated until the season is well under way. Offensively the changes may be more subtle to the casual observer, but defensively even the most casual Vikings fan will notice a significant scheme change from last season.

Overall, the scheme changes may help the Vikings get more from their roster by both being more aggressive defensively, and making a big investment at tight end that could compromise opposing defenses approach to the Vikings offense.