When the Minnesota Vikings take the field for training camp prior to the 2023 NFL season their defense could look dramatically different. Not only could, but the expectation should be that it needs to. While players may no longer be around, a Vikings defensive exodus could still hurt for fans.
The reality is that the Minnesota Vikings were not close to being good enough on defense in 2022. Some of that certainly should fall on defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, maybe even most of it, but players still have to play. For Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell, that means making adjustments to the roster and deciding what players are truly a fit.
It was a bit curious to have Donatell come in and change Minnesota into a 3-4 scheme. We saw far too many times where Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter were incorrectly utilized for their skillset. That certainly did no favors to the pass rush, and it had the Vikings out of sorts in coverage multiple times. Both players made it through the season relatively healthy however, and that should be seen as a win given their injury history.
The secondary was a larger cause for concern coming into the year, and it was consistently exposed throughout. Up the middle is where plenty of problems lie, and that is not shocking considering the age and mileage some of those talents have to their credit. Eric Kendricks no longer looks the part of an elite linebacker that can control opposing skill players. He was exposed both in coverage and pursuit this season, and while the instincts are still great, his body clearly can’t keep up with them.
In similar fashion, Harrison Smith took plenty of lumps this season. While his effectiveness was not quite as diminished, the reality is that his contract certainly is a non-starter for a team needing to make changes. With a cap hit registering almost $20 million, a defense that finish nearly dead last in the league can’t have so much tied into that type of player. Smith has been a captain and substantial part of the organization since he was originally drafted, but this may be where the band-aid has to be ripped off.
Moving on from players that the organization and fans have become so comfortable with is certainly not an exciting endeavor. What hurts worse, however, is when you hang on a season too long. We saw this take place as Mike Zimmer lured Anthony Barr back from the New York Jets, and anything but sizable contract reductions would be a similar path taken on the players involved now.
The Vikings drafted a safety to play alongside Smith in the form of Lewis Cine. Unfortunately, that development was thwarted by injury, but it could certainly be more of a trial by fire scenario a year from now. The linebacker situation is less straightforward, and so too is development at the corner position if Patrick Peterson doesn’t return. No matter what happens, turnover should be expected and it’s going to come with some big names.
There is no reason why Vikings fans can’t hold onto the memories of some truly great players. Captains and contributors alike, there have been special moments that many guys jettisoned will have contributed to. What can’t happen is anything short of a reversal from the unit that was among the worst in the league, and the decisions won’t be easy.
Ted Schwerzler is a blogger from the Twin Cities that is focused on all things Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings. He’s active on Twitter and writes weekly for Twins Daily. As a former college athlete and avid sports fan, covering our pro teams with a passion has always seemed like such a natural outlet.