Offseason Moves Prove Vikings Looking to Compete in 2022

Some figured that the Vikings would enter a rebuild in 2022, but new General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah & Head Coach Kevin O’Connell appear to have different plans.

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When the Minnesota Vikings brought in a first-time GM & a first-time head coach, there was reason to believe that they would take their time getting their feet wet. Instead, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah & Kevin O’Connell have been rather aggressive in their first few months on the job. Between a handful of depth signings, bringing in EDGE Za’Darius Smith, & bringing back QB Kirk Cousins, the new Vikings braintrust has been busy to say the least. While transactions like this certainly excite many fans, others believe that the Vikings should have indeed gone with a rebuild. There is a certain contingency of fans who (understandably) don’t believe in Cousins as the QB of the future. More importantly though, many still recognize the fact that arguably the teams’ two biggest holes (offensive line & secondary) remain unfilled barring unexpected breakouts.

The New Guys

DT T.Y McGill (1yr/1.035mil), OL Austin Schlottmann (1yr/1.035mil), TE Johnny Mundt (2yr/2.415mil)

These three players will likely serve as depth pieces, assuming they all make the team. McGill has bounced around for a couple seasons and will probably push James Lynch for snaps at nose tackle. Frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked if McGill is cut, unless he has a big training camp. Schlottmann played most recently with Denver, though he didn’t play much as his snap count never rose above 26%. However, Schlottmann plays guard & center, and the Vikings will take all the help they can get at those positions. Mundt is kind of interesting because he slots in to take the place of Tyler Conklin (who signed with the Jets in mid-March), but his impact will be mostly on the blocking side of things.

DT Harrison Phillips (3yrs/19.5mil)

The Vikings first impactful signing of the 2022 offseason was Harrison Phillips. Phillips has been somewhat frequently injured over the last few seasons, but is solid when he plays. Just over 3.5 tackles a game won’t grab many headlines, nor will 1 sack, but Phillips has been used as mostly a rotational guy. His 55% snap count last season is the highest in his career so far, so his numbers are pretty decent considering his trouble staying on the field & his role. Though not flashy, Phillips is (for now, at least) the better option than James Lynch, and Michael Pierce, who was cut on 3/10 after a disappointing season.

OLB Jordan Hicks (2yr/10mil)

In the most simple of terms, Hicks was brought in as Anthony Barr’s replacement. Barr, though still unsigned, appears to be on his way out after serving as a staple on the Vikings defense ever since being drafted in 2014. Hicks and Barr are the same age, and while Hicks has been more productive in recent years, much of that productivity is related to playing middle linebacker. It’s unclear whether or not the Vikings will stick Hicks at outside or inside linebacker. He’s gotten some snaps at both spots, but asking an older linebacker to do more in pass protection could cause some issues.

One area where Hicks is a clear upgrade over Barr is in his ability to stay on the field. Though football is obviously a physical game and injuries happen, Barr’s (seemingly) constantly nagging injuries have caused major issues for the defense since 2019. Hicks has had some injuries over the early part of his career, but has been largely available as of late. Similar to the Phillips/Pierce situation, it’s easy to view this signing as a one-for-one swap. The players have been largely comparable, albeit different, over the last couple seasons, making this move look pretty lateral.

EDGE Za’Darius Smith (3yr/42mil)

By far the biggest addition of the Vikings’ offseason has been that of Za’Darius Smith. Not only did the Vikings poach an impact player from their division rivals in Green Bay, but they also filled one of their biggest holes. The big question regarding the Smith signing was (and remains) what does this do for the Danielle Hunter situation? After two seasons of struggling with injury, Hunter and the Vikings restructured his contract, giving the team at least a degree of cap relief. However, many wondered if this done as a measure of making Hunter’s contract more tradable, as many assumed the Vikings would be rebuilding this season. But with the Vikings seemingly looking to contend in 2022, it seems like they now have two of the better edge rushers in the NFL. It’s not quite that simple, though.

As I mentioned earlier, Hunter has struggled with staying healthy as of late. He missed all of 2021 with a neck injury & most of 2022 with a pectoral injury, leaving the Viking pass rush decimated. Now, it’s possible that the Vikings view Smith, in a worst case scenario, as insurance for Hunter. But while Smith may have been lucky regarding injuries earlier in his career, missing all but one regular season game in 2021 due to back surgery is concerning. Both players appear to be healthy heading into 2022, but there certainly is reason for concern. Injuries aside, some would argue that tying up well over $50mil in two players who will each be in their thirties by the time their deals expire is not a wise way to build a defense. While I believe that the potential rewards outweigh the risks here, it is still something to consider. Especially when the Vikings have massive holes remaining in the secondary & on the interior O-Line.

So.. What’s the Plan??

Aside from the Smith signing, the decision to bring back Kirk Cousins is the clearest indication that the Vikings want to compete in 2022. While polarizing, it’s hard to deny that Cousins was the Vikings’ best option at QB, barring a major trade. Some may question his intangibles & his toughness, no one can deny the numbers he has put up over the last few seasons. Especially for a front office that seems to value analytics as much as any, it’s not much of a surprise that they wanted to work with Cousins for at least another season. This outlook puts much of the blame on the struggles of the past few seasons firmly on the Zimmer/Spielman regime.

Even the oldest of the old school football minds would have a hard time denying that the Vikings offense had grown stale, at best, over the last few seasons. Much of that blame can be put on Mike Zimmer’s ardent emphasis on defense, and his now-famous inflexibility. Blame can, and should also be spread to Rick Spielman, and his baffling inability to scout/draft/develop offensive lineman. The thinking goes that the new offense will air things out, letting Cousins cook and push the ball downfield the way that the Zimmer/Kubiak family offense never allowed him to. It sounds great in theory and is easy to talk yourself into, but I have a hard time seeing it.

Not to turn into old head intangibles guy here, but I have sincere doubts about Cousins’ ability to lead a team, or a high powered offense for that matter. “Empty stats” are a hard thing to quantify, but it sure seemed like a lot of those yards & TD passes from last season came after the Vikings were down a couple scores. To address the favorite comeback of Cousins’ fanboyish supporters; yes, I realize he doesn’t play defense. He does, however, seem to go 3-and-out as much as just about any quarterback I’ve ever watched. Yes, I’m sure less predictable running plays on first down will alleviate some of this. But, without adequate protection from his line, how can we expect Cousins to be anything other than good ol’ Checkdown Charlie?

Sure, many key free agents still remain. In fact, as of me writing this paragraph, the Vikings have set up visits with OL Jesse Davis & CB Nate Hairston, while also signing depth CB Chandon Sullivan. And obviously, the always-important draft looms large for this new regime. But, unless the team hits an absolute grand slam in the draft, I frankly have a hard time seeing this team be that much better next season, or over the next 5 years for that matter. Outside of maybe Smith, none of these signings are really needle-movers for me. Not to say that I dislike them- I don’t; I just wonder what the end goal is. Would I be shocked if this team makes the playoffs as a wild card, or maybe even wins a game? No, not really. But would I be shocked to see them in a Super Bowl? Hell yes, I would be. The only thing that would be more shocking would be if the team finished bottom five in the league. Nobody wants to watch their team win 3 games (especially if they go on to draft Matt Kalil months later). But sometimes, you have to hit rock bottom to truly get stronger. When you tread water forever, you tend to end up in the same spot.

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