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Future of the Vikings, Part 2: Linebackers and safeties

Continuing a deep dive on the entire Vikings roster, we move to a position that saw young players emerge in 2023

Welcome to our Future of the Vikings series in which we look back at performances from every player on the roster and project where they will go in the future. For Part 2, we look at the linebackers and safeties. Let’s dive right in…


Cam Bynum

After Bynum’s first year as a starter it was clear that he could play the safety position in the NFL as a converted cornerback but it wasn’t certain exactly how good he could be. In 2023, we got the answer. The 2020 fourth-round pick was a breakout player, producing the fourth highest PFF grade among all Vikings defensive players and he played a remarkable 1,120 snaps. Struggles by the entire defense over the final four weeks dragged his overall grade down but he still finished as the 14th best safety in the NFL. He ranked ninth best in yards per completion into his coverage despite being the second most targeted safety. Where he particularly took a step forward was tackling. In a more aggressive Brian Flores defense, Bynum ranked 11th in run stop grade.

The Vikings have found themselves a long-term player in Bynum. He is intelligent, durable and more of a physical presence than expected when he made the move from corner to safety. He’s under contract through 2024.

Harrison Smith

When Smith returned last season, he cited interest in playing in Flores’ defense that kept him coming back. That ended up paying off well for the six-time Pro Bowler. Smith moved all over the field, playing the second most snaps on the defensive line among safeties, seventh most in the box and adding 151 plays in the slot. After a season of rarely blitzing in 2022, Smith was a weapon in the pass rush with the fifth most pressures among safeties. While still effective, his numbers were not the same as a few years ago. Smith graded 32nd of 64 safeties by PFF, had the highest missed-tackle rate of his career and posted no interceptions.

Smith can still play and be effective but he turns 35 soon and has put his body through a lot over the years. It would not be a surprise if he elected to retire a Viking. If he hangs ‘em up it will create $11.3 million in cap space and $7.8 million in dead money (which does not disappear due to retirement). If Smith does choose to return he would need to work out a new contract rather than carry a $19 million hit in 2024. No matter what he does, Smith is a Ring of Honor player who will have a chance to garner Hall of Fame attention.

Josh Metellus

Is he a safety, nickel corner or a linebacker? Yes. Josh Metellus was the year’s biggest breakout player, going from a special teamer with 259 snaps the previous season to playing over 1,000 snaps and ranking No. 1 among safeties in QB pressures and run stops. The former Michigan standout was second in forced fumbles and despite being targeted more than any other player listed as a safety he ranked 10th in yards per reception allowed.

Flores knew he had something with Metellus. Right before the season the team signed him to a two-year, $8 million extension (through 2025).

Theo Jackson

The former Tennessee Volunteer introduced himself to Vikings fans when he stepped in against the Eagles because of an injury and picked off Jalen Hurts. He held down a situational role from there on, finishing with 125 snaps. Jackson was valuable on special teams with 259 snaps between kick and punt return units.

Jackson is a restricted free agent. It would not be a surprise to see the Vikings bring him back.

Jay Ward

The Vikings fourth-round pick got his feet wet on defense with 35 snaps and was on the field for 300 special teams plays.

Coming out of college Ward was expected to be a versatile piece of the secondary. Next year’s training camp will be important for him to take a step forward toward becoming that.

Lewis Cine

After returning to the field from a horrific leg injury in his rookie year, Cine was able to fully participate in OTAs, minicamp and training camp. That was the only positive from his season. The 2022 first-round pick was on the field for just eight plays on defense and was often inactive. It was made loud and clear that he is not a fit in Flores’ defense.

Cine will go into training camp next season looking to prove that he belongs. If Smith retires, he could get a chance to compete for that spot but that would take a massive turnaround considering he was the sixth-string safety this year.


Ivan Pace Jr.

If an undrafted rookie makes the team, it’s a good story. Pace Jr. did a heck of a lot more than that. He led all rookies in snaps, overall PFF grade, tackles, pressures, sacks, interceptions, pass breakups, yards per reception allowed and PFF coverage grade. Up against all competition, he cracked the top 15 in overall grade and gave up the lowest yards per reception into his coverage among all NFL linebackers.

Pace Jr. has two more full seasons before becoming a restricted free agent. The Vikings found themselves a gem who can be a difference maker on defense for a long time to come.

Ivan Pace Jr.

Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40)

Jordan Hicks

The veteran linebacker was one of a number of players who saw a jump in their play from 2022 to 2023. He graded as the 20th best linebacker in the NFL, scoring solid marks across the board in run defense, pass rushing and coverage. Overall Hicks produced his best grade since 2018. But that doesn’t fully illustrated his impact. As the green dot player in a defense with a lot of moving parts, Hicks was a key leader and communicator.

Hicks is a free agent. Without a clear succession plan, it would make sense for the Vikings to bring him back to continue to lead Flores’ group.

Troy Dye

When Hicks was out for a few weeks Dye rotated into the game and had little impact. In total he was on the field for 112 plays, made eight tackles and registered five pressures. For the third straight year he was a prominent part of the special teams unit.

Dye is a free agent. He could get an offer to stay from the Vikings as a special teamer but he may look elsewhere for more opportunity.

Anthony Barr

The Pro Bowler’s return came as a surprise when Hicks was lost to a leg injury for a few weeks but he was used sparingly with only 48 total defensive plays over four games. This may have been the final stop of Barr’s career.

Brian Asamoah

The 2022 third-round pick entered training camp as LB2 but midway through camp Pace Jr. emerged and the former Oklahoma linebacker fell down the depth chart and barely saw the field (36 snaps).

Asamoah’s spot going forward is very much in question.

Free agent options

If Smith retires, would the Vikings move Metellus into Smith’s role or would they keep him in his present hybrid spot and sign someone else? It might make sense to look for another player because there are a ton of great potential options (some of whom will likely sign back with their team).

Here’s the top of the heap..

Tampa Bay, Antoine Winfield Jr. (No. 1 ranked safety by PFF, 18 pressures, 6 sacks, 3 INTs)

New York Giants, Xavier McKinney (4th in PFF grade, 53.0 QB rating into coverage)

Los Angeles Chargers, Alohi Gilman (6th, 7 PBUs)

Miami, DeShon Elliott (19th, fourth in run grade)

Baltimore, Geno Stone (17th, 7 INTs)

Buffalo, Micah Hyde (43rd)

New England, Kyle Dugger (47th, third in QB pressures)

At linebacker, if the Vikings need to replace Hicks, here are some potential top options:

Houston, Blake Cashman (4th in PFF grade)

Carolina, Frankie Luvu (12th)

Baltimore, Patrick Queen (21st)

Philadelphia, Nicholas Morrow (25th)

Denver, Josey Jewell (32nd)

Seattle, Jordyn Brooks (51st)

Draft options

It would be shocking if the Vikings spent a draft pick earlier than the fourth round on either the safety or linebacker positions considering their needs at other positions.

The bottom line

Despite some extremely disappointing showings from the 2022 draft class, the safety and linebacker groups produced three foundational pieces for the Vikings defense to work with going forward. How much work needs to be done in free agency will depend on whether Smith and Hicks return.