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How do we evaluate a Vikings season that has been crushed by injuries?

TJ Hockenson and DJ Wonnum are the latest victims of a season of brutal injuries for the Vikings

Last year the Minnesota Vikings went into the playoffs without right tackle Brian O’Neill. Everyone else that started on January 15, 2023 in the wild card round matchup against the New York Giants was also a starter in the team’s opener in September, save for cornerback Cam Dantzler, who had been replaced by better-performing defensive back Duke Shelley.

That seems like a totally different universe compared to the present version of the Vikings.

As they get set to play for their playoff lives against the Packers and Lions, the Vikings will be without tight end TJ Hockenson and outside linebacker DJ Wonnum, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries against the Lions. Hockenson tore his ACL and MCL and Wonnum suffered a torn quad.

Add those on top of already losing quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Cam Akers to Achilles tears, Justin Jefferson for the majority of the season, Marcus Davenport for all but a couple games, Brian O’Neill for the last few games with an ankle sprain, Jordan Hicks to a near catastrophic leg injury and many more dings and cuts along the way. Oh yeah, rookie star Jordan Addison is questionable for Sunday’s game with an ankle injury.

The latest blows, Hockenson and Wonnum, are particularly crushing because of the way both players stepped up when they were called upon.

During Jefferson’s time on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, Hockenson caught 50 passes in seven games for 532 yards. In total he’s second in the NFL among tight ends with 95 receptions and second to only Travis Kelce in first downs.

“I can’t say enough just looking back on whether it’d been when we had Kirk [Cousins] go down, JJ [Justin Jefferson] go down, some of our guys up front, T.J. has been a constant throughout the whole season,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said. “He’s been incredibly tough dealing with some things throughout the year, managing those, working through those, and still being available each and every Sunday to us. I just absolutely love T.J., love what he is to our organization, love his toughness and his production. I mean, he’s been wildly, wildly productive all season.”

The Vikings’ No. 2 tight end Josh Oliver is solidified in his blocking role so they may have to ask veteran Johnny Mundt to play in Hockenson’s spot. Mundt has just 37 career receptions in 79 games.

T.J. Hockenson

T.J. Hockenson prepares to be tackled low after making a catch against the Detroit Lions.

As for Wonnum, he was originally slated to be a cog in the Brian Flores machine but with the injuries to Davenport the 2020 fourth-rounder has played 826 total snaps, produced 8.0 sacks, 38 QB pressures and graded as the fourth best run defender on the team.

“Going back to when we first brought [Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores] here, I thought [Wonnum] would be a perfect fit,” O’Connell said. “He’s really two things in [their] purest form: he’s very physical as an edge-setting outside linebacker in this defense and he’s also very versatile.

O’Connell continued…

“D.J.’s got the ability to drop in coverage. He’s got the ability to be part of multiple kind of line games, stunts up front, and athletically, football intelligence, baseline levels [and] so much beyond just the baseline, that he was really impactful for our defense. I know our coaching staff, the rest of the guys on that defense, they know – you can feel it in the moment, when D.J. went down the other day, just what he means to us and our team, the locker room, and it’s going to be a big loss.”

Now the Vikings must turn to Patrick Jones and rookie Andre Carter. Similar to the tight end position, the drop from the starter to backup is significant. Jones is the lowest graded defensive player on the team and 60th of 60 edge rushers with at least 500 snaps. Carter is a raw player who wasn’t expected to see the field this year. He’s only played 39 total snaps.

“We like to prepare all of our guys and have guys understand that their development from a personal standpoint as a player to their role sometimes, we’re more just trying to get guys prepared for when times do get tough, they get called upon,” O’Connell.

If you add together the rash of injuries with the bad fumble and drop luck that the Vikings had at the beginning of the year, it becomes difficult to know how we should judge the totality of the 2023 season.

On one hand, there were a number of games that slipped through their hands. The Vikings were on the doorstep of beating the Chargers, Chiefs, Broncos, Bears, Bengals and Lions. In each loss, there were things that could have been done better, whether it was getting stops against L.A. or game-planning vs. Chicago or finishing the game in OT versus the Bengals.

Naturally we are going to look at the coaching and front office decisions for answers as to why those games went wrong. Would it have been different if they signed Joe Flacco or acquired Jacoby Brissett instead of trading for Josh Dobbs? Would a different 2022 draft pick have closed the gap?

If they had adjusted the offense more to Dobbs, would he still be playing and winning? If they hadn’t asked Nick Mullens to push the ball downfield or QB sneak in overtime or throw the ball 36 times to 10 runs, would he not have turned the ball over so many times?

Side note: O’Connell addressed some of the critiques that he was asking Mullens to do too much with the downfield passing game. He said:

“Looking at the turnovers, I believe four or five of the last six interceptions did come on third down, where you do have to throw the football, you do want to try to convert and extend drives,” he said. “If you get man coverage, you get matchups either by design, to get certain players on certain guys, and you feel like you have great opportunities on certain plays and those end up being turnovers, I have a hard time thinking you’re trying to be too explosive in those moments.”

He continued..

“I do think we need to run the football more and run the football more effectively. But I will say, looking back on the individual stories of these turnovers over the last two games, they do come down to decision-making. They come down to play intent and ultimately making the right decisions in the moment to find the open man and convert when we get those critical third-down opportunities that will lead to us having more time of possession, more opportunities to score.”

Anyway, football wouldn’t be as compelling without the woulda-coulda-shoulda game that we play each week but the most obvious explanation is probably the right one: Injuries robbed the Vikings of being in contention for the NFC North. With Cousins and Jefferson healthy, it’s not a reach to say that Week 18 would likely have been a battle for the North. Instead the Vikings have to overcome huge gaps in their lineup against a Packers team that is healthier than the first time they played and has its offense rolling.

That doesn’t mean that there are no reasoned criticisms for the 2023 season, just that everything has to be graded on a curve. Out of 14 teams in playoff positions, only the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts are without healthy QBs. The Browns have the No. 1 defense in the NFL by Expected Points Added and the Colts are barely hanging on with an 8-7 record behind a quality backup in Gardner Minshew.

The Steelers, Bengals and Raiders have gone through the same roller coaster as the Vikings en route to similar records and similar status as bubble teams.

It would be quite an accomplishment to make the playoffs now, particularly if Addison isn’t fully healthy. Making the postseason would be a sign of the team’s resilience and foundation for the future.

Yet it feels wrong to say that losing the last two games would mean that the future is murky and the foundation shaky when the season was put on ice by injuries.

It’s just one of those years. Last season was the opposite and the NFL’s luck pendulum swung back hard and cost the Vikings a chance at exceeding expectations. Now they have to put their hopes on the depths of the roster and cross their fingers.

“That’s really what this whole year has been about,” O’Connell said. “Whether you talk about some of the offensive line groups we’ve put out there, having to play significant time without Kirk, without J.J., without, whether it’s T.J., or some of our guys on the defensive side, it’s been significant, and I think our guys have battled. I think we’ve had the right mindset to have guys step up in certain roles and be ready for that opportunity when called upon. It’s just been something you have to work through.”