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What happens next will determine whether 2023 was a success for the Vikings

With playoff odds on life support, the future now becomes the focus in Viking land

The Minnesota Vikings have done exactly what they said they were going to do in terms of their plan and timeline, i.e. the “competitive rebuild.”

The idea was to refresh the roster and give lots of young players opportunities while remaining in the mix to make the postseason. Prior to training camp, general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah explained:

“How do we shift from where they were to getting to where we want to go but still be good?” he said. “When we made the playoffs, Kevin [O’Connell] and I…looked at each other [and said], ‘this is great,' so we want to be great every year and give ourselves a chance. It was, how do you shape shift while still winning?”

Up until Sunday night’s loss against the Green Bay Packers, the Vikings were in the hunt for the playoffs while shape shifting from an older roster in 2022. Rather than an past-prime Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook, it was a rookie WR Jordan Addison and second-year RB Ty Chandler. In Eric Kendricks’ place was rookie standout LB Ivan Pace Jr. Where Patrick Peterson once was, rookie CB Mekhi Blackmon. Others like safeties Cam Bynum and Josh Metellus stepped into more significant roles on defense.

While many of the transitions worked out well — Addison is fourth in yards for rookie receivers, Blackmon fourth in PFF grade for rookie corners and Pace Jr. No. 1 in PFF grade for rookie linebackers — the season started off rocky from the beginning with the defense struggling to find its place and then when things started to come together Kirk Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles tear.

Three backup QBs unsuccessfully attempted to grab the reigns and take the team to the playoffs and the thin defense ran out of gas at the end, allowing 90 points in the last three games. Now the Vikings head into Week 18 with a 3% chance of making the playoffs, according to the New York Times playoff simulator.

Assuming the Vikings do not get into the postseason via a parlay miracle, you could still make the argument that this season was a victory for the front office because they carried out the plan, even if it didn’t go quite as expected.

But 2023 can only be a success if the Vikings make the most of what they are getting out of a bridge season from the previous regime’s roster that was in win-now mode from 2015-2022 to their own.

Kevin O'Connell

Back in July, Adofo-Mensah mentioned a three-year “time horizon” when he and O’Connell were hired in 2022. Next year will be Year 3. When looking at the roster, it’s hard to see exactly how the construction job on the roster will be a finished product by the start of next season.

Not only do they have a massive decision to be made on pass rusher Danielle Hunter, the Vikings’ blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers was also revealing about where the defense stands overall. After a year of Brian Flores using every tool in the bag, the defense’s back broke with injuries to starters DJ Wonnum and Byron Murphy Jr. The last three weeks have shown that some of the weaknesses that were being covered up by Flores’ deceptive skills but ultimately the shortage of total talent showed up, particularly against better quarterbacks like Jared Goff and Jordan Love.

Looking forward, the Vikings shouldn’t expect their defensive coordinator to squeeze every once of blood out of the stone, rather they need enough roster quality to survive a few injuries. If we look at the top defenses in the NFL, they are well stocked with Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. If the Vikings lose Hunter and possibly Harrison Smith to retirement, they will be without a single Pro Bowler. They will need to replace two starting edge rusher spots, add interior pressure, possibly replace or re-sign Jordan Hicks and add a shutdown player to a secondary that got exposed late in the year.

The defensive build may pale in comparison to the decision at quarterback but the status of the roster on the defensive side is relevant to the quarterback decision. As the Vikings consider whether to offer Kirk Cousins a contract extension, they have to consider whether they can support him with an elite defense. We have seen multiple years of sample size with Cousins trying to overcome defensive weaknesses and it hasn’t yielded results in the postseason.

The front office has to decide whether the proper interpretation of 2023 from a defensive perspective that they found future pieces like Bynum, Metellus, Pace Jr. and Blackmon to build around but have a long way to go or that they are a few signings or draft picks away from being Baltimore, Cleveland or San Francisco. Does bringing back Danielle Hunter change that? Or is there a lot more to do in order to get there?

Adofo-Mensah’s comments from the summer would indicate that the overall roster strength is as huge part of the quarterback decision.

“There is a certain level that you need to have to win a championship and you’re trying to make sure you can have that within the confines of putting the rest of the team around him and that’s what we’ll always continue to do,” Adofo-Mensah said.

Similar to the defensive side, the 2023 season told us quite a bit about where the offense stands. We didn’t know entering the year if Addison could play or if Garrett Bradbury’s contract extension was the right decision or if guard Ed Ingram could be an effective starter. We didn’t know if they would extend Ezra Cleveland or if Alexander Mattison could be RB1 or if KJ Osborn would play so well that it would force their hand to keep the new “Three Deep” together. We have answers now, some good, some not.

Overall offensive side would appear from a wide lens to be set up brilliantly for whichever quarterback is going to step into the limelight but it’s not without work needed around the edges. Both Osborn and Brandon Powell are free agents, as is left guard Dalton Risner, who will likely want a raise to stick around after helping bolster the pass blocking.

Again this ties back to the quarterback. Should the Vikings believe that Cousins can return with this group and whatever they can afford to do at LG, WR3 and WR4 and lead an elite offense?

The 2023 season has put the Vikings in position to draft close enough to get a starting position player or make a play for a quarterback. There could be as many as five first-round QBs (depending on whose mock you read), which may allow the Vikings to pick a QB from their spot or take a shot at trading the farm for a quarterback.

If things go the way the team is hoping, this may be the highest draft pick they get for a while. It might be the best shot they have to either taking a future franchise quarterback or difference-making defensive player.

It’s possible the decision at QB comes down to whether Cousins can return for an affordable enough price to still build the rest of the roster or if the Vikings’ brass believes they have identified a quarterback in the draft that they could stack the roster over the next few years using the cap space created by a rookie contract.

If the Vikings end up with an expensive quarterback and a team with a number of good pieces but aren’t complete enough to play with the Cowboys and 49ers’ of the world, then they will not have taken advantage of what the 2023 competitive rebuild year gave them. Instead they will simply repeat history. In 2020 the team attempted a similar revamping following a cap-driven exodus of stars following 2019. They found a handful of players for the future like Justin Jefferson and Christian Darrisaw in the draft but ended up scrambling to fill spots with little cap space and missed the playoffs two years in a row, which led to Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman’s firing.

There’s another aspect to 2023 that could also make the short-term failure a long-term success: O’Connell’s self evaluation.

Throughout the backup quarterbacks’ struggles, O’Connell’s pass-first philosophy has been a central part of the discussion. While all coaches look worse when backups throw interceptions and sacks, that doesn’t mean that the entire sample of the 2023 offensive performance should be thrown out.

How can they improve the run game? How can they make things easier with short passes and screens? All four QBs they used this season were better when using play-action, how can they build on that?

And maybe most important: What does an O’Connell offense really need from its quarterback? Is it possible to pare down an O’Connell offense for an inexperienced quarterback? Or does it require Cousins’ acumen and arm talent? Can he build around a mobile QB or does he need someone to sling from the pocket?

The bottom line is that no matter how frustrating the 2023 season ended up with a pile of injuries and close losses, it has opened up an opportunity to build upon it much in the way they hoped from the start. Where it goes from here will make it worth the struggle or not. And there’s no time to waste. The Lions are at the top of the division, the Bears have the same number of wins and sit with the No. 1 overall pick and the Packers have their QB in place with a young roster.

In the same press conference from the summer, Adofo-Mensah explained that it’s statistically easier to go from total rebuild mode to the top than win from the middle. They will have to use every ounce of information and every foundational piece and every bit of cap space they created last offseason and every draft pick that 2023 gave them in order to buck those odds into the coming seasons.