When Kevin O’Connell was in the midst of his NFL playing career, he just so happened to be in the room with the 2010 New York Jets when Rex Ryan opened training camp with a particular speech regarding expectations.
Last year, hey, we were under the radar, that’s a good place to be.
F**k that. The best place to be is when expectations are high. Get used to it. It’s always gonna be that way.
If you’ve been paying attention to the copious predictions flying around the football community as Week 1 approaches, you’ve probably noticed that the Minnesota Vikings are — more often than not — predicted to make some noise throughout the NFC in O’Connell’s first year.
- Bill Simmons has the Vikings winning the NFC North.
- Mike Randle from FTN Network has Minnesota winning the NFC.
- Robert Mays and Nate Tice both expect the Vikings to be a 10-win playoff team.
And if you read Tyler Dunne’s recent feature from GoLongTD.com, even an anonymous former coordinator who coached under Mike Zimmer in Minnesota has expectations for the Vikings in 2022. “With a tint of hyperbole, one of Zimmer’s former coordinators predicts immediate success for the 2022 Vikings,” wrote Dunne. “‘Because,’ this coach says, ‘the devil’s gone. Satan is out of the building.'”
Unlike last year, when the general consensus went against the Vikings (while hometown Skoldiers had elevated expectations), this team is widely regarded as a contender in the NFC.
Instead of highlighting why the Vikings will be bigger than the Beatles in 2022, let’s take a look around the NFC for a better understanding of why this conference is truly wide open for a team like Minnesota.
Los Angeles Rams
The defending Super Bowl champions relied on a ton of star power last season. After mid-season acquisitions of former All-Pros Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., both players are off the roster. Miller signed a massive free-agent deal with the Buffalo Bills, and OBJ remains unsigned after suffering a torn ACL in the Super Bowl. Although there are rumblings that Beckham could return to the Rams, he isn’t expected to return to the field until mid-November — at the earliest.
On top of Miller and OBJ, the Rams lost another former All-Pro in starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth to retirement. They also lost starting guard Austin Corbett and starting cornerback Darious Williams in free agency. They also traded standout receiver Robert Woods to the Tennessee Titans.
It’s important to note that the Rams acquired a new former All-Pro in linebacker Bobby Wagner and decorated wide receiver Allen Robinson in free agency. But even with these additions, the Rams will be forced to replace some serious production from some of the league’s best players.
San Francisco 49ers
We’ll get to the recent departures in San Francisco momentarily. But most notably, Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers have essentially invited a whirlwind of turmoil and controversy by restructuring Jimmy Garoppolo‘s contract and welcoming him back as the QB2 — all while transitioning to 22-year-old Marshall, Minn. native Trey Lance as the new face of the franchise.
Although Lance said all the right things to the media when asked about Garoppolo’s return, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported that, behind closed doors, Lance was “a little annoyed” by the decision. Will the young quarterback be able to block out the noise and rise to the occasion with the guy he was brought in to replace peering over his shoulder?
From a personnel standpoint, the Niners were gutted this offseason. Former offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel and former wide receivers coach Wes Welker are now coaching with the Miami Dolphins. Pro Bowl left guard Laken Tomlinson signed with the New York Jets in free agency. Pro Bowl center Alex Mack retired. Starting defensive tackle D.J. Jones signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Rotational defensive end Arden Key, who had 6.5 sacks last year, joined the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The losses of Jones and Key should be fairly minimal, as the 49ers have done an outstanding job of loading up their front four in recent drafts. Former first-round pick Javon Kinlaw could be in for a breakout season alongside Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead up front.
But the loss of Tomlinson and Mack for San Francisco’s offensive line could singlehandedly sink Shanahan’s renowned running game — and make life extremely difficult for a first-year starting quarterback. Throw in the Garoppolo drama, and this team could take a serious step back in 2022.
Green Bay Packers
Yes, the Packers undoubtedly should have one of the best defensive units in all of football this season. Not only do they get All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander back, but they also loaded up in the draft by selecting former Georgia Bulldogs Devonte Wyatt and Quay Walker. With Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark, Wyatt, De’Vondre Campbell (Go Gophers), Walker, Rasul Douglas, Eric Stokes, Adrian Amos, and Darnell Savage, this defense is filled with an absurd amount of talent at all three levels.
As we all know by now, the Packers traded All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders. Let’s not forget this is an offense that scored a measly 10 points at home against the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional round with Adams on the roster.
Will this offense be able to reinvent itself with an unproven receiver corps led by Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb, and rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs? If anyone can make it work, it’s the back-to-back MVP Aaron Rodgers. But the concerns about the offense are warranted — even with the impending return of All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Speaking of training camp drama: Put aside the fact that Tom Brady up and left Bucs camp for two weeks for reasons unbeknownst to the rest of us. This team has been decimated up front along the offensive line.
All-Pro center Ryan Jensen suffered a serious knee injury in training camp and is widely expected to miss the entire 2022 season. Guard Alex Cappa signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. Guard Aaron Stinnie tore his ACL in training camp and will miss the entire year.
Although the 2020 Super Bowl champions return All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, will this makeshift offensive line be able to hold up for their 45-year-old QB?
All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins will miss the first six games of the season while serving a PED suspension. In four games last year without Hopkins, Kyler Murray‘s passer rating sunk to 89.7. In the playoffs, Murray imploded to the tune of a 40.9 passer rating, sans Hopkins.
Will this team be able to maintain their level of productivity on offense without Hopkins for the first six games? Let’s not forget that Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals have a serious propensity for shrinking down the stretch.
This roster is filled with talent across the board. The Eagles will have one of, if not the best offensive lines in all of football. The defense boasts one of the league’s top front fours, led by Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat, and now with the addition of rookie unicorn defensive tackle Jordan Davis. They beefed up the secondary as well with the additions of James Bradberry and C.J. Gardner-Johnson to pair with All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay.
The addition of A.J. Brown at wide receiver should theoretically make life easier for the offense.
But ultimately, there are still serious questions about Jalen Hurts and his ability to consistently win from the pocket. Last year, Nick Sirianni and the Eagles had to completely scrap their offensive identity and essentially take the ball out of Hurts’ hands by leaning into their league-leading rushing attack.
Hurts had the 22nd-ranked passer rating last year at 87.2. His limitations from the pocket were exposed against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round. Hurts was wildly inefficient, going 23/43 for 258 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, and a 60.0 passer rating in the blowout loss.
Despite the masterful work that Howie Roseman has done this offseason, the Eagles will only go as far as Hurts can take them. Unless he makes some serious improvements, there are legitimate questions about just how far that is.
Last, but certainly not least, let’s take a look at the hometown squad.
The Vikings experienced minimal losses to the roster in the midst of a serious culture change spearheaded by O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. Aside from the addition via subtraction courtesy of Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman, this team has all the talent — in all three phases — necessary to be a serious contender within the NFC.
Brian O’Neill is one of the best right tackles in the game.
Ed Ingram has all the makings of an impact player from Day 1 at right guard.
We already know by now that the Vikings have some of the best skill-position players in the league in Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen. And as long as Kirk Cousins simply does his job, as he demonstrated throughout 2021, it’s more than reasonable to expect this offense to be a top-seven unit — maybe even top-five.
The biggest lingering questions continue to be on the defensive side of the ball. If the addition of Harrison Phillips helps substantially elevate Minnesota’s efforts against the run, this team will be an extremely difficult matchup for everybody across the league.
Health permitting, Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter compose one of the best pass-rushing edge duos in the NFL. If the defense can demonstrate a consistent ability to force third-and-longs, those two will be an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses.
What Rex Ryan mentioned at the beginning of his speech rings true for Minnesota. If this Vikings team plays at their best, they can (and will) beat every team in this (f**king) league.
The expectations are more than warranted for the Minnesota Vikings in 2022. This team is more than capable of not only dethroning the Green Bay Packers as the NFC North champions but also throwing their hat in the ring for the NFC crown.
Now it’s up to O’Connell and the Vikings to prove the believers correct.