With the 2022 NFL draft now in the books, we finally have a general sense of what the Minnesota Vikings’ roster might look like next year. However, a lot will still change between now and September, between rookie minicamp, training camp, and the preseason — not to mention how additional injuries, veteran free agent signings, and trades could shake things up.
So while these way-too-early 53-man roster predictions will inevitably get a few things wrong, they should give a snapshot of where the roster is deepest, where there are still some remaining holes, and who the favorites are to win each job heading into training camp.
After the Vikings extended Cousins for one year at $35 million this offseason, there is no question as to who will be their starting quarterback — at least for 2022. Next year is another question entirely that will depend on whether head coach Kevin O’Connell can live up to his billing as an offensive guru and get something out of Cousins that prior offensive playcallers couldn’t.
Who will back Cousins up is a trickier question. Despite not making the initial 53-man roster last year, Sean Mannion was eventually promoted to the active roster and served as the backup. That, plus the fact that the Vikings gave Mannion $277,200 in guarantees on his veteran minimum contract, probably suggests that Mannion will start out camp as the favorite for the backup job.
But I think Mond will evenutally win the other spot on the roster, in part because he is no longer a rookie and should be more ready to compete, but mostly because the former third-round pick is probably much more likely to be poached off a practice squad than Mannion, who already went unclaimed on last year’s practice squad. And I don’t think the Vikings will carry three quarterbacks if they don’t have to.
Kellen Mond’s rookie year was such a mess that he couldn’t even usurp Sean Mannion by Week 16. If I had to guess, Cousins insisted on keeping Mannion, considering how well they’ve worked together in the past. But I don’t think anyone’s ready to give up on Mond. Let’s give him another developmental year and see if something, even a cheap backup, can emerge.
Cook is a Pro Bowler and should continue to be the face of this offense. Mattison is a plus backup who, with his size and explosion, adds a little short-yardage thunder to Cook’s lightning. Nwangwu is still more of a special teamer than back — though he’s a very good special teamer, after becoming the first player to record multiple kickoff-return touchdowns in a single season since Cordarrelle Patterson in 2015, and he showed flashes as a runner and receiver in limited opportunities last year as a rookie.
The Vikings could cut Ham and save $1.95 million against the cap, but it sounds like O’Connell plans to still use plenty two-back sets given how defenses respond to them with heavier personnel, so expect Ham to stick around for the time being.
That would leave fifth-round rookie Ty Chandler as the odd man out, but it’s tough to see Chandler beating out what Mattison can do as a rusher or what Nwangwu can do on special teams. Chandler likely incubates on the practice squad for a year (assuming he goes unpoached) to take over once Mattison’s rookie contract is up after this year, unless a team makes an enticing offer to trade for Mattison or one of the team’s other backs. The Vikings could also roster all five backs, as they have occasionally kept five in the recent past, but unless Chandler wins a key role on special teams, it’s hard to see him earning many snaps as a rookie.
Oops! You caught me hot taking! Cook and Nwangwu are locks, but the Ty Chandler pick spells more danger for Alexander Mattison than we all might think. Chandler’s strength is in his vision, and Mattison has struggled with that when asked to spellCook. If and when Cook misses time, I’d rather have someone with vision but not quite as much bulk and a superior top speed. And I think that’s the kind of thing that can show up in the preseason.
Also, it’s pretty clear the Vikings intend to use a fullback more than McVay offenses typically do. It’s not exactly a secret. Signing Bargas also means they intend to drill fullback roles on the second and third team and need a body for that. So Ham’s role is safe.
The first four receivers here are pretty set, with Jefferson coming off an All-Pro season, Thielen coming off an extension, Osborn coming off a breakout season that had him finish the year with the most scrimmage yards of any WR3 in Vikings’ history, and Smith-Marsette finishing the year strong with a 100-yard game.
Chisena is a plus gunner and core special teamer who will have a chance to develop into a vertical threat and should be expected to make the roster the same as he did the last two years. And the Vikings are clearly very high on Nailor. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah praised his “separation ability,” O’Connell mentioned he believed he had “huge upside,” and WRs coach Keenan McCardell “was pounding the table” for Nailor according to director of college scouting Mike Sholiton. It’s possible the team stashes the sixth-rounder on the practice squad, especially if they like what Bisi Johnson adds as depth, but Nailor might also have an inside track to the open punt returner job after serving as a punt returner for Michigan State during three of his four years there.
I have more faith in the starting chalk 4 than many other Vikings writers do. It’s why I wasn’t too surprised to see them pass on a receiver in the early rounds of the draft. The last two spots come down to special teams. I’ve learned better than to doubt Dan Chisena’s ability to shine in special teams drills, and Jalen Nailor has a great chance at that punt returner job. Bisi Johnson, coming off an ACL, will likely have to crack that top four from scrimmage, as he doesn’t have the same special teams prowess.
I wouldn’t rule out a trade for someone like Johnson, either. The Vikings have more roster pressure in this group than what you’d think, what with all the post-draft bellyaching over Jameson Williams.
Now that he’s fully healthy, Smith Jr. will return as the team’s TE1. Mundt projects as the clear TE2 after receiving a two-year, $2.1 million contract after having recorded three seasons in L.A. with a top-20 run-blocking grade among tight ends.
The TE3 spot, however, is fully up for grabs. Ben Ellefson probably starts training camp as the TE3, but Davidson may be the favorite to ultimately win the job given his athletic upside (featuring a 9.88 RAS) after the 2021 fifth-rounder spent last year on the practice squad. And there is always a chance seventh-round rookie Nick Muse hits the ground running.
There is also a small chance the team only rosters two tight ends, given the uninspiring depth, Ham’s ability to line up as a sniffer or H-back, and O’Connell’s comments about moving away from 12 personnel usage. But that seems unlikely given that O’Connell is coming from a team that rostered four tight ends for most of 2021.
The Vikings don’t really have a Tyler Conklin replacement. Unless Zach Davidson learns the entire sport from scratch in an offseason or Nick Muse surprises me, I think the Vikings will keep the more experienced blockers after Smith. I’m also guessing that the Vikings move off of their two-TE obsession from the Kubiak days, but that’s one of those things that can change as we see which packages they prioritize in their offseason programs.
O’Neill is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and Darrisaw has the potential to make the leap coming off a rookie season with an above-average grade among starting NFL tackles. After signing three veteran interior offensive linemen and drafting a guard in the second round, it seems like Udoh will kick back out as a swing tackle.
The fourth tackle spot will be a competition between Brandel and sixth-round rookie Vederian Lowe. For now, I would gamble on Brandel winning that competition, given his experience and Lowe’s later draft status, but would bet on Lowe having a strong chance to win the swing tackle role for the team down the road.
With all the additions at right guard, it seems natural to kick Udoh back out to his natural position. The selection of Vederian Lowe also tells me they intend to keep a fourth offensive tackle, whether it’s Lowe himself or Blake Brandel. That’s a real competition. I’ll take Brandel for now. He’s proven to be at least a rosterable depth piece.
If the Vikings were so inclined, they could cut Brandel in favor of more interior depth or a fourth tight end or something. Jesse Davis and Ezra Cleveland could both kick back out to tackle in a pinch. That’s not an ideal scenario, though, and maybe you’d prefer to just have access to a Blake Brandel. I’m also stashing Lowe on the practice squad, so this shouldn’t have to come up.
Interior Offensive Line
Cleveland should return as the Vikings’ starting left guard, and Bradbury doesn’t seem to have significant competition at center, but the competition at right guard should make for the most interesting positional battle at camp.
The Vikings gave Jesse Davis a one-year, $3 million contract after he started all but three games over the last four years, which gives the Vikings a starting-caliber baseline to beat. But Chris Reed‘s two-year, $4.5 million contract and very strong run blocking the last few years for the Indianapolis Colts suggest he’ll also have a strong chance to compete. And the favorite for the job might be Ingram, as second-round rookies rarely ride the bench, especially older ones that cut their teeth against SEC competition. Also, 2021 third-rounder Davis will have an opportunity to compete for snaps after a disappointing season that saw him inactive for most of his rookie year.
And while Bradbury seems very likely to start at center again this year, it’s worth noting that Chris Reed has played six preseason games (over 200 snaps) at center in 2018, 2019, and 2021, so it’s very possible Reed may step in at center should anything happen to Bradbury.
I’m sort of reading the tea leaves on this one. I asked The Athletic’s Chad Graff point-blank about Garrett Bradbury’s shot to start before the draft. Despite the Vikings declining his fifth-year option, Graff thinks Bradbury has the starting center job by default. I think Ed Ingram can win the starting right guard job from Jesse Davis and Chris Reed. I’m not quite ready to give up on Wyatt Davis yet, though I’m not going to project him to win a starting gig or anything.
I’m just going with Jesse Davis by the size of his contract, even though I personally like Chris Reed better as a player. Davis’ contract has more guarantees than Reed’s, so I have to infer that they like Davis better. And if Reed isn’t competing with Bradbury, it makes him an odd man out. I’ll complain plenty about this if it comes true. At any rate, I’m putting Reed on the practice squad, and I’d expect him to at least dress for a few games.
NICK’S TOTAL OFFENSE: 25
LUKE’S TOTAL OFFENSE: 25
The signing of Smith and return of a healthy Hunter represent a gargantuan improvement over a defense forced to trot out Wonnum, Sheldon Richardson, and Kenny Willekes as its main edge defenders for a large part of last year. Wonnum and 2021 third-rounder Jones each have a shot to take a step forward in their development as rotational pass rushers. Otomewo has a chance as a fifth-round rookie to earn rotational snaps in base defense as a five-technique or even a 4i technique given his size at 285 lbs. with 35″ arms, with the burst to potentially develop into something more down the road.
That leaves Kenny Willekes and Janarius Robinson on the outside looking in for now. Willekes is a bit of a square peg in the round hole that is the new 3-4 scheme, and Robinson seems unlikely to contribute at least this year after the developmental player missed his rookie season on IR.
Call Smith a linebacker if you want. He and Hunter should be on the field for every down, so whether that makes it a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5 is irrelevant. It’s a Smith-3-2-5. A Smith-Hunter-2-2-5, if you insist on calling Hunter an outside linebacker as well.
At any rate, this group is infuriatingly thin. If either Smith or Hunter, both with back injuries in their history, go down, the Vikings could be in big trouble. I’m not sure any of Wonnum, Jones, or Willekes should be guaranteed a roster spot. Janarius Robinson and Wonnum probably compete for one spot, and Jones and Willekes should compete for another. There’s just not much roster pressure here.
If someone like Jullian Taylor or Otemowo proves me wrong, it may push one of these edge rushers off the roster instead of someone from the interior group.
Interior Defensive Linemen
Tomlinson and Phillips are the clear-cut starters along the interior, with Tomlinson being a natural fit as either a nose guard or 3-4 DE (which was often his role in New York before joining the Vikings), and with Phillips having plenty of experience as a one-technique in Buffalo.
Lynch and Watts were both key rotational players for the Vikings last year. Lynch was one of the most improved players on the team and flashed great potential as a run defender: He’s a natural 3-4 DE. Watts can struggle to maintain his gap in run defense but is technically outstanding as a pass rusher with quick feet and instinctive hands, as his five-sack season last year attests.
I think the Vikings will want at least one more interior defensive lineman on the roster, particularly after Ed Donatell’s defense in Denver rostered at least six each of the last three years with the Broncos. Taylor is the most intriguing candidate, given his athletic upside (he posted a 9.85 RAS) even after missing the last two years after tearing his ACL, but 2021 sixth-rounder Jaylen Twyman will also have a chance after missing his rookie season on the NFI list, as will T.J. Smith, T.Y. McGill, and 365 lb. UDFA rookie Tyarise Stevenson.
I’ll be honest, I have no idea what to do with this group. The Vikings didn’t acquire any real competition for Watts in the offseason, so they either think Watts is the next big thing, or they don’t plan to have a typical three-down 3-4. Their commitment to speed in the draft implies the latter. A 4-2-5 nickel would make sense, featuring Smith and Hunter on the edges, Hicks and Kendricks off the ball, and Phillips and Tomlinson inside.
James Lynch played nose tackle last year, so I’m curious to see what sort of size he carries when he reports to camp. They could ask him to lose the weight he gained under Zimmer and play more like he played in college, or he just becomes a rotational big guy to spell Tomlinson and Phillips. I still believe in Twyman’s ability to overcome the challenges of the last few years. Just let me have this.
One dark horse to mention here would be Jullian Taylor. Taylor was a perfectly serviceable depth piece before suffering an ACL tear in 2019. He hasn’t made a team since. Nobody’s assuming he’ll return to form, and I’m not even predicting as much, but I wouldn’t count it out.
I think Esezi Otomewo needs a year of more dedicated coaching on the inside or outside before he’s ready to play. I’m not sure if he’d belong in this group or the next one, but either way, I’m stashing him on the practice squad this year. For what it’s worth, the Vikings listed him as an edge rusher.
The switch to a 3-4 system means fewer roster spots available for the off-ball linebackers, as Donatell has rostered as few as only four inside linebackers over the last few years in Denver. Kendricks is a shoo-in. Hicks is too, with his two-year, $10 million contract and starting-caliber play last year in Arizona, as is Asamoah given his third-round rookie status.
After that, it gets murkier. Lynch likely earns a spot given solid rotational linebacker and special teams play for the Vikings last year. That leaves likely at most just one spot for one of 2020 fourth-rounder Troy Dye, 2021 third-rounder Chazz Surratt, and special teams standout Ryan Connelly. For now, I’ll give Surratt the nod given his combination of relative size, athleticism, and youth, but Dye also boasts great athleticism and contributed more last year on special teams.
It’s a brave new world, only keeping four linebackers (they kept seven last year). That is going to purge a lot of old Adam Zimmer projects like Troy Dye and Chazz Surratt. They’ll have to earn their respective keeps on special teams. Between Dye, Surratt, Blake Lynch, and Ryan Connelly, there may only be one available roster spot. In that battle royale, I’m putting my money on Lynch, but it’s anyone’s guess.
The cornerback position looks a lot more competitive after the Vikings were able to land both Booth Jr. and Evans in the first four rounds of this year’s draft. Peterson will likely start outside again after finishing with the ninth-fewest receptions allowed per coverage snap in his underrated 2021 season.
Opposite Peterson, Booth Jr. will have a strong chance to beat out Dantzler for the other starting spot — which would require cleaning up the missed tackles and biting on route fakes, but I like his chances. The loser of that camp battle will still earn plenty of rotational snaps, and Evans can rotate in as well, as the fourth-round rookie looks closer to contributing than you might think.
Sullivan is the presumptive starter at nickel after playing over 2,000 snaps there in Green Bay over the past few years. His backup is less clear, but I might favor Hairston’s odds given his solid showing as a slot corner last year in Donatell’s defense.
The draft made this group a lot deeper. You could get away with six corners if you had to, but I’m not too sad about anyone I’m cutting here, so I figured I’d keep the extra punt gunners. Booth and Dantzler will compete for outside corner snaps (and will probably rotate to keep fresh). Sullivan and Evans are easy keeps. These bottom-roster spots, as always, come down to special teams.
Let’s talk about the punt-gunning jobs. Boyd and Chisena have had a stranglehold on those gigs. Unless the new staff sees something different, we can pencil those in. Hand was the primary backup gunner last year. Perhaps Nate Hairston could push Hand for that and the backup slot corner job, but Hairston hasn’t made a proper 53-man roster in years. I’ll put him in the Parry Nickerson oft-called-up-practice-squadder range. Cornerbacks 8 and 9 may as well be on the roster with these new call-up rules and the injury issues higher in the group.
We wrote at length about what first-round rookie Cine brings to the Vikings defense, who gets the lucky opportunity to play opposite and learn from Smith, who returns after another Pro Bowl season. Bynum flashed as a fifth-round rookie last year after converting over from the cornerback position he played in college and should provide very solid depth, if not potential rotational snaps as well. Metellus, conversely, does not provide the best depth but should still be a favorite to earn a roster spot as a core special teamer.
The Vikings might plan to use more three-safety looks this year, but that’s mostly a product of Bynum playing too well not to rotate in a bit. So I don’t feel a need to put in extra safety depth — if Bynum goes down, they’ll just lean on different packages. Metellus made the team off of some incredible special teams highlights last year, and I have no doubt he can repeat that feat. His only competition is Myles Dorn, who he beat last time, and Mike Brown, an undrafted free agent.
NICK’S TOTAL DEFENSE: 25
LUKE’S TOTAL DEFENSE: 25
I learned my lesson last year. I’m going chalk here. Besides, Oklahoma’s Gabe Brkic made just 40 of his 52 attempts in his last two years. All it takes is a cold streak in camp, though.
NICK’S TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS: 3
LUKE’S TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS: 3
Nick: Sean Mannion, Ty Chandler, Jake Bargas, Trishton Jackson, Zach Davidson, Nick Muse, Vederian Lowe, Janarius Robinson, Tyarise Stevenson, Jaylen Twyman, Luiji Vilain, Troy Dye, Harrison Hand, Gabe Brkic
Luke: Blake Proehl, Jake Bragas, Bryant Koback, Nick Muse, Zach Davidson, Chris Reed, Vederian Lowe, Austin Schlottmann, Esezi Otomewo, Chazz Surratt, Troy Dye, Nate Hairston, Parry Nickerson, Mike Brown