Kevin O'Connell Can't Make the Same Offseason Mistakes Mike Zimmer Did

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings were coming off a miserable season defensively. They were one of the worst teams in yards and points allowed, and something had to be done. So they threw all sorts of money around to bring in veterans to expedite any improvement, and the defense became a top priority in the draft.

By Week 1, an entirely new unit took the field. This group wouldn’t make the mistakes they did the previous season and help the Vikings take control in the NFC North.

You may think this is the blueprint for a successful spring, but it’s actually where the Vikings were following the 2020 season. With the current front office heading into their first full offseason, they can’t give into the temptation to repeat those mistakes. They must remember that building a better offense is the best way to continue their success.

Before they can do that, they must look back at that fateful spring of 2021. The Vikings were 27th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed. Mike Zimmer declared his defense as the worst he’s ever had.

With Zimmer coming in with that “Old Man Yells at Cloud” energy, fixing the defense became a priority. They signed Patrick Peterson to a one-year, $10 million deal and Dalvin Tomlinson to a two-year, $21 million contract. The Vikings also signed Nick Vigil, Stephen Weatherly, Mackensie Alexander, and Xavier Woods to one-year deals. Bashaud Breeland joined later that offseason.

The Vikings were left with Band-Aids at every position, resulting in a defense that was 24th in points allowed and 30th in yards allowed. It was a lost offseason for a team that opted to maintain the status quo rather than asking themselves how they could improve.

If the Vikings were honest with themselves, they would have seen that improving their offense was the best way to get back to the playoffs. Minnesota had come off a season where they were fourth in total offense and 11th in points allowed. They had a capable quarterback in Kirk Cousins, one of the league’s fastest-rising stars in Justin Jefferson, a steady veteran in Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook in the prime of his career.

The Vikings tried to improve the offense by selecting players with long-term upside in that year’s NFL draft. But while Christian Darrisaw was a hit, Wyatt Davis and Kellen Mond never realized their potential. Gary Kubiak’s retirement also didn’t do the Vikings any favors, as his son, Klint, struggled in his first stint as offensive coordinator.

In 2021, Minnesota ranked 12th in yardage and 14th in points scored. They fired Zimmer and replaced him with Kevin O’Connell. His task? Get more out of the Vikings’ offense, and his first year was a success. The offense ranked seventh in points scored and seventh in total offense, but the defense proved to be their downfall.

The dominoes have already started to fall. The Vikings fired defensive coordinator Ed Donatell after one year on the job. Mock drafts and offseason blueprints already have Minnesota taking a cornerback in the first round and throwing cash at a linebacker in free agency. Even if they do that, there are still more holes to fill.

The 2022 Vikings relied on veteran leadership, but those players might no longer be able to contribute. The image of Eric Kendricks running in quicksand behind Saquon Barkley will be burned into the brains of Vikings fans for years to come. Harrison Smith watched furiously as he was asked to remain in coverage on 97.8% of his snaps.

Patrick Peterson will turn 33 years old this offseason. The Vikings will likely release Za’Darius Smith, and Danielle Hunter could be traded, stripping Minnesota’s defense down to the studs.

The Vikings will still need to find replacements. Some players may be easier to swap out than others, but the likelihood of going from a bottom-level defense to a top-10 unit is about as good as the Vikings getting to the Super Bowl. (Don’t shoot the messenger! It hasn’t happened since 1976!)

The Vikings have to make some improvements on defense, but they also need to keep their focus on creating a better offense. For as good as Minnesota was statistically, the third quarter was a black hole. Their inability to sustain drives and create big plays often left a bad defense on the field for too long.

The Vikings could fix this problem by finding a new running back. Cook posted his fourth-straight 1,000-yard season in 2022 but finished 36th in Football Outsiders’ yards above replacement metric at -24. Alexander Mattison, Kene Nwangwu, and Ty Chandler combined for just 89 carries last season. Therefore, if Minnesota were to move on, they would likely be looking for someone to lead the backfield.

The Vikings also could use a second receiver to pair with Jefferson. Thielen’s lower-body injuries caught up to him last season, averaging a career-low 1.09 yards per route run. With an average separation of 2.7 yards, it might be time to find a replacement. T.J. Hockenson serves more as a short-yardage, run-after-the-catch weapon, while K.J. Osborn profiles more as a No. 3 receiver than a No. 2.

Then there’s the offensive line. Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill are franchise cornerstones, but the interior of the offensive line leaves a lot to be desired. Ed Ingram and Ezra Cleveland ranked in the top three of pressures allowed this season, and Garrett Bradbury has had one good season since being drafted in the first round of the 2018 season.

With the Vikings looking to sustain the momentum from a 13-win season, loading up defensively will be tempting — but improving the offense is just as important. If they decide to take a receiver in the first round of the draft or even look for an interior lineman, it won’t mean they’re ignoring the defense but trying to find an alternative way to get better.

Zimmer saw the defense as his only way to improve. If O’Connell has the same view, the Vikings will be more likely to regress than to take a step forward as contenders.

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