Entering the 2023 season, most fans and analysts agreed the Minnesota Vikings’ opportunity for success hinged on health.
The departure of many long-standing veterans was straining the team’s depth, and the salary cap prevented Kwesi Adofo-Mensah from adding much meaningful help. Minnesota’s six-man draft class also didn’t seem robust enough to fortify a diminished roster.
Yet, 10 weeks into the season, the Vikings are one of the more injured teams in the NFL, yet still find themselves in strong playoff position and show no signs of slowing down.
Minnesota had great injury luck in 2022, represented by the chart below, courtesy of ManGamesLost.com — a useful resource for injury data that has since stopped sharing information free to the public. Not only were the Vikings in the lower half of the league in games lost due to injury, but their small bubble on the graph means their injured players had relatively low value. Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, and T.J. Hockenson didn’t miss a game on offense. Meanwhile, Danielle Hunter, Za’Darius Smith, Harrison Smith, Patrick Peterson, and Eric Kendricks missed a combined four games on defense. Hence, a 13-4 record.
That type of good injury fortune was unlikely to continue, and it hasn’t.
There are no bubble graphs available for 2023. However, a manual search of Pro Football Reference injury data shows the Vikings are tied for the 11th-most games lost in the NFL with 91 — many of those on the offensive side. Those injured include the two most valuable players on the team, Kirk Cousins (season-ending IR) and Justin Jefferson (five games and counting). The offensive line has lost seven total games from starters and nine games from top backup Oli Udoh. The running back room lost Kene Nwangwu for seven of the first eight games, Cam Akers for the season, and now Alexander Mattison to the concussion protocol.
Nonetheless, only two teams among the 12 most injured in the NFL have better records than the Vikings, who don’t seem to have lost a step as health woes mount.
That’s a credit to the coaches, certainly, but also to Adofo-Mensah for believing in his team’s depth more than most outsiders. The second-year GM has taken more than his fair share of arrows for alleged whiffs in his first two drafts. However, several of his perceived misses have been subtle role players during Minnesota’s five-game winning streak. Andrew Booth Jr. has been receiving snaps every week and making the most of them. He could see an increased role if Akayleb Evans (calf) misses any time. Experts panned Mekhi Blackmon as a draft pick. However, Pro Football Focus currently has him ranked in the top 20, and he recorded his first career interception last Sunday.
Last year’s fifth-round pick, Ty Chandler, may become the team’s RB1 for a stretch, and he looked the part against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday. Much-maligned guard Ed Ingram has only given up five pressures in the last five weeks after allowing 22 in the first five games.
Between the in-house development and the outside acquisitions, everything is coming up Kwesi.
Dalton Risner has been a catalyst on the offensive line since he signed mid-season, just as Akers was at running back before his injury. Byron Murphy Jr. looks like a genius acquisition. Brandon Powell has been one of the most valuable offensive weapons since losing Jefferson.
And there’s a guy named Dobbs, who the Vikings acquired for peanuts in a trade, and who is engineering it all.
If you asked 100 fans to grade Adofo-Mensah in Week 4, you’d have probably gotten a majority of Ds and Fs … and he may have deserved those grades. Fast forward a month and the praise is flowing freely. Hindsight, as it turns out, is not always 20/20.
There’s a lesson to be learned in patience here. Young players aren’t finished products. As much as they require coaching, they require time. O’Connell, Adofo-Mensah, and defensive coordinator Brian Flores gave given many of their players permission to learn on the job. Mistakes have been made, yes, which wouldn’t have flown in Mike Zimmer’s “fear-based” culture, where his staff routinely benched young players for making one bad play.
The Vikings understand the ebbs and flows of progress. To mitigate that, their schemes are malleable to fit the personnel. There is no square-peg-round-hole approach with this coaching staff. Minnesota’s offense and defense lack starpower in their battered states, but they’ve sustained excellence because the schemes are greater than their individual parts.
That’s an environment where players can thrive and why the Vikings are getting such sound returns on their depth.