What Defines Success For the 2023 Minnesota Vikings?

Photo credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

At this time last year, the goal was clear for the Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings escaped Mike Zimmer’s reign of terror and they were looking for someone that could get more out of the roster. Minnesota moved heaven, earth, and salary cap space to bring everyone back. The result? A 13-win season and a division title.

While a first-round playoff loss was disappointing, the Vikings set out what they wanted to accomplish. Kevin O’Connell established a culture, he unlocked a different level of performance and gave ownership a small taste of what things could be in the future.

But the second year of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s competitive rebuild isn’t as clear. With an eye toward getting the most out of the roster this year and keeping an eye toward the future, it’s hard to tell what success looks like for the 2023 Vikings.

It starts with what the Vikings have accomplished this offseason. They grinded their way to a 13-win season on the strength of eight fourth-quarter comebacks. But it was a cover for a team that was getting older, slower, and more expensive.

The decision to release Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks solved part of the problem. Both players were on the wrong side of 30 and their on-field performance had declined to the point where they were liabilities. It’s possible that Kendricks and Thielen both have another year or two of football left in them. But with over $30 million in cap tied between them, it was too expensive for the Vikings to find out.

The same goes for other veterans on the roster. Za’Darius Smith was one of the most effective pass-rushers in the league last season, and they could have been brought him back with a slight raise. But the Vikings saw a player who regressed after suffering a knee injury in the second half of the season and eventually traded him to the Cleveland Browns.

Dalvin Cook is another player who finds himself on the chopping block despite four straight 1,100-yard rushing seasons. While Cook’s agent has stated that his recent shoulder surgery should bring him back to form, the Vikings have been actively shopping him while trying to move onto a younger, cheaper, and more efficient backfield.

The purge continued with several veterans leaving in free agency. Patrick Peterson was the Vikings’ top corner for each of the past two seasons but signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Adofo-Mensah wanted Dalvin Tomlinson back, but he ultimately signed with the Cleveland Browns.

If the Vikings trade or release Cook in the coming week, they have lost six starters from their team a year ago. While that doesn’t seem like a strategy for a team to compete with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, it was something that could have been much worse.

The Vikings have made several moves to remain competitive this offseason, including hiring defensive coordinator Brian Flores. After Ed Donatell’s scheme allowed opponents to connect on big plays down the middle of the field, Flores should employ a more aggressive but effective approach to get the most out of their opponents.

It could have been easy to sit back, have Flores evaluate his talent, and address the problems in 2024. However, the Vikings have been proactive in acquiring talent in free agency including Byron Murphy Jr. and Marcus Davenport.

Murphy and Davenport have their merits but they also have warts. Murphy’s play was inconsistent with the Arizona Cardinals on the field and filled with a list of injuries that kept him off of it. Davenport had the same issues, fighting through his own list of injuries and coming off a season where he picked up only half a sack.

Both players have some upside, but the Vikings protected themselves with contracts that have big numbers in total money but void years on the back end. These deals make it easy to re-sign players if they achieve their expectations but to get out of them if they don’t pan out. While it’s a shrewd financial move, it doesn’t bring confidence that Minnesota is trying to go all-in.

The Vikings also could have gone in another direction toward a full rebuild by trading Kirk Cousins. Heading into the final year of his deal, the Vikings could have traded him and set themselves up to find their quarterback of the future in 2024.

They also could have started this movement in the draft with Hendon Hooker and Will Levis available to them with the 23rd overall pick. If the Vikings had selected either quarterback, it would have made Cousins a lame duck. Instead, Minnesota took Jordan Addison, a receiver that pundits expect to be a Day 1 starter.

Looking at Minnesota’s offseason, it’s hard to see what direction they’re going. They haven’t gone “full Rams” by acquiring impact veterans to push this team over the top. But they also haven’t gone “full Bears” by ripping it down to the studs while hoarding draft picks in cap space.

It’s almost like the Vikings are stuck in the middle. The same hellscape that has frustrated fans and got Zimmer and Rick Spielman fired. It feels like the Vikings want the best of both worlds but that’s hard to explain to management that has a mandate for the team to be “super competitive.” Success has to be measured in some way, and it could be the overall development of the team.

The worst part about the end of the Zimmer and Spielman era was that while they were winning games, they seemed to be spinning their tires. After reaching the NFC Championship Game in 2017, the Vikings were slamming their head against the wall, making any push toward the future.

That led to Spielman making boatloads of seventh-round draft picks while Zimmer griped about the state of his defense. When Spielman’s picks didn’t turn out, the Vikings were left without any future assets, and it led to the bottom falling out in 2021.

With the current regime, there is a way a 7- to 10-win season could breed some optimism. Justin Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson, and Christian Darrisaw are a core that could be locked up to long-term contract extensions within the next year. The Vikings also could hang their hat on Addison’s development and several other young players who will have a chance to contribute on defense.

If all goes according to plan, the Vikings could find themselves in the “one quarterback away” threshold. That’s when a team has built such a foundation they can be aggressive in searching for a franchise quarterback, knowing their infrastructure can get the best out of that player.

Cousins could be that player. But at age-35, betting on him to be the solution would be a historical outlier. The Vikings could dive into a loaded 2024 draft class that features USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye. Or they could also look for the next disgruntled veteran to pop up on the trade or free agency market.

When the 2022 Vikings took the field, their story was all about the veterans and giving them one last chance to win a Super Bowl. When the 2023 Vikings take the field, it will be about developing a foundation that might win seven games but could have a brighter path in the future.

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