Zulgad’s four and out: Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell have lengthy to-do list
The Vikings’ immediate to-do list includes hiring a defensive coordinator to replace the fired Ed Donatell.
With Saints’ co-defensive coordinator Ryan Neilsen having been hired by the Falcons, the Vikings’ remaining candidates include Steelers linebackers coach Brian Flores; Seahawks defensive assistant/associate head coach Sean Desai; and internal candidate Mike Pettine.
That hire could come this week, but general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell will be only getting started when it comes to offseason decisions.
With the new league year set to begin on March 15, here are some issues the Vikings’ brass needs to be discussing and dissecting.
Salary cap issues put pressure on Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to make the right moves
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Adofo-Mensah was hired on Jan. 26, 2022 and O’Connell was named head coach on Feb. 16 after the Rams beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. A year later, they have far more expertise of the Vikings’ roster.
The Vikings are coming off a 13-win season, but also a disappointing first-round exit in the playoffs. Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell can now start to mold things how they want. They also should have a better idea of what they are looking for on defense and whether they keep the 3-4 base system run by Donatell.
NFL Network reported Monday that the league has told its 32 teams that the salary cap for next season will be $224.8 million. That is a $16.6 million increase from last year. The Vikings, however, are near the bottom of the NFL in available space, sitting $23.3 million over that figure.
This is going to lead to some tough business decisions that will send some veterans packing as the Vikings look to cut costs and also get younger and faster.
Adofo-Mensah and the football operations staff are going to need to have a very productive offseason if the Vikings are to come close to repeating the success of 2022.
Every position can't be considered equal
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Under former general manager Rick Spielman, the Vikings paid significant salaries to retain running back Adrian Peterson and later Dalvin Cook. Peterson was a star running back in his prime, and Cook also became a key member of the offense.
But Adofo-Mensah is more of an analytics guy and that likely means his philosophy is that paying big bucks to backs is a bad idea. That’s why you have to figure the 27-year-old Cook and his 2023 cap number of $14.1 million won’t be around much longer.
Cook will cost the Vikings $6.1 million in dead cap money if he’s jettisoned, but he also will save them $7.9 million to the cap and that’s valuable. Could the Vikings’ attempt to trade Cook? Absolutely and they probably will, but it’s questionable what type of return they might get for an aging player who has had injury issues.
Alexander Mattison, who has been Cook’s backup since the Vikings drafted him in the third round in 2019, is a free agent and the Vikings also are unlikely to pay to keep him around.
This could mean 2022 fifth-round pick Ty Chandler will get a chance after being a non-factor in his rookie season, or the Vikings add an inexpensive veteran to the mix. Both could be true.
However it works out, you have to think the Vikings’ days of paying running backs are coming to an end.
Don't get too cute with draft philosophy
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Adofo-Mensah has a background in the stock market and likes to look at the draft as if he’s playing the market. That’s a great idea — as long as it works.
Unfortunately, the Vikings get very little production from Adofo-Mensah’s first draft. A draft class can’t be immediately judged, but it’s also fair to expect some picks to be immediate hits. Especially the choices made on the first two days.
That didn’t happen for the Vikings.
Before first-round safety Lewis Cine suffered a gruesome leg injury in Week 4 against the Saints, he had played only two defensive snaps and was primarily being used on special teams. Cine never competed with 2021 fourth-round pick Cam Bynum. That was concerning — especially considering Cine was taken with the last pick of the opening round.
Adofo-Mensah worked a trade with NFC North rival Detroit that gave the Lions the higher first-round selection and also the 46th pick. The Vikings got picks 32, 34 and 66 in return. Detroit took wide receiver Jameson Williams, giving the Lions the type of young receiver the Vikings need. Minnesota also passed on safety Kyle Hamilton, who had an outstanding rookie season with the Ravens.
The Vikings then traded up in the second round to select cornerback Andrew Booth Jr., whose college injury history followed him into the NFL. Minnesota had two third-round picks, taking right guard Ed Ingram and linebacker Brian Asamoah.
Ingram started every game but had an up-and-down season that was extremely rocky at times. He gave up 12 sacks on 58 pressure. Asamoah was a regular on special teams and saw more time at linebacker late in the season. He brought speed to the position that veterans Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks lacked, and it was surprising he wasn’t used more.
It’s fine to play the stock market game with the draft, but those stocks must mature quickly and not all can be projects. If a guy like Ingram is going to start, he needs to become more productive in a shorter time.
How successful could the 2023 draft be for the Vikings? That all depends on how many picks they end up making. Minnesota currently has only four — first, third, fourth and fifth-round selections — and reportedly could get a compensatory pick in the fifth as well.
Understand now is the time to get this right
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The feeling around the Vikings after firing Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer last offseason was that the problems with the franchise had been eliminated, and the Vikings’ back-to-back losing seasons were more about Zimmer than his players.
Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell get credit for making ownership seem wise in that assessment. But that doesn’t mean anyone should be comfortable with the status quo.
While expectations will be higher after the success of 2022, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell also need to realize that running things back with aging players is often a terrible idea. That’s why all of the above points are so important.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell also remain in a honeymoon phase with ownership and that gives them more leeway right now.
The worst-case scenario would be to stand pat, have the team go backward and have little goodwill left when it is struggling. There is plenty of goodwill right now that the GM and coach can use to their advantage.