4 Unheralded Second-Year Vikings to Watch in 2023

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
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In the last month, the Vikings added 6 new players to their roster via the draft, signed 15 UDFAs, and invited more players to try-outs. Nevertheless, there are some sophomore Vikings to watch.

Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth Jr., and Akayleb Evans all return for year 2 after seasons that were cut short by injury. We are all curious to see how they perform given that we saw them in limited action in 2022.

It’s easy to lose sight of some of the other players that sparked Vikings fans’ interest just a year ago. At this time last year there was a lot of buzz about players who were selected on day three of last year’s draft or brought in as UDFAs/camp invites. Players that we are not talking about now.

These are four Vikings that have an opportunity take a step forward, developing a bigger role for themselves in 2023.

4 Sophomore Vikings to Watch

Esezi Otomewo

University of Minnesota DL Esezi Otomewo was selected by the Vikings in Round 5 with the 165th pick of the 2022 draft.

Otomewo was inactive for the first 12 games of last season. The Vikings felt that he had developed enough in his rookie season to work him into their defensive line rotation by year’s end.

Over the course of the last 5 games, Otomewo played 89 snaps on defense, in addition to contributing on special teams.

Dec 28, 2021; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive lineman Esezi Otomewo (9) against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s long, and right now he’s got some versatility” Vikings assistant director of college scouting Pat Roberts explained last year when they drafted him. “The things that we see are his quickness, and the ability for him to maybe play at defensive end, and then on pass rushing downs, maybe move inside. And so versatility is a huge asset for him.”

It will be interesting to see what role Brian Flores has for Otomewo. He certainly has the versatility Flores covets in his players, though his usage will almost certainly be different than it was a year ago.

Ty Chandler

Ty Chandler played four years at Tennessee before transferring to North Carolina, where he had a breakout season in 2021. The Vikings selected him in Round 5 with the 169th pick of the draft. He ran a 4.38 second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. People took notice.

“We evaluated him in the fall […] and we felt like that 40 time fit him” Roberts said of Chandler. “As the coaches got more involved into this process, they saw certain traits that they pulled out of his tape, that they said this is what we’re going to do, this is how he’s going to fit for us, and they really think that he’s going to have an opportunity going forward to really fit what our offense is going to look like.”

Jan 8, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Ty Chandler (32) is tackled by Chicago Bears players during the second half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

He flashed several times during the 2022 preseason, quickly becoming a fan favorite.
With Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison handling the Vikings rushing duties, Chandler played very sparingly during the regular season. He played on special teams in games 4 and 5, but he did not appear again until the last game of the season because of an injury.

With the imminent departure of Cook, Chandler is a prime candidate for a significant role in the Vikings running back rotation alongside Alexander Mattison.

Jalen Nailor

Michigan St. WR Jalen Nailor was selected by the Vikings in round 6 with the 191st pick of the draft. The team was enamored by his playmaking ability, particularly with his ability to gain yards after the catch.

“One of the best things he does is after the catch” said Vikings director of college scouting Mike Sholiton. “We’re always looking for guys that can finish and score […] I know that [receivers coach] Keenan [McCardell] was in there pounding the table for him.”

Aug 14, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Jalen Nailor (83) drops the ball during a kick off return against the Las Vegas Raiders during a preseason game at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Nailor played in 15 games for the Vikings last year, primarily on special teams. Most of his snaps with the offense came in the final two games of the season, in which he had 7 receptions on 8 targets for 151 yards and a touchdown.

Nailor will challenge Jalen Reagor for the WR4 spot, as well as for punt return duties. He could be a nice complementary piece as a vertical threat.

Luiji Vilain

Luiji Vilain’s path to the NFL was a difficult one. He began his college career at the University of Michigan. He missed his freshman year in 2017 due to a torn ligament in his right knee, and then missed the 2018 season due to a torn ligament in his left knee.

Vilain played the next two seasons for the Wolverines, appearing in just 6 games and while recording 11 tackles and 1 sack. He transferred to Wake Forest for his final year of college, where he recorded 34 tackles, 8 sacks, and 9 TFLs.

Oct 9, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange quarterback Garrett Shrader (16) runs with the ball past Wake Forest Demon Deacons defensive lineman Luiji Vilain (2) during the second half at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

With only one year of significant playing time under his belt and his injury history, Vilain went undrafted in 2022. But in that one year, he played well enough to garner intense interest as a free agent. The Vikings signed him to a sizable contract for an undrafted free agent, a 3-year deal worth 2.58M, per Spotrac.

Vilain played sparingly for the Vikings in 2022, appearing in just 3 games. He might be able to carve out a role in Flores’ aggressive defense as a pass rush specialist but there are a lot of people ahead of him on the depth chart. His path to more playing time in 2023 will probably include a bigger role on special teams.

Editor’s Note: All statistics from Pro Football Reference & Football Reference CFB.