Younger, Leaner Vikings Defense Poised for Step Forward in 2023

Nothing is certain in the middle of March, but things do look hopeful for Minnesota. The Vikings defense is staring down a major step forward.

So far, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has been doing a really nice job of reloading for the 2023 season, moving on from bloated contracts in favor of leaner deals for players who are younger. Za’Darius Smith, presumably, will be wearing a different uniform in 2023. Patrick Peterson is heading to the Steelers. The 30-year-old pass rusher and 32-year-old corner are being replaced by Marcus Danvenport (26) and Byron Murphy (25).

ESPN Lists Cardinals CB as "Best Fit" for the Vikings in Free Agency
Sep 18, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. (7) celebrates after scoring on a 59-yard fumble recovery in overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, Minnesota’s fans should be feeling enthused about these moves. Oh, and that Brian Flores addition doesn’t hurt either. The new DC is going to be bringing it all together in 2023, flipping last season’s bland meal into a phenomenal feast.

Folks, the issue with Davenport isn’t ability, or lack thereof. Rather, the problem has been availability, or lack thereof. The edge rusher has been in the NFL for 5 seasons but hasn’t been able to get onto the field for every game in any of those seasons. Does that mean he’s doomed to a career of missed time? By no means, and yet the track record does give reason for pause.

In other words, Adofo-Mensah was wise to hand out a 1-year prove-it deal for the talented defender. In a perfect world, Davenport is closer to his 2021 production – a 9 sack, 16 QB hit, 9 TFL season that led to him being the 8th-best EDGE on PFF – than his 2022 production. Last year, the former Saint had a measly half sack, 8 QB hits, and 2 TFLs. On PFF, he was down at 26th in their EDGE rankings.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Nov 17, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) works out prior to the game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Murphy looks like a wonderful addition. Praised far and wide, the Murphy signing may end up being the most consequential decision from the Vikings’ 2023 offseason. It’s supremely difficult to play defense without having a corner to matchup with the opposition’s main receiving option. The former Cardinal solves the problem.

In 9 games last season, Murphy allowed 63.8% of passes into his coverage to be completed, though he was able to contain receivers to a career-low 9.4 yards-per-completion. More concerning is that he allowed 4 TDs and a 103.1 passer rating.

Previously, Murphy has demonstrated a good ability to make plays on the ball, snagging 4 INTs and 12 PDs in 2021.

Of course, we also think of the domino effect of having Murphy in the lineup. Capable of lining up all over the field – he has nearly 1500 snaps in the slot over his 4-year career – Murphy will put the other corners in a better position to thrive. Asking Akayleb Evans or Andrew Booth Jr. to be a CB2 who plays almost exclusively on the outside makes way more sense than seeing if either sophomore can be a true CB1 who takes the opposition’s WR1 into the slot. Perhaps the two young fellas can pull that off, but that still needs to be proven.

Can Brian Flores Unlock the Vikings Cornerbacks?
Oct 16, 2022; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) after a game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, it’s worth remembering that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has lots of options when it comes to creating cap space. Carving out a bit more room in the 2023 budget could help with new additions. One thinks of CB Rock Ya-Sin, LB Bobby Wagner, and/or EDGE Justin Houston as just a few names to remember for the defense.

Overall, the lasting takeaway is that Vikings fans ought to be encouraged. With Aaron Rodgers looking to depart for the AFC, the NFC North is more open than ever. Minnesota’s early moves in free agency leave them in a nice spot to repeat as division champions.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference, PFF, and Over the Cap helped with this piece.