The Skol Debate: What are Minnesota’s Main 3 Roster Needs?

Sep 11, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) sacks Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) in the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The conclusion of the 2022 NFL season will soon be upon us. Either the Chiefs or the Eagles will hoist the Lombardi as the rest of the NFL watches, wondering, “how can that be us next season?”

Being able to find that success in February, 2024 will (at least in part) come down to the decisions made in March and April of 2023. Indeed, the offseason talent acquisition is an important component of climbing Mount Lombardi. With that reality in mind, we’re coming back to the debate series with a main question: what are Minnesota’s main 3 roster needs? Can Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s competitive rebuild achieve the ultimate success?

The usual debaters are back. Rather than offer a clear, straightforward side, each one is listing their 3 main positions of need and then defending their position.

Enjoy.

Minnesota’s Main 3 Roster Needs

KJ: I’ll kick us off, Josh, with a very general observation that’s obvious to most observers: the 13-4 record doesn’t guarantee anything in 2023. In fact, there’s good reason to be concerned about Minnesota’s ability to replicate this exemplary record, largely due to some of the roster shortcomings we’re going to discuss. 

In particular, the defense needs major improvement. Competing in the upcoming season may depend on resurrecting this once-proud phase of the game. 

Teams rely on a few methods to get new talent onto their roster: sign free agents, draft college prospects, and/or trade for players. These methods of talent acquisition – alongside the overlooked but no-less-important task of developing guys already on the roster – will all be in play for Minnesota in 2023. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Kevin O’Connell, and the rest of the team’s leadership need to make all these approaches coalesce as they pursue 2023 contention. 

With that being said, I’ll list my main 3 roster needs before offering a (very) brief word as an explainer: 

  1. Edge Rusher 
  2. Running Back
  3. Linebacker 

Now, I’m making some assumptions with this ranking. For starters, I think it’s quite likely we see both Patrick Peterson and Duke Shelley return. If that occurs, then corner is much less urgent. Still a major need – especially in the slot – but not nearly as scary if one (or both) were to depart. 

As the debate gets going, I’ll offer my rationale for highlighting these positions. First, though, I’d like to get a sense of where you stand. Hit us with your top 3 positions of need. 

JF: Well, before we get started on this, I’ll toss out one more tidbit that could very well change in the coming weeks depending on what kind of cap moves the Vikings make in preparation for free agency. Do they restructure contracts? Do they make roster cuts? They probably will do some combination of both, but we don’t know exactly how those moves will go down or which positions they will impact.

With that in mind, though, and some similar assumptions that you’ve made, I think that the biggest needs on this roster probably lie on the defensive side of the ball. Minnesota has made it clear that they want to shake things up on that side following the dismissal of Ed Donatell as coordinator and subsequent addition of Brian Flores.

And so, with that in mind, here are the 3 roster needs that I think are the most pressing for this team heading into 2023:

  1. Linebacker
  2. Interior Defensive Line
  3. Cornerback

Before I go any further in my explanation, I’ll toss it back over to you. It appears that you and I disagree on the EDGE position, seeing as you have it at the top of your list, and it misses out on being part of mine. What makes you believe the Vikings need to prioritize that spot more than any other?

KJ: If I was an NFL GM, I’d make it my personal mission to pile up pass rushers like my team’s life depended on it. There’s nothing quarterbacks detest – even the great ones – more than constant pressure. 

Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith are both excellent players. I get that there are concerns about their age, injury history, and production that tapered off. Nevertheless, we mustn’t overlook the overall year: they each reached double-digit sacks in a defense that struggled mightily and each finished top 15 in the PFF EDGE rankings

Now, with all that said, why the emphasis on edge rusher as priority #1? Because of what I mentioned up top alongside some of the quibbles about the top two’s age/injury/production. Keep Hunter and Smith; add onto Hunter and Smith. Build around them and allow them to shine even brighter. 

Nov 24, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) celebrates the win after the game against the New England Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

QBs cannot function if they’re constantly under duress. For a time, perhaps, they can make it work, but eventually the pressure will win. Last season, we all saw a defense that was far, far too passive, one that regularly allowed QBs to complete passes with ease inside a perfectly tidy pocket. I don’t think any offense out there was scared of playing Minnesota. 

Being able to trot Hunter, Smith, and a couple other legit threats would make any QB much less confident. I’ve got my eye on players like Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram, and even Jerry Hughes (if he became available in a trade). 

Brian Flores is the new sheriff in town. Give the man a small army of pass rushing weapons. That would warm my cold, purple heart. 

What say you, Josh? Any merit in what I’ve been describing? Why is linebacker more important? 

JF: If we can get Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith playing well at the same time, that is a scary proposition for opposing offenses. There’s certainly merit to piling up pass rushers, too. However, I think that any added talent at edge rusher should be considered icing on the cake. Patrick Jones is a player that I’d like to see have a bit of an expanded role in 2023, and D.J. Wonnum is no slouch, either. 

My concern about the linebacker position lies with the two starters from 2022: Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks. I think there is a decent chance that neither of them return to the team next season, especially with the Vikings needing to free up salary cap space. 

Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins (18) makes a catch for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter of a wild card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

However, even if one (or both) of them come back, I’d like to see a starting group that is faster and younger. We watched Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton torch the Vikings defense with their speed during the Wild Card loss, and Daniel Jones’ scrambling ability made the linebackers look like they were running through quicksand.

In an ideal world, I’d have the Vikings starting two different linebackers next season, with Brian Asamoah perhaps being joined by a draft prospect like Trenton Simpson or Noah Sewell late in the first round, depending on what Minnesota opts to do with the No. 23 pick in regard to ‘sticking and picking’ or trading back to acquire more assets.

Even if they don’t go linebacker in the draft, maybe they grab a guy like Devin Bush in free agency (who Brian Flores coached in 2022 with Pittsburgh), or even take a chance on Anthony Walker Jr. whose contract expires after he played just three games in 2022 due to a torn quad. 

Either way, the Vikings can’t be content with what they had at linebacker during the 2022 season. I see you also had linebacker as your third position of need. Are your concerns the same as mine? And what do you think the Vikings need to do at running back this offseason?

KJ: Yeah, I think we have some shared concerns at linebacker. 

My hesitation with ranking the position higher simply rests in the relative lack of importance for a 2023 defense. Generally speaking, NFL defenses succeed mostly due to the players who have the most direct impact on slowing down the passing game. Corners and edge rushers thus take on massive importance, which is to say nothing of the DTs who can be disruptive up the middle. 

One other thought on linebackers. Yes, the veteran pair looked slow at various points, but I do wonder how much of that had to do with scheme. A surefire way of making a player appear slow is to overload him with responsibilities and/or options. Doing so will cause that player’s brain to spend precious moments processing what to do rather than reacting instantly. Don’t be shocked if, say, Kendricks comes back and somehow looks much faster. 

As for running back, my hope is to allow Kirk Cousins to be able to operate within a more balanced offense (more bootlegs, please). 

Getting a dynamite WR2 has its appeal, but I’m on the RB train. The reports make it sound like Dalvin Cook may be nearing the end of his time in Minnesota. Start winning the ToP battle and punish teams that refuse to put more than 6 or 7 players in the box. You’ve written about Bijan Robinson, describing him as an ultra-talented player who could fall due to the NFL’s devaluing of the position. Might the young RB be the perfect complement to Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson? 

I acknowledge that a lot of really smart football people tell us that running back is a relatively unimportant position, a spot where it could make more sense to adopt a committee approach. Perhaps that’s true. I will admit, though, that I align myself more closely to Zimmer’s offensive philosophy than most. A great running game alongside the dynamic pass catcher duo (Jefferson + Hockenson = Jockenson) seems like a recipe for success, especially when we factor in Minnesota’s tremendous tackle tandem. 

Is this persuasive at all? 

We still haven’t discussed your iDL option. Any players in mind for this spot in free agency or the draft? You could persuade me that my edge rusher stance needs to be softened a touch, instead pivoting toward a more general “pass rusher” category that can include players across the DL (and potentially at LB). 

JF: If the Vikings want to go the route of becoming a juggernaut on offense that can just outscore teams, I could certainly be convinced by a selection of Robinson. A more balanced attack should be something that we all look for from the Vikings offense in 2023 to become more unpredictable.

My argument for Robinson has always been, sure, running back is a devalued spot in 2023, but if you can get a top-10 player at the position on a rookie-scale contract, then why not go for it?

As for the interior defensive line, I think that my main argument for putting that position on this list rather than EDGE is the fact that Minnesota already has stars in Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith. Meanwhile, their interior defensive line could lose Dalvin Tomlinson this season, and while Harrison Phillips is a steady, starting-calibre player, the other spot on the defensive line was a rotating door of players like Jonathan Bullard, James Lynch, and Khyiris Tonga.

Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (94) reacts after a play against the New York Giants during the third quarter of a wild card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

In free agency, we could stick with the Pittsburgh/Brian Flores theme and go Chris Wormley as I wrote about earlier in the week. Wormley lost his starting position this season, but he made 14 starts and recorded 7 sacks in 2021. Of course, an ACL in December could impact his availability at the beginning of the season, so other candidates could include either David Onyemata or Shy Tuttle from the Saints.

The Vikings probably won’t be able to snag a defensive tackle in the draft that will make a massive impact in a rookie season, but Bryan Bresee out of Clemson is worth keeping an eye on in the first round if he begins falling down the board. Later on, Gervon Dexter out of Florida or Keeanu Benton out of Wisconsin.

So, what do you think? Is the interior defensive line a position you think is worth improving? Are there any “honorable mention” positions that could usurp any of the positions we talked about today?

KJ: My honorable mentions would certainly be iDL, CB (even with bringing Peterson and Shelley back), receiver, and iOL. I could be persuaded that adding a remarkable 3/5T is of huge significance, but I’m still firmly on the “adding edge rushers” train. If, however, the Colts move on from DeForest Buckner to save his entire $20 million hit, then I’m changing my opinion. His availability in free agency would instantly prompt me to kick iDL to the top of the priority list. 

Nov 20, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs the ball while Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) defends in the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Your point about Robinson is well taken. The Vikings should think long and hard about adding the RB if he does tumble into the 20s. 

In the end, we’re both looking for the same thing. Progress for the offense, likely through added balance and unpredictability. A significantly more intimidating defense that offers increased aggression, deception, and physicality. How we get to those goals is the million dollar question. 

Josh, any final word on a position to monitor and/or players you’ve got your eye on? 

JF: I think it’s more likely that the Vikings approach the wide receiver position in the draft rather than free agency, but it’s certainly a spot to keep an eye on. Perhaps they go after a speedster like Mecole Hardman from Kansas City

Depending on what Minnesota opts to do with Garrett Bradbury, they could be looking at a situation where they need a new center as well. Funny enough, the Minnesota Gophers center John Michael Schmitz looks like the clear-cut favorite to be the first center off the board, so that could be a fun story for the draft.

Overall, though, like you said, I hope that this defense looks more intimidating following free agency. Getting faster and younger should be a priority, but Brian Flores’ scheme should help that. This certainly looks like it will be a busy and entertaining offseason, and I am excited to see what happens when the ball gets rolling.