Supercharging the Vikings Defense for Just $15 Million in 2023

Aug 20, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Lewis Cine (6) lines up during the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings defense needs a lot of work.

For 3 straight seasons, Minnesota fans have had to struggle through thoroughly uninspiring defensive play. For a team with a long, proud tradition of elite defense, it has been a particularly unpleasant stretch.

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

Minnesota’s goal – at least in the opinion of your humble author – is to work toward creating:

  1. An impenetrable pass defense, both due to stickier coverage and increased pressure.
  2. A suffocating run defense, both due to faster linebacker play and a sturdier defensive line.

Now, these are laudable goals for any NFL team, not just your Minnesota Vikings. Brian Flores would certainly agree that he’d love to toss all his players into his cauldron, stir things up with his scheme, and then pour out a defensive stew that’s truly the best in the business. How realistic is that given the recent struggles? For a couple years in a row, the Vikings defense has allowed an average of 25.1 points against per game.

Plenty of work remains.

Thankfully, the defense is not devoid of talent. Far from it. Don’t let recent seasons fool you: talent exists on this team.

Jul 29, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebackers Danielle Hunter (99) and Za’Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Take, for instance, the edge rusher position. Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith both finished in the top 15 of the PFF rankings for edge rushers. Each one hit the 10-sack benchmark (a top 20 mark for each) and each one finished among the top 20 in the NFL for QB hits.

Brian Asamoah, Harrison Phillips, Khyiris Tonga, Akayleb Evans, Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth Jr., and Harrison Smith are all likely to play reasonably large roles for the Vikings defense in 2023. Again, not a group that’s completely lacking in talent. Instead, it’s a group that could use some reinforcements and renewed energy through a more dynamic scheme.

Aug 14, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Andrew Booth. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

The task that’s ahead of us, then, is to work toward bringing goal #1 & #2 to fruition through smart free agency signings. Given the cap situation, Minnesota won’t be able to outbid the rest of the NFL for every highly-coveted free agent. They’ll need to be strategic, and much of that strategy will likely involve dipping into the 2024 and 2025 budgets – where cap space is abundant – to make things work in 2023.

Let’s assume a $15 million budget for the initial wave of free agency isn’t too outlandish (you can read about how Kwesi Adofo-Mensah can carve out $100 million in cap space on PurplePTSD). Our goal is to acquire an impact player at all three levels of the defense: along the line, at linebacker, and then in the secondary. Do so for $15 million or less.

Can it happen?

To add some weight to our words, we’re going to be basing the possible numbers on previously-signed deals. In so doing, we’ll get a chance to build our possible upgrades off of reality, the best thing to base one’s speculation on.

Take a peak at Exhibit A. In the left column, there are 3 real-life examples from last offseason, both the player and 2022 cap hit. In the right column, there are 3 possible free agent signings from the current offseason and a plausible cap hit.

PositionThe 2022 OffseasonThe 2023 Offseason
Defensive Line/EDGEJustin Houston, $3.5MOgbonnia Okoronkwo, $4M
LinebackerBobby Wagner, $2.5MBobby Wagner, $3M
CornerJ.C. Jackson, $8MJamel Dean, $8M
Exhibit A – Shout out to Over the Cap.

Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, we should acknowledge the obvious: the bargain only exists in the short-term (except for Houston). Wagner – who is going to be cut – signed a 5-year deal, allowing for a signing bonus to be stretched out and future money to be tethered to being on the roster. Jackson, moreover, signed a 5-year deal. The Chargers put a lot of the compensation in the signing bonus pile, allowing them to fit Jackson into their 2022 finances. Houston’s deal – a modest, 1-year contract – came as the result of the veteran being near the end of his career.

Jan 8, 2023; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Houston Texans linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (45) pressures Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger (4) in the pocket Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, during a game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Scheer-USA TODAY Sports

In Minnesota’s hypothetical, they add a strong EDGE3, the best linebacker of his generation, and then a 27-year-old CB1. We’ve even projected a modest increase for Wagner in the upcoming season as well as a bit more cap space devoted to the EDGE spot. The $15 million budget remains intact.

The wild thing is that the 3 real contracts we’re basing things off of don’t involve an increasingly popular tactic: void years. The modest 2022 hits all exist without fake years to dilute the signing bonus impact.

Unless we’ve all been deceived, the Vikings are gearing up for contention in 2023. As a result, it would be reasonable to assume that they’ll be looking to add meaningful talent, high-end players who can bring the Flores vision to fruition. Recent history tells us that as little as $15 million in cap space in 2023 can be enough to add impactful players.

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