It felt a little like the first day of school for the Vikings freshmen.
General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah wondered if his arrival in flip-flops was "a little too casual."
Although most who descended on southeast Florida for the NFL's Annual League Meeting would concur that anyone emerging from his first Minnesota winter (at least since his hire in late January) deserved to free his feet and feel the warmth.
Head Coach Kevin O'Connell found comfort in the "big ol' smile" of … Bill Belichick?!
Yep, the first-year GM and head coach transitioned from admirers of NFL leaders to peers, walking the halls as contemporaries. The NFL organized seating in alphabetical order by city/state/region, so Minnesota and New England were in the same neighborhood.
O'Connell and Belichick go way back to 2008 when the Patriots drafted the former quarterback out of San Diego State in the third round.
"It was my first time sitting in the big room, [Belichick] gives me a big ol' smile, a congratulations," O'Connell told Vikings Entertainment Network's Gabe Henderson this week. "That kind of cut the tension for me there on the first day."
The Annual League Meeting was shifted from an in-person to a virtual affair in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to unfurl in America. It remained virtual last season, so the Vikings newcomers weren't the only ones experiencing things for the first time.
"There's a lot of coaches here for the first time that have not been able to go about this process," O'Connell said. "Guys like Brandon Staley, Matt Rhule, guys that I've talked to that have been coaching a while, at least last year was Brandon's first year. But they've never got to actually do this before, so when you talk to these guys, they're excited about it just like I am.
"But more importantly, they don't have all the answers either when it comes to knowing where we're supposed to be, when we're supposed to be there," O'Connell quipped. "A lot of times there's a nice little pack of us young guys that show up early to stuff. And then Coach [Andy] Reid and Coach [John] Harbaugh, some of these guys, come cruising in right when they're supposed to."
O'Connell said Reid pulled him aside for a conversation to express he was excited about O'Connell's future and the growth opportunity ahead.
"He thinks really highly of our team and our coaches that I hired," O'Connell said. "That gets you excited because that's a guy, I think 23, 24 years now, of coming to an event like this and being kind of, in a lot of ways, a mentor for a lot of coaches here.
"As well as seeing a guy like Sean McVay, who I really hadn't seen since the Super Bowl parade and really getting to catch up with him," O'Connell added. "There's been a lot of moments where you pinch yourself and you say, 'You wouldn't have thought it a couple years ago, that you'd be one of 32 showing up here to represent the Minnesota Vikings as our head coach.' But to get to do it, it's something I'm really proud of and really excited about, and I'm just getting started."
Adofo-Mensah reconnected with Patriots personnel executive Matt Groh, with whom he overlapped when both were students at Princeton.
"Then Bill Belichick's sitting right there. So it kind of comes at you fast, and you realize you're not that person who looks up to them anymore; you want to compete against them at the highest level," Adofo-Mensah said. "So that's been great. And yeah, it is a comfortable environment for all of us to sit and learn. It's been a cool environment."
Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell hope to build a sustained run of success in Minnesota. Their partnership is only 6 weeks old, but here are six Vikings-related takeaways from their first Annual League Meeting together.
Pelissero: Vikings staying on course for 2022 goal | By Eric Smith
A few hours after making leadership changes in the front office, Vikings Owner/President Mark Wilf laid out his vision for the 2022 Vikings.
"We have high expectations for this football team," Wilf said. "We believe we can be super competitive right here in 2022."
Almost three months later, Minnesota's moves have aligned with Wilf's vision.
Tom Pelissero of NFL Network highlighted Minnesota's expectation to be a playoff contender right away during a conversation with Henderson.
"They expect to compete, now. There are a lot of owners who might say that, and then the moves they make and the players they let go, reflect a different reality," Pelissero said. "But if you look at what the Vikings have done here, they've been aggressive. They went out and added another pass rusher in Za'Darius Smith, they retained Danielle Hunter, they retained Kirk Cousins, they obviously released Michael Pierce, but they added Harrison Phillips, another defensive tackle.
"There's nothing that they did that will make you go, 'They're looking to take a step back.' At minimum, the Vikings appear to be saying, 'OK, we want to see if Kevin O'Connell and the new staff gets more out of the roster than we had in place. We want to see, can we win in 2022? If not, then maybe we take the step back?' " Pelissero added. "Or, if you play lights out and maybe you get into the playoffs, maybe you feel like you don't have to do the full, ground-up rebuild."
The full list of Vikings offseason moves so far can be found here.
Rapoport: 'Palatable' deals to add playmakers | By Craig Peters
The addition of Smith last week was a big one (we'll have more this week on the vision of pairing him with Hunter), but it also fit within Minnesota's salary cap constraints.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport is annually among the leaders in breaking free agency news. He noted that Minnesota has picked up strong players without breaking the bank, pointing first to linebacker Jordan Hicks, as someone who could "really help" Minnesota's defense.
"Hicks, especially, not a household name, not someone who is going to get a lot of headlines," Rapoport said. "Coaches love Jordan Hicks, and I know he was someone Kevin O'Connell was really into because he's tough, he is physical, he can tackle. Mostly, he's a guy who is a leader. Considering what he dealt with in Arizona where they drafted someone at his position, he wanted to be traded. He came in and was a complete professional, balled the whole year, and then they moved on from him anyway. That's a guy who can make a big impact for the Vikings.
"Za'Darius Smith is another one where a variety of circumstances, he was out in Green Bay, mostly because of his high salary cap number, and when healthy, and I think he's in a really good place healthwise, he's a very good player, but it's not like the [contract amount] is crazy," Rapoport continued. "Those are deals that are really palatable. I think the Vikings got better but didn't necessarily spend a ton to do it."
Helping out the cornerbacks | By Lindsey Young
Adofo-Mensah has emphasized the importance of building a defense in Minnesota that benefits the cornerbacks.
It's no secret that the Vikings corners have experienced their share of struggles over the past two seasons, and the group will once again look different. The position room currently is led by a pair of young players, Cameron Dantzler and Kris Boyd, with Patrick Peterson becoming a free agent after one season with the Vikings.
"The systems we wanted to put into place on both sides of the ball were systems that work in the modern NFL but also give yourself an ability to complement people in a [certain] type of way," Adofo-Mensah told Henderson. "With the cornerback position – as long as you have that [pass] rush, as long as you have linebackers that can kind of help them in a certain way, it allows us to play certain coverages that can help our corners.
"But ultimately, you want to have great ones. I'm not trying to not find great ones," Adofo-Mensah continued. "We want people on third down to get us off the field, either by hitting the passer or taking the ball away from the passer. We'll keep doing that both ways, but to your point, yeah – we stuck to our plan and we're going to continue to do so."
Minnesota signed cornerbacks Tye Smith and Chandon Sullivan earlier this week, and there also will be an opportunity to add through the upcoming NFL Draft.
O'Connell on elevating Cousins' game | By Eric Smith
As Pelissero mentioned, Cousins will be the Vikings quarterback in 2022, and he is also tied to Minnesota for the 2023 season.
Cousins and O'Connell have a history, as the latter was Cousins' position coach in Washington in 2017.
O'Connell told Henderson he's excited to see how Cousins can continue to grow going forward.
"I think the biggest thing for me is that we've got a guy with a lot of experience," O'Connell said. "He's got a skill set. How can we put together an offensive system that allows him to just play quarterback? What do I mean by that? It's operating within the rhythm and timing of the snap, clearly defining progressions for him so there is no gray area.
" 'This is where we want to go with the football. Be accurate, be on time and allow Justin [Jefferson] and Adam [Thielen] and Irv [Smith, Jr.], K.J. [Osborn], all these guys, to go to work,' " O'Connell added. "Winning individual matchups. That's what we'll try to do."
The main point, O'Connell said, is trying to make things as simple as possible for Cousins, allowing him to just go play free and fast.
"We'll try to build a progression where it's matchups within zones, matchups within coverage. 'How do we feel like we can get the ball out of his hand in a rhythm and timing that allows us to hold up [in protection] and allows him to be in attack mode?' " O'Connell said. "By clearly doing that, you take out the gray area, take out the coachspeak, holding the clocker the next day. That's one of my biggest pet peeves in coaching is when you turn on the tape the next day and ask the guy, 'Why didn't you throw this? You missed.' If I was the quarterback, I'd say, 'Well, you didn't tell me to do this.'
"It's not always where you have to hold a guy's hand through everything we do, but that's coaching, in my opinion. It's clearly defining it," O'Connell added. "And then, I do think that Kirk's experience that I talked about, that's when I think he takes his game to the next level by understanding he can see the field, be in attack mode and he can turn it loose knowing he can rely on his experience and his skill set to be at his best when we need him to be."
Cousins is the league's only quarterback to throw for at least 25 touchdowns in each of the past seven seasons.
Wyche: Don't forget about Dalvin Cook | By Lindsey Young
There has been plenty of talk about the Vikings offense under O'Connell and how much will change from what Minnesota previously ran under Mike Zimmer.
Looking at O'Connell's work as the Rams offensive coordinator, it's easy to focus on the receivers and how much the position is relied on. But NFL Network's Steve Wyche reminded that this scheme will also provide running back Dalvin Cook ample opportunities to shine.
Wyche told Henderson he considers Cook "the ideal player" for the 2022 Vikings offense.
"He should have a big year," Wyche said. "He's going to be used in the passing game a bit more. They're going to play to his strengths, but I think his strengths include getting him into the open field. That is the whole premise of this offense.
"This is all about finding ways to get playmakers the ball in their hands in open space, but they're gonna also have to break a tackle," Wyche added. "This is an offense where you've got to make somebody miss or break a tackle, because somebody is likely to be uncovered on a certain play. That's why Dalvin Cook is so good for this scheme."
Schefter on the Vikings status in the NFC North conversation | By Craig Peters
The Vikings hope Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell can use the retention of a core of players on both sides of the ball and the targeted injection of new players to make a legitimate run at Minnesota's first NFC North title since 2017.
The Bears claimed the division title in 2018, and the Packers have cruised more or less in each of the past three seasons. Fans will get an inside look at Dan Campbell's second year in Detroit since the Lions will be featured on Hard Knocks.
ESPN's Adam Schefter told Henderson he sees an "opening in this division" for Minnesota.
"Aaron Rodgers has got, what, a couple years left in Green Bay? Detroit, we don't know who's going to be their long-term quarterback right now," Schefter said. "Chicago is waiting for Justin Fields to develop. This division is not exactly the AFC West right now, it doesn't seem to be going into the season.
"Minnesota made some strong moves at a time where I think everyone is getting used to each other," Schefter added. "Kevin is seeing how Kwesi works, Kwesi is seeing how Kevin works, the organization is seeing how each works; everybody is feeling each other out. You go from there, but you have to like what they've done so far."