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'Mina Kimes Show' Assesses T.J. Hockenson Effect, Offensive Line & 'Mystery' Defense

Mina Kimes is expecting big things from the Vikings offense in 2023.

The ESPN analyst evaluated the NFC North on Wednesday's episode of The Mina Kimes Show, and during it she and FOX Sports NFC North Reporter Carmen Vitali delved deep into the Vikings upcoming second season under Head Coach Kevin O'Connell.

Kimes said she'd been more impressed by Kirk Cousins' play than in previous seasons, and she pointed to the midseason trade for T.J. Hockenson as a major turning point for Cousins and the entire unit.

"It really did unlock something in this offense," Kimes said, noting that Cousins went from 32nd in average depth of target to eighth after Hockenson joined Minnesota. "Not that he's [only] throwing to [Hockenson] downfield, but because finally there was a bit more space for Justin Jefferson.

"And also, Kirk just kind of decided that he trusted Justin Jefferson on literally every possible throw, which is a stance I support," Kimes added with a laugh. "Now you throw in Jordan Addison, who is a really elite separator, and suddenly I don't see why this passing attack won't be better than it was last season."

The Vikings selected Addison 23rd overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, and the former USC standout will join Jefferson and Hockenson as another potential downfield target for Cousins.

"The addition of Jordan Addison is just huge, because all you need to do is keep some attention off Justin Jefferson. Not all – because you're never going to – but like you said, Kirk just trusts him implicitly, and he's warranted that trust as the [2022 NFL] Offensive Player of the Year," Vitali said.

Below are three more Vikings topics covered by Mimes and Vitali during Wednesday's podcast.

View the Vikings rookie records for the most starts in a season.

1. We're talkin' about balance

Kimes is a self-proclaimed fan of O'Connell and the way he talks about the Vikings offense.

She mentioned O'Connell's emphasis on having a more balanced offense in 2023 and opined that he doesn't necessarily mean an equal number of plays in the run and pass game.

Kimes pointed out that Minnesota last season was the NFL's sixth most pass-heavy team on first downs and fourth most on second downs.

Does O'Connell mean he needs to run the ball more on early downs? Kimes doesn't think so. Rather, she said, he simply wants to capitalize more often on run opportunities when presented to him.

"The Vikings faced a ton of two-high coverage last year, a very high rate of light boxes, but they didn't run into them a lot. And then when they did, they weren't particularly efficient in doing so. I think this is part of the reason they were willing to make a change and move on from Dalvin Cook this offseason," Kimes explained. "So for me, when he talks about balance, I don't hear a Stone Age kind of, 'We're gonna not throw the ball all around the yard'; I hear, 'We're a team that wants to run in favorable situations, and we want to be more multiple.' "

In addition to trading for Hockenson last season, the Vikings this spring signed free agent tight end Josh Oliver, another move pointing toward mixing it up offensively.

"This was a very 11-heavy team – maybe we're gonna see more two-tight-end sets. Maybe we'll get C.J. Ham on the field more," Mimes said. "Maybe we'll see different types of runs instead of just outside zone. I could see the entire offense looking better in Year 2 of his regime in Minnesota."

2. O-Line is underrated

Looking at the Vikings offensive line, Kimes appreciates the continuity of returning all five starters from last season.

"Tackles are strong; interior's still a bit iffy. But it's not a huge concern of mine," she said.

Vitali, however, isn't just unconcerned. She argued that the Vikings o-line deserves more credit.

"I actually think they're underrated," she said. "And it's mostly due to Christian Darrisaw. I think he's a top three left tackle in the league; and I don't think it's hyperbole to say that. The way he moves and how athletic he is, he's so physical […] he has that nasty streak. And him with Ezra Cleveland next to him, I mean, the left side of the line is completely locked down for the Vikings."

Vitali acknowledged the ups and downs of Garrett Bradbury's four seasons at center for Minnesota but spotlighted his performance in 2022.

When Bradbury missed time due to injury toward the end of last season, she said, "it was catastrophic" for the offense.

"It's not that I think he's the best center, but when they're playing with a lead and when they're ahead of everything, he's what makes that unit run as a well-oiled machine," Vitali said of Bradbury. "He uses his athleticism to his advantage, and he's really more built for kind of those play-action game, those nakeds, those bootlegs, all that kind of stuff. He's really not built to just sit there and pass protect. … but when it works, it just works.

"That's why I say they're underrated, because when they are playing ahead of the sticks, they can be a little bit more aggressive from that line," Vitali added. "They're good. They're really good."

3. A 'fricken mystery'

Lastly, Kimes and Vitali tackled Minnesota's defense.

There is a lot to talk about when it comes to the Vikings defensive situation, especially struggles last season that led to Ed Donatell being relieved of his position this spring and Minnesota hiring Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores.

Kimes projected the Vikings defense to "be one of the more fascinating plot lines in the NFL" this season.

"Brian Flores – this [is] one of the more dramatic philosophical changes you will ever see in professional football," Kimes said. "I was looking at this roster, and I was like, 'You know, you can paint a picture where this all works out.' "

Reaching a deal to keep Danielle Hunter in Minnesota would be ideal, Kimes said, and she likes the free agency additions made by General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.

"They signed Marcus Davenport, who I believe is, frankly, better at this point of his career than Za'Darius Smith," Kimes said. "Marcus Davenport, I really like him as a player. So that's actually a pretty solid … if they're healthy, that's a dynamic one-two punch at edge.

"On the inside, Jordan Hicks; Brian Asamoah II played a little bit last year, but maybe he takes the leap. Maybe all the young players – Andrew Booth, Jr.; Lewis Cine, who I really liked in college; Akayleb Evans, who played a little bit; Mekhi Blackmon, who they drafted this year – maybe they're all awesome," Kimes continued. "But it's just such a fricken' mystery. The best-case scenario for this defense, other than the edge rushers, is so predicated on young players developing or playing well. I just don't know what to say. Maybe? I don't know."

Flores really is the key to it all, though.

Vitali mentioned Flores' previous stops – particularly with the Dolphins, where he dramatically improved Miami's pass rush in three seasons as head coach.

And the interesting thing? He's never seemed to need a monstrously dominant edge rusher. He figures out how to get to the quarterback in all kinds of ways.

"He's gotten so creative in who he brings and how aggressive his schemes are from all three levels of the defense," Vitali said. "I was going through the numbers, and you're talking 13, 14 guys are getting sacks throughout a season – and then five, six, seven of them aren't guys on the defensive line.

"That's what gives me hope with this personnel," she added. "I just think Brian Flores is going to be able to be aggressive."

Click here to listen to the podcast episode in its entirety.