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Monday Morning Mailbag: 2023 Vikings Season Arrives; Roster Decisions

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Welcome to Week 1 of the 2023 regular season.

We've been eagerly awaiting Kickoff Weekend, well, since last season ended shy of the ultimate goal.

Kevin O'Connell has made multiple decisions this offseason and preseason with an emphasis on Sept. 10, when his Vikings will host the Buccaneers at noon (CT) Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

In addition to the excitement for this year's team and the introduction of the new Classic uniforms, the Vikings will pay tribute to Bud Grant with jersey patches and honor the teams he led to three Super Bowls in four seasons (1973-76).

Last week was pretty busy. Sure, camp had wrapped, completing the practices that we report from, but the Vikings front office and coaching staff reduced the roster to 53 players, signed two veteran free agents (RB Myles Gaskin and OL David Quessenberry) and formed Minnesota's 16-player practice squad. There also was a trade that sent Vederian Lowe to New England for a sixth-round pick.

And oh yeah, they reached an agreement for a four-year contract extension with T.J. Hockenson.

Based on what Hockenson provided last year and what he's expected to deliver going forward, that seems to be a good use of the second-round pick from this year's draft to acquire him from Detroit last November.

Hope for a great season. I am ready to see the Vikings play.

— Edward Zitnik

Edward speaks for so many of us who are excited for Week 1's arrival. Year-to-year momentum is always so tough to sustain in today's NFL, but there have been multiple moves designed to try to build on the 2022 season.

I always try to look at the schedule every year and consider if I think the team can record at least 10 victories. Then, when people ask me if I think the team will be good this year, I usually refer to believing that double-digit wins seems legit.

The Vikings have plenty of goals beyond that threshold, so don't let me place any limits. And, it's not really my position to place expectations.

I do think this squad is going to be fun to watch, and I also believe double-digit wins is a legitimate goal.

Good to hear you on the MVP podcast.

With the Vikings having so many safeties, could they use the 3-3-5 this year?

Are there any NFL teams that use it?

— Craig Rotz in Boston, Massachusetts

Thanks for listening to the MVP podcast. It was a lot of fun to join Gabe Henderson, Jay Nelson and Eric Davidson last week. I was a bit tired, so hopefully the drawl that I tried to avoid surfacing when joining an audio format didn't creep out too often.

When asked about 3-3-5, the freshest name in my head was Matt Rhule, now at Nebraska and formerly with the Carolina Panthers, who had plucked him from Baylor. I honestly don't recall whether Rhule used the 3-3-5 with Carolina at any point when Minnesota hosted in 2020 or visited in 2021, but the Panthers were feisty on defense.

There's a great dive on the 3-3-5 by the Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon for anyone wanting to know more about the formation with three down defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

Other college teams have implemented the scheme that is credited to Joe Lee Dunn, the late coach whose stops included Mississippi State from 1996-2002. His defense had the alma mater's stadium rocking for several of those years — and that was when cowbells were banned.

It won't surprise me for Flores to use five or six defensive backs and mix and match personnel groupings on the back end of the defense. He's said he's happy to implement ideas, regardless of the source, even joking — maybe he was serious? — with media members about what blitzes they'd like to draw up.

I keep circling back to aggressive but not reckless as the way he's described his philosophy.

I would like to reply to your response to my last week's mailbag entry. I would agree that they do have promising depth possibly at the tight end and safety positions, but I was mainly discussing our current GM's draft picks. Granted, it's too early to grade them, but you have to admit that last year's rookies did not help the team succeed. I realize a lot of injuries were involved, but [Ed] Ingram had a terrible year and personally I think that only [Ty] Chandler will end up being a star in this league, but that is for the future to determine. What I really took exception to was your response to my saying the GM has not developed a plan for our next QB. I believe that if he wanted [Kirk] Cousins to stay, he would have already signed him to an extension. [Nick] Mullens will never be a No. 1 QB, and [Jaren] Hall is a project at best. We won't be able to draft the top QP prospects next year unless we are terrible this year, and you can't plan for that anyway. Also, there is no worthy No. 1 QB available in next year's free agency. So where is the plan? He has had two years now to come up with one. Just curious to know your thoughts on why this hasn't been addressed yet. I guess there is always a possibility of a blockbuster trade, lol.

— Jim Cragie

Appreciate the response from Jim to last week's initial dialogue with him.

I also am glad he points out it is too early to fully assess the 2022 draft class.

The 2022 Vikings were positioned to not need quite as much participation on offense or defense from last year's draft class. The 2023 Vikings are positioned to need more help from that group. It seems like several players learned and developed last year and are in line to contribute more, either through increased participation, by taking the next leap that can happen — Brian O'Neill and Chrisitan Darrisaw have both talked about the leaps they made in their second year. I'm not saying an equal leap is on the way for Ingram, but the experience he logged as the only player to line up for every offensive snap should have some value.

Akayleb Evans took first-team reps at cornerback for most of training camp, Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth, Jr., could be deployed differently and more often in packages in Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores' scheme. Brian Asamoah II was dealing with a shoulder injury during camp, but people are still excited about what he offers, even the ones who were sincerely impressed by undrafted rookie Ivan Pace, Jr.

Nick Muse had an incredibly great preseason and camp, earning a spot on the 53 as Minnesota's fourth tight end, and that's not a slight, given the depth at that position. Jalen Nailor also could see a few more opportunities this year as a versatile receiver.

Chandler had some nice runs in the preseason and will get the first opportunity to return kickoffs while Kene Nwangwu is on Injured Reserve.

As for the quarterback situation, Adofo-Mensah arrived with multiple problems to resolve in the shorter term and longer term. One of the biggest areas he needed to attack was trying to free up salary cap space for maximum flexibility going forward.

Since he believed in a competitive rebuild instead of tearing the house down to the studs — and because the Vikings went 13-4 and made the playoffs — they were picking in the 20s and didn't have much draft capital if they wanted to go higher up the draft board. So, they utilized that pick this year on Jordan Addison, who appears to be the type of receiver who will help any quarterback.

Some thought a Cousins deal would need to happen before a Hockenson extension, but finding contract solutions with some really big math involved doesn't have as rigid of an order of operations.

What we do know is Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell said they wanted to have Hockenson here for years to come, and Hockenson said he wanted to be here. Check and check. Management has said similar things about having Justin Jefferson in Purple for years to come.

The same group has said they're continuing conversations with Cousins and can resume the dialogue with him after the season ends. Both parties will have the freedom to decide at the end of the year.

Regarding a "long-term plan" for the position, it's possible that the plan exists but has not been shared.


Ugghhh, so really, we didn't feel like a fourth-round pick for a first-round QB is worth the risk? Instead, we're tied to Cousins, with an astronomical cap hit every year or Mullens to lead this team into the future? Wow...yet again.

— Cyrus Sutherland

This team had an opportunity to get Trey Lance. I believe he's going to be special. Do we need to focus on the future when Cousins leaves next year?

— King Crunch in New Jersey

Well, I guess not all fourth-round picks are created equal. Cousins, after all, was a fourth-round pick back in 2012. That's also the round in 2016 when the Cowboys picked Dak Prescott, whom Lance will be backing up.

There are plenty of other fourth-round picks that have panned out for teams, and there are others who haven't.

Cousins is entering the final year of his current contract, and I think he's poised to keep stacking on impressive career numbers he's built over the year. That also could again function team success as it did in 2022.

He ranks fourth in the NFL in passing touchdowns since 2018 when he joined the Vikings. Cousins also closed last year with 298.0 passing yards per game and a 102.1 passer rating in Weeks 12-18.

If someone had been brought in, that player would be sitting behind Cousins this year. Minnesota clearly likes what Mullens offers as a backup QB. They also are looking forward to continuing to develop Hall.

It was a bit of departure from recent history for the Vikings to roster three quarterbacks, and Minnesota wasn't going to roster four on the 53.

Lance will be in the third year of his rookie contract, which will include a fourth year for the 2024 season and a fifth-year option that Dallas can choose to exercise for 2025.

The 49ers initially liked Lance so much they traded up to select him No. 3 overall in 2021. They clearly decided to move on from him after four starts in which he totaled five touchdown passes and three interceptions.

Adofo-Mensah worked with several members of the 49ers personnel department who evaluated Lance before the Vikings GM was hired by the Browns in 2020. I don't know what his personal evaluation of Lance would have been at any point, but it does seem like Adofo-Mensah has tried to build up more picks this offseason to allow more flexibility in next year's draft.

It was really cool to see the Marshall High School football team connect with Lance last year during the Vikings-49ers joint practices. You could tell he means a lot to the group, and I'm sure they're pulling for him after this curve in his career.

Somebody should mention to [O'Connell] that using an offensive or defensive lineman as a fullback at goal line to assure back can score. Use them that are not playing for a little better training. Or give him my number, and I will talk to him.*

— Mike Dawkins

I mentioned the signing of Quessenberry in the intro. He caught himself a "big-man touchdown" — a 1-yarder from Marcus Mariota in September 2019.

The Vikings already have an elite fullback in C.J. Ham, and I expect O'Connell to continue to take advantage of his versatility.

Mike did offer up his digits, but I'm not going to publish here.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 7, 2024.

0-and-3 doesn't look good.

— Joe Pellegrino

I understand when people want to see wins in the preseason games, but I'll trade 0-3 in games that don't count in exchange for the neighborhood of 13 wins in a regular season every day and twice on game days.

How does a team decide who and how many of a particular position make it on the practice squad? Is it where you try to keep the best of a particular position that carries a lot of the workload, which naturally increases the chance for injury more than another position, or does the NFL say 'Your allowed only X amount of RBs, X amount of WRs, X amount of LBs, and so on?'

Tyvm for your time,

— Jacob Gilbert in Milburn, Kentucky

Love this question from Jacob to close us out, as I was just informally talking through the practice squad with one of my newer co-workers recently.

Practice squads have expanded to 16 players, a move the NFL implemented during the height of the COVID-19 seasons when a team could have multiple players suddenly unavailable. Teams have seen the benefit time and time again of having players in their buildings to be elevated for games and fill in, either to make a start or provide help on special teams or just be ready if depth is further tested in a game.

Teams are free to structure practice squads however they wish to best fit their needs.

Minnesota currently has three receivers, four offensive linemen, a running back, two interior defensive linemen, two outside linebackers, an inside linebacker and three cornerbacks on its practice squad. Keeping six safeties on the 53 made it very unlikely that a practice squad spot would be directed for that position.

There's probably a couple of common goals across the NFL that include having enough players to get through the practice week. Once the Vikings opened the initial 53 with eight offensive linemen last week, it was all but certain that they'd be reaching out for a couple more.

The Vikings coaching staff prioritizes working with the Health and Performance staff to reduce wear-and-tear and avoid overuse injuries. Let's say Minnesota receivers Jefferson, K.J. Osborn and Addison were heavily involved in a practice, and Cousins wants extra practice on a couple of routes without having those guys put on more mileage. Well, Cousins can work with a practice squad player. Disclaimer: I didn't create that example on my own; it was mentioned in the Netflix Quarterback docuseries.

Another potential school of thought is trying to have a couple of players who can best imitate a skill set that maybe doesn't exist on the 53-man roster but is a trait of a foe that a team will face in the regular season.

O'Connell and the coaching staff are deeply committed to developing practice squad players and making sure that group feels like the important part of the team it is.