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Monday Morning Mailbag: Vikings Begin Search for New Defensive Coordinator

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By now, I assume all of you know the Vikings parted ways with Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell.

Head Coach Kevin O'Connell wasn't hasty in making the move that many Mailbag emailers had been asking for. I thought O'Connell and Donatell showed the respect they have for each other, even though things didn't work out as they first envisioned.

O'Connell released this statement:

Donatell released this statement:

You could tell players really liked Donatell and the way he strengthened connections between the group.

As the Vikings prepared to find Donatell's replacement, they watched four teams advance to conference championship games and four more teams head home shy of the ultimate end zone.

San Francisco defeated Dallas and will visit Philadelphia, which ousted the New York Giants.

Kansas City knocked out Jacksonville and will host a Cincinnati team that won at snowy Buffalo.

We'll be able to confirm when candidates have completed interviews.

On to the questions.

What are your thoughts for a young mind such as Jim Leonhard from the Badgers as a defensive mind? He brings an aggressive Rex Ryan approach from whom he played for many years in the NFL.

— Monte from Bloomer, Wisconsin

Watching the Eagles Giants game is making me NAUSEOUS!!!

The Giants are not a good offensive team, yet we made them look like the best offense in the league.

Having been a fan since the beginning and having attended two of the four Super Bowls, just making the playoffs DOESN'T mean anything!!

O'Connell did a very good job with the offense but missed it COMPLETELY with Donatell!!!

If he doesn't hit it out of the park on the new hire, the offense won't matter next year.

— Bryan Abrams

Now that Ed Donatell has been relieved of his duties, what is your opinion on the Vikings approach in searching for a new Defensive Coordinator?

I've seen multiple articles and fans saying that they think Vic Fangio is the best option for the job. We all know he has had tremendous success throughout his career, but don't you think it's time for a younger, innovative and self-driven coach to get the opportunity? I just feel like the older coaches don't have much to prove and the younger guys do. All of the younger guys eventually would like to become a head coach one day, so they will work much harder in trying to prove something. That's just my opinion.

You can just see the success from other young coaches around the league.

With that said, do you also think the Vikings do need to get younger and faster on defense? I was at the Wild Card game against the Giants and even watched the game I had recorded at home. You can see that our players could not keep up with the Giants playmakers at all. Should be an interesting offseason but SKOL VIKES!!!!

— Pete

Now that the Vikings have moved on from Ed Donatell, let's get an experienced, successful DC. Their first call should be to Gregg Williams. If he doesn't want the job, see if Rex Ryan is willing to come back as a DC, imagine if our defense gets as good as our offense.

— Eric Walker in East Patchogue, New York

Let me preface everything by saying it's not my place to weigh-in on any specific potential defensive coordinator candidates. I hope everyone can understand why a direct employee of a team believes it best to not interfere with the hiring process.

We will be able to confirm interviewees after interviews conclude with articles that are consistently structured. It's a method we used last year when candidates interviewed for the GM and head coach positions that ultimately went to Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell, respectively.

Despite being on the younger end of the spectrum when it comes to head coaches, O'Connell has a wide background from his time as a player and assistant. He knows who has been tough to go against and qualities that can challenge quarterbacks. I think that's what he had in mind for Donatell (who had previously worked for Fangio), and that's what we saw back in Week 1.

But from Week 2 and multiple times late in the season, it seemed like opponents were showing up to games already having the answers to the test. That was particularly true for three of the four teams that had rematches with Minnesota.

Green Bay Week 1: 7 points; Green Bay Week 17: 41 points (14 were on returns)

Detroit Week 3: 24 points; Detroit Week 14: 34 points

New York Giants Week 16: 24 points: New York Giants in Wild Card: 31 points

Minnesota's offense also scored fewer points in each of those rematches.

Green Bay (23 to 17), Detroit (28 to 23), New York (27 to 24).

The one exception was a Chicago team without its starting QB in Week 18 and with no incentive to win. The Bears scored 22 in Week 5 and only 13 without Justin Fields in the regular-season finale. They allowed 29 points in each game. The season-ending loss helped them secure the No. 1 pick.

It's hard to beat most NFL teams twice in a season, and the Packers, Lions and Giants played SOME good football at the end of the season, but the Vikings will have to fare better in rematch games if they want to truly get to where they want to go.

There was a comment Donatell made in the back half of the season that a team who plays indoors on turf better be fast on defense. It seemed like the Giants did play faster, but I also think New York did a great job of getting more out of losing to Minnesota in the regular season than the Vikings gained by beating the Giants. There were several instances where it seemed like New York was able to move defenders ever so slightly in the wrong direction and then capitalize.

I do think there's room for the Vikings to be more aggressive than they were with blitzes, and I'd much rather see Danielle Hunter going toward a quarterback than dropping to cover a running back or receiver.

O'Connell knows the roster, its limitations, the players set to return and those scheduled to become free agents. I'm sure he'll assess multiple components as he evaluates candidates.

The defense has struggled for three seasons and was a long way from dominating, but many believe if some improvements can be made to boost the group and partner with what was a top-10 offense, then the Vikings have a chance to replicate what they accomplished this past season and potentially go farther.

Meshing scheme and personnel will be an interesting thing to watch as Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell try to transition from a competitive rebuild to ushering in a championship standard for the Vikings.

Do you think the Vikings would look into Bryan Bresee from Clemson to help run support and pass rush from our weak defensive end spot?

Do we believe in Ed Ingram?

Lewis Cine or Camryn Bynum?

Should we keep Patrick Peterson to play slot because Chandon Sullivan's contract is also up and have Duke Shelley and Cameron Dantzler starting 1 and 2 (they are the only two who I see as good enough to start)?

— Eli Hall

Many of you are admittedly well ahead of me in terms college prospects. I usually am not much more than a casual college football fan these days and haven't learned much about this year's prospects yet.

I do think the Vikings have a good bit of information on how this year went on offense, defense and special teams to provide guidance for how to proceed through free agency and then the draft.

As for Ingram, it was definitely sink or swim with the rookie who was the only player on the field for every offensive snap in 2022. The interior offensive line looked like it was playing with its third center in as many games during the Wild Card Round as Dexter Lawrence had himself a day. An element in that game was that Lawrence's position coach is Andre Patterson, the former Co-Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach of the Vikings. Patterson guided his group through snaps against multiple Vikings offensive linemen over the years, and I'm sure he made the most of the previous matchup against the Vikings in planning his attack.

Some say it takes a couple of years to fully develop an offensive lineman. Brian O'Neill and Christian Darrisaw each exceeded that learning curve. Ingram will have an opportunity to take another step forward at a position the Vikings have tried to solve multiple ways in the past few seasons.

Cine is rehabbing the broken leg he suffered in Week 4 against the Saints in London. He posted some pictures of his workout via social media recently, and it's great to see his progress. It's way too early in his career to assess him.

We've seen Bynum have some bright spots and some struggles as he's transitioned to playing safety after only playing cornerback in college. Although both positions are in the defensive backs room, there's quite a bit of difference, particularly in run support.

I'm not sure about moving Peterson to the slot. Everything happens faster, and there are more directions offensive players can go. He played well on the outside in most games, and he has enough football savvy to play there, but I don't know that moving a Hall of Fame outside corner inside solves much in the next year, and it would not be a long-term solution. Sullivan played in all 17 games and recorded 10 starts. Shelley came to the rescue on the outside opposite Peterson after Dantzler, Andrew Booth, Jr., and Akayleb Evans all dealt with injuries.

Peterson, Sullivan and Shelley are all set to become free agents. Dantzler will be entering the final year of his rookie contract. Booth and Evans both showed some potential when healthy.

We need an intimidating and mean O-Line. We need a wall on the O-line. The three spots to fix: get a couple corners and beef up the O- and D-lines. Then you have a contender [to be a] SUPER BOWL CHAMPION.

— Tim Gregg

Minnesota has used several high picks on the offensive line since O'Neill's selection in 2018. Part of the draft strategy was wanting mobile linemen who could execute the wide zone running game that was prevalent under Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak.

That can come with a cost, though, if defenses have some players particularly good at mauling people.

There were too many times this season the Vikings did not change the line of scrimmage, and much worse, allowed a defender into the backfield for a negative run. That wasn't solely on the offensive line because it takes all 11 to run the ball effectively.

The short-yardage game left room for improvement on offense and defense.

The Vikings haven't used high picks on their defensive front. Consider Hunter (third round, 88th overall) is the highest pick out of the front seven used by Minnesota, while some teams are dotted with homegrown first-round picks.

I question if the Cousins-led offense practiced against Donatell's defense during the weeks between games. If they did, wouldn't Cousins have exposed the flaws in the defensive scheme? And if the Cousins-led offense could not expose the flaws what does that say about the our quarterback and his ability? To watch other teams scorch our defense and to think Cousins could not do it in practice makes me think it's time to move on at the quarterback position.

— Dale Thorson

The Vikings spent a good deal of the offseason program and in training camp with the first-team offense and defense going head-to-head in practices, but it's quite common once the season rolls around for practices to focus on preparing each unit through the use of scout teams that run plays and concepts that the upcoming opponent is likely to do.

Those parts of practice are closed once the regular season starts, but going back to training camp, there were days when the offense won and days when the defense won. There also were the two days of joint practices with the 49ers that had some good and bad for Minnesota's offense and defense.

I'd say the best evaluations of the defense come when they face an opponent on a game day, and the best evaluations of Cousins are what he did against those opponents.

I love the Vikings, and I think they're trending in the right direction. However, why is it that Justin Jefferson is sometimes completely blanketed by competent cornerbacks or double-teams? Is this a J.J. issue, or is this something that could be solved with a young and speedy WR to take some of the pressure off of J.J.?


— Sam Bachrach

It's an interesting question, given that Jefferson posted 10 games with 100-plus yards to break Adam Thielen's team record of nine such games, but Jefferson also had seven games (including the postseason) with fewer than 50 receiving yards.

Teams had success layering defenders on Jefferson, pressing him at the line and assigning help farther down the field.

There are a few things that can help with press, including Jefferson's ability to play multiple receiver spots. But at the same time, when defenses do commit so many resources toward Jefferson, it's up to Cousins to either challenge them or quickly go somewhere else with the ball. There's also a responsibility on the coaches as they build the game plan each week to blend scheming Jefferson open, as well as building in the options that can make a team most pay.

Adding/maximizing speed at receiver is one way to stress a defense, for sure, but there are plenty of burners out there who aren't NFL receivers, and there are successful NFL receivers who aren't burners.

Thanks for your efforts and those of your colleagues. Overall, it was a challenging, but fun season, and I appreciate The Mailbag is always a priority.

As we transition into "what next," I'm wondering if you would consider playing a variation of an old game/scenario.

Just for a few minutes let's imagine you (and your readers) are at the table with Coach O'Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. You're part of the realistic decision regarding the following Vikings players: Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks. We must choose to cut one, re-work/re-sign one, and trade one (presuming its viable – a market, contract, etc.).

What would you do?

Just for the record, I would of course keep them all, but alas, that's not how running a team works.

— Chris Pellerito

Thanks so much to you and everyone for making the Mailbag part of your weeks. I genuinely appreciate this space and opportunity.

I love the premise of your question, even though I'm going to politely decline personal participation. I'd also like to invite other readers to answer this intriguing question by emailing what they would do. If I get enough responses this week, I can summarize them in next week's Mailbag.

Bottom line is that the Vikings have numerous personnel decisions.

After beginning his professional career on Wall Street and rising through the ranks via acumen and analytic evaluations, Adofo-Mensah said last week that he's become much more aware of how personal personnel decisions are. The impact of the past year on Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell now cannot be removed completely from their evaluations. It will be interesting to see how they lean on their process through numerous decisions.