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League Meeting Takeaways: O'Connell on Calling Plays, Receiver Depth & Goal for Cousins

More than a calendar year after taking the helm in Minnesota, Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell comfortably participated in a media session Tuesday morning at the NFL Annual League Meeting.

O'Connell's dual role as the head coach and offensive play caller in games prompted multiple questions on the topic.

He offered a hat tip to Vikings Pass Game Specialist/Game Management Coordinator Ryan Cordell, whom he added to his staff upon joining Minnesota last season.

"I had a previous relationship with him; so did [General Manager] Kwesi [Adofo-Mensah]. You can't put you can't really put any kind of number or, 'Hey, this is how important it was,' " O'Connell said. "It was monumental for me to have a guy upstairs in my ear, real-time dialogue. What Ryan does such a great job of is in this analytics world. He just gives me that, 'Hey, the percentages say do this,' but ultimately he still knows it's my feel of the situation, how the game's going or how we play in all three phases. But [he gives] the information in real time and pace that keeps up with how things are going really quick on game day, but never [overloading] too much information in that moment.

"It was huge," he added. "I feel like there's a lot of things that I need to do better but one of the things that I know I'm gonna continue to do is listen to Ryan Cordell."

O'Connell was asked how long it took him to "understand his own tendencies" as a play caller.

He emphasized allowing the game sequence to "be your deterrent" from over-scripting a game.

"But that also requires you to be able to teach a system, especially in year one, which we had experience doing last year in Minnesota, where you've got to be really organized with your thoughts and what you want to emphasize with your players," O'Connell said. "Because like with all NFL players, I've learned that you get what you emphasize."

View photos of the Vikings 2023 coaching staff.

O'Connell acknowledged, especially as someone new to the role, the risk of being too set on a play ahead of time.

"I think certain situations where maybe you're going into those weighty downs, those third downs, and you love a play call, but then you're expecting it to be third-and-4 and it ends up being third-and-2, third-and-6, it ends up being third-and-1. And you're like, 'No, I just love the call, so I'm gonna run it,' " he said. "Those are the times where you can kind of force some things. That's what I'm talking about, by not feeling like you're scripting the game. You've gotta be able to react in the moment.

"Offensively, it's great to have a game plan, it's great to have those really important Wednesday and Thursday meetings with the coaches, but I've learned that those plans only matter if the game goes exactly how you think it's going to go," O'Connell continued. "After 18 games coaching the Minnesota Vikings last year, I'm still waiting for that first game to come about where that ever happens. So every game is different, unique, takes turns, and you've gotta be able to lead from the front and put your football team in a good situation."

Here are four other takeaways from O'Connell's media session:

1. Pass the pass rush, please

O'Connell was asked about how the Vikings pass-rush group is coming together this spring.

Minnesota's main starting pass rushers last season, Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith, are under contract to return. The Vikings also have players like Pat Jones II and D.J. Wonnum, who have been used in a rotational capacity, and added former Saints edge rusher Marcus Davenport in free agency.

But it's worth noting that the Vikings this season also are operating under new Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores, who will implement a system different than that of Ed Donatell.

"We're going to take a look at what the landscape of what our entire personnel looks like, both on the backend and the front with our ways of getting after the quarterback. And at the second level at the linebacker position," O'Connell said. "Then you can really build the multiplicity that comes with hiring a guy like Brian Flores. The perfect example is, over the years, you watch the way the New England Patriots could reinvent themselves. Four down, three down, seven DBs on the field. Base defense [against] 11 [personnel]. All of that comes with different chapters of that playbook that allow you to have player ownership of it.

"If players can't own it and take it to the game, it's really not even worth having. That's where I think the real secret sauce for Flo' is. He makes it learnable," O'Connell added. "He can have carryover to different personnel groupings, positions, alignments. And the guys can have razor-sharp clarity on what they need to do. We'll see exactly what that picture looks like. There's still some things via the draft, and the second and third wave of free agency, we'll see what shakes out. But I'm just excited to see that whole picture come into clarity of how Flo' is going to use those guys."

View home and away photos of the Vikings 2023 regular season schedule.

2. Weighing in on receiving targets

Several experts recently mocked a receiver to the Vikings at No. 23 in the upcoming NFL Draft, and they also have existing talent on the roster – starting, of course, with phenom Justin Jefferson.

Minnesota did part ways with Adam Thielen, though, which leaves some wondering how O'Connell envisions the Vikings receiver room looking.

He first emphasized that Jefferson will be featured prominently.

"He'll always be our guy we're trying to build a pass game around with complementary players who are major focal points of our offense. That can win 1-on-1 matchups and be great with the ball in their hands after the catch," said O'Connell, who mentioned K.J. Osborn. "I think back to that Indianapolis game. Chicago, that first third-down huge catch down the field. The versatility [Osborn] has, and he's a smart player."

He added that he's excited for Jalen Nailor and Jalen Reagor to have opportunities to compete this spring and summer.

And don't forget that pass catches don't necessarily have to be wide receivers.

"We've got the tight end position, which I'm really excited about with T.J. [Hockenson], who changed our team and our offense so much a year ago," O'Connell said. "And then pairing him with Josh Oliver and Johnny Mundt and Ben [Ellefson] in that tight end room, and Nick Muse.

"You feel like, if you want to have three tight ends in there, you can. If you want to play the game with five wideouts, we can," he added. "If we want to play on our terms — and I know I say that a lot — you've got to have the personnel to do that. And I feel like we do."

3. The more, the merrier

In speaking highly of Flores, O'Connell was asked to explain the benefit to having a former head coach on his staff.

He reminded that he has two: Flores, who oversaw the Dolphins from 2019-21, and Assistant Head Coach Mike Pettine, who served as the Browns head coach in 2014 and 2015. Pettine was brought on last spring as part of O'Connell's original staff.

"What it does is, it just provides me with a lot of resources. A lot of conversations. 'Hey, I'm thinking of doing the offseason program like this,' " O'Connell said. "It could be scheduling. It could be as simple as, 'What's the best way to hold meetings and then get on the grass and maximize our time? 'How did you do it in Miami? How'd you do it in New England? How'd you do it with 'Pet' when he was the head coach in Cleveland?'

"To have those resources, for me, it's huge," O'Connell said. "At the end of the day, I still make the decisions, but it's like anything. You get real, manageable feedback from somebody who's done it before – that's priceless for a young head coach."

View the best photos of Vikings QB Kirk Cousins from the 2022 season.

4. Kirko Chains at QB

O'Connell expressed excitement about entering a second season in Minnesota with Cousins at quarterback.

"The last time he had the same voice calling plays in the same system in his ear [for two consecutive years] was Sean McVay 2015 and 2016, before Sean took the job in Los Angeles," O'Connell noted. "So this will be really cool, for him to be in the same system, calling the same formations, same plays. [He] and I got a great rapport.

"I'm just excited to see him in year two," he added. "My goal is 2023 is one of the best seasons Kirk Cousins has had playing quarterback in the NFL. When that happens, I think it's a really good thing for him and the Vikings."