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Monday Morning Mailbag: Early Draft Talkers Ahead of Combine

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Well, we didn't have to wait long after the Super Bowl before going full-steam ahead into the 2023 offseason.

View photos of current Vikings players during their time at the NFL Scouting Combine from previous years.

The 2023 NFL Scouting Combine will highlight this week and include podium media sessions by Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, scheduled for 9 a.m. (CT) Tuesday, and Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, planned for 1:30 p.m. (CT) Wednesday. The personnel, coaching and medical staffs for all 32 teams will convene in Indianapolis to evaluate more than 300 prospects who have been invited to participate in on-field workouts, in-person meetings and medical exams.

We have a Vikings Entertainment Network crew heading there as well, so keep an eye out for some interviews by VEN's Tatum Everett and Gabe Henderson, as well as some other content. This will be my first time attending the combine for I last attended the event in 2014 while with Tennessee. I look forward to seeing changes that have been implemented.

Reminder: The second episode of this year's four-part docuseries, "The Voyage," will post to YouTube, and in the Vikings app at 2 p.m. (CT) Tuesday. It will be broadcast by FOX 9 KMSP in the Twin Cities at 10:30 p.m. (CT) Wednesday.

Lastly, welcome to the Vikings to inside linebackers coach Mike Siravo and defensive quality control coach Lance Bennett, whose hires were announced Friday.

Last year, I guessed correctly that the Vikings would take a safety in the first round and thought we would take Booth if he was available with the second pick. Neither played roles in their first years, mostly because of injuries. Do you think these first- and second-round picks will fill our needs at these positions, or were these picks misses, requiring [Defensive Coordinator Brian] Flores to draft another early round CB and perhaps another safety?

Without a second-round pick (thanks to a bad trade with Philly), can the Vikings afford to pick in the first round vs. trading down?

— Vincent Lencioni

Including both questions sent separately by Vincent, who nailed the Vikings first efforts in the 2022 NFL Draft. Minnesota tabbed safety Lewis Cine with the 32nd overall pick (after trading down with Detroit from the 12th spot).

The Vikings picked up the 34th pick (traded to Green Bay) and the 66th pick (used on Brian Asamoah II) for sending the 12th and 46th overall picks to the Lions. Detroit used the latter on Josh Paschal.

Minnesota then turned that 34th pick (the Packers drafted Christian Watson) into the 53rd and 59th overall selections. The 53rd pick, along with the 77th and 192nd were then sent to the Colts to move up and select Andrew Booth, Jr., at 42nd. That deal also included a fourth-round selection that was involved in another trade. The 59th pick was used on guard Ed Ingram.

A couple of overarching principles from Adofo-Mensah's first draft as Vikings GM were that he bucked traditional convention by trading within the division and showed a willingness to be patient or aggressive, depending on the board at that moment.

It's way too early to label any 2022 rookie a miss, especially when the players' first seasons were dramatically shortened by injuries. Cine's lower leg fracture in London was rough to see, but he's made significant progress. Booth's draft position was hurt by lingering concern from college injuries. Not saying history will repeat, but that's what happened with Christian Darrisaw in 2021. Darrisaw's rookie season had glimpses of his potential, and last year should have every Vikings fan excited about the "Crime Dog," a nickname from Kirk Cousins.

Flores will get to work with Cine and Booth when offseason programs return to action (after the draft), so it's also a little early to know what the defensive coordinator will think of the young defensive backs, but both showed considerable intensity before they were sidelined last season.

A little bit of housekeeping, but Minnesota's 2023 second-round pick wasn't shipped in a trade with the Eagles. It was dealt to Detroit as part of the trade that brought T.J. Hockenson to the Vikings just before the trade deadline (Vikings received Hockenson, a 2023 fourth-round pick and a 2024 conditional pick in exchange for this year's second-rounder and Minnesota's 2024 third-round pick). Based on Hockenson's immediate productivity and the fact he'll be back next year and could be here for years to come, that's actually a great start to a trade that will continue to be assessed for years to come. Vincent might be referring to the preseason trade that brought Jalen Reagor to Minnesota from Philadelphia. That one involved a 2023 seventh-rounder and a 2024 conditional pick in exchange for Reagor.

The potential return of Cine and Booth essentially is like Minnesota having two extra picks for 2023, with the benefit of already having had those selections in the building for a year.

Adofo-Mensah was asked if there is "a reasonable way" he can add picks to the four the Vikings currently have, and he pointed toward Minnesota's 10-player class from a year ago.

"There's always ways, but I would also say that last year when we talked about our plans, it was a two-year horizon. So last year, our class was bigger than normally we would have expected, and I think we've got a lot of young, good contributing players out there, so I don't think that we necessarily have; if you look at the ages of a lot of guys on the back end of our roster, we've got a lot of good, young talented players, so I don't see that as a limitation to us, but there's always ways to create more picks."

If Adofo-Mensah doesn't like the value where the Vikings are at (24th spot — 23rd overall selection because of Miami's forfeited pick), then he'll have the option of trading down again and collecting more picks to either use or navigate the draft board later.

Our biggest need in 2023 is improving the defense. Hiring Brian Flores is step one. Do you think taking the best defensive player available at each draft position is a good strategy?

— Gerald Goblirsch

Interesting proposition from Gerald here for going all-defense.

Five of Minnesota's first six picks in 2022 were defensive players, so there's already been an emphasis on trying to improve that side of the ball.

The effort remains ongoing, but Minnesota's draft strategy might depend on what happens in free agency. We're a couple of weeks from free agency beginning at the start of the New League Year at 3 p.m. (CT) on March 15.

View photos of Brian Flores during his first day as Vikings Defensive Coordinator at TCO Performance Center on Feb. 15.

I've already mentioned Cine and Booth, but the Vikings also are poised to return cornerback Akayleb Evans, who showed some flashes before concussions halted his first season.

Asamoah and Esezi Otomewo were the other two defensive picks among Minnesota's first six choices in 2022.

I'd expect Flores' input on what he needs for his defense to run optimally will be welcomed.

It's evident that the defense was atrocious. That said, hiring Brian Flores is a step in the right direction. The issue is salary cap. How do you improve the defensive side of the ball and not lose some offensive weapons? Knowing [Justin Jefferson] will demand big bucks, how do you get under the cap and still improve?


— John Heil

The Vikings and other teams will be navigating the salary cap in the coming weeks to get under the limit.

Jefferson is under contract for 2023, and the Vikings have a fifth-year option on him for 2024, so the time horizon for an extension might not be as imminent as some try to emphasize. He's shown to be a great player, teammate and person. The Vikings and Jefferson will have forthright discussions, but both parties are likely to be aware of market rates.

One way to improve while under economic limits is to gain more from players like the ones mentioned above because they're early in their first contracts.

Changes to utilization of players don't count against the salary cap, so that's a point where Flores can make a mark and help the overall team if his plans take shape.

Now that we have a DC in place, any ideas on who we should target in free agency on the defense? Should we go after a pass rusher or a corner like [James] Bradbury from the Eagles? If we can develop a top 20 defense to go with our top-flight offense, the Vikings should have another good year. The Vikings have a history of producing great defenses. We need to get back to that.

— Eric Walker in New York

I think there are probably some out there who would have traded a couple of close wins this past season in exchange for seeing a more fear-causing defense deployed. Say an 11-6 mark with a consistently stingier defense but a couple of bounces go the other way and wins become losses? That's just how intertwined dominant defenses have been intertwined with most of the best seasons in franchise history.

What if going forward it wouldn't be an either/or proposition? If the Vikings defense can improve from bottom four in points against and yards allowed to middle of the pack while keeping the offense in the top 10 in points for and yards gained, could Minnesota repeat as division champs for the first time since 2008-09? Even if that happens, there's still no guarantee that 13 wins can be repeated because of how many tough opponents are on the 2023 schedule.

When we recapped the Vikings outside linebackers last month, it was clear that Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith were the overwhelming majority of Minnesota's pass rush, so further complementing their threat could help and have a residual effect for the secondary. Tighter coverage in the secondary also could help the players up front finish more plays with an adverse impact on quarterbacks.

There has been a lot of discussion regarding what the Vikings should do with the wide receiver corps. Many are suggesting Adam Thielen should be released given his advancing years and declining production (a compelling argument). There are also discussions about taking a receiver in Round 1 of this year's draft, and still others about adding one via free agency. I don't think I've heard anyone talk about Jalen Nailor stepping into a bigger role, and I wonder whether this may be a consideration prior to spring training (i.e. the draft).

Vikings Forever!

— Guy Seela

One positive overshadowed by the overall day at Green Bay was Nailor's day at Lambeau Field. He had three catches for 89 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown, while playing just nine offensive snaps.

The following week, Nailor played 33 offensive snaps and caught four passes for 62 yards on five targets at Soldier Field. Nailor played exclusively on special teams in Minnesota's playoff loss to the New York Giants.

Thielen's catches (70) and yards (716) were in the neighborhood of 2021 (67 for 726), but his touchdowns have decreased from 14 in 2020 to 10 in 2021 to six last season. His annual yards per reception decreased from 12.5 to 10.8 to 10.2 in that time span. Thielen played 52 offensive snaps in the playoff game and caught three passes for 50 yards on four targets, so he was productive when the ball went his way in a single-elimination game.

One of the key things when investing a first-round pick is understanding the roster you already have.

Remember 2016 when many people said the Vikings had to draft a receiver in the first round? Minnesota did, picking Laquon Treadwell, but he caught one pass for 15 yards that season.

Thielen started 10 games in 2016 and caught 69 passes for 967 yards with five scores while working in tandem with Stefon Diggs (84 of 903 and three). This isn't going after Treadwell, it's just to say in hindsight, that pick could have been used elsewhere.

The Vikings know Jefferson, Thielen and K.J. Osborn quite well, and they got a good look at Nailor in the meeting rooms all season and on the field down the stretch.

View the best celebration photos of Vikings players during the 2022-23 season.

Good morning and thanks for entertaining our questions. I think the third round would be an excellent time to draft a quarterback. The quarterback I see with a lot of promise is Malik Cunningham. In college, he had [120] touchdowns. It would be like obtaining Lamar Jackson without the expense. We need to look at the quarterback of the future, and a pocket quarterback is a thing of the past. Thank you for listening.

— Rodger Wilmore in Sacramento, California

What do you think of us drafting Tanner McKee?

— Demarous Davis

Always appreciate the opportunity to address questions and love when there's a wide range of opinions like the juxtaposition of these questions from Rodger and Demarous.

Cunningham and McKee exemplify that, with a mobile former Cardinals QB vs. the pocket passer who suited up for the Cardinal.

There probably will be a few comparisons between Cunningham and Jackson since both played at Louisville and put up similar numbers.

Cunningham and McKee will be among the quarterbacks in Indianapolis this week.

Cunningham is listed 1/8 of an inch below 6 feet, and his hands were measured at 9 3/8. Russell Wilson, who was picked in the third round back in 2012, kind of reset the conversation for a QB having to be above 6 feet (his hand size was measured at 10 1/4). Teams emphasized height at the position when trying to find pocket passers, but mobility at the position has shown it can offset a lack of height.

Cunningham's 120 total touchdowns (70 passing and 50 rushing) topped Jackson's school record of 119 and became the fourth FBS player since at least 2000 with 50 passing and 50 or more rushing touchdowns (joined Jackson, Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow). He reached those numbers despite missing some time in 2022 with a shoulder injury, leading the Cardinals with 12 rushing touchdowns.

The previous season, he led FBS quarterbacks with 1,034 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground in 13 starts.

According to his bio created by NFL Media Research, Cunningham chose Louisville because of the success at quarterback by Jackson and former Vikings first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater.

McKee isn't going to be mistaken for having a lack of height, as he stands 6-foot-6, which helped as he also lettered in high school in basketball and volleyball.

McKee, who declared for the draft after his redshirt sophomore season, wanted to play at Stanford because of Andrew Luck, but he only played in 23 games, and the team went 6-15 in his starts.

In McKee's bio by NFL Media Research, Pro Football Focus rated his "turnover-worthy play" at just 1.6 percent, which ranked sixth among 85 quarterbacks with at least 400 dropbacks in 2022.

Kirk Cousins is entering the final year of his current contract, so we 'll see if he's extended again, or if the Vikings and/or Cousins want to let this year ride out before determining future plans. Any movement before the draft could impact Minnesota's decision.

NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks rated McKee as his fifth quarterback in his initial position-by-position rankings. We'll see how showings at the combine affect Brooks' rankings and other chatter on the quarterbacks.

View the best photos of Vikings players doing the Griddy celebration dance in the endzone during the 2022-23 season.

What position are the Vikings focusing on this offseason for defense?

— Eugene Lenz

That's a likely talker this coming week, so not ignoring this question but instead saying there will probably be some content featuring predictions by experts.

I also am not trying to kick the can too far down the road, but I can't underscore how much free agency can impact draft strategy. Please stay tuned in coming weeks, beginning with version 4.0 of the Mock Draft Tracker that will be posted on Tuesday. Here is version 3.0 in case you missed it.

Packers, Lions and Bears, oh my! The NFC North seems to be becoming a power in the NFC this year. The Bears have an electrifying young QB in [Justin] Fields and look to get a king's ransom from the No. 1 overall pick to take the next step in this rebuilding process. The Lions are entering the third year in their own rebuilding process and looked to be one of the more dangerous teams during the latter half of the 2022 season. The Packers also had a late-season resurgence and look to keep building off that young talented group of wide receivers, with or without [Aaron] Rodgers. How do we keep pace with these other teams?

— Jake Bachrach

I think the first part for the Vikings moving forward is to understand that 2022 results do not guarantee successes in 2023 but also build on their own foundation created last year when O'Connell guided Minnesota to 13 wins, a total reached by just three Vikings squads all-time.

What was pitched last year as a competitive rebuild ended with a division title and featured some incredible games along the way.

I think the second part for the Vikings is to realize Chicago and Detroit will be farther along in their rebuilds. Minnesota played Detroit in December and knows just how well the Lions finished the season. Green Bay had such an erratic season after winning the division three consecutive seasons.

To repeat as division champs and advance in the playoffs, the Vikings have some strengths to continue to refine and some areas that need improvement.

Not sure how long it's been, but why are rosters limited to 53 players? Why not 60? Is it because of the advent of the "practice" squad? Every team scavenges players off the practice squad who could be providing depth on a 60-player roster. Just don't understand the logic.

— Scott in Bloomington, Minnesota

We can't talk about roster sizes without a quick shoutout to Joe Kapp's "40 for 60" speech when turning down the team MVP award in 1969. For the younger readers, Kapp was referring to the number of players on the roster and minutes in a regulation game.

While the number of minutes has not changed since "40 for 60" became a rallying cry, roster sizes have fluctuated with new Collective Bargaining Agreements between the NFL and NFL Players Association.

The 2011 CBA implemented a 53-man roster with a limit of 46 dressing on game day, leading to seven players being declared as inactive. The deal also ended an emergency QB rule when expanding the limit of players dressing from 45 to 46.

I wouldn't be surprised if there's some eventual chatter on trying to reimplement an emergency QB policy in response to the NFC Championship Game in which Brock Purdy suffered an elbow injury and had to re-enter the game after Josh Johnson left the game because of concussion protocol. Purdy totaled 4 yards on two pass attempts in the second half.

Some, however, would argue that 48 active players are enough for a team to dress three quarterbacks and cover its depth needs on offense, defense and special teams.

Expanding roster sizes from 53 to 60 would require changes to the 2020 CBA, which ushered in an expansion of the game-day limit to 48, as well as expanding the practice squad to 16 players and increasing availabilities for veterans to be on practice squads.

While practice squad players can be poached by other teams, some of these policies were developed because of teams that tried to stash players. Thus, if there's a player a team absolutely wants to keep, the only sure way is to have that player on the 53.

Jumping from 53 to 60 would be a large boost, but then that would require extensive salary cap changes as well, which is why an expansion like that could not happen without being a feature point in a future CBA. Maybe a more incremental increase to 55?

Teams have also appreciated the opportunity to elevate up to two players from their practice squad each week, a rule adopted to help navigate the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams also had the ability to prevent certain poaches from week to week in the changes made.

The 16-player practice squads seem to benefit those players and teams.

I had a good conversation with a couple of colleagues the other day. One suggested that football should try to create a version of baseball's "September call-ups" where the roster sizes increase at the end of the season so teams can evaluate prospects in "The Show" and rest some key players for postseason runs. This would be done by removing the inactives requirements for the final two weeks of an NFL regular season. Thus, all 53 could be available to play if a team so chose, or it would have additional resources to be strategic if playing a game that did not affect playoff position.

I look forward every year to the Annual League Meeting because it's when teams suggest rule and bylaw changes and take votes (24 of 32 teams must vote for a change).

I really like how Pete [Bercich] details the action of our team members in "Film Room," but can't other teams watch these clips, too? Just hoping we're not giving away any of our team secrets. Keep up the great work!

— Rick O. in Stillwater, Oklahoma

I'm in the same club of enjoying Pete Bercich's breakdowns. He has a good style of showing the knowledge he's gained as Vikings linebacker, assistant coach and analyst in a conversational way that can connect with fans of varying expertise levels.

I think the general assumption is once a play exists on game film, there's someone in every NFL building who can digest a good bit of information, so the key is providing the analysis that helps people become more informed while not extending any trade secrets.

I've heard some anecdotes from teams combing other teams' content offerings or social media. The latter is the reason that O'Connell politely asked fans not to post videos of formations and plays that they recorded at training camp last year.

O'Connell worked directly with external media members, as well as VEN, to communicate his expectations for keeping practices as open as possible. That open communication was a good starting point for O'Connell's first year as a head coach and part of the relationship building that occurs.