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Vikings 2023 Free Agency Outlook: Defense & Special Teams

EAGAN, Minn. — Changes to the 2023 Vikings defense began in early February with the hiring of new Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores and have continued into March.

Flores began his NFL career in New England's personnel department before transitioning to the sidelines, and Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said Flores' experience in that field is "awesome."

"I just can't tell you how great it is to be in meetings with him. I was joking the other day – he kind of sits back in his chair and puts on his 'Personnel B-Flo.' It's very different," Adofo-Mensah said. "And he's so conversational.

"It's incredible because ultimately what makes a great scout is the ability to communicate to people very clearly, who have never seen the player, what they do," Adofo-Mensah said. "What it's gonna look like, how they derive their value, and he's really good at that. He's also really open-minded. We talk a lot about glass being half full, so when you watch players, it's not just picking apart what they can't do; it's what can they do? How do we hide the stuff that maybe they don't do so well, or even develop it? He is so of that mind. He loves to mold and fit his defense to the personnel and scheme. He's incredibly talented; I don't think you need me to tell you that. He's already been a head coach in this league – and a successful one, at that. So I'm just really happy to work with him."

Flores has been evaluating the defense to help prepare Minnesota's course through free agency and the draft in order to identify best fits for his system. Adofo-Mensah made a point to note the word system over scheme.

"He built a system understanding personnel, knowing what is typically available in the draft, free agency, and the different resources you need, so his system allows us to really think big picture in all of those things," Adofo-Mensah said. "What's so great about him is he's very specific about why he wants what he wants, but he also understands the market dynamic. So he understands that 'Hey, yeah I could go in and just say I need the best corner, the best pass rusher, the best things,' but he also knows from a personnel standpoint those are the things everyone else wants. He's designed defenses in systems, really it's systems that account for those things and be able to overcome them."



Ross Blacklock, James Lynch, Esezi Otomewo, Harrison Phillips, T.J. Smith and Khyiris Tonga

Blacklock (via trade), Otomewo (draft), Phillips (signed free agent) and Tonga (signed from Atlanta's practice squad last October) were all new to the mix in 2022.

Phillips had been a priority addition when free agency opened last year and started all 17 games on the way to a career-high 59 tackles.

Tonga was a nice addition during the season who recorded 28 tackles, two QB hits and four passes defensed.

Lynch recorded 20 tackles in 15 games, and Blacklock appeared in 11. Otomewo totaled five tackles in limited action in five games.

Smith has played in one game in each of the past two seasons.


Jonathan Bullard and Dalvin Tomlinson (unrestricted free agents)

The Vikings worked with Tomlinson to extend their window to negotiate a new deal. Adofo-Mensah said the following about him at the combine:

"We love Dalvin. Whenever you have good players in your building and good people, you want to do everything you can to keep them. Obviously, we have a lot of decisions to make, so we're trying to buy ourselves a little more time. … He's a great guy, great player, and we love him."

Bullard meshed well, starting seven of 12 games played, but missed time because of injury. He's been part of a different team in each of the past five seasons.


The Vikings successfully paired Phillips with Tomlinson, and the duo was really growing together as Minnesota transferred from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base before Tomlinson missed time with a calf injury.

Tonga showed incredible strength, and the Vikings were able to retain him on as an exclusive rights free agent.

Flores plans to utilize a 3-4 base, but it should look different than last season's deployment.

View the best photos of the Vikings defensive line during the 2022 season.

WHO'S POTENTIALLY OUT THERE?'s Gregg Rosenthal recently released his list of the top 101 potential free agents, which has been updated to remove players who were franchise tagged or have signed new deals.

The following defensive linemen are listed in order of their overall rankings: 1. Javon Hargrave, 7. Dre'Mont Jones, 8. Zach Allen, 29. Poona Ford, 51. David Onyemata, 62. Fletcher Cox, 68. Greg Gaines, 76. Sheldon Rankins, 77. A'Shawn Robinson and 94. Larry Ogunjobi.

Hargrave picked a great time to record 11 of his 37.5 career sacks. He spent four seasons in Pittsburgh and three with Philadelphia.

Jones has had at least 5.5 sacks in each of the past three seasons. Ford was undrafted but has logged 64 starts in 76 games for Seattle.

Cox is 32 and has played all 11 seasons with Philadelphia. Gaines and Robinson helped the Rams win Super Bowl LVI. After five seasons with the Saints, Rankins has spent the past two with the Jets. Ogunjobi has played for three of the four AFC North teams (Browns, Bengals and Steelers).

EDGE/OLB (includes DE)


Danielle Hunter, Pat Jones II, Za'Darius Smith, Luiji Vilain, Benton Whitley and D.J. Wonnum

Hunter closed the season strong, finishing with a team-high 10.5 sacks while bouncing back from a torn pec injury that cost him 10 games in 2021.

Smith ranked second on the team with 10 sacks in his first season with Minnesota, but dealt with a knee contusion late in the season and totaled just 1.5 of those sacks after the calendar flipped to November.

Jones, a 2021 third-round pick, recorded the first four sacks of his career, including a pair in Miami. Wonnum also recorded four sacks on the season.

Vilain played 34 defensive snaps and 59 snaps on special teams across three games. Whitley has not appeared in a game.


Kenny Willekes

After recording 2.5 sacks in only six games in 2021, Willekes missed all of 2022 on Injured Reserve.


This position group invokes some of the most curiosity for how it will be deployed under Flores.

Hunter bounced back impressively while learning Minnesota's defense in 2022. He showed he's still an elite rusher who commands attention from opponents.

Smith signed a three-year contract with Minnesota last offseason, reconnecting with his former coaches Mike Pettine and Mike Smith.

Can Jones continue his climb in his third pro season? What does Wonnum look like in the final year of his rookie contract?

View the best photos of the Vikings outside linebackers, ZaDarius Smith, Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II and Luiji Villian during the 2022 season.


Rosenthal's list of the top 101 potential free agents includes the following edge defenders: 17. Marcus Davenport, 25. Yannick Ngakoue, 34. Jadeveon Clowney, 44. Arden Key, 49. Melvin Ingram, 53. Samson Ebukam, 60. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, 63. Frank Clark, 67. Justin Houston and 92. Andrew Van Ginkel.

Davenport's sacks total dropped from 9.0 in 2021 to 0.5 last season. Ngakoue's tenure with the Vikings lasted six games in 2020.

Clowney is a former No. 1 overall pick (2014) who has 43 career sacks.

Key (three teams), Ingram (four), Ebukam (two), Okoronkwo (two), Clark (two) and Houston (three) have all been in multiple spots' Van Ginkel just finished his rookie contract.



Brian Asamoah II, Troy Dye, Jordan Hicks and William Kwenkeu

Hicks was productive in his first season with the Vikings. Signed after his release by the Cardinals, Hicks started all 17 games for Minnesota and recorded 129 tackles with two tackles for loss, an interception, 10 passes defensed and a forced fumble.

Dye has played 296 snaps on defense in his career, compared to 798 on special teams.

Teammates reacted with enthusiasm when Kwenkeu was elevated from the practice squad as an undrafted rookie. He played 94 special teams snaps and 13 defensive snaps in six games.


Eric Kendricks

Minnesota announced the release of Kendricks on March 6, immediately making him eligible for free agency.


Replacing Kendricks will be the biggest goal for the group and isn't a small task. He led Minnesota in tackles in seven of eight seasons and served as a team captain for the first time in 2022.

Asamoah showed nice speed in the preseason as a rookie and delivered a key forced fumble against the Giants in the regular season.

View the best photos of inside linebackers, Eric Kendricks, Jordan Hicks, Brian Asamoah II and Troy Dye during the 2022 season.


Rosenthal's list of the top 101 potential free agents includes 11. Bobby Wagner, 13. Lavonte David, 18. David Long, 20. Tremaine Edmunds, 41. Drue Tranquill, 42. Cole Holcomb, 50. T.J. Edwards, 56. Kyzir White, 58. Germaine Pratt, 69. Azeez Al-Shaair, 70. Bobby Okereke, 71. Leighton Vander Esch, 85. Denzel Perryman and 87. Kaden Elliss.

This position group runs the gamut, going from the six-time First-Team All-Pro Wagner and David, who will both be 33 next season, to younger players.

Long, Edmunds, Tranquill, Holcomb, Edwards, White, Pratt, Al-Shaair, Okereke, Vander Esch and Elliss all will be 28 or younger when next season kicks off.

Perryman, 30, played for the Chargers for six seasons before joining the Raiders for the past two.

Edwards and White provided a nice combo for Philadelphia last season. Al-Shaair had a monster game against Minnesota in 2021 with eight tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.



Kalon Barnes (CB), Andrew Booth, Jr. (CB), Camryn Bynum (S), Lewis Cine (S), Akayleb Evans (CB), Tay Gowan (CB), Theo Jackson (S), Josh Metellus (S), Harrison Smith (S)

O'Connell shared some positive updates this week regarding the recovery efforts of Booth and Cine. Bringing those two back in the fold is almost like having extra draft picks in a year where the Vikings currently have five selections.

Bynum was on the field for every defensive snap in 2022, his second season at safety after playing cornerback in college.

Smith recorded five interceptions for the fourth time in his career in 2022, boosting his career total to 34.


Cameron Dantzler, Sr. (CB)

Minnesota waived Dantzler on March 10.


Kris Boyd (CB), Patrick Peterson (CB), Duke Shelley (CB) and Chandon Sullivan (CB)


Corners and safeties will be another area where Flores' opinions may show up in decisions the Vikings make.

Peterson has done well in each of his two seasons with Minnesota, including recording five interceptions in 2022.

Sullivan joined Minnesota on a one-year deal last season and has helped his teams claim the NFC North in each of the past four seasons.

Shelley was an under-the-radar signing who rose to the occasion when injuries mounted last season.

Boyd has developed into a special teams ace.

View the best photos of Vikings cornerbacks during the 2022 season.