After successful start to their 'competitive rebuild,' Vikings face larger challenge ahead

Dan Orlovsky tries to make sense of Kirk Cousins' fourth-down throw (1:18)

Dan Orlovsky explains why Dexter Lawrence deserves more credit for forcing Kirk Cousins to throw short with the Vikings' season on the line. (1:18)

EAGAN, Minn. -- As training camp concluded last summer, Kirk Cousins looked around the Minnesota Vikings locker room and absorbed what he saw. The quarterback added up the team's large core of well-paid veterans. He noticed a handful of key pending free agents whose future was unclear.

"And I realized that this group won't be together forever," Cousins told ESPN last month. "So there was a little bit of, 'Let's enjoy this group because we may all be together next year, but we may not.' Let's make sure we cherish every day of practice together, every rep of every game, win or lose, good or bad. Because we get the privilege to play together. Some of these guys, we've played together for a while and you realize it won't last forever."

Cousins is expected to return as the Vikings' quarterback in 2023, but the team around him could be quite different in Year 2 of general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah's "competitive rebuild." Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O'Connell squeezed 13 victories from the roster they inherited, but that group includes five other players under contract for the 2023 season (at a combined $70 million in cap space) who will be 31 or older.

Safety Harrison Smith (will be 34 when the season starts), receiver Adam Thielen (will be 33), pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith (will be 31) and linebackers Eric Kendricks (will be 31) and Jordan Hicks (will be 31) are all candidates to move on. It's fair to wonder if the Vikings will see the value in retaining tailback Dalvin Cook, who will turn 28 next summer and is set to count $14.1 million against the 2023 cap. And it's too early to know if the Vikings will bring back a series of key free agents, including cornerback Patrick Peterson, center Garrett Bradbury, defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson and running back Alexander Mattison.

"It's a complex equation that we're always trying to solve," Adofo-Mensah said this week.

That task will be more complicated than Adofo-Mensah probably hoped when he arrived in January 2022. It might well be time to clear out the upper portions of this roster, but there's not much evidence to suggest the Vikings have the assets and resources to backfill it adequately enough to avoid a step back in the standings next season.

Adofo-Mensah waived seven members of the Vikings' 2021 draft class last summer, and his inaugural 10-player class had little immediate impact in 2022. After making a series of trades last year to shore up the roster, he has only four 2023 draft picks, with perhaps one more coming via the NFL's compensatory program. And any free agent expenditures must be made with the understanding that the Vikings could soon have two quarterback-sized contracts on their roster: one for Cousins and another for All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson, who is eligible for an extension.

In a perfect world, 2022 first-round draft pick Lewis Cine would be ready to start at safety next season, possibly as a replacement for Harrison Smith. Second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr., and perhaps fourth-round pick Akayleb Evans, would elevate to starting cornerback jobs. Second-round pick Ed Ingram would be a building block of the offensive line, third-round linebacker Brian Asamoah would be ready to start for Kendricks or Hicks and sixth-round running back Ty Chandler would be a potential low-cost replacement for Cook or Mattison.

But Cine played only two defensive snaps as a rookie before he suffered a compound fracture of his left leg and dislocation of his left ankle. Booth got defensive snaps in two games, encountered a series of injuries and appeared in only six games. Evans played in 10 games, getting defensive snaps in five of them, but suffered three concussions and eventually joined Booth on injured reserve. Asamoah was a season-long special teams ace but got only 116 snaps on defense.

Chandler was inactive for 14 games, and while Ingram played every offensive snap at right guard, he finished the season ranked No. 62 of 63 in ESPN's pass block win rate metric and No. 44 in run block win rate.

Overall, the Vikings' rookie class tied for the ninth-fewest offensive or defensive snaps in the NFL. Whom among that group can the team count on for significant contributions in 2023? Cine has insisted he will make a full recovery. But Booth was oft-injured in college at Clemson and Evans' concussion history is now a significant hurdle. The capacity to acquire further reinforcements will be curbed by the limited number of draft picks this spring.

Speaking this week, Adofo-Mensah said he views the 2022 and 2023 classes as a combined "two-year horizon."

He added: "Last year our class was bigger than you normally would have expected, and I think we've got a lot of young, good contributing players out there, so ... when you look at the ages of a lot of guys on sort of 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 obviously always ways to create more picks."

As a former analytics staffer, Adofo-Mensah is cut from a different cloth than many other NFL general managers. During his media availability this week, he mixed his discussion of analytical terms with musical references from N.E.R.D. to Taylor Swift. He said he was more "Chad than Pharrell" to describe his introverted nature, referred to "champagne problems" when discussing upcoming negotiations with Jefferson's agent and referenced Bayes' theorem to describe how he will project the likelihood of future contributions from draft classes.

But the issues he faces are standard NFL team-building challenges, and there is no magic approach. Generally speaking, all teams hit and miss on draft picks over time. Of the three in-season trades Adofo-Mensah made last year using 2023 draft picks, he hit on one (tight end T.J. Hockenson) and got little immediate returns on two (receiver/punt returner Jalen Reagor and defensive lineman Ross Blacklock.)

Put simply, Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings are in a position that could result in a competitive backslide. As they navigate their roster upheaval, the Vikings face a first-place schedule in 2023 that includes games against five of the NFL's eight 2022 division champions.

The most optimistic (and not unreasonable) assessment would note that O'Connell has a demonstrated track record of making the most out of the roster he is given. And so it was notable that while speaking this week, O'Connell raised the stakes beyond pursuing a "competitive rebuild."

"After the things we've done this year," O'Connell said, "we can start talking about the next step: a championship standard. ... Making sure that the standard of knowing we've got the culture, knowing that we've got the right things going in our building. Now the last phase of that is the accountability to each other to make sure that that standard is championship worthy."