2022 was an overperformance of epic proportions as they pulled off 13 wins in O’Connell’s debut season, pulling off some of the best 4th quarter performances we will ever see. 2023 may have a significant asterisk on it based on the way that Kirk Cousins was playing in the games before his season came to a screeching end with his torn Achilles.
As Minnesota heads into 2024, there are far more questions than answers. What does year two of a Brian Flores defense look like? How can you maximize this roster while continuing to build toward the future? Who is playing quarterback?
Like the competitive rebuild mantra, we look to balance finding the answer to some of these questions with outlining the biggest priorities for the 2024 off-season.
Extending Justin Jefferson
A no-brainer if I’ve ever seen one.
Justin Jefferson is the face of the franchise and makes the case to be one of the faces of the league. Not only does a Jefferson extension give you some much-needed flexibility this season, but it’s also well-deserved. The question becomes: How much is he going to break the bank?
Jefferson is arguably the most dominant non-quarterback in the NFL and is looking for compensation to back that up. There are precedents in place for receivers who are dominant (Larry Fitzgerald – 2011, Calvin Johnson – 2012, DeAndre Hopkins – 2020) that reset the non-quarterback market. If you sign Jefferson to a four-to-five-year extension, he will be looking to match or exceed Nick Bosa’s $34 million APY and/or rival T.J. Watt’s $20 million guaranteed per year.
That puts Jefferson around the ballpark of four or five years, worth around $170 to $175 million, with guarantees of around $90 to $100 million. The numbers may seem excessive on the surface, but player contracts are steadily rising. Jefferson will want to continue to be among the highest-paid players in the NFL, and deservedly so.
Despite losing seven games to a nagging hamstring injury, Jefferson eclipsed 1000 receiving yards and finished top-20 among receivers in total yards and first downs. He was second in receiving yards per game behind only Tyreek Hill and was sixth in success rate (min. 60+ targets).
Jefferson is a talent that we may not see again in the NFL. Good organizations keep good players in the building, and there aren’t many better players in the NFL than #18.
Signing Danielle Hunter
While on the topic of keeping good players, a Hunter re-negotiation should be next on the list of priorities for the Vikings.
The reasoning for this is two-fold:
Patrick Jones II is the only outside pass rusher on contract for the 2024 season. After being paid $2.5 million per game and $5 million per sack, there isn’t much optimism that Marcus Davenport will return. D.J. Wonnum is a free agent coming off a partially torn quad that ended his season, complicating his situation. Without Hunter, there is no guarantee how good this pass rush can be in the second year of Flores’ tenure.
Hunter, at age 30, may have had the best season of his career, setting career-highs in sacks (16.5, fifth-most in the NFL), tackles for loss (23, tied for the league lead), combined tackles (83, second among edge rushers), solo tackles (54, third among edge rushers) and forced fumbles (4, tied for fifth-most).
Hunter is one of the hottest names in free agency circles, but he is on record stating how he would love to stay in Minnesota. The Vikings should do everything they can to ensure that doesn’t change.
PFF has Hunter’s projected contract to be around three years, $65 million, with $37.5 million guaranteed.
Drafting an interior lineman
Walter Payton Man of the Year representative Harrison Phillips had a great season, ending fourth in run-stop win rate among interior defensive linemen last season.
However, he can’t do it all by himself. Dean Lowry was uninspiring for most of 2023 before being put on injury reserve with a torn pectoral, Jaquelin Roy was a rookie, Sheldon Day and Jonathan Bullard are fine depth pieces, but they are both free agents this off-season.
The talent in this year’s interior class, especially at the top of the draft, will allow Minnesota the opportunity to add a blue-chip talent to the defensive front. Texas’ Byron Murphy II or Illinois’ Jer’Zhan Newton are prospects at 11 that could instantly add value to the defensive line with their unique mixtures of size and strength.
Drafting a cornerback
Flores’ defense was unique this season in that it didn’t have to play traditional cover-0 or cover-1 in the back end behind their blitz packages. Flores played, as Cody Alexander calls it, Hot Quarters behind the blitzes, lining the defensive backs at the line to gain and telling them to keep everything in front of them and limit yards after catch. That worked for the first 14 weeks of the season. However, by the end of the season, Minnesota’s bold strategy was all but figured out.
Offenses were getting whatever they wanted. Quarterbacks were dicing up the secondary at will. Minnesota was third in yards after catch allowed and second in passer rating allowed in these games, behind only Green Bay, who fired their defensive coordinator by season’s end.
The Vikings missed 48 tackles in the final four games; 36 came from the secondary.
To take the next step in the evolution of the Flores defense, the secondary needs an injection of talent on the outside. They lost the element of surprise that allows this defense to confuse quarterbacks and coordinators alike, and they can get that back with the right personnel in the secondary.
The first name that crosses my mind is Iowa’s Cooper DeJean. His versatility makes him an almost plug-and-play candidate if he were to be the pick. Other names that come to mind are the long Oregon corner Khyree Jackson and the savvy Rutgers corner Max Melton.
Finding the answer at quarterback
The reality is that none of this matters if the Vikings don’t find the answer at the quarterback position. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has given every indication that he will explore his options in free agency, and if you’re Minnesota, I say let him.
Cousins’ asking price going into this off-season has fluctuated from report to report. The consensus is that it should be higher than his current $35 million number, and he wants it fully guaranteed. Without his Achilles injury last season, the Vikings are surging at the right time alongside their defense, possibly competing with the Detroit Lions for the NFC North title.
The problem is that the Achilles injury did happen, and Cousins is not getting any younger. How much are you willing to put into the first eight games of last season, specifically the San Francisco & Green Bay games right before he got injured? It may be time to explore other answers at the position.
Cousins is the prize on the free agent market this season, and unless he takes a team-friendly deal to run it back one more time, this may be the last time you see the soon-to-be 36-year-old in the purple and gold.
There are already rumors swirling that the Vikings are becoming trade-up candidates in this upcoming draft. Either way, the answer to the position needs to be definitive. Whether that’s bringing back Kirk, drafting your potential future, or possibly both. This off-season, the question of how Minnesota addresses the quarterback position for the next two to five years needs to be answered.
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