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As the off-season continues, fans are constantly evaluating their team’s decisions. Was that move good enough? Are they going to regret letting him walk? Should they have taken this player instead? Are making the playoffs a realistic outcome? However, regardless of whether in-season or in the off-season, one thing holds true for all fans: They want to see their team hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. In reality, some teams are better equipped to complete these tasks and others, really are not. Minnesota fans throughout the last few months are fairly split (not a new phenomenon), where some believe there is enough talent to make noise in the playoffs and others believe the window has closed thus signaling time to rebuild.
So, what is a realistic outcome for Minnesota in the coming 2023 campaign? Gone are mainstays like Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks and Dalvin Tomlinson as well as some older vets that contributed over the last few years. It’s a new era in the Twin Cities and there’s a buzz around this team, whether for better or for worse. Don’t be fooled though, Minnesota went into this off-season with one thing in mind: Get younger, faster, and cheaper. Kwesi prioritized young players hitting their prime and worked to clear the books left by Spielman and co for the future. However, Minnesota is still within striking distance of the NFC and has enough talent to make an impact, but is it enough to make a significant impact or is it just grinding gears. In a realistic world, Minnesota can look forward to a 10 to 12 win season, give or take a win or loss depending on how things shake out. Let’s break it down.
Starting with the offense, Minnesota is poised for a big year ahead. As a top ten unit in the league, the Vikings get another year with continuity and the best, young receiver in the game in Justin Jefferson. However, this year the front office went out and got a speedy technician who has great hands and a phenomenal route tree to be his running mate. Throw in a full season with TJ Hockenson and Minnesota is preparing for a nice air raid offense. That said, Minnesota runs through Justin Jefferson and it’s safe to assume Jefferson wants to claim the title of first-receiver to top 2,000 yards in a season. With that goal, the other receivers will be hindered a bit as no one else tops 1,000 yards this upcoming season. Kirk has a stellar year, putting up a little over 4,650 yards and 38 touchdowns to lead Jefferson to top last year, coming up just shy on history with a 119/1933/7 statline. Hockenson leads the team in receiving touchdowns 84/904/13 and rookie wideout Addison goes 67/710/4. KJ Osborn and Jalen Nailor also contribute consistently but on the ground, Mattison holds his own with 1,050 rushing yards, losing quite a bit of receiving work to a committee approach though. The line as a whole still has bad games but overall improves from last year, only allowing 25 sacks. Minnesota wins some shoot-outs over the course of the season (Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit) and keeps it close in some high-scoring losses (Kansas City, Cincinnati, Detroit again..).
Defensively, Flores comes in and greatly improves a poor unit from last year, but there are growing pains. For a unit, there could be as many as eight new starters and many of them will be under the age of 25 years old. To start, a young secondary sees some early exposure while getting lit up by Philadelphia but eventually finds stability with a starting corner rotation of Murphy Jr, Evans, and Blackmon that helps shutout Chicago at Midway. Similarly, within the front seven, the defense gets creative to get after the quarterback, allowing Davenport and Hunter chances to take on mismatches that terrorize opposing quarterbacks while youngsters Asamoah II and Roy help against the run. Is a top ten jump within the scope of possibilities? Probably not but getting near the midway point is and Flores does a great job of being conservatively aggressive while playing to his player’s strengths. However, the strength of this defense won’t be the corners or the front seven, but the safeties. With a room of Harrison Smith, Cam Bynum, Josh Mettelus, Lewis Cine, and Jay Ward, who are talented and utilized all over the field, Flores consistently gets time and snaps for his versatile playmakers. Whether playing deep, in the slot, entering the box, or covering a tight end or wide receiver, Flores has his safeties all over the field. Look for some frustrating performances (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver) but some major steps forward as well (Carolina, Chicago, Las Vegas).
So where’s that leave Minnesota? The Vikings come out of the regular season with a 10-7 record with losses to Philadelphia, Kansas City, Green Bay, Denver, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit. However, 10-7 is good enough to secure a playoff spot (call it a tie with Detroit, we’ll give them the division). Going into the playoffs, Minnesota enters as a wildcard against one of the four division winners (Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Seattle). As a fan, I’m confident they can squeak out a win, but the question becomes not whether they can win their first game, but if they can win THE game. To do that, Minnesota will need to run the gauntlet, facing an NFC where the only great threats are Philadelphia and maybe Dallas. Truly, there are other good teams (New York, Atlanta, maybe Tampa Bay, San Francisco) but the Vikings can hold their own against any of the teams above on the right day. However, can Minnesota stand toe-to-toe with the giants in the AFC and that answer remains to be seen. If they play like they did against Buffalo in 2022, the answer is absolutely yes, but there was some luck and a lot of grit in that win.
Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but this is a realistic outcome and look at what Minnesota has in store for them come September. Can the Vikings make it back to the playoffs? Yes, but they’ll need to pry open that Super Bowl window and find something inside of them to avoid another one-and-done postseason. Regardless of the outcome, the Vikings are full steam ahead and there’s something brewing up in the North. The fingerprints of Kwesi and O’Connell are starting to take shape and whatever is in store is going to catch some off guard, whether for better or for worse.