8 min read

Don’t Count Minnesota Vikings Out of NFC North Race in 2023

Here’s today’s NFL quiz question: What team won its division by four games last season but is being picked to finish second in the division this season by most national media outlets? Answer: The Minnesota Vikings, winners of 13 games in 2022.

Yet, the Detroit Lions — who finished last season 9-8 and out of the playoffs — are the popular choice to dethrone the Vikings atop the NFC North. There have even been a few bold prognostications the Green Bay Packers — coming off an 8-9 season and minus Aaron Rodgers — will rise up and win the division crown with Jordan Love.

Part of the Detroit love stems from the team winning eight of its last 10 games after a 1-6 start. Plus, the Lions finished with the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense. But are the Detroit advocates forgetting about the team’s last-ranked defense? Although, the Lions did add some help in free agency. Clearly, the Lions are on the rise, but four games are a lot to make up in the standings.

>> READ: Vikings Season Preview from Greg Jennings

Vikings' Offseason Changes

Minnesota jettisoned several veteran starters for salary cap relief and/or diminished quality of play, including Eric Kendricks, Za’Darius Smith, Patrick Peterson and Dalvin Tomlinson from last season's 31st-ranked defense, proving these four didn’t play great and are replaceable. The team said goodbye to two offensive starters Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen, who are good players. However, it appears the team has quality players ready to step in.

The Vikings also are being unfairly disrespected for their NFL record 11 one-score wins. They won those games, which is what truly matters. Their first-round home playoff exit against the New York Giants took some luster off their 2022 season.

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell was asked this week for his reaction to the Lions being picked to win the division by many media members and if he will use that as motivation with his players.

“I think if you need things like that, you’re probably not putting things together the right way,” O’Connell said. “Look, Detroit, I get it. They finished the season really strong. I’ve got a lot of respect for what Dan [Campbell] and his staff are doing there, but ultimately, we know we were able to win the division a year ago. It was a goal of our team to do that, and we accomplished that, but it means absolutely nothing for this year.

“Our mindset is improving each and every week as a team, controlling what we can. The outside narratives are what they are, and I have respect for that, but I can pick and choose when I feel we need to use that. Versus we have a group that I would imagine doesn’t need to hear that from me to know that’s going on... We can go out and prove whatever we feel we need to prove on a week-in and week-out basis and let our play determine everything.”

Offensive Improvement

There are plenty of reasons not to count the Vikings out as they defend their division title. Their offense ranked seventh last season. They have the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in superstar WR Justin Jefferson and a solid quarterback coming off his best season with eight come-from-behind wins (until the ill-fated playoff loss) in Kirk Cousins.

A key factor for offensive improvement is it’ll be Cousins’ second season with O’Connell, who installed the offense and is the play-caller. It’s the first time in Cousins’ six years in Minnesota he will have the same offensive scheme and play caller for two straight years.

The soon-to-turn 35-year-old is extremely durable (no missed games due to injury in his career). He’s a four-time Pro Bowler entering the final year of his $35 million per year contract. But that could be a good thing for the Vikings. This is the fourth time in his career that Cousins has played with free agency looming, and he’s played well enough each time to set up his next lucrative deal.

This time, Cousins might need a playoff win or two to ensure his Vikings future due to the significant salary boost he’ll likely seek to reflect the rising quarterback market.

Cousins certainly doesn’t appear to be sweating his contract status. He’s been loose and positive at training camp, a continuation of his likable personality coming forward during last season (remember “Kirko Chainz”) and in the Netflix series “Quarterback.”

First-round pick Jordan Addison is expected to take Thielen’s spot, creating a solid starting trio with Jefferson and K.J. Osborn. Addison has looked good in training camp, too. Cousins says Addison is doing a “great job” learning the offense and is a “natural” who can make contested catches against quality corners.

Last year’s No. 2 back, Alexander Mattison, will start. He was better than Cook in short yardage but wasn’t as much of a home run threat. The backup role could go to Kene Nwangwu, who has been a top kickoff returner with his blazing speed. He’ll have to earn the No. 2 spot in a tough competition with Ty Chandler.

The Vikings are seeking to improve on last year’s 28th-ranked rushing attack to be more balanced on offense. They had the sixth-ranked passing game last season.

Minnesota has one of the league’s best pair of bookend offensive tackles in Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw. The starting line is back, so the group should continue improving. They have a Pro Bowl tight end in T.J. Hockenson with a fine second tight end in Josh Oliver and one of the league’s top fullbacks in C.J. Ham.

Defensive Improvement

Defensively, the Vikings are counting on the more aggressive 3-4 scheme of new defensive coordinator Brian Flores to lead a resurgence. The team made an important signing last week, giving three-time Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter a one-year, $17 million contract (plus $3 million in possible incentives) to avoid a holdout.

He is joined by free agent edge rusher and former Saints first-round pick Marcus Davenport. He had nine sacks in New Orleans two years ago before injuries limited him to nine starts last season. Davenport is being counted on to replace Za’Darius Smith, who had 10 sacks in 2022. However, in the last eight games of last season, Smith only had half a sack as he battled a knee injury.

A big challenge for O’Connell and Flores is to find three starting cornerbacks, including a slot corner. The group is led by free agent acquisition Byron Murphy, who is coming off a back injury that limited him to nine games for the Cardinals. Three recent draft picks — Akayleb Evans, Andrew Booth Jr. and Mekhi Blackmon — are among those competing for two other starting spots.

The effectiveness of the pass rush and the quality of play from the corner group will be major factors in whether the defense improves. Last year’s third-round pick Brian Asamoah, who brings speed to Kendricks’ linebacker spot, improving this season is also a factor. Six-time Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith should have more of an impact in Flores’ scheme.

Looking at the Schedule

The Vikings must navigate a tough early schedule. They face five 2022 playoff teams in the first seven weeks — the Buccaneers at home in the opener, the Eagles in Week 2 on Thursday night in Philadelphia, and the Chargers, Chiefs and 49ers in Minnesota.

But the Lions have four of last season's playoff teams to face in those first seven weeks, including an exceedingly tough Thursday night opener at Kansas City.

The NFC North will likely come down to the final three weeks of the season when the Vikings and Lions meet twice, including the regular season finale in Detroit, which shapes up as a possible flexed Sunday Night Football game.

As Harrison Smith recently said of preseason predictions on the fall of the Vikings, “Everybody takes it a different way to motivate you or not. I tend to concentrate on what you can control, but once you get between the lines, the talking doesn’t matter. Let’s just focus on us, and we’ll see where the chips fall.”

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.