Pass Rush Issues, OL Strength Will Determine Vikings 2023 Season

The two most important players on the Minnesota Vikings are quarterback Kirk Cousins and edge rusher Danielle Hunter. Neither one of those players has a secure future with the team, and there are no guarantees that Hunter will even be on the team by the time the Vikings open the season against the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Hunter is under contract for the current season, but he wants a new deal. He did not practice during the offseason and he is not participating in training camp to this point. If Hunter’s contract situation gets resolved or he decides to fulfill the last year of his agreement, there’s little reason to believe that he will return to the form he had in his peak year of 2018 and 2019,

That’s when Hunter was wreaking havoc around the NFC North with a 14.5 sacks in each of those seasons. After two lost seasons in 2020 and 2021 – a neck injury was largely responsible for him missing all but six games – he was healthy last season. He led the Vikings with 10.5 sacks, but he wasn’t the game-changing factor that the Vikings needed him to be.

New defensive coordinator Brian Flores may have a plan that involves Hunter, but he has to work with what’s in front of him. He had a pretty good understanding of what the Vikings had to work with when he took the job at the start of the offseason.

If Hunter is not going to be around, the pass rush is going to center around three players. New acquisition Marcus Davenport will take over as the team’s top edge rusher and he will be joined by D.J. Wonnum and Patrick Jones II as players who can attack opposing quarterbacks.

Davenport did next to nothing last year with the Saints, but he had 9.0 sacks in 2021 and showed the ability to get around the corner. Wonnum has developed into a reliable player with 15 sacks in the last three seasons. Jones struggled to get playing time last year, but when he was on the field, he was effective. He had 4.0 sacks last year, and Flores will not limit his playing time if he displays the requisite aggressiveness that the new defensive coordinator requires.

Andre Carter is on the PUP list to start training camp, but he could be an X-factor for the Vikings defense. The former Army star is a bargain-basement player who signed for $340,000, but he is disciplined and motivated.

While the ability to rush the passer is a major question – particularly if the Vikings don’t have Hunter – the offensive line could turn out to be the team’s most underrated strength.

Nearly every NFL observer believes that continuity on the offensive line is the biggest factor when it comes to consistent success, and the Vikings return the same five starters that they had a year ago.

The most impressive aspect of this unit is the play of their tackles, Christian Darrisaw on the left side and Brian O’Neill on the right side. Darrisaw has a chance to be the NFL’s best left tackle and is no worse than top 5 at his position. O’Neill was a Pro Bowler in 2021 and is working his way back from an Achilles injury.

The interior linemen are not at the same level as Darrisaw and O’Neill, but left guard Ezra Cleveland, center Garrett Bradbury and right guard Ed Ingram are all very familiar with each other and know how to work cohesively.

Cleveland has developed into one of the better guards in the league and should continue to improve. Bradbury was a question mark going into the 2022 season but he was solid last year. Ingram made mistakes as a rookie, but the Vikings coaching staff likes his potential.

The continuity of this unit should pay off for Cousins in the form of improved protection. Cousins took far too many hits last year and played the season in pain for much of the year.

If he can avoid some of the hellacious shots he took against teams like the Buffalo Bills and Washington Commanders last year, Cousins may be in a position to win the long-term extension with the Vikings that he desires.

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