Vikings free-agency primer: How personnel additions could transform Brian Flores’ defense


What would you do with $50 million?

Seriously, say you are Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. You are entering your third season at the helm. You have yet to win a playoff game. Your “competitive rebuild” has hit an inflection point. And you have $50 million to spend in free agency.

What do you do? Who do you listen to? And who do you target?

It’s a fun thought experiment. It’s also a relevant one.

You might be asking incredulously: $50 million? Where in the world is that number coming from?

Dissect the Vikings’ salary cap situation closely enough, and you’ll see that the team currently has about $31 million available, according to Over The Cap. That is, after you account for signing at least 51 players and a projected rookie class to its roster. How, then, would that figure climb another $19 million? It’s fairly simple.

If six-time Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith returns to Minnesota, he’ll be taking a pay cut, which could save upwards of $10 million. Also, if superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson signs a top-of-the-market extension, he could free up nearly $15 million. These are just two of the many moves Minnesota could make to create more flexibility. Restructuring Brian O’Neill’s contract is another option. Extending Harrison Phillips or Byron Murphy Jr. could generate more room for 2024 as well.

This brings us back to the initial question: What would you do with $50 million?

If your mind immediately goes to improving the personnel on defense, you’re thinking along the lines of the Vikings’ decision-makers. Multiple league sources shared in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine that the Vikings are focused on infusing Brian Flores’s unit not just with experience but also with accomplished players.

Minnesota’s defense may have finished the 2023 season 11th in DVOA, but injuries and personnel deficiencies left the team limping toward the finish. One team source explained that upgrades are needed at every position except safety.

How will the Vikings allocate their money beginning next week? Here’s a breakdown:

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Defensive tackle

Misses in the draft explain much of the lack of talent on the Vikings defense — but not on the defensive line. You can’t miss if you never take a shot.

Former general manager Rick Spielman drafted three defensive tackles in his final five drafts: James Lynch, Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson. Adofo-Mensah has drafted two defensive tackles in his first two drafts: Esezi Otomewo and Jaquelin Roy. That marks seven straight drafts without the Vikings using a pick in the first three rounds on a defensive lineman, and that’s how you end up with Harrison Phillips and Jonathan Bullard as starters.

Both players were adequate at stopping the run in 2023, and both were respected in the locker room. Neither is a game wrecker, though, and Flores wants one. Free agency should present him with some possibilities.

None makes more sense than longtime Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, whom Flores drafted in 2019. Wilkins is versatile, durable and forceful, which is everything Flores seeks. Familiarity is a plus, too. Landing him will likely be a priority, but Wilkins’ market may push Minnesota to around $23 million a year. In that scenario, another question arises: Would you rather offer that type of contract to the 28-year-old Wilkins or the 29-year-old Danielle Hunter?

There is also a world in which both players sign elsewhere. Fortunately, there are several other intriguing free agent defensive tackles. Leonard Williams, whom the Seattle Seahawks traded a second-rounder for last season, is one of them. D.J. Reader, who tore his quad in December, is another. Sign one of those three, and the Vikings defense will feel different.

Edge rusher

The Vikings’ offseason contingency plans revolve around Kirk Cousins’ and Danielle Hunter’s decisions. Both could receive massive contracts elsewhere, which could force Minnesota to adapt quickly.

Minnesota might try to keep Marcus Davenport on a lower number. D.J. Wonnum, on the other hand, will have enough suitors to raise his value, even though he does love playing for the Vikings. Beyond those two, the Vikings only have Patrick Jones II and Andre Carter II on their depth chart.

Short-term fliers might make the most sense at this spot given how much Flores’ scheme alone generates pressure. Some feasible names? Chase Young, Jadaveon Clowney, Andrew Van Ginkel and Denico Autry.

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Off-ball linebacker

Spielman tried to build a plan for the Vikings’ future at linebacker with late-round picks. He selected Cameron Smith in 2019, Troy Dye in 2020 and Chazz Surratt in 2021. All three whiffed. Adofo-Mensah took a stab at Brian Asamoah in 2022, and Asamoah has not made a start through two seasons.

Undrafted rookie Ivan Pace Jr., whom Flores fought for last year, has been a revelation but he is the only starting-caliber player left in the room. Dye and veteran Jordan Hicks are both free agents. Abraham Beauplan is a developmental option. The Vikings could opt for continuity with Hicks, but that may be the fallback option. This free-agent linebacker class has a few sneakily intriguing options.

Patrick Queen is the headliner, but behind him are Frankie Luvu (with whom Vikings linebackers coach Mike Siravo has a history) and Devin White. Then there’s former Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker, whose age (27) and history with Flores might make him the perfect replacement for Hicks, who was the conductor of Flores’ system in 2023.

Cornerback

The best cornerback on the market plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs franchise-tagged L’Jarius Sneed, but because they are likely to give defensive tackle Chris Jones a big new deal, Sneed could become available. Acquiring him would likely require a premium draft pick — not to mention a new top-of-the-market contract — but maybe it’s a sensible choice given how Flores wants to play defense.

Sneed displayed man coverage skills last season in Minnesota when facing off against Justin Jefferson. He’s 27 years old. He has played a versatile role in a blitz-happy system. And he’s missed only a handful of games over the last three seasons. Want to set the tone on the perimeter from the outset? Swinging for Sneed would do the trick.

Alternatives exist through free agency. The Vikings could go after Chidobe Awuzie or Darious Williams. Oft-injured former Bills corner Tre’Davious White, who has upside if he can remain healthy, also feels like an Adofo-Mensah signing.

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My $50 million plan

This is strictly part of the thought experiment. But, to follow through on the initial question, here’s a stab at how the Vikings could reshape their defense via free agency without mortgaging many of their future resources.

Player

  

Position

  

Years

  

AAV

  

DT

3

$18M

Edge

2

$7M

Edge

1

$7M

LB

2

$8M

CB

1

$10M

(Photo of Leonard Williams: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)





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