The Minnesota Vikings defense is in for a major overhaul this offseason — and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell might be the first of many departures.
The defense failed to force timely turnovers like it had amid the Vikings’ 8-1 start to the season, faltering in a 31-24 defeat to the New York Giants in the NFC wild-card round on Sunday, effectively ending Minnesota’s historic season.
Head coach Kevin O’Connell was asked several times about the defensive coordinator position several times in his postgame press conference and defended Donatell in the aftermath of the disappointing loss.
“I think Ed [Donatell] tried to do the best he could this year across the board, installing the defense and the scheme that we had kind of manifested together and hoped that it would come to life. He worked his absolute tail off and his commitment to trying to make some adjustments and improve was there every week all season long,” O’Connell said in a January 15 press conference. “I’m going to look at every aspect, special teams, offense, defense, personnel, with Kwesi, all across the board how we can improve schematically. All those things are for really a different time and different conversations once we’ve had a chance to kind of collect ourselves and evaluate what took place this year.”
Vikings Defense Due for a Major Overhaul, Veteran Exodus
The debate all season surrounding the Vikings defense is whether their struggles were a matter of personnel or scheme.
The Vikings defense, fully healthy for Sunday’s playoff matchup, was designed to make offenses go the long way underneath, avoid explosive plays and create turnovers.
None of those things happened on Sunday when it mattered most. The Giants went 9-for-15 on third down and converted 3 of 4 red-zone trips for touchdowns. The Vikings did not force a turnover.
A defensive overhaul will be a top priority, but whether that means removing Donatell or the players that didn’t fit the scheme O’Connel would like to run remains to be seen.
Tough decisions are on the horizon but if Minnesota sticks with its core of aging veterans on bloated contracts they’ll simply be falling into the pitfall that Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman couldn’t carve themselves out of in their final years with the Vikings.
Which Vikings Veterans Are Most Likely to Go in the 2023 Offseason
Minnesota must clear significant cap space to get in the green and sign a few key free agents to improve the defense this offseason.
The Vikings have $101 million, roughly 44% of the expected cap space next season, sunk into just five players who will be over the age of 30 — Kirk Cousins (34), H. Smith (34), Z. Smith (31), Kendricks (31) and Adam Thielen (33). Dalvin Cook, turning 28 in August, also has the sixth-highest cap hit on the team of $14.1 million after a significant drop off in efficiency this season.
Cousins is likely in the clear with one more year on his contract and is likely not a high-priority trade target due to his age and contract.
Minnesota is likely sticking by Z. Smith after their splashiest free-agency signing paid dividends. The outside linebacker posted the fourth-most pressures (78) in the league and tallied 10 sacks and played in 16 games after missing the majority of the 2021 season due to a neck injury. The Vikings also saw the value H. Smith provides the defense even at his age.
That leaves Kendricks, Thielen and Cook as potential cap casualties. They could restructure their deals to provide some cap relief and stay in Minnesota, but if the Vikings rip off the bandaid and cut the trio of veterans, they could clear upwards of $23 million in cap space, per Spotrac.