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The future of the Vikings, Part 6: Linebackers and safeties

Bring Me The Sports on FanNation 1/31/2023 Matthew Coller of Purple Insider
© Provided by Bring Me The Sports on FanNation

Will the Vikings have all new LBs? Will Harrison Smith be back? What's next for Lewis Cine?

The Minnesota Vikings’ defense could be different at all levels in 2023, depending on how radical they decide to be when it comes to personnel changes. In similar fashion to the defensive line, they have veteran players with problematic contracts at linebacker and safety and plenty of different ways to handle them. How much will they change? Let’s have a look…

Who’s playing linebacker, anyway?

Whether it was age, scheme or both, the Vikings’ linebacking pair of Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks did not play up to the level that either player has produced in the past. Per PFF, they ranked 46th and 54th, respectively, out of 56 linebackers with at least 600 snaps in terms of QB rating allowed on passes into their coverage.

While both graded well against the run and had effective pass rushing rates (despite the shortage of blitzes), the Vikings did not spend the fourth most cap space in the NFL on the linebacker position in 2022 (per OverTheCap) just to slow down opposing running games.

Kendricks and Hicks are currently scheduled to cost about $17 million on the 2023 salary cap. Cutting both of them would create $14.5 million, getting the Vikings more than halfway to cap compliance in one fell swoop.

Considering Kendricks has been healthy and played at an All-Pro level just two years ago, the Vikings could consider retaining him for the final year of his contract. The problem, however, is that he would have to play on his $11.4 million cap hit unless they added void years to his contract or gave him an extension. Neither of those options are favorable for a 31-year-old player coming off a down year.

But releasing Kendricks and Hicks would leave the Vikings with around 2,000 snaps to replace.

We probably have the answer to half of those snaps in 2022 third-round pick Brian Asamoah. The speedy rookie played 121 plays in relief and produced the highest PFF grade among first-year linebackers (insert small sample size asterisk here). The majority of his action came on special teams, where he played 282 snaps and received strong reviews from ST coach Matt Daniels. You can use your favorite pen to write Asamoah into the staring lineup in 2023.

Along with who else, though? The only other linebackers on the roster are Troy Dye and William Kwenkeu. It’s hard to imagine the Vikings would draft someone with a high selection to start alongside Asamoah. That leaves the free agent market to find a veteran partner if they move on from Kendricks and Hicks.

There are 21 free agents who played 50% of snaps or more last season, giving the Vikings options. The question is whether they should look to sign a quality young player like Indy’s Bobby Okereke (27) to a long-ish term deal and lock in the position or take a stab at a reclamation project like former first-round pick Devin Bush or get an older stop-gap like Denver’s Alex Singleton (30) or Detroit’s Alex Anzalone (29).

The Vikings’ approach might depend on their choice at defensive coordinator and whether they stick with a Fangio-inspired system or revamp the entire thing. Is the LB position valued heavily like in Mike Zimmer’s defense or are the linebackers just a cog in the machine that can be easily replaced at a cheaper price?

There are other questions as well: If they don’t cut Kendricks or Hicks or both, where will the cap space come from? How certain are they that Asamoah is ready? Is there a backup plan in case he struggles?

For a position that only uses two players these days, the Vikings have a lot of decisions to make.

The Hitman’s contract

Without any adjustments, Harrison Smith would enter next season as the second most expensive safety in the NFL with a $19.1 million cap hit. Per OTC, the Vikings can restructure his contract and chop that number down to around $10 million. But that’s a band aid on a gash. Smith’s deal carries a $19.2 million hit in 2024 and $22 million in 2025 and all three years carry dead cap space if he’s let go.

If the Vikings cut Smith this year, they would gain $7.4 million but still be stuck on the hook for $11.7 in dead money. Those numbers change significantly if he’s traded after June 1, creating $15 million in space and carry only $3.9 million in dead space.

While Smith hasn’t repeated his MVP-caliber 2017 again, last season was the first truly down year of his career since 2013. In every other season, he graded by PFF as somewhere between the best player at his position in the NFL and well above average. But under Ed Donatell, his usage changed and he was rarely used in the aggressive role that Mike Zimmer put him in. Smith lined up as a deep safety on 57% of his snaps in 2022. That’s a big change from 41% in 2021. His splash plays dipped as a result, only pressuring the QB twice all season (career low) on 12 blitzes and tying his career low in run stops.

Naturally there are is a debate over whether they should move on because of his age (34) and expense but the Vikings also might believe that he can return to making the same impact as previous years if he’s in the right role. Smith did give up a career high in receptions into his coverage but still only allowed a 78.0 QB rating on throws and picked off five passes.

Age should be a serious concern though. At 34, Ed Reed played his last year as a Raven. Malcolm Jenkins retired after his age-34 season. Troy Polamalu was already retired.

Like many other decisions, Smith’s is likely folded into the bigger picture. He would be difficult to replace if they are looking for a quick turnaround on defense. Letting him go would best fit into a longer-term approach.

Lewis Cine and Cam Bynum’s future outlook

When the Vikings drafted Cine in the first round, they expected him to line up next to Harrison Smith right from the start of the season and offer a physically gifted weapon that they have never had before alongside the All-Pro. But that didn’t happen. Cine didn’t pick up the defense quickly enough to be Smith’s partner or the backup. Converted corner Cam Bynum opened the season as the starter and when Smith got hurt in Week 2, it was Josh Metellus who took the role rather than the top rookie.

That may have changed during the season had Cine not suffered a severe season-ending injury in London. Now he will be aiming to return from a compound leg fracture and earn the starting job. In late November, Cine said that he didn’t believe anything from his recovery would stop him from playing but the timeline is unclear. We don’t know if he will be able to participate in any way in OTAs, minicamp or the start of training camp. If he can’t begin camp on time, it would make winning the opening-day job difficult with a new defensive system.

Cam Bynum might be starting again next to Smith or Cine or Metellus or someone else who isn’t on the roster yet or he might not be starting at all. Playing every down of the 2022 season, the former Cal standout had his moments, including a Week 13 interception to win the Vikings’ matchup with the New York Jets. But the limitations to his game were also evident. Out of 65 regular safeties, he ranked 53rd in yards per catch into his coverage and scored the seventh lowest PFF grade among safeties.

As with other defenders, the defensive scheme may have played into the number of explosive plays into Bynum’s area but he didn’t counter with splash plays of his own. Bynum might be more capable than he appeared but probably is not a long-term solution as an every-down player.

A special teams star

Josh Metellus played 378 special teams snaps and became a vital leader on Matt Daniels’ unit. In limited duty he also proved that he can play on defense as well. He played 259 defensive snaps and gave up just 70 yards into his coverage in fill-in duty, giving some indication that there might be an Anthony Harris-esque development curve for the former Michigan standout. It’s plausible that Metellus could get a chance to fight for a starting position next year in training camp, either as Smith’s new partner or his replacement.


The Vikings’ linebacker and safety groups are like a choose-your-own adventure book where there are so many different paths they could take and each one has its own implications on the other. But like the rest of the positions, the key decisions revolve around how committed the team is to keeping veteran players who have been at the center of many good defenses over the years. On the surface, clearing out players like Kendricks and Smith is the way of the world in the NFL but their exits would leave big shoes to fill for either young players or free agents on the cheap. If both players stay, it’s difficult to project how good they will be next season and will give the club far less flexibility with the cap. It’s a challenging puzzle Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is tasked with solving.

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