The Minnesota Vikings raced out to a big lead in the NFC North last year and they easily won the division with a 13-4 record under first-year head coach Kevin O'Connell.
The success was largely based on a big-play offense that featured Justin Jefferson, who ranks with the best wide receivers in the league. Quarterback Kirk Cousins appeared to be very happy to be free from former head coach Mike Zimmer and work with the young and creative O'Connell.
The Vikings also got solid contributions from complementary receiver Adam Thielen (now with Carolina), tight end T.J. Hockenson and their offensive line.
Veteran running back Dalvin Cook delivered a number of game-changing big plays, but he also struggled with his consistency as the Vikings had too many plays for negative or minimal yards from their running game.
But while the offense largely did its job, the defense was abysmal. The Vikings ranked 31st in yards allowed last year and 30th in points allowed per game.
When the Vikings lost the Wild Card game at home to the New York Giants, it was clear that major changes were needed on defense.
The first step was taken when defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was fired at the end of the season, and the team brought in Brian Flores to run the defense in 2023.
That move appears to be a positive step, because Donatell orchestrated a largely vanilla defense that was easy for opposing offenses to figure out. Flores preaches a much more complex defense that will change on a week-to-week basis based on the type of offense opponents bring to the field.
Flores appears to be driven to succeed, but he needs top-level players to make that happen.
Free-agent and draft moves
The Vikings have made three significant free-agent moves to help their defense in the offseason. Signing defensive end Dean Lowry from the Green Bay Packers, defensive back Byron Murphy from the Arizona Cardinals and outside linebacker Marcus Davenport from the Saints as free agents should all be solid moves.
Additionally, the Vikings drafted cornerback Mekhi Blackmon from USC, safety Jay Ward from LSU and defensive tackle Jaquelin Roy from LSU. The Vikings should also benefit from the return to health of second-year safety Lewis Cine, who suffered a broken leg last season. Cine appears to have the talent to help the defense perform at a much higher level than it has at any point in the last 3 years.
But the Vikings need a big-time pass rusher, and it appears they are counting on veteran edge rusher Danielle Hunter to deliver significant pressure on opposing passers.
This could turn out to be a fatal flaw for the Vikings.
Hunter is questionable at this point in his career
When Hunter was at his peak with the Vikings, he was a nasty, dominating, athletic pass rusher who was able to take over a game.
Hunter reached 14.5 sacks during the 2018 season for the Vikings, and he hit the same number the following season. When opponents played the Vikings in those two seasons, they knew that stopping Hunter had to be their top priority.
The Vikings also had solid linebacker play and Harrison Smith in the secondary, but it was clear that Hunter was the biggest threat.
However, a neck injury took its toll on Hunter, and he was unable to play in the 2020 season, and he only saw the field in 7 games in 2021.
The Vikings counted on a comeback season for Hunter last year, and he was able to play in all 17 games. He had 10.5 sacks and 65 tackles, and the Vikings saw enough from Hunter to believe he can get back to dominant form in 2023.
That may be asking too much from the 28-year-old pass rusher. Hunter was difficult to find in the early part of the season. He had just 3.0 sacks in the first 7 games, and a dominant player must get off to a much better start than that.
Opponents weren't as concerned with Hunter once the season reached the midpoint, and Hunter was able to improve his numbers.
The belief here is that Hunter can be a decent contributor at this point in his career, but he does not rank with dominant defensive players like Aaron Donald, Nick Bosa, Haason Reddick, Myles Garrett and Micah Parsons.
The Vikings should have gone after a more dominant defender in the offseason, either through free agency, a trade or the draft.
The team appears to have a solid defensive innovator in Flores, but if he doesn't have the game-changing players to work with, the defense may not make the kind of progress that is needed to turn the team into a legitimate contender.