Friday mailbag: Ed Donatell is out
The Vikings let go of their defensive coordinator and fans have offseason questions
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By Matthew Coller
Happy offseason, everyone. We’ve got a fired coach and all sorts of possibilities so let’s dive right in…
@vikedevsox If Ed D. was fired what about Mike pettine and Mike smith?? Did they add anything to improve the d? I feel like we played prevent defense every game all year long. It was the worst defensive performance I have ever witnessed and I go back to 70’s.
Mike Smith was the outside linebackers coach, which included Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter so I’m not sure what he could have done better. It’s hard to spread around the blame to people like Pettine or the LBs coach, DBs coach etc. when the scheme wasn’t a fit, they didn’t make enough adaptations and the personnel just wasn’t good enough. Of course, firing Ed doesn’t mean they’re done with changes on the defensive staff. A new DC is likely to bring in their own position coaches and have their own vision for what the roster should look like.
You sparked my interest with it being the worst defensive performance of your life watching this team. The only season that I could find worse statistically was 2013 in which they ranked 31st in yards and 32nd in points allowed. But Pro-Football Reference ranked ranked the 2013 defensive schedule as the third hardest in team history. They played tons of good QBs that year, including Stafford, Cutler, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Romo, Wilson, Flacco and Dalton (when he was good). This year with Rodgers not playing well, it was basically just Hurts, Dak and Allen. So I’m going to agree with you: That was the worst Vikings defense you’ve ever seen.
@jdbondy Mailbag! How much value did these vets lose because of the 3-4 passive defensive scheme installed this year and of the players, whose likely to bounce back or be just cooked?
The two guys who seemed to be hurt the most by the system were Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks. It just didn’t work to their strengths at all. Kendricks had his worst PFF coverage grade since he was a rookie and Smith had his worst overall grade since 2013. Yes, both of them are older but that’s a pretty significant fall for both at the same time and I wondered almost every week why they weren’t more aggressive with Smith and why Kendricks was a zone linebacker when his strength was chasing guys in man-to-man. Cam Dantzler and Chandon Sullivan were also better in the past. But I’m not sure if anyone’s going to be around to bounce back. The personnel is likely to get a pretty big overhaul.
Jeff in Tokyo: Outside of the obvious disappointment... Time for a maibag question.. Given we have limited draft capital (not that I would complain over the Hockenson trade) and next year a horrific schedule (perk of winning the division and having 9 away games) do you think Kwesi decides it is a reset year (ie, get rid of a lot of (not all) the highly paid veterans, take the dead cap hit etc with idea that 1. We probably don`t make the playoffs (though far from a pure tank) and get solid draft capital and also clear up the books?
One thing Kevin O’Connell has said repeatedly is: “We need to be honest with ourselves.” I think this should be an offseason of being honest with themselves. They have to get younger, they have to get their salary cap right, they have to get draft capital and they can’t keep doing the same thing and hoping for different results because of “culture.” This should be a true “competitive rebuild” season in which they play lots of young players and don’t get themselves into cap trouble in the future. The hardest part is the QB decision with the timeline. I’d say either sign Kirk for five years and plan to rebuild it around him or let his contract play out/trade him and get started on the future now. Don’t do the short extension that leaves everyone still in limbo. Pick a lane. If I’m trying to predict what they do… that I really don’t know because this is Kwesi’s first true offseason and I’d like to see ownership let him take the reins and do it his way.
Ameer: Rank the players with the most trade value; with only 5 picks and zero cap room and although he is a very good player, now might be the time to trade Hunter. Another one for the mailbag (Apologies) Who would fetch more in a trade: Carr or Cousins?
Cousins’ trade value might be a little higher at the moment after he had a good/clutch season. Let’s assume Justin Jefferson, Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill are totally off the table as far as players to trade…I can’t see Hockenson or Za’Darius being moved either. The only non-Kirk tradeable players who could get significant return would be Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith. I can’t see teams giving up much for Thielen, Cook or Kendricks when they know the team doesn’t have many options there. The Hunter decision is hard. He needs a long-term extension but with his production it’s going to cost $25 million per year. At 29, and with previous injuries, I’m not sure it’s the right plan to keep him if they can get a first-round pick. But boy that would be a super rebuild-y move. Do they have the guts to pull that trigger? I’d be surprised.
Rich via email: Do you think that there's a chance that the Vikings could ship Kirk to the 49ers, given Shanahan's affinity for him and the easy button offense? Take Trey Lance off their hands in return?
Cousins for Trey Lance would be bold, wouldn’t it. Lance definitely fits the timeline better than Cousins does and if the 49ers lose to the Cowboys they might not be OK with running back Purdy. That would really come down to how they feel about Lance. They gave up the farm for him. Do they really want to trade him away without ever finding out if he can play? We knew he was a project from the start, so they might think they have the next Hurts in him. But Shanny does love him some Kirk. And that would be a team Cousins would accept a trade to. I like where your head is at but I’m not sure trading Cousins after a 13-win season is going to be in the cards unless he wants out.
@smccullough5 Now that the 2019 draft class are eligible for free agency, how many of them do you see the Vikings resigning?
Bradbury is possible. He graded much better this season, ranking 10th overall by PFF and 14th in pass blocking. But we’ve seen in previous years that teams get wild in free agency when it comes to overpaying. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get good offers. Smith Jr. and Mattison are almost certainly gone. Kris Boyd might be the only one who stays. If he doesn’t, the entire class will be gone after this year. When we talk about why they need time to rebuild, this is the reason. Spielman’s drafting went totally sideways outside of JJ and Darrisaw. You can’t have entire recent draft classes provide nothing long term and put together a complete roster.
@WarleyOwl Thanks for all your outstanding work this season. What does the off season look like for you personally and at PI HQ? And your evaluation of my preseason bets on the Niners and Bengals to win the Super Bowl?
Thanks Owl. For my offseason, I’ll be making far fewer trips to TCO Performance Center but still writing regularly (maybe dialing it back a little in Feb/early March) and doing the podcast daily. I have way too much fun talking ball to slow down on the pod. Maybe I’ll get in a trip here or there to visit friends/family. But the NFL never lets you take the foot off the gas. I’ll be at the Combine, then it’s free agency, the draft, OTAs, minicamp and bang we’re back. As far as your preseason bets, well done. I had the Chargers and 49ers in the Super Bowl but somehow L.A. blew a 27-0 lead. That’s why I don’t bet on sports!
@smccullough5 who are some names we should watch out for at DC?
That’s a hard one because I’m not sure what they’re looking for…same system? Change of system? Do they want to go with someone younger like Jim Leonhard? It’s worth keeping an eye on what Denver does with Ejiro Evero. It might be a few weeks because they should wait until teams name HCs to see if DCs in those places get let go.
@eleysium Can the Vikings trade Cousins realistically? Is there a market for him?
Oh yeah, there would definitely be a market for him. If you’re the New York Jets, why wouldn’t you do that? The team is ready to win and he’s healthier than Jimmy G. I mean, a team traded for Carson Wentz last year. There’s so many teams that need QBs that they would get calls. Based on recent history i.e. the Lions with Stafford, Seahawks with Wilson and Raiders with Carr, these teams usually have to see it go downhill first before making that type of move. My question is whether Cousins would be willing to sign a short-term extension again or if he’d hold their feet to the fire. Based on the way he played, he’s got leverage here.
@DevinRubink It seems inevitable that the team will need to carry some dead cap in the near future. Let's say you have to allocate that space towards a position group. Which group could the Vikings count their dead money against while having serviceable, cheap players to offset it?
As a general theory, I think teams should draft premium positions high and use free agency to fill out the rest of the roster. Fill the linebacker, center and running back spots with solid veterans and draft a receiver/corner/pass rusher (or maybe QB?) in the first round. Of course, if Peterson leaves, they’ll probably need to sign a veteran corner too.
@bobh332 Is a reboot even feasible with few draft picks and Kirk’s (plus others) contracts?
A reboot of some kind is inevitable. There’s simply no way they can keep everyone. It reminds me very much of 2019 to 2020. They can make some sort of desperate play like the Yannick Ngakoue trade to try to swing the tide but we’ve seen that movie before. At some point they need to put young players in position to sink or swim, get the cap right and get draft capital for the future. Lots of teams have gone through short reboots and gotten back to contention. It doesn’t mean giving up on 2023 and tanking like Detroit or Chicago. Look at something more like what Philadelphia did as a possible blueprint. They stacked draft picks, got a rookie QB contract and made one huge move that got them back to the top quickly. Or you could look at Buffalo where Sean McDermott made the playoffs with Tyrod Taylor and then they took a step back before going forward.
@rinkygolf How much defensive lineup turnover should we expect by next season opener? We’ve got everything from aging vets on high cap contracts, pending free agents and young guys trying to recover from injury. The defense was really bad on ‘22. Is it complete personnel overhaul time?
I could see new starters at corner, safety, linebacker and defensive tackle so…yeah, it’s gotta be a complete overhaul. It’s really not a choice. If Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson go elsewhere and they cut Kendricks and Hicks, they have a ton of spots to replace. Which can be OK if it gives them 2023 to find out who their future pieces are going to be. There’s just going to be some growing pains if they do it that way. Whether they’re willing to accept that or not, we’ll see.
@NicholasM_1993 What argument could be made that this core can ever win a Super Bowl? Everything that could possibly go your way in a season did this year and they still couldn’t get past the WC. If you were Kwesi would you go ahead and blow this roster up?
That debate is already settled. This was the very last chance for the remining “core” from 2017 to prove that it could be done with them. If they bring them all back and mess with the contracts to create cap space, it’s almost impossible to see the results being different. If they try to make this entire thing out to be Ed Donatell’s fault, that’s going to end up being a huge mistake that sets them back even farther. Time comes for everyone and that needs to be accepted. Again, not exactly by tanking, but by living in reality.
@KAAAAAHN_tk421 Do you think it's possible to dump the vast majority of your cap $ into offense and get by with replacement-level players on defense? Or do you need to pay for at least a couple above-average defensive players?
I’m not sure where on offense they would invest. The receiver market is very weak and the guys available will get massively overpaid. If they’re going to move on from Thielen and get another receiver, it probably has to happen in the draft aside from an Albert Wilson type. I doubt they make changes at guard. They’ll be able to invest a little on the defensive side in a similar way to last year. If they’re going to do that, I propose looking at guys who are like 26 or 27 who might be there a while like what they did with Harrison Phillips.
@headcoach21 How do think the Vikings will handle the QB situation in the next few years??
Maybe this is a pie chart situation. I’d give 40% to playing out the final year of his deal, 30% to a short-term deal, 15% to a long-term deal and 15% to a trade. Kirk has to know that playing well for one more year and hitting free agency could net him a massive final contract of his career. Or he might see this as his big shot to get a long-term deal and ask to be traded. If I’m his agent, I’m not letting the team off the hook with a one-year extension. I wouldn’t blame him for playing hard ball.
@jtlaurie If we do get rid of Theilen, Kendrick’s, Harrison, Hicks, potentially Zadarius, etc.., we can’t replace all in the draft. What are some cheaper FA options we could consider to replace these guys so that we don’t have to worry as much in the draft? Also, keep Mattison over Cook?
It’s hard to know who will actually hit free agency because people get taken off the market but an example of the type of player they should be looking at would be Isaiah Oliver from the Falcons. He’s 26 and has good small sample size numbers. Former second-round pick, might have some potential left. Maybe take a swing at someone like Devin Bush, who has been a bust so far but might have something click with experience in a new system. If they go for 30-somethings who are proven but on the back nine of their careers, I’ll be perplexed. I don’t think they should keep Mattison or Cook.
@Jordan_Fisk Not suggesting they should do this, and I feel like I'm committing treason even mentioning it, but hypothetically if they extend JJ and trade him b4 his big cap hits, what would the trade look like in terms of draft picks and/or players and how bad of an idea would it really be?
What you’re describing is exactly what happened with AJ Brown...and their GM got fired. So that’s not happening if Kwesi can avoid it. But something to remember is that a JJ extension wouldn’t start becoming expensive until 2025. Brown’s cap hits before 2025 are $5.6, $8.3 and $12.4 million. Very manageable until it becomes $26 million in 2025. As far as what they could get, you start with the Tyreek Hill trade and add to that. At least two firsts and two seconds and then maybe something else on top. How bad of an idea is it? Really bad. When the Vikings do eventually get a new QB, you want that guy to inherit someone who will instantly make him great. Receivers are driving offenses (and probably always did). There might be an argument that they’re more worthy of huge contracts than most QBs.
@muchfunyet2come The vikings have no shot at a Superbowl in the near future immobile QB, no draft picks, limited cap and an old team True or false?
I don’t want to say they have no shot because so much can change in a short period of time but they couldn’t have asked for much more to go right than it did this year and they still ended up with a first-round out. I’m not sure how anyone could argue that kicking cap space down the road to desperately hang onto this group would be a good idea to send them in a Super Bowl direction. If they play their cards right, they could be back in legit contention fairly quickly. If not, they will become the Raiders.
@MIvikesfan thoughts on Thielen? he still has great value and ability as a #3/4 (think Anquan Bolden's later years). Dude's made $65M in his career. if he's serious about retiring a viking, do you think he'd take a straight up pay cut to $3-4M/yr? that would save $8-11M off '23 & 24 cap hit
Nah, that’s never gonna happen. They can move money and lower his cap hit this year but there’s no way he’s going to accept being paid less after they agreed to the extension last year.
@michaelhannula Please tell me you never want to see#99 in purple covering a RB 10 yards down field! Our best pass rusher on 3rd down to boot
I get why people would focus on Hunter dropping back in coverage as a major Donatell issue but he only played in coverage on 31 total snaps (per PFF). The much bigger concern was the middle of the field being wide freaking open all of the time.
@Jordan_Fisk Does TJ Hockenson at least reduce the need for a WR2? Obviously a legit WR2 would still be a big benefit but the offense was still pretty proficient with just KJ and Thielen this year.
I don’t think that’s the case. Tight ends just aren’t the same as receivers in terms of being downfield threats. On throws that traveled over 10 yards in the air (per PFF, again) Hockenson caught 10 of 22 throws his way this year. He’s a really good player but you need to force defenses to care about someone other than Jefferson. When opponents totally committed to JJ, nobody else truly made them pay for it.
@dantaylor26 Pick one Viking likely to be playing for a different NFCN team next year, and vice versa
How about Detroit Lion Dalvin Tomlinson. They need defensive upgrades, especially against the run. By the way, the Bears are No. 1 in cap space and the Lions are 11th.
@vikingfan_1964 Is it realistic they draft a QB for post Kirk Cousins? He's getting older and I'm sure the new leadership will eventually want their guy
Somewhat realistic. When the Chiefs drafted Mahomes, they had just gone to the playoffs as a 12-4 team. Lots of brilliant draft analysts hated their trade up because they needed help in other areas. They looked one year ahead, which teams should always do with the draft rather than trying to solve immediate issues, and went for the long-term plan. How about Philly with Hurts? Again, people were baffled by the pick after Carson Wentz had gotten them to the playoffs in 2019 at 9-7 and yet here we are. It’s the right thing to do based on age/price. Will they do it? No idea.
@alexjjlarsen If you were in Kwesi's ear, what three big moves would you make? Cuts, extensions, trade/FA targets, whatever - three big moves (besides giving JJ a literal boatload of money).
Move on from everything that isn’t nailed down. Do not lock yourself into anyone expensive in free agency or create any more dead cap space for the future than you need to. Draft a QB in the first round if it’s possible. Otherwise get another receiver to pair with Jefferson.
@MATPhxc Mailbag! 1) who are the 3 veterans you’d keep and 3 you’d cut? 2) would you rather Vikings upgrade defense in this year in the draft/FA or try and trade up for a QB? If the FO goes defense - do you have less faith in Kwesi for his competitive rebuild formula with Cousins at the helm? Part of me thinks outside of the first two QB, there’s not much of a sure thing in this QB draft so I’m not really sure I can blame him
The only veterans that need to stay are Brian O’Neill and TJ Hockenson. There’s no reason to get rid of Za’Darius Smith but if someone wants to trade for him, I’m listening. Same with Hunter. It’s OK to extend him but I could be convinced by a first-round pick to move on. I’ve seen as many as five QBs going in the first round and we’ve seen that the order in which their taken doesn’t seem to matter that much in terms of future success. I don’t know if the QB idea is realistic but that’s always going to be my first choice for a future plan. Based on history, I don’t see any formula to win deep into the playoffs with Cousins (and his contract).
@Knowlesy Would it make any sense to cut the aging vets, take the cap hits, and just plan on playing in high scoring shootouts next season?
There’s really no other plausible outcome, either way. If they keep expensive vets or sign middling vet free agents, they’re going to have to win with offense. Unless something crazy happens, there just aren’t enough assets to turn this defense into a great unit.
@rk2022 What does Ed Ingram and Ezra Cleveland have to do to improve.
Cleveland probably is what he is at this point. Ingram has to severely reduce the instant losses and get a far better understanding of how stunts, twists and blitzes work.
@BlaineFrom Thoughts on Hendon hooker if he falls. Are we skol searching this year?
Yes, we’re SKOL Searching until we can’t do it anymore — which will either be when Cousins signs a huge extension or they draft another position in the first round. I’m not convinced drafting a 25-year-old QB like Hooker is a good idea. Brandon Weeden would be proud though.
@MattAnderson_8 What’s something Vikings fans aren’t talking about, but could very likely happen this offseason? Kind of a broad question but figured it could be fun
It’s hard to find anything that this fan base hasn’t considered yet. You folks are incredibly dialed in. I suppose the one thing that could happen that people aren’t really talking about is the possibility that almost nothing is different. Maybe another Kirk extension, almost all the vets are back, a few minor signings, trade down and draft a corner and run it all back. That might sound like a nightmare to some but I don’t think it’s out of the question.
@jeffintokyo1 How much input do you think the Wilf`s have in the sense of going for a total teardown or a continuation of competitive rebuild?
My guess is that they will have a ton of input on what comes next. When you want to cut/trade guys who have been here forever, they’re going to have a say. Plus with the QB situation, all owners are going to be heavily involved in that call. The thing I’m interested in is whether they could convince the owners to make big changes when they just won 13 games. After things got out of control with Rick and Mike, I’m guessing the Wilfs are going to be very involved going forward.
@chadrohrs What is the timeline for this team being a true Super Bowl contender? Can the defense be rebuilt fast enough for that to happen next season?
I can’t see it next season, particularly with a first place schedule. If they became a Super Bowl contender, it would have to be because the offense takes another leap forward and they ended up as a top five scoring team. But assuming that doesn’t happen, I don’t see why they couldn’t be back in legit contention by 2024. When you have foundational pieces like Jefferson and Darrisaw, it doesn’t need to take forever to get back in the game.
@FierSilas How much money do you give JJ? Imo I’ll give him whatever he wants and if we don’t have it I’ll gladly donate part of my yearly salary to keep him around.
Correct. It’s reasonable that he’ll top Tyreek Hill’s $30 million per year with $72 million guaranteed. Pretty much back up the brinks truck.
@leecvn72 Is it me or did Donatell kinda deflect blame when he said the players were taking over practice before their wildcard game?
That’s not exactly what he was getting at. He deflected blame when he said it was the execution and not the scheme a few weeks earlier. He never seemed to want to acknowledge that they needed to adjust things.
@JRG_2154 If you were the GM of the Vikings what would you do to make this an average defense next year?
If that was my only goal, I’d look for major cornerback improvements in free agency and draft an interior pass rusher in the first round.
@purplevikes29 Who’s your top 3 expected candidates
I would just be guessing at this moment. We’ll just have to wait and see who they interview.
@SpiritofKahless If you could only pick one thing, what change would you make to the defense that you think would stand the greatest chance of improving it next year?
Aside from spending at cornerback, it’s probably just getting younger. Getting quicker at linebacker, even if it’s a less experienced speed, would probably still result in more success.
@riedemt77 Update on Lewis Cine’s recovery?
He’s been around the team every day. Last time we talked to him he said the rehab was on schedule. But we won’t know much until training camp.
@DylanBear18 Whats really going to happen with kirk? This is actually going to be the rebuild year right? Play out Kirk's last year of contract, cut/trade vets and gather whoever you can to play the needed positions. We need to have at least 1 year of gathering picks and money for the future.
You make good points but I really don’t know. We covered Spielman for so long that things became pretty predictable but this is Kwesi’s first full offseason and there’s lots of other considerations, including whether KOC thinks they can compete by simply making improvements on defense. I’m still having a tough time believing that they’ll accept a reset after winning the division.
@Ragnarskingdom Kwesi and Kevin seemed focused on competitive rebuild again unfortunately. Any chance this year we bottom out enough that we get a "hey we are picking high enough for a franchise QB" year anyways? I understand it is so EARLY to ask this but if Fields takes next step, Gb gets
I’ve called it the “natural tank.” When a team tries to run it back and win and just falls flat. I could see it.
@fluxus2 Right now, what would you say is the over-under on the number of wins for the Vikes next year? I think it should be 6.5 and I would take the under.
I’ll go over 6.5 but under 9.5 right now. Loooooong offseason to go though.
@EricVikesfan28 With where the roster is at, what sense would it make to extend Kirk for another year or two? Lowering the cap hit this year to make room doesn’t make sense UNLESS they feel they are a SB caliber team, which they’re obviously not. Let it play out should be plan A for Kwesi right?
I don’t think it makes sense to do a short-term extension for Kirk or for the team. That is, unless they believe they’re an average defense away from being the new Titletown. Maybe they do.
@dmoney0919 Given the news, looking forward to your thoughts on DC candidates: Who should they be looking at, how does this impact impending free agents, talk me into getting to a 20ish league ranking on defense next year.
They could get to 20th just with a better scheme and some younger players like Cine, Booth Jr. and Evans playing. With DC candidates, they should focus on someone whose expertise is in development and has a more aggressive approach.
@TemplinTim87 This scenario is not going to happen but give me your opinion anyway. Let’s say Tom Brady wants to play indoors and throw to Justin Jefferson and TJ Hockenson. Would you trade Kirk for a draft pick and sign Brady or stick it out with Kirk on an extended deal?
Sure I’d do the Brady thing if it meant picking a QB in the first round too. It really depends on what kind of extension you’re talking about though.
Rob via email…. Which teams do you see advancing to the conference championships?
I’ll go with the 49ers, Eagles, Bills and Chiefs.
@fluxus2 Would you trade Jefferson to the Bears for the #1 overall pick hoping to land the franchise QB for a decade or more?
Probably not. I’d rather use future draft capital to take the third or fourth QB off the board and keep Jefferson.
@daddy4547 What are some nose tackles you would consider if you were in the vikings situation.i know dalvin was good but linval was better at pushing the pocket when he was here and offenses respected him. Tonga seems to be ok but I seen him fall I don't know if he needs better footwork.
To me it’s not nose tackles that are hard to find, it’s DTs who can truly cause pass rush havoc.
@oldbreedwriter The switch to the 3-4 defense seems to have been a failure. Was it personnel or scheme that failed?
@rob61022875 What do you predict for the Vikings future?
Pain! OK just kidding. Kinda. I’d say they put one foot into a rebuild and one foot out and compete for a wild card spot next year and then they change QBs in 2024 and it finally becomes Kwesi and KOC’s team.