Dalton Risner signed with the Vikings on Sept. 19, landing a one-year, $3 million deal on the same day the team traded for running back Cam Akers. Risner played his first offensive snaps on Oct. 15 when Ezra Cleveland was injured, started in Cleveland's place a week later and assumed the left guard job when Cleveland was dealt at the Oct. 31 trade deadline.
He played his first snaps with Joshua Dobbs — the quarterback the Vikings acquired from Arizona minutes before trading Cleveland — on Nov. 5. He's still looking forward to playing his first snaps with Justin Jefferson. "If I'm not mistaken," Risner said, "I don't think I've had him in the huddle."
The 2023 Vikings face the Bears on Monday night, looking for their sixth consecutive win over their division rivals and fourth victory since 2022, when the two teams interviewed the same candidates for their general manager openings and pursued divergent paths to remake their organizations.
Ryan Poles, whom the Bears hired a day before he was scheduled to interview with the Vikings, has razed the roster with plans for a full rebuild, making seven top-100 picks in his first two drafts and trading away the No. 1 overall choice last year for a package of picks that could have Chicago picking twice in the top 10 this spring. They are 6-22 with Poles and coach Matt Eberflus.
The Vikings are 19-9 with GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O'Connell in that time, tying for the fifth-most wins in the NFL with a "how-they-were-built" chart that might resemble a banyan tree, with twisted roots and sprawling canopies.
Their starting quarterback (Dobbs) and top pass-catcher (tight end T.J. Hockenson) were acquired in trade deadline deals the past two years. Akers was heading toward a significant role on offense before tearing his Achilles on Nov. 5, while Risner will start his sixth game on Monday. On defense, the Vikings will run their huddle through Ivan Pace Jr., an undrafted rookie; they will pair him in some situations with Anthony Barr, their top pick in 2014 they brought back on a practice squad deal earlier this month.
"I think it's a matter of Kwesi and his staff identifying the type of players that have the potential to do that, and then the communication of us as coaches of identifying those guys to help, or where we would go from a path of getting that guy ready to play," O'Connell said. "And then I think the individual players themselves deserve a ton of credit. Each situation is its own, and there's a lot of credit that goes around, but mostly I'd think it should be with the player themselves for coming in, and their teammates for the type of environment we have for them when they get here."
The Vikings' in-season additions have also made up for the fact they haven't reaped a surplus of production from their first two drafts under Adofo-Mensah.
They've taken only five players in the top 100 picks over the past two years, having traded their 2023 second-rounder to Detroit in the Hockenson deal last year. Jordan Addison is tied for the NFL rookie lead with seven touchdowns this year, but guard Ed Ingram is the only one of the Vikings' top four picks from 2022 to start a game this year.
Still, the Vikings remain in viable playoff position because of resourceful responses to seismic events, such as Jefferson's six-game absence and Kirk Cousins' season-ending Achilles injury. Before the 24-10 win at Lambeau Field on Oct. 29 that got the Vikings back to .500 heading into the trade deadline, several players told Adofo-Mensah they believed the team was jelling, and urged him to keep the roster together. He agreed, and the Vikings won their next three.
With an ownership group that typically eschews rebuilds and a roster that's likely already won enough to keep them out of the top quartile of the first round in 2024, the Vikings seem fixed on getting everything they can from a roster they've built ad hoc.
"I'd say in my time in the NFL, it's not uncommon for teams to be picking up guys during the season," Risner said. "But what has been crazy about this team this year is how quickly [the people they've picked up] are in the games. And that's just been a coincidence. Between Cam, Josh, me and Barr, I don't think any of us they've picked up to say, 'Hey, we want him to come in and play the first week.' … It's just one of those things where they found some good dudes ready to help impact this team, but we've also had some things happen where we needed that."
Success outside the draft
The draft might consume more of the Vikings' scouting manpower, and certainly more of the public's attention, than any offseason event on the NFL calendar. The success of the 2023 Vikings, though, might have as much to do with players they've added outside their past two drafts than with the 15 Adofo-Mensah picks that remain in the organization.
Teams keep scouting reports on opposing players, retaining predraft scouting reports of players who were selected elsewhere and combining those evaluations with up-to-date assessments from their pro scouts. With priority undrafted free-agent targets such as Pace, the Vikings' scouts compile enough information that "we know that player the same as we'd know a drafted player," defensive coordinator Brian Flores said.
Pace, who first caught Flores' eye at the Senior Bowl, has played a larger percentage of his team's offensive or defensive snaps than all but one undrafted free agent (Buccaneers safety Christian Izien) this season. The Vikings first gave him a chance to run their defensive huddle in the preseason; when Jordan Hicks was lost to a shin injury, Flores quickly told Pace what he needed to do.
"He really kind of put that in me, telling me it's like a quarterback on [defense]," Pace said. "Everybody's looking at you; it's just all about confidence. I've got that built in me, but he just threw it out there, to make sure I stayed on top of it."
Flores, like the 5-10, 231-pound Pace, was an undersized linebacker who compensated for his stature with tenacity. "How I think, how I play, I feel like he was like that, too," Pace said.
Pace's season, Flores said, is an example of a method that, when it works, can find and elevate players to unexpected heights.
"I think when once they step into the building, and this is just my opinion, first round, second round, third round, eighth round, 12th round, undrafted, your role on the team is up to you," he said. "Everything's evaluated. We'll see how you answer questions in meetings, how you apply those answers in the walk-through, then apply that into practice, and away we go.
"There's a lot of talented players in our league. A lot of them are undrafted, and there's always the story of the undrafted player who's got the big chip on his shoulder, takes that failure — as some may call it — and turns it into a success. And in Ivan's case, he's kind of writing that story now. He's still got a long way to go, and he's got to build on that story. And that's kind of the message we give him every week."
'I came here to have an impact'
Coaches play a vital role with in-season pickups. The Friday before Dobbs' first game in Atlanta, he stayed on the Vikings' indoor practice field with assistant quarterback coach Grant Udinski for an extra five hours, walking through the team's offensive game plan. Hockenson, who caught nine passes in his first game with the Vikings last year, said teammates are crucial, too.
"It's hard in some places where you go in and a guy doesn't really feel like he can be himself," he said. "Here, this is very open. All guys can be there, be themselves, show their personality hang out, hang out with the fellows and that's the culture that we have here. We've had some guys step up and we've needed them throughout."
Hockenson has played 80% of the Vikings' offensive snaps this season after signing a four-year, $66 million extension, rebounding from a mistake-filled start to lead the team in catches (75) and receiving yards (736). Risner has played 50.2% of the Vikings' offensive snaps, while receiver Brandon Powell, in a bigger role because of Jefferson's injury, has 22 catches for 224 yards while playing on a one-year free-agent deal.
As the Vikings wait for young players such as former first-round pick Lewis Cine to develop and navigate injuries to their stars, they've cobbled together a winning record with players such as Dobbs, whose first Vikings game ball arrived before his personal belongings did.
If they get to 3-0 in the NFC North on Monday night with a sweep of their roster-building foil, they'll owe plenty to the players they didn't expect to be here.
"Bringing in Josh Dobbs, we've seen what he's done," Risner said. "I mean, holy cow, some good decisions from the front office. I'm biased, but I feel like it was a good decision to bring me in, too. But it also goes to show that we're professionals.
"This is what I came here to do. I didn't come here to sit back and be a backup. I came here to have an impact. That's what I'm doing, and I bet Josh would tell you the same."