Sunday, the Vikings will face Adam Thielen, their former star and current outlier — a player they were able to quickly replace.
One reason the 2023 Vikings are 0-3 as they prepare to play at Carolina is that they made justifiable decisions to part with a number of valued veterans and then failed to replace them with upgrades or even similarly productive players.
If Thielen hadn't been a great Minnesota story, his departure might not have even raised eyebrows, much less pulses. He had become an older possession receiver who would have been the fourth option at best for the '23 Vikings had he stayed, and he would have wanted to be paid for his past production, which would have stressed a Vikings payroll that made room for tight end T.J. Hocksenson and is trying to make room for star receiver Justin Jefferson.
Thielen has 20 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns this season and is by far the leading receiver for the struggling Panthers. He has effectively been replaced by the Vikings' 2023 first-round draft pick Jordan Addison, who has 13 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns while playing a lesser role as he breaks into the league.
The rest of the Vikings' decisions on veteran players look more suspect at the moment.
Trading Za'Darius Smith? Justifiable. He faded toward the end of last season.
Replacing him with Marcus Davenport? That decision looks terrible. A year ago for the Saints, Davenport had half a sack while starting nine games and playing in 15. In six NFL seasons, he's had more than six sacks just once — when he had nine in 2021. He has played just four snaps for Vikings. If Davenport performed at his peak, he could aid a pass rush that is completely dependent on Danielle Hunter, and perhaps reduce the need for the all-out blitzes that too often have gotten burned this season. At the moment, he looks like a waste of money and roster space.
Letting Dalvin Cook leave? Sure. A year after rushing for a career-low 4.4 yards per carry, he is averaging 2.3 yards per carry for the Jets.
Replacing him with Alexander Mattison? He averaged 3.7 and 3.8 yards per carry the last two seasons. This year, he's averaging 4.0 and lost a key fumble in Philadelphia. Last Sunday, he didn't have an official fumble, but the ball popped out of his hands repeatedly, including on a short pass that could have gone for a touchdown. He doesn't deserve social media hatred for his struggles, but it's fair to question whether he is indeed a starting running back for a winning team.
Letting Patrick Peterson leave? Made sense. Peterson was one of the reasons the 2022 Vikings defense was so porous.
Replacing him with Byron Murphy, Jr.? Seemed logical. Murphy is younger and well-regarded. But Peterson compensated for his lack of explosiveness by making savvy, game-changing plays, especially in the fourth quarter. Murphy has not distinguished himself. Last Sunday, he often was matched up with Chargers receiver Keenan Allen. Murphy was credited with two passes defended. Allen caught an astounding 18 passes for 215 yards.
Letting Eric Kendricks leave? A typical NFL move. He appeared to lose a step last season and was often victimized in the passing game.
Replacing him with Brian Asamoah II? That's another move that seemed logical but hasn't played out as expected. Asamoah is younger and faster and seemed to have a knack for making big plays. But he was injured during training camp and lost his presumed starting job to undrafted rookie Ivan Pace Jr.
Pace is a heartening underdog story, and he appears to have played his position well. He's also part of a front seven that has had trouble rushing the passer and stopping the run.
Moving on, for the Vikings, has proven to be easier than moving in the right direction.