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Q: What two or three players showed progress this year that gives you confidence they can continue to improve? — @mikedigitalink
AK: The Vikings didn't get much from the 2022 rookie class, but linebacker Eric Kendricks lauded the mental growth of third-round rookie linebacker Brian Asamoah. Kendricks was asked about Asamoah during a three-game December stretch in which he started to play more on defense. "He's kind of thinking bigger picture now," Kendricks said, "and starting to understand what's going on — seeing things besides what's going on at his position. It's refreshing to see, because obviously we know he has great energy running to the ball and causing plays, splash plays. I'm excited to see how good he gets."
Josh Metellus also deserves recognition. The third-year safety was often the Vikings' "dime" or sixth defensive back. He made three starts replacing Harrison Smith, nabbing the game-sealing interception off Lions quarterback Jared Goff in the Week 3 win. As a leader on special teams, Metellus also earned the respect of his teammates, who voted him a replacement team captain for the postseason after Brian O'Neill's season-ending injury.
Q: I'd be interested in knowing the differences between Donatell's D to the Fangio successes in Chicago and Denver. Apart from it not being very good of course. Not sure KOC would have found this D very hard to scheme against. — @donraul007
AK: The failures were on multiple fronts in Minnesota, where four different corners started opposite Patrick Peterson, slot corner Chandon Sullivan was a liability, and both Donatell and his preferred four-man pass rush didn't pressure quarterbacks enough. The scheme has succeeded before, but everyone has nuanced differences. One clear difference was Donatell's reluctance to blitz; Fangio called more aggressive defenses with higher blitz rates each of the previous four seasons (2018-2021) tracked by Pro Football Reference. Another obvious difference is the players, who didn't always find the right places in Minnesota's new defensive front.
Fangio and Donatell improved each defense in three stops together across 11 years from 2011-2021. They inherited a 26-year-old Patrick Willis and 23-year-old NaVorro Bowman when remaking the 49ers in 2011. They didn't reach their standard in Chicago until Year 3 in 2017, when corners Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan and safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson formed a strong secondary. Their arrival in Denver led to a slight improvement to an already strong depth chart. Perhaps players need time to transition. In San Francisco and Denver, the previous coaching staffs had already run 3-4 fronts. That wasn't the case in Chicago, where Fangio and Donatell converted a 4-3 front (like Donatell tried to do in Minnesota) and needed time. They didn't become top 10 until the third year. But Chicago never ranked worse than 15th in yardage allowed, which is an indictment on how Donatell and his staff transitioned the roster.
Q: Guess for the number of new starters on the Vikes' defense next season? — Dave in Canada
AK: There could be a few veterans who are asked to restructure their contracts, take pay cuts or risk release this offseason, depending on how General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah approaches a tight salary cap. Kendricks, who just wrapped his eighth Vikings season, turns 31 next month and has an unguaranteed $9.15 million salary next year. Safety Harrison Smith, who turns 34 next month, has three years left on his deal that annually charges at least $19 million against the cap. Defensive linemen Dalvin Tomlinson, Peterson and Sullivan are scheduled to be free agents. None of linebacker Jordan Hicks' $4.45 million salary is guaranteed until a March 20 deadline that guarantees $1.5 million.
Q: Do you think the Vikings can keep Alexander Mattison next year? — Jeff
AK: Mattison is among 15 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March. After the playoff loss to the Giants, Mattison said he braced for the possibility of his time in Minnesota being over. "It's been special," said Mattison, who has nearly 2,200 yards from scrimmage in 59 games for the Vikings. "It hit me after the game just understanding the potential of it being my last game with this group of guys. I know it's going to be hard for me to kind of deal with and coming to terms with that. But I'm super grateful for my time in the running back room and with leaders like Dalvin [Cook] and C.J. [Ham]."
Q: Update on Lewis Cine's recovery? — @riedemt77
AK: Last month, Cine said his recovery from compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula was "on schedule" as he walked without assistance and reiterated his intention to play in 2023. "You obviously feel pain, but it's more of a mental grind," Cine said. "Because you go from being healthy to knocked out. You have to kind of sit on the sideline and watch your guys. You want to be part of it, but you can't. There's also the mental grind of, 'I got to get back, I got to get back.' "