Kevin O’Connell was unwilling to publicly announce Wednesday whether he plans to fire or keep defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. The Vikings coach said he is still in “evaluation mode” with all facets of the operation.
The fact that he hasn’t guaranteed that Donatell will return for a second season not only makes for an awkward dance if there’s no change, but also challenges O’Connell’s hiring decision to pick Donatell in the first place.
Donatell’s defense was a disaster in its first year. There is no other way to describe it. Players often looked out of position and were slow to react.
For the Vikings to win 13 games despite having one of the worst defenses in the league was like running a marathon with a sofa on your back.
“It’s very, very important that we look at it from a ‘why’ point of view,” O’Connell said. “Why did this happen?”
While it’s true that he’s become an easy target, Donatell needs to be replaced. But his professional status diverts attention from another sobering answer to “why.”
Your talent just isn’t that great.
Anyone who watched the New York Giants offense whiz down the field in Sunday’s 31-24 wildcard playoff loss could not fail to see the disparity in talent on display.
The Vikings’ defense is old, slow and lacking dynamic playmakers in their prime.
This process of decay has developed over years, leaving the new front office in a chaotic situation that cannot be resolved in an off-season.
In 2015, then-GM Rick Spielman selected cornerback Trae Waynes, linebacker Eric Kendricks, and defensive end Danielle Hunter with his top three draft picks. That was a home run draft for the defense.
Soggy toast ever since.
In the seven drafts since 2015, the Vikings have drafted 36 defensive players. None of these 36 players had an impact that could be ranked as a major difference maker.
Only 14 of those 36 players remain in the roster. And only one has been a full-time starter this season, safety Camryn Bynum.
Cornerback Cameron Dantzler was a part-time starter. The rest are backups and special teams players.
The 2022 draft class deserves an incomplete grade, as three of the defensive picks — Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth and Akayleb Evans — suffered injuries that caused them to miss all or a significant portion of the season. No one knows if any of these three will evolve into viable launchers, so they remain unknown for now.
Moral of the story: talent is a problem. Same problem as the coordinator.
Repeated design vacillations and failures have forced the Vikings to rely on aging veterans past their prime. One wonders how exactly General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will fix this broken defense.
Ask yourself: Which players will make up the next wave of youngsters that will lay the groundwork for improved defense? Adofo-Mensah is optimistic about his young core, but that’s based on projections at the moment. To hope.
Adofo-Mensah is unable to buy his way out of trouble because bloated contracts for a handful of veterans have hampered salary cap flexibility. This delicate dance will be continued in the short term.
Justin Jefferson is approaching a mega payday, maybe as soon as this offseason. He will demand a salary similar to that of established quarterbacks. The market for top-tier wide receivers has exploded in recent years, and a $30 million annual salary will be a starting point for Jefferson.
That reality falls into the same space on Adofo-Mensah’s timeline for creating a succession plan at quarterback, knowing that Kirk Cousins’ future needs to be addressed beyond next season.
Creating a roster with these key items on his to-do list while navigating a complicated salary cap situation underscores Adofo-Mensah’s importance of proving himself in the drafting process.
The team simply cannot afford more vacancies, especially among defensive players. Their defense needs to get younger, faster, and rely on more starters playing on their rookie contracts.
Meeting these needs will not be a quick or easy fix. Replacing the coordinator would be a start, but the problems run deeper.