EAGAN, Minn. -- If anyone could claim a starting spot at this moment on the Minnesota Vikings' 2023 defense, you would think it would be safety Camryn Bynum.
His credentials seem obvious for a team in roster transition. He was the Vikings' only player this season to play all 1,116 defensive snaps. He will turn 25 this summer and has two more years remaining on a rookie contract that will count just $1.1 million against next season's salary cap. With two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2022, he demonstrated a skill set that suggests the Vikings' offseason attention would be best served elsewhere.
And yet Bynum's eyes grew wide last month when asked about the presumptive certainty of his status. At best, he said, he should be "penciled in" as a 2023 starter.
"Really," Bynum added, "everything in life is penciled in. Nothing is ever in cement."
If Bynum can only be sketched in, the rest of the Vikings' defensive lineup is a downright mystery. It's not unusual for NFL teams to turn over a portion of their starting lineup from one year to the next, even after a 13-4 regular season like the Vikings had. But Minnesota has an atypical combination of big cap numbers, expiring contracts, aging veterans and diminishing performance among key players on a defense that gave up the NFL's second-most yards during the regular season.
It's not unthinkable to suggest the team could have nine new primary defensive starters in 2023, an extraordinary level of turnover that would coincide with the hiring of a new defensive coordinator. Alongside Bynum, the most likely returning starter is lineman Harrison Phillips, who started 17 games in 2022 and played on 59% of the team's snaps after signing a three-year, $19.5 million contract as a free agent.
Moving on from the other nine starters would require substantial faith in the team's ability to backfill with impact players from either the back of the roster or through offseason acquisition, a heavy lift that could fall short of full activation. But the last time general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O'Connell spoke publicly, their words were vague enough to leave open all possibilities.
"Each year in this league there's new players, new foundational pieces that emerge in their growth and development," O'Connell said. "We talk a lot about that word -- development -- in this building, so with that, you feel a responsibility to make sure all of our schemes are evolving, changing and improving year in and year out, and that will be no different every year that I’m the coach here. We're absolutely looking hard at all phases of our team right now."
Let's do the same, focusing on why the Vikings' defensive personnel is so unsettled.
Primary 2022 starters: Phillips (17 games), Dalvin Tomlinson (13), Jonathan Bullard (7)
Tomlinson and Bullard are pending free agents, and both of them missed time in 2022 because of injuries. Tomlinson sat out four games because of a strained calf muscle, the first significant injury of his six-year career, and Bullard (biceps) spent four weeks on injured reserve. Of the players who filled in for them, the Vikings have James Lynch and Ross Blacklock under rookie contracts and hold exclusive rights over Khyiris Tonga.
Blacklock, acquired last summer in a trade with the Houston Texans, was inactive for the Vikings' final six regular-season games, a sign that he does not hold a prominent position in the team's future plans.
The future of some linemen could depend on whether the Vikings change schemes under a new coordinator, but Tomlinson in particular has had success in 4-3 and 3-4 fronts during his career. He is ranked No. 30 on ESPN's updated list of free agents and would be certain to receive interest from teams as the market moves to its second stage.
Primary 2022 starters: Danielle Hunter (17 games), Za'Darius Smith (16)
The Vikings have complex decisions ahead for both players, including analysis on their health, scheme fit and cap considerations.
In some ways, Hunter's season was a rousing success story. He started every game following two injury-filled seasons. After a slow start as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he finished with 10.5 sacks, including 8.5 after the Vikings' Week 7 bye, and remains relatively young at 28. Those factors have delivered an interesting inflection point in his career as the expiration of his contract approaches after the 2023 season.
With pass rushing always at a premium, should the Vikings try to extend his deal in the coming weeks in part to lower his $13.1 million cap charge for 2023? If that's the case, to what extent should his cash compensation rise following a double-digit-sack season in a new defensive scheme? After seeing high-end pass-rushers traded repeatedly in recent years, would the Vikings make him available to help replenish a draft-pick cupboard that currently includes only four selections in 2023?
Those questions must be asked in the context of Smith's future as well, after he faded significantly in the second half of the season, in part due to a midseason knee injury. He managed only 1.5 sacks after Week 8, although he did record 24 pressures over that span, tied for No. 17 in the NFL.
Smith will turn 31 in September. In acquiring him last spring, the Vikings structured his deal in a way that would reward him for an elite-level season but make it easy to move on if he fell short. Smith is on the books for up to $9.45 million in cash and a $15.5 million cap number in 2023, but none of the money is guaranteed and the Vikings could save $12.1 million in cap space by releasing him.
Moving on from any established pass-rusher is risky. But both Smith and Hunter are at points in their careers, and contracts, that could prompt such a decision.
Primary 2022 starters: Jordan Hicks (17), Eric Kendricks (17)
Both Kendricks and Hicks are under contract for the 2023 season, when they will each be 31 years old. Part of their futures are tied into the scheme the Vikings play next season. In a 4-3, for example, there wouldn't be a need for two veteran inside linebackers.
Kendricks is set to count $11.4 million against the cap, while Hicks is on the books for $6.5 million.
Neither player distinguished himself in 2022, but the biggest reason to question at least one of their futures is the presence of Brian Asamoah, a 2022 third-round pick who earned repeated praise from O'Connell during the season. The Vikings began easing him onto the field during the second half of the season, and he flashed in Week 16 with a forced fumble and recovery against the New York Giants.
.@brianasamoah takes it away!— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) December 24, 2022
📺: @NFLonFOX pic.twitter.com/A1yHeaDpZw
It seems clear the Vikings want to find a way to play him more often -- if not as a full-time starter -- in 2023. During a season-ending news conference earlier this month, Adofo-Mensah brought up Asamoah's name as the first example of a rookie who was developed in 2022 with an eye toward 2023.
Primary 2022 starters: Bynum (17), Patrick Peterson (17), Harrison Smith (14), Chandon Sullivan (10), Cameron Dantzler Sr. (9).
The Vikings used nickel personnel on 80.4% of their snaps in 2022, meaning Sullivan was in essence a fifth starter in the secondary. He and Peterson are pending free agents, as is cornerback Duke Shelley, who moved into the starting lineup during the second half of the season because of injuries to Dantzler and rookies Akayleb Evans (two starts) and Andrew Booth Jr. (one).
Dantzler is under contract for 2023, but he played in only two games over the final nine weeks of the regular season and was inactive for the Vikings' wild-card playoff game after leaving the team to attend to a personal matter. As priority draft choices in 2022, Evans and Booth would seem to be in line for prominent 2023 roles, but both struggled to stay on the field as rookies. Evans suffered three concussions before he was shut down for the season, and Booth played in only six games because of multiple ailments, including a meniscus injury in his knee that required season-ending surgery.
Peterson has said he wants to return, but he will turn 33 this summer.
Smith, meanwhile, remains under contract but will turn 34 next month and is on the books to count $19.7 million against the 2023 salary cap. His deal includes no guaranteed money and would save the Vikings at least $7.3 million in cap space if they release him. For context, there is only one NFL safety older than Smith who is under contract for next season: the New England Patriots' Devin McCourty, who hasn't said whether he intends to play in 2023 at age 36. The presence of Lewis Cine, the Vikings' top draft pick in 2022, will loom large as he rehabilitates a fractured left leg and dislocated ankle.
Long story short, the primary members of the Vikings 2022 secondary include three pending free agents, three rookies with serious injuries to overcome, and one veteran whose contract almost certainly would need to be adjusted to facilitate a return.