Defense Takes Steps As Cine, Booth Recover While Kendricks Departs

How much do you know about Lewis Cine? He may be the key to the Vikings 2023 season. Cine was Minnesota’s first-round draft pick last year, but he suffered a compound fracture of his leg in Week 4 against the Saints in London.

It was an ugly and unfortunate injury, with the bone breaking through the skin and several surgeries were required to correct the deamage. Cine’s season came to an abrupt end.

But the 2023 season will be at hand in a few months, and Cine is on track to be healthy and in the starting lineup at the safety position.

If the Vikings have Cine and Harrison Smith in the lineup at the two safety positions, that will be a major upgrade. Smith is an older, heady veteran, and there are no guarantees he will remain on the roster, but he is as sharp a player as the Vikings have at one of the most instinctive positions on the field. A team with two nasty safeties that can think the game in a similar manner can pay huge dividends.

Especially when the cornerback play improves. Andrew Booth’s rookie season was also cut short by injury and he was sidelined in November after knee surgery.

The 2022 second-round draft pick should be back in the lineup this season, but the other cornerback spot along with the nickel back positions are undetermined. Patrick Peterson can still make plays but lacks the overall consistency to be an asset. Duke Shelley is a hard worker and a hustler, and he could do a decent job at nickel, but he is far from a proven commodity.

The decision to part company with Eric Kendricks (saving $9.5 million) was the right decision for the Vikings. While he made the dramatic fumble recovery in the endzone against the Buffalo Bills in the dramatic Week 10 33-30 victory, big play were few and far between. Kendricks led the team in tackles with 137 last season, but when a linebacker is 5 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage on running plays and is not an asset in pass coverage, he’s just an ordinary player.

Speedy linebacker Brian Asamoah, the team’s third-round pick last year, will move into the starting lineup. Having Cine, Booth and Asamoah in the starting lineup will give defensive coordinator Brian Flores a much more potent group to work with than predecessor Ed Donatell had.

Those moves are an excellent starting point, but much more needs to be done, and moves have to be made quickly. The Vikings are still nearly $16 million over the NFL salary cap, and the Vikings must get down to the cap number by March 15 at 4 p.m. Eastern Time.

General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has more moves to make – particularly on defense – before that side of the ball can become an asset. Linebacker Jordan Hicks and edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter are still very much in jeopardy with the new league year approaching.

Tough decisions on personnel have to be made for a defense that has failed the last three seasons. Blaming Donatell for having the 31st-ranked defense last year is folly, because the defense was nearly as soft in 2020 and 2021 as it was last year.

The only clear conclusion that Adofo-Mensah can operate under is that the players have not been good enough.

If it was just one season of ordinary play, then it would be harder to come to that painful conclusion. It is never easy to cut players, especially for an organization that takes pride in the way it treats personnel.

Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell both issues laudatory statements about Kendricks and his value to the community as well as his contributions to the football team.

“As a Pro Bowler and team captain, a Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee and a leader of the Vikings social justice efforts, Eric leaves a powerful, permanent legacy within our organization and the Minnesota community,” Adofo-Mensah said.

But in the end, the Vikings brain trust will be judged for the team they put on the field. A great citizen like Kendricks has to be a destructive force on the field. He was not at this point and the right move was made.

More of those moves must be made in the next few days.