PHOENIX — One day, perhaps within a decade or so, Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks could be back at U.S. Bank Stadium, watching their names and numbers unveiled in the Vikings Ring of Honor to the roar of adoring fans.
This coming year, though, the two players will be on the Vikings' schedule as opponents for the first time: Kendricks as a linebacker for the Chargers and Thielen as a receiver for the Panthers. Both had played their entire careers in Minnesota; both had been named to All-Pro teams for the Vikings, and both started every game for a Vikings team that won 13 games on the way to an NFC North title in 2022. The Vikings released both of them this month, in a period of the NFL offseason that co-owner Mark Wilf said is "always a bittersweet time."
"Guys like Adam and Eric, such huge parts of our franchise, will be Viking legends one day down the road and [we have] just great respect for them," Wilf added.
Neither the veterans' stature in Minnesota, nor the fact the Vikings went 13-4, kept the team from including the two players in a set of changes that will remake the roster for 2023 and might not be finished. Wilf said before the 2022 season he expected the Vikings to be "super-competitive" in their first year with General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O'Connell. Even though some of the faces on the Vikings' roster will change in 2023, Wilf said, the goal will not.
"We want to be super-competitive every time we step on the field, every season," Wilf said at the NFL owners' meetings on Tuesday. "And we feel we're going to be strong; of course, division winners and we're going to be strong. We know there's strong teams in our division now and we have to never take anything for granted. I think that's why they're working every single day to turn over every stone, if you will, to just keep getting better."
In the second year of what Adofo-Mensah has called a "competitive rebuild," the Vikings will count on bigger contributions from second-year defenders like Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth Jr., Brian Asamoah and Akayleb Evans. With the team still tight on salary cap space, it will need a boost from free-agent pickups like edge rusher Marcus Davenport and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr., whom O'Connell said could play both inside and outside cornerback spots in Brian Flores' defense.
The Vikings, at the moment, have Davenport, Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter at edge rusher. That could change if the Vikings trade Smith, who posted a goodbye to Minnesota on social media earlier this month amid displeasure with his contract.
However the group comes together, O'Connell said he hopes it can mimic the shape-shifting tendencies New England had when Flores was coaching with Bill Belichick and the Patriots "could reinvent themselves."
He ticked off various formations: four down linemen, three down linemen, seven defensive backs, base defense against three-receiver sets.
"That's where I think the real secret sauce for 'Flo' is: He makes it learnable," O'Connell said. "He can have carryover to different personnel groupings, positions, alignments. And the guys can have razor-sharp clarity on what they need to do.
"We'll see exactly what that picture looks like. There's still some things via the draft, and the second and third wave of free agency. We'll see what shakes out. But I'm just excited to see that whole picture come into clarity."
Offensively, O'Connell said, their free-agent investments in the run game (adding tight end Josh Oliver, bringing back running back Alexander Mattison and giving fullback C.J. Ham a contract extension) were aimed at greater efficiency, to put the Vikings in more favorable down-and-distance situations where they hope quarterback Kirk Cousins can throw with less pressure.
They will play, too, with Cousins in the final year of his deal after the Vikings added two void years to his contract in lieu of the extension the quarterback wanted. The 2023 season will be his first with the same offensive play-caller in back-to-back seasons since 2015-16; O'Connell has his sights set on the kind of season that could help Cousins and the Vikings in 2023.
"This will be really cool, for him to be in the same system, calling the same formations, same plays," O'Connell said. "Him and I got a great rapport. So I'm just excited to see him in Year 2. My goal is 2023 is one of the best seasons Kirk Cousins has had playing quarterback in the NFL. When that happens, I think it's a really good thing for him and the Vikings."
A first-place schedule that includes matchups with all four of the league's conference finalists — the Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles and 49ers — will test the Vikings' ambitions in 2023, as will the fact they currently lack both a second-round pick and considerable cap space.
If the 2023 season, the Wilfs' 19th as owners, is a success, it will be because they managed to follow up the successes of the 2022 season without being swayed by them.
"A lot of great moments," Wilf said of 2022. "Certainly the record of  one-score games and the greatest comeback in NFL history was exhilarating, exciting and very rewarding. What drives us every single day is the ultimate goal, and that's winning a Super Bowl. So, we're of course not where we wanted to be, but a lot of great moments and building for the future, particularly with Coach O'Connell and Kwesi leading us. They really established the kind of team they can be, and where we can go."