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Harrison Phillips: Vikings will use 'division of labor' to carry leadership torch vacated by Kirk Cousins

Harrison Phillips hopes to prove that the many parts Minnesota derives its leadership from are greater than sum of what Kirk Cousins took with him to Atlanta.

After six years as the Vikings' leader, Cousins jumped ship to the Falcons, but Phillips -- there for the last two of those seasons -- believes the club might actually stand to improve as it compensates for his departure.

"There's gonna be a huge loss," Phillips said Wednesday on NFL Total Access. "Kirk Cousins as a person, as a leader, as a teammate, that's a big void in your locker room. One of the most humble guys that I've ever been around. Servant leader, just a great motivator. He's great. To ask one person to fill that void is probably not probable. So what we're going to do is have a great leadership team, which we've already seen. There's already guys that I've seen these last few seasons being on this roster -- some are captains, some are not captains yet but will be in their careers -- and so we're going to pass that torch off and kind of division of labor. We're going to all carry that load together, and maybe we can be a better football team for it.

"Kirk's obviously amazing. I've learned a lot from him and the leadership side of thing, and that's an area I'm trying to step up and improve my game by working on those abilities."

Of the Vikings' eight captains last year, they actually lost a bit more than just their QB; Danielle Hunter and Jordan Hicks also joined new teams in free agency. Justin Jefferson, Harrison Smith, Brian O'Neill, C.J. Ham and Josh Metellus remain.

Yet Phillips, not yet a Pro Bowl defensive tackle but a high-character, impactful player going on seven NFL seasons, leads a list of names ready to step into that void. Whether its homegrown talent like safety Camryn Bynum and center Garrett Bradbury or leadership from the influx of talented players added such as running back Aaron Jones or pass rushers Jonathan Greenard and Andrew Van Ginkel, Minnesota has plenty of experience to draw on in the season ahead.

That's still true at quarterback, as well, where Sam Darnold, a first-round pick from Phillips' 2018 draft class now turned journeyman, brings 56 starts to the position.

It's still to be determined after the Vikings traded up to select QB J.J. McCarthy at No. 10 overall if Darnold will hold onto the QB1 spot for all of 2024, start there and eventually cede snaps, or begin September simply as veteran depth to the Michigan product. McCarthy isn't necessarily green. He made 28 college starts with just one loss and led his Wolverines to the College Football Playoff National Championship, but he's not a surefire Day 1 starter coming from a program that focused on a strong run game and stellar defense.

Whoever takes the reins from Cousins, though, Phillips is confident the transition will be seamless.

"I think it's pretty easy with the culture that Kevin (O'Connell) built here in Minnesota," he said of rallying around Darnold or McCarthy at starter. "I do reflect back to when I came to the NFL with Josh Allen, to see his growth and how he stepped up with his leadership so early on. But also to see how that transition process can go very smoothly. I have a ton of confidence in Sam. ... I have full confidence in him that he's going to go out and win as many football games as he's allowed to go win for us.

"And I hope that the leadership in that room -- Nick Mullens comes to mind a lot about an amazing player who's been in a lot of organizations, he's a true professional -- I think that the combination of those two players will do everything they can to lift J.J. Like I said, that's above my pay grade about how those chips fall."

Another reason for confidence in Minnesota's first Cousins-less season since 2017? The defense, on which Phillips feels much more of an authority.

"We're excited that coach (Brian) Flores is back," he said. "We're excited with the new additions and, shoot, if no team ever scores a point, then it makes the quarterback position a lot easier. So we're gonna try to focus on that kind of stuff."

The Vikings defense indeed appears to be on the rise, jumping from three straight seasons as a bottom-10 scoring unit to 13th in Flores' first year as defensive coordinator.

On that side, Minnesota will again spread the onus of replacing a Pro Bowl talent among the many, this time using the aforementioned pass-rushing signings and the draft to cover for Hunter's departure following a 16.5-sack season.

Like Darnold and Mullens are expected to do for McCarthy, Greenard and Van Ginkel should greatly benefit the development of Dallas Turner, the Vikings' other 2024 first-round pick at No. 17 overall. With the Harrisons -- Phillips and Smith -- manning the other two levels of Minnesota's defense, the unit is well set up to build on previous progress under Flores.

Disallowing all comers from scoring any points is an obvious exaggeration, but Phillips has plenty of reason to believe his D will help usher in the Vikings' new era without as many growing pains.

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