After having a bottom-three defense for the third consecutive year, the Minnesota Vikings have nearly completed an overhaul of the entire unit. Long gone are the days of the vaunted Mike Zimmer-led defense. Now that Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have departed, the defense is entirely unrecognizable beyond Harrison Smith and Danielle Hunter.
With massive needs at several positions, the Vikings are attempting to address myriad holes with limited resources. Chief among them is cornerback, something Zimmer arguably overemphasized when he was in Minnesota. With arguably the worst pass defense in the league, fans and analysts have openly wondered if the team has done enough to address the cornerback room.
The positions’ outlook was bleak by December. Then injuries knocked promising rookies Andrew Booth and Akayleb Evans out, and the Vikings were forced to present a very targetable lineup. Minnesota had to lean on the soon-to-be-released Cam Dantzler, aging Patrick Peterson, oft-exposed Chandon Sullivan, and practice squad call-up Duke Shelley.
Although opponents occasionally burned him, Peterson was the most consistent and highest-graded cornerback for the Vikings over the past couple of years. Shelley was a particularly adept late-season filler when the cornerback room succumbed to injury. Sullivan was constantly picked on in the slot. Kris Boyd is technically a depth corner, but he’s more of a fan-favorite special teamer
None of these players are on the Vikings roster entering 2023.
Last year, a massive point of contention was whether the inability to stop opposing offenses was the fault of the coordinator or the players themselves. Fans were befuddled watching star pass-rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith drop into coverage against wide receivers and tight ends. It seemed the only trickery Donatell had up his sleeve backfired against him every time.
Donatell’s Cover-6 heavy scheme was poor. But he was simply managing the personnel he was given, and ultimately it was the inability to adjust that led to his contract termination.
Hiring Brian Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach and Belichick disciple, should fix some of that. Flores employs complex mismatch schemes, moving players around to the team’s advantage and sending staggering pressure at opposing quarterbacks. By adding him, the Vikings will immediately lend more credibility to their pass defense, and he will give his players opportunities to succeed.
The Vikings added Byron Murphy in free agency to assist Flores, the splashiest move of the offseason so far, and he figures to slot in as the immediate CB1. Murphy compiled a 66.7 PFF grade through nine games before being placed on injured reserve in December.
Interestingly enough, his highest-graded game was against the Vikings when they beat the Cardinals 34-26. He performed admirably against a daunting wide receiver corps, and PFF gave him a 75.7 coverage grade in 71 total snaps.
Adding Murphy gives the Vikings a high-upside young cornerback with the ability to develop into a premier corner under Flores’ tutelage. Murphy also has positional versatility, with half of his snaps in 2021 coming from the slot, and the vast majority in 2022 being from the boundary.
The Vikings also added two cornerbacks via the draft. They took Mekhi Blackmon out of USC and Jay Ward from LSU with the 102nd and 134th picks. USC heavily utilized Blackmon as a press-man corner. Ward was used as a multidimensional defensive tool at LSU, lining up at safety, slot, and outside cornerback. Blackmon projects to be a solid backup early in the season, and Ward could be used to slowly consume some of Bynums’ snaps.
The current depth chart looks something like:
- Byron Murphy (25)
- Andrew Booth (22)
- Akayleb Evans (23)
- Mekhi Blackmon (24)
- Joejuan Williams (25)
- Jay Ward (22)
A drastic difference from last year’s group:
- Patrick Peterson (32)
- Cameron Dantzler (24)
- Andrew Booth (22)
- Akayleb Evans (23)
- Kris Boyd (26)
Marcus Peters and Bryce Callahan are the best remaining corners on the market. Callahan is projected to sign a deal of around $2.5 to 2.75 million in annual average value (AAV), and Peters is projected to sign for $3.5 million in AAV. Callahan could provide a slot corner or proven depth, but it may not ultimately benefit the players’ growth to sign him.
Flores’ creativity should help with his players’ lack of experience – the raw physical talent is all there. The Vikings have the cap space and assets to make moves, but they will ultimately likely benefit from seeing what they have in their young room. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah clearly has faith in his chosen players, and if Minnesota brought in more competition, it would ultimately stunt their development and growth.
Ultimately, the Vikings have done everything necessary to prep their cornerback room to be tested next year and to begin the process of developing a homegrown unit. Continuity between coordinator positions isn’t guaranteed with a person of Flores’ caliber managing the defense. But the if the team manages to employ coordinators with a similar philosophy, the defense will have every opportunity to grow and succeed.