The Minnesota Vikings’ cornerback situation was not very good last year.
An aging Patrick Peterson played fairly well considering the expectations, but the rest of the room struggled mightily. Chandon Sullivan was consistently disappointing. Andrew Booth spent the whole season hurt and on the sidelines. Cam Dantzler played so far off the opposing receiver he was in another zip code. Kris Boyd was more feisty on Twitter than he ever was on the field. Even with a few bright moments between Akayleb Evans and Duke Shelley, cornerback was a pain point for the Vikings in 2022.
Fast forward to 2023, and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Co. decided to hit the self-destruct button on the cornerback room. Andrew Booth and Akayleb Evans will return after their rookie season, but that’s it. Everyone else is a new face.
While that lack of continuity may be concerning, it comes at a decent time. Minnesota hired Brian Flores, and he brings a new scheme and philosophy. If there was ever going to be a time to start fresh, it’s now.
So what’s the state of the corner room today as it stands? How can Flores mix and match the various skill sets in the building to try and put together something serviceable in 2023?
What does Brian Flores ask from his cornerbacks? Simply put: physicality and man coverage.
Flores is going to bring pressure. A lot of pressure. Based on the Vikings personnel and Flores’ history as a play caller, expect this defense to run a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 0. That means leaving your corners on an island to either make the play fast or die trying.
The Flores defense uses a combination of press and off man coverage, and he’s good at tailoring things to his player’s skill sets. But the common denominator remains the same. His players need to hold up one-on-one in coverage, and they need to be able to make the tackle in space; because there likely won’t be help behind them to clean up their mistakes. The Flores prototype needs to be tough, scrappy, and resilient.
How do our corners meet that expectation?
Let’s start with the big free agent acquisition: Byron Murphy.
Byron Murphy is the closest to a sure thing in Minnesota’s cornerback room. Billed as predominantly a nickel back coming out of college, Murphy eventually found playing time on the outside in Arizona out of necessity and excelled there. Murphy’s physicality and short-area quickness define his play. He’s sticky in man coverage and plays with a tenacity that makes opposing receivers have to earn every catch against him.
If we’re looking for a Flores prototype on this team, Murphy is about as close as you get. It’ll be interesting to see where Murphy fits into Flores’ defense with his versatility both inside and outside. His more natural fit may be as an elite slot defender, but that will require one of the names below to step up to make Flores confident in the rotation at outside corner.
Andrew Booth Jr. will have a lot of pressure on him in Year 2. Does the former Clemson Tiger still have plays like the one below in him after sitting out most of last season?
Booth suffered a knee injury in Week 11 of last season and hadn’t seen a ton of playing time before getting injured in that game. But when we look at the flashes of his skillset we’ve seen at the NFL level along with his college resumé, there’s definitely some interesting clay for Flores to work with here.
A strong, feisty press-man corner is always going to be welcome in Flores’ scheme. Booth is another physical defender who’s going to make receivers earn their release at the line of scrimmage. He’s got plenty of athleticism and talent, now he’s just gotta put the pieces together against NFL route runners.
And while we’re talking about last year’s rookies, arguably the most successful cornerback off of the 2022 Vikings that’s still in Minnesota is fan favorite Akayleb Evans.
Evans simply played sound, consistent ball in 2022. He may not be an elite corner, but he did a good job of playing his role within the scheme and not making himself a liability. Evans has nice length and uses it well in plays like the clip below, going through the offensive player to break up the pass on a key fourth down. On star receiver Terry McLaurin no less.
Evans plays it safe often times in coverage, but this may be a nice counterbalance to Booth’s aggressiveness. And in a Cover 0 situation, safe may even be preferable.
Last season, Evans showed that he belongs at this level, and is more than just the guy who loves engaging with fans on Twitter. If the Vikings are going to slide Murphy inside, it’s going to be dependent on Evans solidifying one of the two spots outside.
Finally, we have Mekhi Blackmon, the rookie. Taken in the third round of this draft, the former Buffalo-turned-Trojan was the first defensive player drafted for this scheme — and the fit makes sense.
Blackmon is a fluid athlete with that trademark Flores toughness with the instincts to make plays on the boundary. He may not have elite size, but he’s got solid athleticism and makes you earn it at the catch point.
Blackmon has got a lot to learn in Year 1 and will need to adjust to the speed of the game. But the mold makes sense. He’s another guy that fights for the football and is gonna chip away at you all game.
Ultimately, the corners are only one part of the equation. Guys like Lewis Cine and Jay Ward will likely be playing closer to the line of scrimmage as a nickel defender than a deep safety. They should also be considered in the corner conversation.
There’s reasons for optimism with this group, but it’s largely untested. It’ll be up to Flores to put them in situations to succeed by generating pressure and letting them play with leverage. Minnesota’s corners may give up some big plays in 2023, but the hope is that the big plays generated by blitzes and stunts will offset that.
Minnesota has identified the mold for a Flores defensive back, now they just need to shape this unit in his image.