On Wednesday, the Minnesota Vikings announced that they agreed to terms with free-agent cornerback Byron Murphy, who the Arizona Cardinals drafted in 2019. The news broke Tuesday night and came as relief to Vikings fans who were desperate to hear news about the CB position during the NFL’s legal tampering window.
Aaron Wilson laid out the contract details below:
NFL contract details can be messy and hard to understand, so here’s a breakdown. Murphy’s contract with the Vikings is functionally two-year, $17.25 million deal, with $8.1 million guaranteed at signing. Minnesota also guaranteed $4.5 million in the contract if he has an injury in 2023 that lingers into 2024. He can earn more money if he reaches certain play time and postseason award incentives, which can total up to $2 million per season.
Murphy’s deal gives the Vikings a great amount of flexibility. They have a Year 1 cap hit under $5 million, and can move on from him before the 2024 season with just $3.5 million in dead cap if the deal doesn’t work out. If Murphy plays well in 2023, the Vikings have him under contract for a $12.35 million cap hit in 2024, which is a low price to pay for a starting CB in the NFL.
See the breakdown of the deal from OverTheCap below:
Length is the downside of this deal for the Vikings. Because it’s only a two-year contract, if Murphy plays well, he will be in line for a big payday in 2025. The Vikings would have the leverage of a franchise tag to guarantee a third season. And at age 27, I expect the Vikings would extend him if that’s the case. Therefore, a result of Byron Murphy plays well enough to earn a big payday in 2025 is not really a significant downside for a contract.
Murphy slots in as the clear top dog in the Vikings’ depleted cornerback room. Before Murphy, the Vikings had only four CBs under contract. And they had only played a combined 311 career snaps on defense: 2022 rookies Andrew Booth Jr., Akayleb Evans, Kalon Barnes, and sophomore Tay Gowan. By contrast, Murphy started immediately as a rookie second-round pick, and he has played 3,460 snaps across his four-year career so far. Murphy played under Vance Joseph in Arizona and has experience playing in an aggressive defense that mixes man and zone. Brian Flores comes from a different coaching tree than Joseph but has a similar philosophy. Murphy’s experience should mesh well with Minnesota’s new defense.
Another benefit to signing Murphy is that he is experienced playing on the outside and in the slot. Per PFF, he’s played nearly half of his career snaps — 1,517 — from the slot. That versatility will come in handy as the Vikings build out their secondary. Currently, I would expect Murphy to be primarily an outside corner. However, if Minnesota is able to add more starting talent through free agency or the draft, Murphy’s ability to play outside and in the slot means that he can fill in the role that future player cannot.
Murphy also had a role as a blitzer with the Cardinals. He would often blitz when they lined him up in the slot or as the outside corner against a condensed splits. These are also situations where Flores likes to blitz. Murphy blitzed 41 times in 2020 and 39 times in 2021 — top five among cornerbacks in both seasons.
Murphy’s performance has been inconsistent. He had a breakout season statistically in 2021, where he recorded four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. His PFF grades have been mixed. Following a really poorly graded rookie season (120th of 130), he has ranked middle-of-the-pack since: 52nd in 2020, 91st in 2021, and 51st in 2022. Poor run defense dragged down his overall 2021 grade, but his coverage grade remained steady across those three seasons. Perhaps more concerning is that his man coverage grade has typically lagged behind his grades in zone. In 2022, he had a poor 44.0 grade in man coverage, but a good 71.9 grade in zone.
Murphy has also had a couple of injuries. Importantly, he missed the final eight games of the 2022 season with a back injury that probably reduced his market value in free agency. He also suffered a broken foot in 2017 that limited his redshirt freshman season at Washington.
Coming out of college, Murphy tested with just average size and speed, running a 4.55-second 40-yard dash at 5’11 1/8″ and 189 lbs. His explosion numbers were good with a 36 1/2″ vertical leap, but his agility drills are where he really shone, running an impressive 6.83-second three-cone drill. On the field, this shows up as a great change of direction athlete, which we will see on tape later in this article. An arm length of 30 3/8″ was a significant concern for NFL evaluators, as 31″ is considered the threshold for CBs.
Here is his RAS card:
Despite being a middling athlete and having an average frame, scouting reports spoke highly of Murphy. They praised his quickness, ball skills, and mental processing. He was projected as one of the top CBs in the draft, and Arizona took him with the first pick of the second round.
How has Murphy progressed as a player in his time with the Cardinals? To find out, I watched five games: Arizona vs. the Vikings in 2021 and 2022, and 2022 games against the Las Vegas Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, and Seattle Seahawks.
One thing that stands out about Murphy in 2022 is that the Cardinals often asked him to shadow their opponent’s best receiver. Against the Vikings in 2021, he played to the left side of the defense exclusively. In 2022, he moved all around, often lining on top of Justin Jefferson. He moved inside against Jefferson in the slot often. While he did not play every snap against JJ, he performed admirably against him, allowing only two receptions for 15 yards.
Similarly, Murphy followed Davante Adams around the formation when the Cardinals played the Raiders. He allowed only two receptions for 11 yards against Adams. In facing two of the best receivers in the game and other standout players in A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, D.K. Metcalf, and Tyler Lockett, Murphy showcased a number of skills that should help him be a high-level corner in Minnesota.
As a defender, Murphy is comfortable in press man coverage and off coverage. He is patient in press and waits for the receiver to declare a direction before flipping his hips. He has great movement skills and change of direction, allowing him to blanket even the best route runners. Take a look at the play below against Adams at the top of the screen. Murphy backpedals, staying on top of Adams before Adams breaks outside. Only then does Murphy flip his hips. Murphy then shows great stopping skills when Adams tries to turn the route into a curl, and blankets him against when Adams turns upfield. This rep is a big win for Murphy:
That ability to change direction becomes critical in the red zone, where teams often try to run quick routes. A player needs to be able to stay balanced and cover a break in either direction while in man, which is not easy. A look at the play below shows Murphy’s ability to do so. He is lined up against Adams as the No. 3 WR up top. Murphy has outside leverage but remains balanced at the break, poised to cover an in-breaking route. Adams nods inside and then goes to the corner, but Murphy easily has the fluidity to match the route:
That quick change of direction for Murphy also comes in handy while he is breaking on routes. He uses a combination of watching the QB and his ability to sink his hips and drive on the ball to cover the play below, a quick throw to K.J. Osborn. Murphy is responsible for the out-breaking route against a stack formation, and he has his eyes in the backfield at the snap. He sees Kirk Cousins quickly line up to throw the out route, and breaks on the ball, rapidly closing the space and earning a PBU:
Murphy also clearly does good work in the film room. He is prepared for different route combinations and able to pass them off with fellow defenders very effectively. On the play below, he sees Adam Thielen motion across the formation and correctly identifies the wheel route, taking that as the deep threat. That allows the CB who has to run across the formation with Thielen time to recover and cover Jefferson’s shorter route:
Murphy’s recognition of the game extends to zone coverage. In the red zone play below, he covers Lockett’s initial route well at the top of the screen and then drifts underneath him while Lockett runs deeper into the end zone, staying between the receiver and QB:
There are two things that limit Murphy’s ability to be a true shutdown corner. The first is his lack of long speed and recovery speed. While he generally covers deep routes well because he has good technique, recognition, and enough speed, there are multiple instances of him losing a step on tape. Below, he is in press man against Osborn, the No. 2 receiver at the top of the screen. Osborn takes an inside release, and Murphy loses a step against him that he is unable to regain it:
Murphy can get grabby when he gets beat like the this. Reaching out at a WR’s jersey when you are beat is a survival instinct, and it will lead to penalties. On the next play, Jefferson beats Murphy at the top of the screen and commits a clear hold, pulling his jersey. It wasn’t called, and the throw went elsewhere for a successful play, but it should have been a penalty:
The second place Murphy loses more often than you’d like is at the catch point. With shorter arms, he doesn’t have the length to make a play on the ball in some situations. On the play against D.K. Metcalf below, Metcalf is able to high-point the ball, and Murphy can’t get his arm in there to break up the pass:
Murphy makes up for this deficit by often being physical throughout the route and at the catch point. Here is an example from earlier in the Seattle game where he jams Metcalf at the line of scrimmage and forces an incompletion with his physicality at the top of the screen:
Another downside to Murphy’s game is his work tackling and in the run game. Murphy often declines to stick his nose into piles, floating around them instead. While he understands leverage and will position himself to force runs back inside, he doesn’t aggressively take on blocks and lacks the ability to shed opposing blockers. He also does not always wrap up, choosing instead to ride defenders out of bounds instead of bringing them down. Take a look at the example below against Jefferson:
There are flashes of Murphy hitting hard, but they are typically when he is reading the QB’s throw and driving on the ball. Take a look at this great hit on a screen pass:
Finally, the Cardinals were not shy about blitzing Murphy. They liked to blitz him from the slot, and Flores will likely do the same. This turned into a sack against the Eagles:
On tape, I saw Byron Murphy as a high-level CB who can go toe-to-toe with the game’s best. I do not agree with the middling PFF grades, but I will grant that I saw three of his four highest-graded games in 2022 (the Seahawks game was his second-worst). But it should be also noted that Murphy was given a very difficult task in those games. He had to cover Justin Jefferson and Davante Adams, among others, and still performed at a high level.
If his health holds out, the Vikings appear to have gotten a steal in free agency. While he lacks long speed, Murphy has great movement skills and can mirror the best route runners in the game in man coverage. He shows physicality at the catch point despite his size and has great feel for zone coverage.
As a starter for the Vikings, Murphy should shine in Brian Flores’ scheme, which will ask him to take on a similar role to the one he had in Arizona. He can travel with receivers in coverage, and has also shown to be effective blitzing, both of which are critical for the blitz-heavy, man-coverage scheme the Vikings plan to run in 2023.