Minnesota Vikings hoping lottery tickets help secondary cash in during 2023
It’s been years since Minnesota Vikings fans have witnessed an excellent defensive backfield from the purple and gold. The home crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium hasn’t seen a top-ten passing defense dip a toe in the Land of 10,000 Lakes since 2018.
The secondary has long been one of the team’s biggest flaws. That’s nothing new. But the bottom completely fell out last year with a unit that ranked 31st in passing yards allowed.
Yet, it’s not like the front office hasn’t tried to fix the secondary’s weaknesses in the past. In addition to making a splash signing in 2021 with three-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson, we’ve seen both general managers draft several cornerbacks since 2018.
- Mike Hughes (2018), Jeff Gladney (2020) – First-round picks
- Andrew Booth Jr. – 2022 second-round pick
- Cameron Dantzler (2020), Mekhi Blackmon (2023) – Third-round picks
- Akayleb Evans – 2022 fourth-round pick
- Bold = Still with team
Despite these investments, so far, it’s Evans, a fourth-round pick, who appears penciled into a starting role next to free agent signee Byron Murphy Jr. Aside from Murphy and Blackmon, who was just drafted in April, no roster spot is set in stone, but Evans continues to strengthen his case.
What round a player was drafted in does not matter. But draft position does reflect how an athlete was once viewed as a prospect by at least some NFL talent evaluators.
In 2018 the depth chart was loaded with a trio of first-round picks, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mike Hughes, to go with second-round selection Mackensie Alexander. Like then, there’s a ton of competition on this roster, all from players who were once viewed as top prospects. Will the end result be the same as a group that helped form the NFL’s best third-down defense? Probably not, but the depth chart is loaded with potential.
- Byron Murphy Jr. – 25 years old – Fifth season
- Akayleb Evans – 24 years old – Second season
- Mekhi Blackmon – 24 years old – First season
- Andrew Booth Jr. – 22 years old – Second season
- Joejuan Williams – 25 years old – Fourth season
- Tay Gowan – 25 years old – Third season
As the Vikings saw with Duke Shelley last season, sometimes it takes a player a few years before making their mark. The then 26-year-old enjoyed a breakout performance in his fourth season, starting a career-high five games to go with eight pass deflections and his first interception.
Can the Vikings find another overlooked athlete receiving a second chance who thrives in purple and gold? Those candidates would be Williams or Gowan. Both have impressed in camp so far. Yet, the expectations are much higher for their recent draft picks. Yet, given the team’s recent experience spending draft capital in the secondary, it’s understandable that the Vikings want a few alternatives ready to roll.
Minnesota Vikings’ overflowing depth at safety
The Vikings have made many recent additions to the cornerback room, and we’ve seen similar draft capital spent on safeties, but much of the growth here has been thanks to player development.
Harrison Smith will be a future member of the Vikings’ Ring of Honor, but the 34-year-old isn’t done leading the secondary and still plays at a high level. Next to Smith is former fourth-round pick Camryn Bynum, and 2022 first-round pick Lewis Cine is pushing for more playing time every day.
Yet Josh Metellus can’t be forgotten. The 2020 sixth-round pick has an excellent football IQ and has not only made an impact on special teams but also earned an impressive 79.7 player grade from Pro Football Focus across three starts last season. His 85.1 grade across 13 games ranked second-best on the defense, behind only Danielle Hunter.
Each of those safeties are well-deserving of a roster spot, if not a starting role. Yet then there’s rookie fourth-round pick Jay Ward, whose fit is still unknown, much like Bynum’s was as a first-year pro back in 2021.
It’s understandable not to get too excited about the Vikings’ defensive backfield. The truth is, no one knows what to expect. Aside from the starting safety duo of Smith and Bynum, the returning players have seen just 267 career snaps on defense. The added experience of Murphy and Joejuan Williams could be the glue that helps a group of first and second-year players stabilize the secondary more than Vikings fans have seen in recent times. But that’s a big if.
Over the years, fans have gotten used to seeing the same issues in coverage arise each and every year. Having to face Aaron Rodgers twice a season hasn’t helped, but life could be different now that the four-time MVP is taking bites out of the Big Apple instead of the NFC North.
The entire secondary, aside from Smith, is 25 or younger. This means we likely haven’t seen the best of what any players competing for snaps have to offer just yet. Perhaps coordinator Brian Flores and defensive backs coach Daronte Jones can help get the best out of a group hungry to prove they belong not only on the roster but on the field for as many snaps as they can physically handle.
If there’s one thing Flores’ defense has shown, it’s that several players will get a chance to prove themselves. His tendency to use schemes that utilize three safeties or different cornerbacks for different situations gives athletes a chance, and competition will bring out the best of a group in desperate need of a playmaker.
Last year’s depth didn’t hold up, but the Vikings believe their changes, both in their player personnel and the defensive coaching staff, can make up the difference. Even if they weren’t the same ones who drew the ire of so many a season ago, everyone knows the challenge ahead. There’s nowhere to go but up. Will this young group of talent capitalize on the opportunity? We can’t wait to find out.