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Vikings Off-Season Evaluation Part IV: Defensive Overview

The Vikings’ defense improved this season, but more remains to be done

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In part IV of my Vikings offseason evaluation series, I’ll take an overview of the Vikings defense this season under new defensive coordinator Brian Flores. Below are the first three parts in the series:

Part I: Offensive Overview

Part II: Quarterbacks

Part III: Special Teams

The Brian Flores Effect

From the moment the news that Brian Flores had been hired as the Vikings’ new defensive coordinator last year, there was excitement about what his defensive scheme would bring to the Vikings’ defense. Known to be blitz-heavy, Flores didn’t disappoint in that regard. Even from the first days of training camp, Flores was implementing his unorthodox blitzing scheme in practice, along with three safety personnel and some other variations from more orthodox defensive schemes.

But at the end of the day, it was a different Brian Flores scheme the Vikings used this season compared to ones Flores has used in the past. The main characteristic- a blitz-heavy scheme- remained in place, but other elements changed a bit.

Flores blitzed at a league-high 49.4% rate- the 6th highest rate since 2006 when ESPN began tracking the stat- but also frequently faked the blitz and dropped eight into coverage- also doing so at the highest rate in the league. He also had the most players aligned on the line of scrimmage, the most six-man blitzes, and the second-most rotations from single- to two-high safeties. Overall, it was an all-or-nothing max-blitz or max-coverage scheme that created a lot of difficulties for offensive coordinators. On the one hand, offensive coordinators largely decided to abandon the deep passing game, as they weren’t sure when Flores would bring max pressure, forcing them to implement a quick passing game and keeping extra blockers instead. The result was a Vikings’ defense that gave up the fewest explosive plays in the league. On the other hand, Flores would also vary his coverage from previous schemes, going largely with zone coverage and dropping eight in coverage more frequently. That led offensive coordinators to gradually adjust to Flores’ two-high safety zone coverage.

But overall, Flores’ defense was one of the most effective in the league after the first month or so of players getting used to it and Flores figuring out what worked best with his new unit, until late in the season when Byron Murphy Jr. was lost to injury.

The gold dotted line on the above chart represents the Vikings’ 250-play rolling EPA over the course of the season. After some trial-and-error at the start of the season and working out the kinks, the Vikings’ defense was pretty effective over the next ten games or so, until the injury to cornerback Byron Murphy Jr., which seemed to coincide with the Vikings defense becoming less effective in the final few games (gold dotted line rising).

But at the end of the season, the Vikings’ defense ranked 13th in points allowed and 16th in yards allowed- significant increases in performance from the previous season in which they ranked 28th and 31st respectively. In terms of defensive DVOA rankings, the Vikings went from 24th in the 2022 season to 11th this season- also a significant improvement. They weren’t as effective on 3rd down as in 2022 but were better in preventing red zone TDs. They also went from 3rd best to last (32nd) in preventing 4th down conversions this season.

But overall, Flores managed significant improvement, allowing just over 4 fewer points per game in 2023 (21.3) compared to 2022 (25.4). And he did that with largely the same personnel as in 2022, except for some rookie replacements at linebacker and at cornerback.

The Future of Brian Flores

There has been speculation from the moment that Flores was hired that he would be a top head coaching candidate at the end of the season and would likely move on from the Vikings this year. I’m more doubtful of that.

Clearly Flores has proven himself as a good defensive coordinator, and despite the controversy in his time with the Dolphins, also at least a decent head coach. But so far- and it’s still early- he hasn’t landed any head coaching interviews.

My guess is that Flores isn’t among the top head coaching candidates this cycle for a variety of reasons. First, it’s clear that the preference for head coaches is for those on the offensive side of the ball. That’s been the trend in recent years and that doesn’t appear to be changing. It’s not that every new head coach comes from the offensive side of the ball, but most of them do.

Secondly, Flores still has pending litigation against the league from his previous head coaching job, and that may cause potential suitors to pause in hiring him, fair or unfair. Additionally, while Flores is linked to New England given that’s where he learned coaching and spent most of his coaching career, if the Patriots move on from Bill Belichick it seems most likely they’d go with Jerod Mayo, who they appear to have been grooming as Belichick’s successor, or perhaps Mike Vrabel- now that he’s been released- and who also has a New England background and a solid head coaching record. Among defensive head coaching candidates, Dan Quinn appears to be more in demand early on. Flores’ improvement with the Vikings this season, while impressive, did not result in a top ten or top five unit, which usually draws more attention when it comes to head coaching jobs.

So, at this point I’d be surprised if Flores lands a head coaching offer that takes him away from the Vikings next season. It’s worth mentioning that Flores is unlikely to take any offer that comes his way either. He cut short the process of interviewing with the Cardinals’ head coaching job last year, saying it wasn’t the right fit for him, and accepting the Vikings’ defensive coordinator position.

Keeping Flores as defensive coordinator would be a positive for the Vikings next season, but more needs to be done to improve the defense from decent to legitimately good.

Flores Needs More Talent to Be a Top Ten Unit Next Season

Brian Flores needs to be commended for the results he got with less than top-level talent at most positions. Apart from Danielle Hunter, who’s now a free agent, the Vikings did not have a top-level pass rusher this season at either edge or interior positions. Flores got more than expected from a UDFA and an aging veteran at linebacker, and saw a return to form for Cam Bynum, who struggled mightily last season after an impressive rookie season at free safety. And Josh Metellus continued to do well, although his coverage at slot corner was not ideal.

Overall coverage in the defensive secondary was decent- and a pleasant surprise over expectations at the beginning of the season- but was still exploited too often. Akayleb Evans had a poor finish to a mediocre season- he was benched a couple times in the last couple games- and at this point doesn’t offer much hope for improvement.

On the other hand, rookie Mekhi Blackmon had a promising rookie season and second-year man Andrew Booth Jr. did well over the 99 snaps he had- mostly toward the end of the season.

New acquisition this season Byron Murphy Jr. didn’t have great stats and didn’t grade well, but often seemed to have the toughest assignments. His value might be judged in part by the decline of the defensive performance in the last few games of the season when he was out with an MCL strain.

But at the end of the day, Brian Flores needs more talent on the defensive line and at cornerback. The Vikings finished 25th in overall defensive team grade this past season, including second-to-last in pass rush grade, 23rd in tackling, 18th in run defense, and 16th in coverage. The fact that Flores managed to be 13th in points allowed and 16th in yards allowed speaks to the fact that he did more with less this season.

Attracting and Retaining Talent

In addition to needing more talent, the Vikings also need to keep the quality talent they had on the roster last season.

Danielle Hunter tops that list, who had a healthy and very productive season for the Vikings, ranking 5th in sacks (16.5) and tied for first in tackles for loss (which include sacks) at 23. I would imagine the Vikings could extend Hunter for around $20 million AAV. Hunter played for that amount this season but earned another $3 million in incentives with his sack total. Hunter has indicated he’d like to be back with the Vikings, but obviously a deal needs to be worked out.

Jordan Hicks is also a free agent and has expressed a desire to return to the Vikings next season. This seems like a relatively easy deal to accomplish. Hicks took a pay-cut last year to remain with the Vikings, playing for $5 million last season. Extending him another year or two at a similar salary cap amount- perhaps a little less- would be appropriate. Hicks was the 23rd ranked off-ball linebacker by PFF grade- his highest grade in the last five seasons.

Other restricted/free agents worthy of extension in some role include DJ Wonnum, Jonathon Bullard, Khyiris Tonga, and Theo Jackson. I wouldn’t extend Marcus Davenport after he went MIA this season with an ankle injury that was never described as serious, or ever really described much at all. Davenport had a similar history in New Orleans. Moving on from Dean Lowry, who was ineffective before getting injured, makes sense given his $4.5 million salary cap hit in 2024 with no dead cap.

The other notable player out there is Harrison Smith. He may retire and that wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Vikings at this point. They’ve got a capable replacement for Smith in Josh Metellus, although depth would be more of a question mark with Lewis Cine not having developed to date. But if Smith decides to play another year, the Vikings would need to work out another pay cut for him, down to around his dead cap hit level of $7.8 million. That would save $11.4 million in cap space for the Vikings, who could use that space to acquire another player.

Specifically, the Vikings could use another veteran defensive back. There are a lot of interesting options available from Antoine Winfield Jr. to Jaylon Johnson, L’Jarius Sneed, Kendall Fuller, CJ Gardner-Johnson, among others. Bolstering the secondary with another veteran presence that can hold down a starting job as younger players develop could be a solid investment for the Vikings at this point.

The Vikings could also use more talent up front. Assuming they’re able to extend Hunter, they have a couple veteran guys in Hunter and Phillips and could extend some mid-tier vets like Bullard and Wonnum, but need more young talent besides Jacquelin Roy and Andre Carter II, neither of which saw much action this season.

Using a top draft pick on a defensive lineman like Jer’Shan Newton is a possibility, and the Vikings could also consider moving on from Harrison Phillips ($2.3 million dead cap hit) who regressed this season and upgrading the position by pursuing a higher-end interior pass rusher like Christian Wilkins or Leonard Williams, and even a Javon Kinlaw- with a much lower market value- could prove to be a good addition and replacement for Patrick Jones II as an interior rusher on passing downs.

Bottom Line

The Vikings’ defense got better under Brian Flores this season, despite not having the best talent at many positions. In order to improve next season, the Vikings will need to upgrade their talent on the defensive side of the ball. That likely means dedicating more draft capital to that side of the ball, and reallocating salary cap space to maximize performance. That would result in some changes among starters next season, but this is the NFL and changes are not only common but expected. It’s a rare team that doesn’t have some important turnover on their roster from year-to-year, and the Vikings are not at the stage where that is likely- at least not on the defensive side of the ball.

Poll

Should the Vikings use their first draft pick on a defensive player or a quarterback?

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  • 45%
    Defensive player
    (429 votes)
  • 54%
    Quarterback
    (521 votes)
950 votes total Vote Now