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Future of the Vikings, Part 3: Cornerbacks

A deeper dive into the Vikings' young group of defensive backs and what's next at a key position

Welcome to our Future of the Vikings series looking at how each player on the Vikings roster performed in 2023 and what’s next. For Part 3, we put the cornerbacks under the microscope. This group was entirely made up of young players and as young players do, they had flashes and falls. Let’s dive right in…

Byron Murphy Jr.

The impact of the former Cardinal on the Vikings secondary is not easy to quantify on paper. By PFF’s grading, he ranked 60th out of 80 cornerbacks with at least 600 snaps. Murphy Jr. had the highest percentage of missed tackles in the entire league and gave up a 102.0 QB rating on throws into his coverage (56th). He was also attacked often, finishing 49th in snaps per target and he did not have many plays on the ball, ranking 68th in “forced incompletion” percentage.

So why did it feel like he was a major upgrade from cornerbacks of the recent past? One reason might be that 185 of his 715 yards allowed came in one game (Week 3 vs. Chargers). He also played his best game against Atlanta, which was one of the highlight games of the season and he was excellent in the game where he got hurt against Cincinnati and the secondary collapsed down the stretch without him.

Murphy signed a two-year, $17.5 million contract this offseason and overall the Vikings should feel fine about making that move and expect him to be a starter next season. His cap hit is scheduled to jump up to $10.9 million, though it’s possible the team could convert his base salary into signing bonus to create extra space if needed.

Akayleb Evans

The second-year corner finished ranked 71st out of 80 cornerbacks in PFF grade, third worst in missed-tackle percentage and 60th in QB rating allowed. But the strange thing about those numbers is how wildly different they are from Weeks 1-15. Before the last three games of the year, Evans ranked 42nd overall, which would have been a fine first season as a starter. In the final three contests, he was dead last in grade and was benched multiple times.

It’s hard to be sure exactly what happened. Maybe playing without Murphy Jr. impacted his role or he wore down having never played this long of a season in his career before. Whatever the case, he showed enough at times to think he can build on 2023 but displayed enough weaknesses to think that the position is not solved because of him.

Evans has two more seasons on his rookie deal.

Mekhi Blackmon

Out of 22 rookie corners who played at least at least 300 snaps, only two had a better PFF coverage grade than Blackmon. No one else ranked within 14 points of his tackling grade.

While Blackmon did have a few welcome-to-the-NFL moments, including getting Mossed by Denver’s Courtland Sutton, he was one of the best rookies in the NFL this season at his position. In a rotational role that saw him play 434 snaps, he allowed only an 87.8 QB rating on throws into his coverage and had the fifth most pass breakups among first-year corners (8).

The Vikings presumably view Blackmon as a key piece to their future going forward.

Akayleb Evans, Byron Murphy, Mekhi Blackmon, NaJee Thompson

Akayleb Evans, Byron Murphy, Mekhi Blackmon, NaJee Thompson

Andrew Booth Jr.

One of the things worth thinking about with the 2022 draft class is that they were picked for Ed Donatell, who ran a very different system and style of play than current DC Brian Flores. It’s possible Booth Jr. falls into the category of a player who the team originally had a vision for and now no longer fits. From Day 1 Booth Jr. played on the second team in OTAs and training camp and only saw the field for 20-plus snaps on three occasions. In limited snaps, he did not have major issues, giving up four completions on eight targets for 30 yards.

The question for Booth Jr. as he goes into a make-or-break 2023 camp is whether he can adapt his own game to what Flores needs.

Joejuan Williams

The former Patriots draft pick was a starter for about half of training camp and then ended up getting cut and signed to the practice squad. Midway through the year the Bears picked him up. They released him and then the Vikings brought him back. Quite a roller coaster in a single year. Altogether Williams played 48 snaps as a Viking. He struggled mightily against the Lions in his lone game with significant playing time.

Williams was on the list of players signed back to the practice squad for next season but he will have to fight for a spot.

Jaylin Williams

The undrafted free agent spent most of the season on the practice squad and then saw 24 snaps when the Vikings suffered a rash of injuries. Williams was signed to next year’s practice squad.

NaJee Thompson

Heading into training camp Thompson was not on anyone’s radar except special teams coordinator Matt Daniels but he turned out to be a significant part of the punt coverage unit. He played 193 special teams snaps and graded well above average by PFF. Thompson will enter next season as an important part of the special teams coverage.

Free agency options

As always, the top names in free agency come along with the caveat that some teams will re-sign their free agents. In particular, CB1 in this class Jaylon Johnson has expressed interest in staying with the Bears after a career year. If he remains in Chi-Town, the list of available corners is not particularly deep but there are a handful of proven starters.

Chicago, Jaylon Johnson (No. 1 ranked PFF cornerback out of 80 starters)

Washington, Kendall Fuller (6th)

Indianapolis, Kenny Moore (17th)

Dallas, Stephon Gilmore (21th)

Houston, Steven Nelson (24th)

Kansas City, L’Jarius Sneed (26th)

Los Angeles, Ahkello Witherspoon (47th)

Las Vegas, Amik Robinson (49th)

Cincinnati, Chidobe Awuzie (51st)

New York Giants, Adoree Jackson (77th, ranked 29th in 2022)

The cornerback position is unique when it comes to price tags because there is a distinct middle class. The top three CBs make $20 million per year or more but 12 veterans have contracts worth between $10-$15 million and 14 made between $5-$10 million.

So if the Vikings want to make a run at adding a veteran, it will not break the bank unless they are chasing the top three or four players. Will they try to add at corner? That depends on how much they believe in the young players as depth behind Murphy Jr. and Blackmon. If the team sees Evans and Booth Jr. as fine options behind the starters, they may only look in the bargain bin. However, there is a shortage of a difference maker within this unit and there could be a domino effect if Harrison Smith retires. That could push Murphy Jr. into the slot more often if Metellus plays the Smith role.

Draft options

Similar to the defensive line, whether the Vikings would consider a first-round cornerback depends on what they do at quarterback. Kirk Cousins returning would make the possibility of drafting a corner realistic. Certainly defensive line should rank higher in terms of need but without a Jalen Ramsey or Sauce Gardner type, the Vikings could consider a player from a very strong group that is expected to have lots of talent available in the middle of the first round.

Here’s the top projected players by Mock Draft Database:

The bottom line

The Vikings’ top three cornerbacks in snap count were all under 26 years old in 2023 and each of them showed signs of being long term players in Minnesota even if there were bumps along the way. That should not mean the CB room is set. There are still enough questions about Murphy Jr., Blackmon and Evans that the team should not hesitate to search for a true CB1 or a quality veteran starter that would be an immediate upgrade.