3 Players Who Have Improved under Brian Flores

Vikings Safety Is Elite
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Defensive improvement was high on the agenda for the Minnesota Vikings in 2023. A 1-4 record doesn’t scream improvement, but there have been aspects of the Vikings defense that have been better. One key thing to consider is players who have improved under Brian Flores.

Arguably, the biggest move the Vikings made during the offseason was appointing Flores as the defensive coordinator. The Vikings defense in 2022 was bad, though masked by a knack for creating turnovers at opportune times. Opposing teams marched up the field at will last season. That simply had to improve.

It would be a stretch to say the Vikings defense is now good, but expecting such a turnaround in a handful of games was unrealistic. 

3 Players Who Have Improved under Brian Flores

There are some obvious holes on the Vikings defense — a dominant nose tackle, an interior pass rusher, and a lockdown corner. Before Marcus Davenport could finally take the field, Danielle Hunter plowed a lone furrow on the edge as a pass rusher. Flores likes to send pressure, and the Vikings blitz more than any team in the NFL. It makes for more exciting viewing than last season’s shell defense. However, there are some issues brought about by the weaknesses on the Vikings roster.

While the Vikings middle linebackers and safeties — with Harrison Smith looking more like the old Hitman we all know and love — are thriving under Flores. the Vikings aren’t getting enough from the big guys up front, and when a team is constantly rushing as much as seven, it puts a lot of pressure on the cornerbacks. Ideally, you want at least one top-tier lockdown CB, which the Vikings don’t have. Minnesota’s defense isn’t where they’d like it to be, but there have been promising signs and at least three players who have improved under Flores.

Camryn Bynum

Players Who Have Improved
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No. 1 on this list has to be Camryn Bynum. The third-year safety is having a breakout season, something the Vikings hoped would happen last season. Bynum struggled in 2022 but has come out the other side to be one of the Vikings most consistent players this season. Pro Football Focus gives Bynum an overall grade of 81.2 through five games. It has been higher early in the season, but the longer that grade stays above 80, the more impressive it becomes.

The current season hangs in the balance as to whether the Vikings start to pick up some wins and remain competitive. The need for young players to step up and prove themselves as long-term starting options is always there.

Bynum is doing exactly that this season.

He is a tackling machine coming from the secondary, with 51 tackles, including two tackles for loss and a forced fumble across the first five games. He is putting together a season that will solidify his reputation as a starting-caliber player and bring about a healthy contract — his rookie deal runs out at the end of the 2024 season.

Akayleb Evans

CB2 Mystery
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Next up, Akayleb Evans. The fourth-round rookie from last year beat out last year’s second-round rookie, Andrew Booth, and this year’s third-round rookie, Mekhi Blackmon, to win the second starting CB job opposite Byron Murphy.

There were glimpses of a player with promise during his rookie season, but concussion issues slowed that progress. The fact that Evans has nailed down a starting place in this team ahead of players who were drafted ahead of him speaks volumes to the man and the athlete — but also the problems Minnesota has at cornerback.

The CB position is difficult in Flores’ system, and Evans is performing admirably. PFF gives him an overall grade of 68.0, which is up considerably on the 47.2 he got last season from his limited playing time. Evans is at his best coming downhill to make tackles. So far this season, he has made an impressive 48 tackles, including three tackles for loss. He also has five pass deflections and two forced fumbles to his name. 

His standout play of the season was unfortunate, letting what should have been an interception slide through his hands and into the hands of a receiver for a touchdown. Evans has a way to go before he becomes the permanent solution on the perimeter for the Vikings. However, he’s done enough to keep his place for the short term and have the opportunity to grow as a player. 

Jordan Hicks

Keeping Jordan Hicks Is a Smart Move by Vikings
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) against Green Bay Packers during their football game on Sunday, January 1, 2023, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. © Wm. Glasheen/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Off-ball linebacker was a major problem last season for the Vikings, as they employed two veterans who seemed to be way past their best. Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks struggled all season in Ed Donatell’s defense. The Vikings opted to release Kendricks, a long-tenured and popular Viking, and keep Hicks as the veteran presence. That decision has paid dividends, with linebacker now a position of strength in the Vikings defense with Hicks playing next to undrafted rookie Ivan Pace.

Hicks’ best football was 7-8 years ago, and his career was very much on the decline. Step forward, Flores, and suddenly Hicks is playing as well as he ever has. PFF grades him at 80.9 (sixth among linebackers league-wide) for overall performance. The best grade of his career for a season was 88.4 back in 2016 — last season, he scored 65.4.

Hicks has notched 43 tackles, including a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, a recovery, and a pass deflection. He looked a yard or more behind the game last season, but this year he looks sharp.

While Pace is being employed to carry the blitzing duties from the middle of the field in an extraordinarily blitz-heavy defense, Hicks is proving to be an excellent foil for the rookie, who mops up the other duties and is doing it to an excellent standard through five games. The 31-year-old is out of contract at the end of the season. His current performance would put him in line as an extension candidate at the right price.