EAGAN, Minn. — Players are less than a week away from reporting for 2023 Vikings Training Camp presented by Omni Viking Lakes Hotel.
The first public practice is scheduled for Saturday, July 29, as part of Back Together Weekend, which is presented by The Salvation Army.
In preparation for the return of football, we started a position-by-position preview:
View the best photos of Vikings S Josh Metellus from the 2022 season.
Last but not least, today we're taking a look at cornerbacks and safeties.
Returning starters: Andrew Booth, Jr. (1 game), Akayleb Evans (2 games)
Also on the roster: (listed alphabetically by last name): Kalon Barnes, Mekhi Blackmon, C.J. Coldon, Jr., Tay Gowan, Byron Murphy, Jr., NaJee Thompson, Jaylin Williams and Joejuan Williams
Departed starters: Patrick Peterson, Chandon Sullivan and Cameron Dantzler, Sr.
2022 recap: Most of the Vikings action at corner last season came from Peterson, Dantzler and Sullivan, who all are on different rosters for 2023.
Minnesota signed Barnes off the Dolphins practice squad in December, and he appeared in three games for the Vikings. Booth, whom the Vikings drafted 42nd overall, played in six games but was placed on Injured Reserve Nov. 30 with a knee injury. Evans, a fourth-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, ended up starting two of the 10 games in which he played. The rookie suffered multiple concussions that abruptly ended his season. Gowan played three games but contributed solely on special teams.
Newcomers: The Vikings signed Murphy, who spent the first four seasons of his NFL career in Arizona, and also added Joejuan Williams (Patriots) during free agency. Minnesota used the 102nd overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to grab Blackmon; Coldon, Thompson and Jaylin Williams signed as undrafted free agents.
Returning starters: Harrison Smith (14 games), Camryn Bynum (17 games) and Josh Metellus (3 games)
Also on the roster: (listed alphabetically by last name): Lewis Cine, Theo Jackson and Jay Ward
2022 recap: For the 11th consecutive season, the Vikings relied on Smith as one of their starting safeties. The spot opposite him has experienced more turnover, and Bynum stepped into the role in 2022. Smith racked up five interceptions, matching his career high in a season for the fourth time. He missed the Week 3 (concussion), Week 14 (illness) and Week 18 (rest) contests. Bynum was the only Viking to play 100 percent of the team's defensive snaps, and he totaled a career-high six passes defensed. Metellus, a 2020 draft pick, continued to be a fiend on special teams but also was ready when his number was called defensively. Metellus started in place of Smith all three times the veteran was sidelined, and he appeared in every game. His 42 total tackles were a career-high by a margin of 29. The Vikings signed Jackson off the Titans practice squad on Oct. 11. The Nashville native contributed mainly on special teams but did get a few snaps on defense in Minnesota's final two regular-season games.
3 Key Questions for Vikings defensive backs
1. Who will start at CB in 2023?
With both primary starters from 2022 on different teams, the Vikings – and Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores – have a fresh slate at cornerback.
The CB pool is a young one, to be sure. Will they have what it takes to limit top receivers week after week?
It seems safe to assume Murphy, the veteran-most corner in the room, will start at one of the outside spots; who will line up across the field from him? Or, if the Vikings shift Murphy to the slot on certain downs, who will man the two outside spots? Booth and Evans both got their feet wet last season, and both saw some first-team reps during Minnesota's OTAs and mandatory minicamp. Booth seems the more likely choice here, if he can stay healthy. But Evans could also be in the conversation, as could Blackmon.
Also important to keep an eye on is the nickel corner spot. Sullivan exclusively held that position last season, so it's open for the taking.
Flores has emphasized the importance of players being able to move around and play different positions on defense, so it will be interesting to see if he moves corners in and out and whether he asks them to shadow receivers throughout a game or stay in their zone.
Lots to watch as training camp gets underway.
2. How will Flores utilize Metellus?
Metellus showed himself to be an asset not only on special teams but on defense when his number was called.
This season, expect to see more of Metellus on defense. But where? During spring practices and minicamp sessions that were open to media members, Flores lined Metellus up at both safety and linebacker spots, depending on the situation.
Metellus earned a PFF grade of 80.7 in coverage, which was the fourth highest on the team. He also was the second-highest graded tackler (79.4) behind Smith (81).
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell has expressed his confidence in Metellus, who was elevated as an interim team captain at the end of the season when Brian O'Neill suffered an Achilles injury.
"His role on special teams and being one of the premier special teams players in the league, but also when he's gotten the chance to go out there on defense like he did [against the Bears in Week 18]. incredibly consistent, smart player and you feel his physicality and his ability to tackle," O'Connell said. "He's been A-plus for me all season from a standpoint of his role, but also his ability to lead our group has been huge."
3. Will the secondary be improved after a tough 2022?
We're going with a more general question here because the Vikings secondary had a rough go of it in 2022.
Former Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell was relieved of his responsibilities following the season, and Minnesota hired Flores to step into that role. He's already demonstrated his defensive philosophy differs greatly from that of Donatell, so the hopes are to see improvement across the board – but especially in the backfield.
The Vikings ranked 31st in overall defense last season, allowing teams an average of 388.7 yards per game – including 265.6 passing yards per game.
According to analytics site Pro Football Focus, the Vikings ranked 18th overall in pass coverage, with a PFF grade of 71. Looking at the analytics site's individual player grades, Bynum (50.2), Booth (41.7) and Evans (40.5) all were graded at 50 or below in coverage for the season.
Coverage and pass rush go hand-in-hand, so if the defense is able to create more pressure on quarterbacks, or if the defensive backs can execute tighter coverage under Flores, the Vikings could improve their marks in 2023.