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Vikings Defenders Want to Build on Brian Flores' 1st Season

EAGAN, Minn. – Less than four weeks ago against the Bengals, Vikings cornerback Byron Murphy, Jr., felt a slight pain in his knee just three plays into the game.

Murphy, starting in his 15th consecutive game since signing with Minnesota in the offseason, played through it. He said finishing the game was all that mattered to him. And he did, but the Bengals scored 21-fourth quarter points and eventually won in overtime.

Murphy did not play another snap the rest of the way, missing the Vikings final three games.

View photos from the Vikings locker room at TCO Performance Center as players cleaned out their lockers at the close of the 2023 season.

The Vikings season ended Sunday with a 30-20 loss at Detroit. Players and coaches gathered at Twin Cities Orthopedic Performance Center on Monday for exit meetings and locker cleanout. That's when Murphy discussed suffering a Grade 3 MCL tear.

In a season ravaged by injuries, Murphy's reveal added to a list of hardships Minnesota (7-10) consistently endured and ultimately could not overcome despite notching a five-game win streak from Weeks 6 to 10 and registering several impressive statistics in key categories on both sides of the ball.

"Obviously not the way I wanted to end but I'm thankful for this opportunity. It didn't go the way we wanted to go but you know, just take in this moment and reflect this offseason on what's the next process for this team. And just keep attacking," Murphy said. "We know what we could have done and should have done, but [we'll] take this one and know what we want to reach next season."

Murphy played a critical role in Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores' unique scheme. He finished fifth in snaps played despite missing the final three games. Touted for his position flexibility as an outside or slot defender, Murphy was used primarily as a perimeter cornerback while safeties Harrison Smith, Josh Metellus and Camryn Bynum roamed.

But the Vikings defense regressed against the Bengals and couldn't bounce back. Flores' defense fell from the top five in points allowed through 13 games to the bottom four in the last four games.

"We didn't finish how we wanted. Ultimately, we wanted to go to playoffs. Things didn't turn out how we wanted to do," outside linebacker Danielle Hunter said. "I feel kind of incomplete. People may think it's a good year, but I feel like there's more I could've done to help us make the playoffs."

Murphy and Hunter shared a similar sentiment, coming to terms with a disappointing season initially filled with championship aspirations. Hunter said he'll spend the offseason identifying what more he could have done after posting career highs in sacks (16.5) and tackles for loss (23).

Each offseason elicits questions about the unknown. Hunter, who has been with the Vikings for nine seasons, has a contract set to expire. There's also been speculation about safety Harrison Smith, 34. Candid and emotional after Sunday's game, Smith said he hadn't decided what was next.

Hunter hopes they'll remain teammates.

"Hopefully, it's not [the last time]," Hunter said. "But he's a good dude. I like talking to him, on and off the field. I spent a lot of time with him. We did a lot of recovery sessions together. And it was just a great experience. Getting to learn from one of the greats. I compare him to Troy Polamalu. So it was definitely an honor."

Only Hunter, Metellus, Smith and Bynum played more snaps than Murphy this season. Those five were every-down players for Flores in a scheme that needed them on every snap.

Without Murphy, the Vikings cornerback depth proved young and inexperienced. Losing edge rushers Marcus Davenport in Week 6 and D.J. Wonnum in Week 16 didn't help Hunter's efforts.

Though Flores' unit was decimated by season's end, Murphy is eager to build upon the defense's accomplishments. From Weeks 4 to 14, the Vikings defense was first in defensive efficiency. During that stretch, rookies Ivan Pace, Jr., and Mekhi Blackmon earned key defensive roles.

Pace, an undrafted free agent, finished fourth on the team in tackles. Blackmon recorded his first career interception in Week 10 and started three games after that before suffering a shoulder injury that kept him out of Sunday's game.

"I wish I would have gone to the playoffs, but you still learn a lot. Still thankful for the opportunity of playing in the NFL, and I look forward to coming back next year," Blackmon said. "Being a rookie, I want to get right back into it, but the coaching staff has been telling me, 'You've been going for a long time. Rookie year is your longest year you'll have in the league, so take a break a little bit, step back and get your body back first before you start to jump on anything.'"

Pace said he'll take a short vacation before returning to training and preparation for next season.

"Live life to the fullest every day, because anybody can be cut any day – especially being one of the young undrafted guys," Pace said. "But I think I've proven myself, but I'm trying to stay on top. So just live freely. That's all I've got."

Flores played a pivotal role in unlocking the Vikings best defensive players this season. His approval rating is high in the Vikings locker room. He was named the league's fourth-best defensive coordinator in an NFL Players Association survey released last week.

As Murphy stuffed his locker room belongings into bags, he had one more stop to make before leaving.

"I'm going to talk to him soon and tell him that I love this defense," Murphy said. "I love what [he] brought to this team. Physicality, knowing the players, what they're doing, and putting them in the best positions on the field. I'll tell him how much I'm grateful. I'm appreciative to have him as a coach."