Minutes after Kevin O'Connell finished his introductory press conference as the Vikings head coach, he FaceTimed Justin Jefferson to get to know his star wide receiver a little better.
It's now been just over a year since that call. O'Connell, who's currently in Indianapolis for his second NFL Scouting Combine while at the helm for Minnesota, spoke with reporters during his media session and also joined KFAN's 9 to Noon with Paul Allen and Vikings Entertainment Network's Gabe Henderson.
During his podium session, O'Connell reflected on how his relationship with Jefferson has grown over the past 12 months.
"We've come a long way since then," O'Connell said. "[He's] one of my favorite players I've ever coached. I've told him that. The unbelievable talent, what he means to our league, how he carries himself, how he works every day. But what I was really impressed by with Justin this year was the leadership – the next step of understanding, 'Hey, he believes he's the best receiver in football.' And I happen to agree with him, and a lot goes with that."
O'Connell added Jefferson has not only taken on more responsibilities on the field, but off it, as well, in the form of being a role model.
"He takes it very seriously how much people and young kids look up to him. And I just watch the way he carries himself every single day and week, and to say I'm excited about coaching Justin for a really long time is an understatement," O'Connell continued. "As crazy as it sounds, leading the league in yards and receptions, I really think he and I have really just scratched the surface of where we want to go as an offense – and particularly with him as our premier receiver."
Much of Jefferson's success throughout the 2022 season came from the countless hours he and O'Connell spent together creating ways to move the receiver around within the Vikings offense.
When asked to generally evaluate the roles of tight ends and running backs as receiving targets, O'Connell said that area of the game is becoming more prevalent.
"I think it's skill set. It's that receiver who is great with the ball in his hands and have punt return in their background. Well, 'Hey, can we find different ways via the screen, via giving them handoffs — how are we going to continuously apply pressure using our personnel to attack people?' " O'Connell said. "I think you're seeing it and the impact that running backs can have on the pass game. The impact that receivers have via touching the ball behind the line of scrimmage in some capacity and then turning it into an explosive."
O'Connell then expanded his answer to include quarterbacks.
"Playing the quarterback position is really hard, so anytime you can have a breather-type down where you're handing off the football, flipping the football to somebody, throwing the football to a screen out on the perimeter and that turns into explosive yardage then that makes everyone's job a lot easier," O'Connell added. "I never want to speak for anyone else or any other coaches, but we're always looking for diverse skill sets that can allow you to just get creative with how you attack people over the course of a full season."
Below are four more takeaways from O'Connell's combine media sessions.
1. Secondary becoming more of a primary subject | By Sam Thiel
Like every other team in the NFL, the Vikings must make several important decisions regarding their roster before the start of free agency and the new league year in a couple of weeks.
When asked to evaluate the current state of the Vikings secondary, O'Connell expressed excitement for the direction of the group.
"Those young players, combined with our veterans, it was a unique room in a lot of ways," O'Connell said. "I thought [defensive backs coach] Daronte [Jones] did a great job with that group, dealing with some injuries, bringing in a guy like Duke Shelley, having the great veteran presence we did in Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith to go along with the rest of our core group at safety, which we really like. I think we want to create a competitive environment in that room and ultimately look to add pieces that fit with how we want to play and then ultimately let those guys compete and allow those best 11 to be on the field."
O'Connell also stated he's been impressed with the rehabbing progress made so far by 2022 first-round pick Lewis Cine. The safety suffered a compound leg fracture while working on the punt return team during Minnesota's Week 4 victory against New Orleans in London on Oct. 2.
"Lewis is in a great spot right now, he's well ahead of his rehab process. It's unique to see a player every single day this time of year at the facility, but that's been Lew. [He's] been in my office a bunch, asking, 'Hey when do we get started? Have you set the schedule for OTAs? What's training camp going to be like?' I said, 'Just hold on, man, we're going to be just fine.', " O'Connell said. "But he's doing a great job. I'm really excited about Lewis and his mental growth through how he handled the adversity of that injury, stays connected with his teammates, and ultimately, hopefully this is just going to be a small bump in a great road to Lew becoming the player he's going to become."
2. Fitting the Flores system | By Lindsey Young
With the recent hire of Brian Flores, O'Connell was asked about how close the Vikings currently are roster-wise to fitting the new defensive coordinator's system.
O'Connell has spoken highly of Flores, who blends coaching ability and his personnel background. He noted that both skill sets will help Flores determine what Minnesota currently has and what may be missing from the puzzle.
"I think the priority first and foremost is giving him time to evaluate our roster with our young players and some of our veteran players and see how pieces may fit as we use the process of free agency and the draft to really take a look at how to evolve and fit what we want to do," O'Connell said. "But I think one of the things that was great about the interview process with Flo' is that he's done it a lot of different ways and he can be really multiple."
O'Connell said he and Flores are both "aggressive in nature" in their coaching philosophy.
"At the end of the day, we're also extremely versatile; however, you have to play the game," he said. "[You have to know] what it takes to win football games. Sometimes how you have to reinvent yourself week in and week out. Sometimes how you have to mold and adapt how you play while still staying true to your football philosophy at its core.
"And it's not always easy to do," O'Connell added, "but he's demonstrated that he's been very successful doing it time and time again, and I'm really looking forward to seeing him go to work with our group."
3. 'Attached at the hip' | By Lindsey Young
O'Connell and Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah together have their rookie seasons in Minnesota behind them.
The last time the two leaders spoke at the combine, each was entering a brand-new position. O'Connell and Adofo-Mensah emphasized the importance of collaboration at that point, and they've continued to do so throughout the course of – and after – Minnesota's 13-4 season.
"I don't know if there's a lot of, you know, I don't see very many head coaches and GMs just attached at the hip walking around Indianapolis," O'Connell laughed during his interview with KFAN. "And Kwesi, if anyone's seen me, they've probably seen him very close by."
It's not all about the Xs and Os, though. It's about building that connection and friendship off the field, as well.
"We don't just like doing football together. We don't just like handling the great details that are very important to our team together," O'Connell said. "It's about his wife Chelsea and my wife Leah becoming really close. We feel ultimately invested in one another – as friends, as people who rely on each other. He's been there for me so many times.
"In your first year as a head coach, as a play-caller, trying to do things the way we do things, it's taxing at times. He has a great feel for understanding the timing of when he might need to pick me up, when he might need to give me that little pat on the back, or vice versa," O'Connell continued. "I tend to go the other way this time of year, and that's my job for him now. He pours everything he has with his staff into the evaluation mode. I challenge our coaches to be extensions of those guys. On the football side, be information fillers to allow our personnel department, our coaching staff, to mesh together in a way where there is no indecision amongst our draft room, amongst our organization – what direction we're moving forward with – and ultimately that's how you make sure you maximize your opportunities."
View photos of current Vikings players during their time at the NFL Scouting Combine from previous years.
4. Value of the interior pass rush | By Lindsey Young
If anyone knows the importance of a stout interior pass rush, it's O'Connell.
During his time as the Rams offensive coordinator, O'Connell earned a Super Bowl ring with veteran defensive tackle Aaron Donald holding things down in the trenches.
There's no guarantee exactly what Minnesota's interior defensive line will look like in 2023, especially considering Dalvin Tomlinson is due to become a free agent. The team and Tomlinson are conversing to see if a return by Tomlinson is in the cards. O'Connell was asked by Allen if "finding the right interior pass rush or 3-technique" in the NFL has become nearly as difficult as finding a franchise quarterback.
O'Connell first and foremost noted that a quarterback "will always be unique" because of the power that position ultimately holds.
"The defensive line position, to me, nowadays in football with how people are being used at the college level and the growth of these wildly athletic edge players, these edge rushers, the interior rush has been something that we're always trying to find," O'Connell said.
The ultimate goal, he added, is securing a defensive tackle who's not only able to rush the quarterback on third down but also who stop the run on first or second down.
"You know what those guys end up being? Top 10 picks," quipped O'Connell, reminding of course that Minnesota isn't slated to draft until the 23rd spot. "So I think it's one of those things where you've got to either have the resources to acquire one of those players, or you have to look at it through the lens of, 'Where do we find those traits? Where do we find that skill set that we're looking for?'
"Then, let's build something around that player with the other 10 guys on the field that maximizes what they do well and that tries to enhance the things that maybe they don't do as well coming into the league," he added. "And then set them on a trajectory to ultimately becoming the best player they can become where their strengths become even stronger and those weaknesses grow to a part of their game that people can no longer attack."