Vikings counting on second-year players to provide boost in secondary

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Akayleb Evans was placed in the concussion protocol three times last season, a frustrating and humbling theme of his rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings.

For as much as they could have used him down the stretch at cornerback, the Vikings decided, Evans needed the downtime more. He went on season-ending injured reserve after the last one on Dec. 4.

“I understand they want to be safe. I have a lot more life to live after football, so it was the smart thing to do," Evans said last week.

Following another season of passive and leaky pass coverage, the Vikings have their secondary again under construction.

The greatest upgrade potential actually lies in their draft class from the previous year. Injuries kept the collective contributions from Evans, cornerback Andrew Booth and safety Lewis Cine — three of their first five picks in 2022 — to a bare minimum.

If these three players can stay healthy all season and prove their worth as NFL -caliber defenders, or even if just one or two of them make those strides, the Vikings might have a fighting chance to keep opposing quarterbacks from carving them up as frequently as they did last season.

With a pay cut for Harrison Smith and the return of Camryn Bynum, the safety positions are set. That reduces the pressure on Cine in his recovery from a badly broken leg after the first-round draft pick out of Georgia was hurt on special teams in the fourth game of the season.

The departure of Patrick Peterson, though, gave the development of Booth and Evans a heightened urgency. The signing of Byron Murphy in free agency from Arizona gave the Vikings an established starter, but Duke Shelley and Chandon Sullivan also went elsewhere to further deplete the depth chart. The Vikings signed veteran Joejuan Williams and drafted Mekhi Blackmon from USC in the third round last month to add to the mix, but major roles for Booth and Evans are there for the taking.

“They played in spurts last season, and you saw the potential and we saw on draft day,” general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said. “This sport isn’t about flashes or one play. It’s about showing consistency over a lot of plays. That is also a challenge that every young player has, and we are going to help them to get them to the best ability they can. We’re really excited about what they have and what they are coming back with.”

For Evans, a fourth-round pick out of Missouri, adjusting his tackling style will be the top priority for his second season. He was also recently fitted for a new custom helmet to help prevent a concussion recurrence.

“Not every tackle has to be as hard as I can, so just being smart about that,” Evans said. "Whenever I do go in to make a tackle, just being smart to keep my head out of it, being intentional about it. So I’ve been working really hard at that.”

Evans played in 10 games before he was shut down, but spending time with the eight-time Pro Bowl pick Peterson was probably just as valuable.

“I was able to show some flashes of what I can do last year, but I feel like this year is about taking over for sure. I also see myself as a leader. I’ve usually been the quiet guy, but I feel like Pat P really set a good example of how to lead in your own way,” Evans said.

The Vikings are installing a different system favoring more man-to-man coverage under new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, which helps mitigate the impact of the lost time for Evans and Booth in their rookie seasons.

Booth, the second-round pick out of Clemson, played in only six games. He tore the lateral meniscus in his knee in his first start and eventually had surgery. That was after he missed practice and game time with hernia, ankle and quadriceps injuries.

The learning process for him revolved around the trainer's room with injury prevention and treatment.

“Your body is what’s going to get you through this, and that’s what’s going to provide my longevity,” Booth said. "They say our bodies are like Ferraris, so you’ve got to treat it a certain way.”

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