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After ending season on bench, Vikings cornerback tackles a challenge

DETROIT - Cornerback Akayleb Evans sat in the corner of the visitors' locker room at Ford Field after the Vikings' loss to the Lions on Sunday.

Evans had just been benched for the second time in the final three games. He listened as safety Camryn Bynum talked about weathering storms and how to structure offseason workouts based on what you learned about yourself in a first full season as a starter.

Evans said he listened intently, because he wants to maintain his spot as a Vikings starter after that was taken away during rough games against the Lions. Coaches pulled Evans from both Lions losses; it came after two drives Sunday.

"It's been tough," Evans told the Star Tribune. "Dealing with the injury and stuff like that. Schematically figuring out, like, what it is I'm trying to do each game, how to attack certain things. It's been a very good learning lesson, I feel like, for me."

Evans, a 2022 fourth-round pick, experienced soaring highs and painful lows through 15 starts this season. He intercepted his first NFL pass. His physical style forced three fumbles, including a hit on the Falcons' Bijan Robinson that led to a takeaway and eventually a Joshua Dobbs touchdown run in that Nov. 5 win. He forced an incompletion by drilling Saints receiver Michael Thomas in the Nov. 12 win, when he also suffered a calf strain that led to a two-game absence. He played every snap of the 3-0 win in Las Vegas on Dec. 10, the Vikings' first shutout win since 2017.

Evans also tipped a pass into a Chargers touchdown in the Sept. 24 loss. His tackling form fell apart by the end. He was late to diagnose responsibilities in coverage. He didn't feel like he was moving as well as he should. He was pulled after consecutive catches by Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown on his side of the field, including a 34-yard reception on which he blew the coverage and the tackle.

Bynum told him these things happen in the NFL.

"I was just letting everybody know you're going to go through tough games," Bynum said. "It doesn't mean you're a bad player. You have to keep your confidence and see it as a positive. You have a bad game; everybody has a bad game. … You don't want to waste anything negative that happened to you. You want to learn from it and come back next time and fix it."

Bynum, like Evans a fourth-round pick, in 2021, pointed to his own example.

A year ago, he wanted to become a better tackler. He enlisted the help of rugby-style tackling. On Sunday, Bynum made a strong open-field, third-down tackle on Lions tight end Sam LaPorta to force a Detroit punt.

"That might not have been as firm of a tackle last season," Bynum said. "Those have to become routine plays."

That's the kind of progress Evans hopes to make in a few areas this offseason.

"Certain movements," Evans said. "When I first got to the league, I got really strong, you know what I mean? Working on bench press and stuff like that, so I feel like I haven't been able to move as well as I used to. So I'll continue to work on that, get on the JUGS machine [for catching], and really just learning the game even more. That's going to be my focus starting out in the offseason. Everything is going to come together."

Evans, 24, said he wants to become a smarter player and intends further study this offseason on coverages and how offenses like to attack them.

He also wants to get better at attacking the ball in the air after 6-foot-4 Bengals receiver Tee Higgins soared over him for a 21-yard touchdown that tied the Dec. 16 loss and forced overtime.

"When you're in practice and you're against the scout team," Evans said, "you might not be going against a guy that can do certain things like who you're going to go against, right? But you still got to practice attacking the ball."

Evans said both his current mental state and future performance are best served by not dwelling on how this season ended.

"It's tough," he said. "There's certain conversations I have with Coach, why certain things are going the way they're going. But playing cornerback — any position, really, but especially cornerback — you have to have confidence within yourself, and you hope the guys around and the coaching staff has trust in you and believes in you. Just staying steady, realizing the big picture of things, realizing the areas I can grow in and taking ownership of that. That's all I can do."