Zulgad: Five Vikings who stand to benefit the most from the hiring of Brian Flores
There will be plenty to speculate on this offseason when it comes to what Brian Flores will bring to the Vikings as their new defensive coordinator.
Flores and his predecessor, Ed Donatell, might both run 3-4 defenses, but that’s where the similarities end. Flores loves to send pressure at opposing quarterbacks and provide pre-snap looks that cause confusion. Donatell was expected to do some of those things but it didn’t end up happening.
The Vikings’ defense only sent pressure 18.9 percent of the time this season and ranked 24th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Reference. The Giants, who beat the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs, were first at 39.7 percent.
Flores, who was a defensive assistant this past season with the Pittsburgh Steelers after being fired as the Dolphins’ coach, was in charge of a Miami defense that ranked second in the NFL in blitz rate at 39.6 percent in 2021.
That’s only one example of the difference in philosophy that Flores will bring to Minnesota. So what current Vikings stand to benefit the most?
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After playing in only seven games combined in 2020 and ’21 because of injury issues, Hunter did not miss a game this season. His move from defensive end to pass-rushing linebacker was met with an expectation that he would regularly create havoc.
That didn’t happen nearly as much as many thought it would.
The 28-year-old had a solid season, leading the Vikings with 10.5 sacks and earning a Pro Football Focus grade of 86.9 to put him ninth out of 130 players at his position.
The problem was the eye test didn’t match the numbers. There were too many times where Hunter, a dominant player at his best, seemed to disappear or was asked to drop back in coverage and, thus, negated what he does best.
One of Flores’ first jobs will be making sure that Hunter is a featured part of his defense from the opening day of the offseason program. Donatell’s attempt to say that Hunter was adjusting to the 3-4, even late in the season, served as an indictment of a scheme that wasn’t working.
Hunter will be entering the final season of his contract in 2023 and carry a salary-cap hit of $13.1 million. He likely will want a new deal and Flores is almost certain to encourage his new employer makes that happen.
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The 34-year-old safety tied his career with five interceptions this season, but the six-time Pro Bowl selection also had his pass rush snaps go from 43 in 15 games in 2021 to 14 in 14 games in 2022, according to PFF.
Smith’s ability to shift around in the defense and disguise his intentions long presented problems for opponents, but Donatell didn’t utilize that ability like former coach Mike Zimmer. Smith was brought into the box more than 300 times each season dating to 2016, but that number decreased to 253 as Donatell worried more about getting beat deep than anything.
Much like with Hunter dropping into coverage, this helped to neutralize Smith.
Smith’s return to the Vikings won’t be cheap — he is set to count $19.1 million against the cap in 2023 — but what he’s lost in speed, he makes up for with his savvy. It won’t be surprising if the Vikings ask Smith to take a pay cut, but whatever happens, he likely will return for a 12th season in purple.
Brian Asamoah II
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The Vikings selected the linebacker from Oklahoma in the third round of the 2022 draft, hoping his downhill acceleration could fit into a defense that included veterans Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks.
Asamoah II did not get a snap on defense until Week 5 against Chicago and then he was only on the field for six plays as he attempted to slow Bears quarterback Justin Fields. Donatell seemed to realize that Kendricks and Hicks’ lack of speed was an issue late in the season and Asamoah II played double-digit snaps in each of the final four regular-season games.
His season high came in a Dec. 24 victory over the Giants as Asamoah II got in for 27 plays and had a forced fumble and recovery. So it made little sense when Asamoah was not used on defense in the Vikings’ first-round playoff loss to the Giants before he suffered a concussion in the first half while on special teams.
Asamoah II might not be a finished product, but Flores almost certainly will give him a chance to win a starting job during the offseason program, especially because Kendricks and Hicks could both be jettisoned in salary cap moves.
Andrew Booth Jr.
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A second-round pick from Clemson, Booth’s playing time in 2023 will be determined by his availability. One reason the cornerback fell to the 42nd pick of the second round was because of his injury history and that continued to be an issue in his rookie year.
Booth injured his quadriceps playing on special teams in the regular-season opener against the Packers before returning in Week 6 and then starting in Week 11 against the Cowboys. Booth struggled when he did see playing time in back-to-back games against Buffalo and Dallas, giving up 13 catches on 15 targets with two missed tackles and two penalties, according to PFF.
Booth was injured in the Vikings’ loss to Dallas and underwent surgery on his torn meniscus that brought an end to his rookie season.
So why are we even bothering to single him out as a guy who could benefit from Flores’ arrival? The Vikings clearly saw something in the 22-year-old and the depth chart isn’t exactly stacked at cornerback.
Booth had experience playing both zone and man coverage at Clemson and it’s expected Flores will employ plenty of the latter. If Booth can remain on the field — and that’s a big if — he could quickly rise up the depth chart at a key position.
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The first-round safety from Georgia had his rookie season end in Week 4 in London when he suffered a compound leg fracture while playing special teams against the Saints.
But even before the injury, the Vikings didn’t appear interested in seeing what they had in Cine on the defensive side of the ball. He never got the chance to compete for a starting job in training camp and was on the field for only two defensive snaps in three games before the injury.
The Vikings’ reasoning was that 2021 fourth-round pick Cam Bynum had looked so good in Organized Team Activities and minicamp that he had won the job.
That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for Cine, who was taken with the 32nd and final pick of the first round. The Vikings had moved back from the 12th selection to obtain more picks from Detroit.
The fact Cine wasn’t considered starting material was surprising given how excited general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell had been about him in the days after the draft.
Flores is likely to be as excited about Cine, whose recovery from injury has been going well. Cine, who is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, was known for his hard hits and exceptional speed in college and should fit well into today’s game, where safeties are becoming more and more interchangeable with linebackers.
Cine should have a chance to start opposite Harrison Smith in 2023 and it won’t be surprising if he’s used in a variety of blitz packages that take advantage of what he does well.
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