Zulgad: There’s nothing secondary about Vikings’ addition of Byron Murphy Jr.
Exactly where Byron Murphy Jr. will line up for the Minnesota Vikings in 2023 isn’t yet known, but what was agreed to on Tuesday evening was the free agent cornerback will be wearing purple next season and that’s great news for coordinator Brian Flores and a defense that was among the worst in the NFL last year.
Murphy, who turned 25 in January, was a second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2019. He agreed to a two-year contract worth roughly $22 million, according to NFL Network. Murphy has the ability to play the outside or the inside in the nickel. That versatility is key in today’s pass-happy NFL.
The news that Murphy had agreed to join the Vikings — it can’t be made official until the NFL league year begins at 3 p.m. Wednesday — capped a busy day in which quarterback Kirk Cousins had his contract restructured to create $16 million in salary cap space for 2023 and center Garrett Bradbury reportedly agreed to a three-year, $15.7 million deal.
General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Minnesota’s brain trust made other moves, including retaining kicker Greg Joseph and long snapper Andrew DePaola. But the Vikings saved their biggest move yet for last night by landing Murphy to replace either Patrick Peterson on the outside or Chandon Sullivan in the nickel.
Peterson, who also was replaced by Murphy in Arizona, agreed to terms with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday as the two-day negotiating window that leads into free agency opened. Sullivan, who struggled in his one season with the Vikings, also is a free agent and isn’t expected to return.
Adofo-Mensah spent the two-day, free agent negotiating period targeting young players for a team that is coming off a 13-win season and is retooling a defense that was ranked second-to-last in the NFL in total and pass defense and was tied for 28th in points given up per game.
On Monday, the Vikings reportedly came to terms on a one-year, $13 million contract with defensive end Marcus Davenport. The 26-year-old, who was the 14th pick in the 2018 draft by the New Orleans Saints, has battled injury issues during his career, but would have landed a significant payday a year ago after having nine sacks in 11 games. Last season, Davenport only had half-a-sack in 15 games and suddenly the Vikings saw an opportunity.
If Davenport rebounds next season, Minnesota will be in a situation to sign him long-term. If he doesn’t, it could be a one-and-done situation that enables the Vikings to look elsewhere with no financial commitment.
Murphy, like Davenport, appears to be betting on himself. He played in only nine games for the 4-13 Cardinals because of a back injury in 2023. He had started all 16 games as a rookie, started seven of the 15 games he played in during his second season, and then started all 16 games again in his third year.
The Vikings will be counting on Flores’ system to bring the most out of Murphy, who has played 50 percent of the snaps in his career on the outside and 43 percent in the slot. Murphy has only five interceptions in 56 career games and four of those came in 2021.
Nonetheless, the Cardinals used Murphy at times to shadow standout wide receiver, Davante Adams. Pro Football Focus’ information showed that Murphy gave up 9.7 yards per reception in primary coverage last season, ranking ninth among cornerbacks facing a minimum of 50 targets.
He also gave up only seven plays of at least 15 yards to tie for fourth among corners. Flores, the Vikings’ new defensive coordinator, is expected to use plenty of man coverage and Murphy will be a key part of that.
Tom Pelissero of NFL Network speculated that Murphy could get around $16 million per year on the open market — or far more than the Vikings will pay. The rankings of the Top 101 free agents by NFL.com had Davenport ranked 24th and Murphy 33rd. ESPN.com ranked Davenport the 24th best available free agent and Murphy 38th.
The Vikings’ makeover on defense isn’t close to being complete.
Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson has reportedly agreed to a contract with Cleveland; linebacker Eric Kendricks and cornerback Cameron Dantzler were jettisoned; Peterson is headed to Pittsburgh; and safety Harrison Smith’s future in Minnesota remains undecided. Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith also has requested his release, although the Vikings have been trying to trade him and Davenport is likely to serve as his replacement.
The Vikings starting corners will be Murphy and to be determined. Andrew Booth Jr., and Akayleb Evans, both 2022 draft picks, battled injury issues last season and figure to get a shot to win jobs in training camp. Many expect the Vikings will use their first-round pick (23rd overall) on a cornerback, but the Murphy addition could cause Minnesota to pivot off of that.
That remains uncertain. Far more certain is the fact the Vikings’ secondary will be better with Murphy in it.