Don’t Write Off the Vikings’ Long-and-Strong Corner

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
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The final chapter hasn’t been written for Akayleb Evans, the Vikings’ long-and-strong corner who is soon to enter Year 3 in the NFL.

The 24-year-old struggled down the stretch of the 2023 season. At the time, Minnesota was working through an injury to CB1 Byron Murphy Jr. while Mekhi Blackmon similarly struggled to overcome an ailment. Evans was more important than ever and yet he failed to elevate his play. Instead, his game took a step back, contributing to the Vikings’ defense limping to the finish line.

Don’t Write Off Akayleb Evans, The Vikings’ Long-and-Strong CB

Recently, VT’s Dustin Baker and P/PTSD’s Josh Frey came to the same conclusion: Mr. Evans isn’t going to make the final 53-man roster. And while I disagree, there’s reason to believe the possibility could come to fruition.

Murphy is returning as the locked-in CB1. Ideally, the Vikings can use him a bit more in the slot, an alignment that will be aided by the presence of recent additions Shaq Griffin and Khyree Jackson. The veteran FA add should be considered the favorite to win the CB2 job while Jackson has a shot at earning snaps early on.

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Green Bay Packers tight end Tucker Kraft (85) stiff-arms Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) on. 13-yard reception during the first quarter of their game Sunday, December 31, 2023 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

And then there’s the presence of Blackmon, someone who isn’t going anywhere after showing some good compete and toughness as a rookie. He, too, will demand playing time in 2024.

Where does that leave Akayleb Evans?

Probably at CB5. Not a great spot, no, but likely safe when it comes time to trim the roster down to 53 men. Of course, a lot can (and will) change between now and when the rosters get their final adjustments. No one wants them to happen, but injuries are a very real part of NFL football. If, for instance, one of the team’s top corners needs to miss significant time, then there won’t be any debate: Evans is sticking around.

Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary (26) runs with the ball against Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) and cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) during the first half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Even without that roster adversity, though, there’s a rock-solid case to be made for Evans remaining in The Gopher State.

Go back to what made him a promising player in the first place. Evans possesses a great frame as someone who is 6’2″ and who weighs roughly 200 pounds. In theory, he should be able to hang with the NFC’s bully receivers, such as Atlanta’s Drake London, Green Bay’s Christian Watson, Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf, and Arizona’s Marvin Harrison Jr. (all of whom are on the schedule in 2024).

Having a corner with size is one way of matching up with those players.

Sep 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Joshua Palmer (5) catches a pass for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Now go ahead and partner that matchup potential with some willingness to get involved in run defense. Last season, Evans scooped up 65 tackles as mostly a boundary corner, suggesting at least two things: he was targeted a decent bit in coverage and/or he was willing to jump up to help with defending the run.

Both have a foothold in truth.

In 855 snaps on defense, Evans was targeted 81 times. On 57 occasions, the pass was completed, meaning QBs had a 70.4% completion rate when going after the sophomore. As a team, the Vikings were dead last in the NFL by allowing 70.3% of passes to be completed. In other words, Evans was pretty much exactly on par with the rest of Brian Flores’ defense. Might the problem go beyond just the young corner who experienced a rough stretch of games?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores watches his team play against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Most concerning for Evans is that he was dinged with allowing 6 touchdowns into his coverage. But while that’s not a good sign, it’s important to remember that it’s not the death knell for his career. In 2022, Camryn Bynum allowed 8 touchdowns before shrinking that number down to 3 in 2023. Can Evans do something similar?

Truth be told, the problem with Akayleb Evans’ game has very little to do with speed, height, or physicality. Could it be an issue of confidence? Mistakes at corner are plain to see, so it makes sense that bad plays can spiral if a player isn’t able to get his mind back in a good spot. Part of the issue for Evans was that there really wasn’t anywhere to hide at the tail end of 2023 given the aforementioned injuries to Murphy and Blackmon.

Sep 10, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) tackles Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Deven Thompkins (83) in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Flores showed some willingness to be creative with Evans’ deployment last season, tasking the corner with playing in the slot (38 snaps), in the box (127 snaps), at free safety (1 snap), and even at defensive end a bit (10 snaps). Maybe the key for an Evans resurgence is contained in that basic snap allocation.

A truth in sports is that when someone is in a slump, the best thing to do is to simplify. Often, the first impulse is to try to do too much, but that’s usually counterproductive. Get back to the basic building blocks within a sport — for a corner: good footwork, nice pursuit angles, wrapping up well, timing the jump for a contested ball, etc. — and proceed from there. Eventually, the hope is that one positive rep will lead to a second positive rep, and then three, and then four, and so on (listen to Brian Flores discuss something similar).

So with Akayleb Evans, one wonders about shrinking his assignment down to being solely a boundary corner. After all, his frame suggests that’s where he should line up and most of his work arrives in the spot. With the single responsibility in mind, Evans can work toward playing confident football as a matchup player who can be a long-term CB2/3 in Minnesota.

He will turn 25 on June 22.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and PFF helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.