Kevin O’Connell Hints that Free Agency is Going to Be Very Fun (Especially for the Defense)

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Not too long into an answer about Brian Flores, Kevin O’Connell shifted the focus away from what was accomplished to what lies ahead.

“First and foremost with Flo,” O’Connell begins, “could not be more [happy] with the decision that I made last year to bring him in.” Not too long afterwards, he praises how Flores “tried to evolve” while trying to “continuously provide challenges for our opponents to play against.”

Toward the end of his answer, O’Connell dropped these thoughts: “And ultimately, I think the most exciting thing is where Flo is going to take that defense from here. And as we can improve our depth and continue to add pieces to that side of the football, I have so much confidence in what he’s going to be able to do.”

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

A couple things jump out.

Since the very beginning of Flores’ employment in Minnesota, Vikings fans have been worried about losing him. The man deserves to be a head coach. His success with resurrecting Minnesota’s disastrous defense simply reaffirmed what was plain to see. O’Connell, though, seems unconcerned about that possibility. Instead, the head coach is thinking about where things are going.

But then there’s the other part of what O’Connell had to say: the desire to “improve our depth and continue to add pieces.” Does that sound like a coach who’s 100% content with the talent that’s already in-house? Or, perhaps, is that someone who recognizes that the chef needs better ingredients?

Kevin O’Connell, Brian Flores, and a Fun Free Agency

In theory, the Vikings could supercharge their defense with just two or three adds.

Jaylon Johnson is a legit CB1 and then Justin Madubuike is a beast of a pass rusher at defensive tackle. What kind of domino effect could they have on the Vikings’ defense, especially since a lot of the guys would be working from within Year 2 of the Flores experience?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Baltimore Ravens
Dec 10, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) enters the field before the game against the Los Angeles Rams during the at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson, 24, is coming off of his rookie deal in Chicago. He finished the season allowing just 55.2% of passes into his coverage to be completed. On average, the completions went for 8.7 yards while QBs had a stunningly low pass rating — 50.9 — when targeting him.

Johnson is, in short, a stud at corner who still looks to have several years of high-end play ahead of him. Maybe the Bears don’t let him get to free agency, but just a couple months ago they allowed him to flirt with NFL teams at the trade deadline. So, the relationship between team and player hasn’t been perfect. Does Minnesota get the chance to plunder a division rival? The 6’0″, 196-pound corner appears to be exactly what the secondary needs.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 27, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson (33) intercepts a pass intended for Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Jordan Addison (3) in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Madubuike has been doing some serious damage over in the AFC North.

The 26-year-old picked up 13 sacks to go alongside a stunning 33 QB hits. The Vikings haven’t had someone capable of putting up that kind of pass rush prowess since the days of Kevin Williams. No doubt, there have been some wonderful defensive tackles — Linval Joseph, Dalvin Tomlinson, and even Harrison Phillips — but none with the pass-rushing upside of a Madubuike.

Partnering him with Danielle Hunter (assuming Mr. Hunter sticks around) would make for a terrifying twosome within the Vikings’ defense.

Sep 10, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Rachaad White (1) is tackled by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) and defensive end Dean Lowry (94) and linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) as guard Luke Goedeke (67) attempts to block during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, O’Connell didn’t name drop either player, and nor did he specifically identify the players Minnesota will be targeting via trade, free agency, or in the draft. He merely explained that his defensive coordinator is coming back and that there’s a desire to bring the defensive rebuild into its next phase by acquiring more talent (Josh Frey humbly offers a fivesome of names for readers to consider).

Folks, that’s goods news for anyone who’s looking to see the Vikings compete sooner rather than later.

Coming into the 2023 regular season, the Vikings were planning on an offense that was potent enough to keep the team competitive while the defense worked through its rebuild. Instead, the inverse occurred, largely due to some stunning injuries to O’Connell’s side of the football.

Oct 29, 2023; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) gets pressure from Green Bay Packers linebacker Kenny Clark (97) in the first quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Entering 2024, the Vikings will be having some pretty large expectations, especially if the Flores prophecy ends up being accurate. Within a front seven that was aching for elite talent and a secondary with no shortage of inexperience (and underperformance), Flores found a way of pushing his side of the ball to 13th for points allowed and 16th for yards allowed.

Crucially, the DC accomplished these realities while sharing a field with an offense that turned the ball over an average of twice per game, the second-most in the NFL.

Greater injury luck, a head coach who will at least pretend to be interested in running the football, and refusing to turn the ball over at breakneck speed would certainly make a difference for Minnesota’s defense. Oh, and revamping the defensive personnel by bringing in two or three legitimate difference makers would point toward a considerably more compelling Minnesota Vikings football team.

The legal tampering period of free agency arrives in less than two months.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference 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.