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ORLANDO – When Kevin O'Connell and Brian Flores met early this offseason to discuss the Vikings' defense for 2024, they knew the scheme Flores concocted for 2023 would have to evolve.

Their top three edge rushers (Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum and Marcus Davenport) were all headed for free agency. Linebacker Jordan Hicks, who'd been kind of a hub for communicating the Vikings' intricate series of pre-snap checks, was also going to be a free agent. Safety Harrison Smith was contemplating retirement, and the Vikings' four-game losing streak at the end of the season had revealed the defense's need for help at all three levels.

As they looked at possible replacements, O'Connell and Flores built their search around several traits: corners who could play more man coverage than the Vikings had used in 2023, linebackers who could inject speed into the middle of the defense and players with the versatility Flores prizes in his shape-shifting scheme.

The search led to eight defensive additions in free agency, and could prompt further changes to a defense that caught the NFL by surprise during the first three months of the 2023 season.

Vikings free agency tracker

A team that used three safeties almost constantly last season could return to playing three corners in nickel packages, using former Panthers corner Shaq Griffin as a physical presence in man coverage that allows Byron Murphy Jr. to return to the slot. Smith, who decided to return for a 13th season, played a career-high 1,113 snaps in 2023; O'Connell talked Tuesday about wanting to reduce the 35-year-old's workload to preserve his body. And the Vikings' front seven will look markedly different in 2024, with Jonah Williams, Jerry Tillery and Jihad Ward added to the defensive line, Jonathan Greenard and Andrew Van Ginkel rushing the quarterback and Blake Cashman playing next to Ivan Pace Jr. in the middle.

"We feel really good about that combination," O'Connell said. "And then, you continue to look at what we bring back off a defense that really flashed some high-level production at times."

O'Connell said he's challenged Vikings defensive coaches this offseason to find ways to develop some of the team's draft picks from the past two seasons, and the Vikings could again count on growth from players like cornerbacks Akayleb Evans and Mekhi Blackmon. If they use more man coverage in 2024, they'll need corners beyond Griffin and Murphy to reliably handle a larger workload.

"We want to pair our pressures with some man coverage on the backside," O'Connell said. "You can really look at some of our young guys to take that next step."

Jefferson 'shocked' Vikings could add Jones

Aaron Jones was one of the players in the decorated running back class of 2017 that earned a lucrative second contract from the team that drafted him, signing a four-year, $48 million deal with the Packers before he was scheduled to hit free agency in March 2021.

Like Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon, Jones eventually aged out of that contract, restructuring his deal with Green Bay before the 2023 season and being released by the Packers this offseason. He'd surpassed 100 yards in each of his last five games, fueling a win streak that helped Green Bay reach the postseason before upsetting Dallas in the first round of the playoffs. He'd been so productive, in fact, O'Connell said Tuesday that Justin Jefferson was "shocked" by the news the Vikings could sign him.

"He didn't think it would even be possible for us to bring in a guy like that, who we played two times a year and flat-out felt his impact on a lot of football games," O'Connell said.

The Vikings gave Jones a one-year, $7 million deal, taking advantage of a running back market that's continued to be depressed in recent years. Jones turns 30 in December, and his injury history likely contributed to the Packers' decision to replace him with Josh Jacobs. The Vikings, though, seized a chance to upgrade their backfield relatively cheaply.

"It's gotten to a place where it's probably gone a bit too far," O'Connell said of the drop in the running back market. "I know we benefitted from the opportunity to add a player like him, and there were some other really impactful players available across the whole league. What the value is on all that, I let [General Manager] Kwesi [Adofo-Mensah] and the guys figure that out. I know the impact of the type of player we added to our team for sure."