Vikings' Akayleb Evans has a plan to avoid concussions

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EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans awoke on the morning of Oct. 9 amid an NFL firestorm. The league was dealing with the fallout of a frightening series of injuries to Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, one that had triggered changes to its concussion protocol and renewed questions about its commitment to protecting player health.

On that day, Evans began a far less publicized -- but no less concerning -- ordeal of his own. He entered the concussion protocol late in the Vikings' 29-22 victory over the Chicago Bears, the first of three separate trips during an eight-week period. The Vikings shut him down after the third, ending his rookie season early so that he could start the process of preserving a career they had otherwise projected to blossom in 2023.

"I haven't really thought about it like that," Evans said recently of concerns over long-term effects of concussions. "I do know that if I ever got to a point where I felt like it was getting out of control, I would take a step back, because life is more important. But I don't really worry about that too much, honestly."

A generation ago, a player who encountered similar issues likely would never have been removed from the games Evans left last season, much less have his career threatened. He was never knocked unconscious, as Tagovailoa was, and in the first instance -- Oct. 9 against the Bears -- Evans said he didn't believe he was concussed at all. Instead, Evans said, the Vikings were just "being safe" because "that was when the whole Tua thing happened."

Indeed, a team physician can place a player in the protocol without a concussion diagnosis. But in the modern NFL, three trips to the concussion protocol -- regardless of the perceived severity of the episode -- is a flashing red light.

"I don't know if I worry," coach Kevin O'Connell said, "as much as I believe our role as coaches is to try to -- from a technique, fundamental, philosophical approach -- maximize that player doing his job and maximize his ability to stay in the game, and most importantly, focus on his long-term health."

O'Connell said the Vikings often found themselves "erring on the side of the players' health and safety" when it came to the concussion protocol last season. And as Evans worked with the first-team defense during OTA practices last week, it appeared the team's medical staff was confident in his recovery. He has spent much of the past six months working to diminish any fundamental or physiological proclivities he might have toward brain injuries.

It's not entirely clear how Evans, a fourth-round pick from Missouri last season, encountered the symptoms that caused his Oct. 9 trip to the protocol; it's possible that it happened as he dove to recover an onside kick. The other two, however, were more obvious.

In a Nov. 13 game at Buffalo, his first NFL start, Evans lowered his head as he attempted to tackle Bills running back Devin Singletary. He spent two weeks in the protocol after that concussion. In his first game back, Dec. 4 against the New York Jets, he lowered his head while attempting another tackle and collided violently with safety Harrison Smith.

In discussions with teammates and coaches since then, Evans has recognized that his head-first tackling technique contributed to the injuries.

"It's just about how I tackle," Evans said. "My mindset when I tackle is always to be aggressive. But not every tackle has to be a kill shot. ... Not every tackle has to be as hard as I can. Just being smart about that. But whenever I do go into making a tackle, just keeping my head out of it, being smart about it and intentional about it. So I've been working really hard on that."

That work is underway in spring drills, even though the NFL and NFL Players Association have a strict no-contact rule until training camp begins in July. New Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores uses a station format during individual portions of practices, where players move from one coach to another. He directed questions about tackling techniques to new inside linebacker coach Mike Siravo -- who provided insight on what Evans is working on now.

"We just really focus on their eyes," Siravo said. "If you think about it, the whole game is pretty simple. It's seen through your eyes. If your eyes are in the right position, then your body and your head are going to be in the right position. So we just start with that baseline. Let's look at every play and see if your eyes are in the right position, regardless of the [lack of] physicality. That one extra step will bring the physical contact, but let's just start with how you see the world, and how you see the game is through your eyes."

"Every play there is an opportunity to put yourself in position for a really good tackle and a really safe tackle. If you start coaching that now, like we are, you're going to get good results."

In addition to tackling technique, Evans has also re-evaluated his equipment. He said he will wear a new VICIS helmet, the best-performing brand on the NFL/NFLPA's annual lab testing chart, with custom padding. (Cord Santiago, senior design engineer at VICIS, confirmed that all VICIS helmets are customized using scanning data that is sent to the company's Seattle-based lab.)

Evans is also planning to wear a Q-collar, a band that applies light pressure to the neck and purports to help protect players from sub-concussive brain injuries. The NFL allows players to wear the device during games but has not taken a public position on its merits.

Even as they place a calculated bet on his future availability, there is little doubt about the Vikings' affinity for Evans as a player. He proved to be a physical and competitive player in the 159 defensive snaps he took last season, which included two starts, and he was part of the reason the Vikings felt comfortable allowing five of their 2022 cornerbacks to depart via free agency or waivers.

"I feel like I was able to show some flashes of what I could do last year," he said. "I feel like this year is about taking over, for sure."