INDIANAPOLIS — A year ago, Kevin O'Connell made Brian Flores his second defensive coordinator in as many years with the Vikings, turning to the former Dolphins head coach to replace Ed Donatell and reshape a unit that ranked near the bottom of the league in 2022.

Flores' transformation of the Vikings' defense drew leaguewide attention through the middle of 2023, with a combination of pressure packages and zone coverages that had rarely been used at the NFL level. In December, after the Vikings recorded their first shutout in six years and remained in wild-card position despite using four different quarterbacks, it appeared Flores might draw head coaching interest for a second time.

He seemed set to be selective with his candidacy, given how fondly he spoke of his job with the Vikings. Flores' 2022 lawsuit against the NFL and three teams, alleging racial bias in the league's head coach hiring practices, remained active, and the Vikings' defense slipped from near the top of the league's rankings to the middle in the season's final four weeks, when a group thinned by injuries gave up at least 27 points in four consecutive losses.

Whatever the reason, the interview requests never came. O'Connell was relieved he'd get a second season with Flores in 2024.

"I was [surprised he didn't get interview requests]," O'Connell said at the NFL combine on Wednesday. "There were a couple days where I thought maybe there would be some slips turned in; it just never came to fruition. I know he loves being in Minnesota. There was not something he was actively pursuing. But at the same time, I was crossing my fingers, because a year later, looking back on it, I'm just so happy we were able to get him in and make that decision."

Flores' return means he'll get to steer many of the Vikings' defensive decisions in an offseason where the team faces decisions at every level. Edge rushers Danielle Hunter and D.J. Wonnum, as well as inside linebacker Jordan Hicks, are scheduled to be free agents on March 13, and the Vikings could look for additional help along the defensive line. In the secondary, they'll likely explore help at cornerback while awaiting 35-year-old safety Harrison Smith's decision about his future.

Flores' staff will have a different configuration in 2024, with defensive line coach Marcus Dixon replacing Chris Rumph after his mid-year exit and assistant head coach Mike Pettine becoming the team's outside linebackers coach following Mike Smith's departure.

The Vikings' scheme, which thrived on deceptive pressures while turning players like safety Josh Metellus into nearly positionless defenders, figures to evolve in 2024, too.

"It's something we felt was best for that particular group last year," O'Connell said. "When you're a defensive coordinator coming in, everybody's new to you — you haven't hand-picked or worked with the general manager on this player or that player, so you've really got to adapt.

"He demonstrated that; his staff did. I love that dynamic of him with [defensive backs coach] Daronte Jones and [inside linebackers coach Mike Siravo] and [Pettine] and some of those young assistants that we think the world of, so I'm excited to see where they take it in Year Two."

Flores began his NFL career in New England's front office before shifting to Bill Belichick's defensive staff. He's not known in the Vikings' building to be shy with his thoughts on what the defense needs, and he'll have a significant voice in the player decisions that could drive how the scheme shifts in 2024.

"We're hoping we can continue to evolve and add pieces," O'Connell said. "[It's also] the development of some core young players — guys that continue to show the types of traits that can be built around. Josh Metellus is a perfect example: the versatility, the passion he plays with, his intelligence, his physicality. You just continue to grow the philosophy of the defense to do what our players do best."

If the Vikings have a strong defensive season in 2024, O'Connell said he "would be shocked" if teams don't target Flores as a head coaching candidate, "based upon not only what I think he's going to do, but what he's done for us."

Should he leave for a head coach job 2024, the Vikings would get two third-round compensatory picks in return. The NFL passed a rule in 2021 that rewards teams for advancing minority coach or GM candidates; under the rule, coaches have to be with a team for two seasons for their departure to trigger comp picks, meaning the Vikings wouldn't have received any draft choices if Flores left for a head coach job after 2023. They'd boost their draft capital if he leaves for a head job any time after this season.

In the meantime, O'Connell said, he's glad to know Flores will be back in Minnesota.

"To get another full offseason with him, to continue to have his imprint on that defense, which really then translates to our whole team, it is critical," O'Connell said.