Pelissero: Payday in secondary would suggest changes to Vikings scheme
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The Minnesota Vikings' approach to their secondary in free agency will say a lot about how the defense will operate under new coordinator Alan Williams.
If the Vikings intend to continue playing a zone-heavy coverage scheme, as coach Leslie Frazier has espoused for years, there would be no need to invest top dollar at cornerback or safety. The Tampa-2 defense doesn't command blue-chip players at those positions.
However, if the Vikings pursue the likes of Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Carr -- the top two cornerbacks available when free agency opens at 3 p.m. Tuesday -- it would be a clear indication they hope to diversify the scheme and employ more man concepts on the back end.
"Ultimately, I think you pay guys at cornerback to run and cover," a personnel executive for another NFL team said recently. "I don't think you really pay a corner to play a lot of zone defense."
No doubt, the Vikings are thin at cornerback, even if Chris Cook's felony domestic assault trial resolves in such a way he's available for the 2012 season. Cedric Griffin was released on Saturday. Antoine Winfield remains solid when healthy but turns 35 in June.
"Beyond that, they don't have much," an AFC personnel director said while looking at the Vikings' depth chart. "Asher Allen is limited. (Brandon) Burton's a rookie. Cook can play -- he's got range and all that stuff, but the issues that he's got right now are bigger than football."
The safety situation is even murkier. The Vikings have expressed interest in re-signing Husain Abdullah but are wary of his concussion history and appear poised to let him hit the market. Former second-round draft pick Tyrell Johnson has run out of chances. Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond are just guys.
"That's -- wow," the personnel director said. "There's really nothing there."
How far will the Vikings go to inject talent into the secondary? That depends in part on how they envision the scheme functioning.
Frazier, who coordinated the Vikings' defense from 2007 to '10, made clear after hiring Williams that he wants "to take the lead on some things early on and really set the tone for how I want things done" -- strongly suggesting a return to a more pure Tampa-2.
"The problem with the NFL -- you can't stay in your base very long," an NFC scout said. "These offenses and these coordinators know how to pick apart (defenses). If you're going to stay in one system or one front or one coverage, you're going to get exposed and exposed quickly."
Adding a player with the cover ability of Finnegan or Carr would give the Vikings more flexibility in that regard, and they have upwards of $23 million in cap space to make it happen -- if it's deemed schematically advantageous enough to pay a high price.
Carr (6-foot, 207 pounds) probably is the better fit because of his age (25) and ability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, getting reroutes essential to bump-and-run coverage. He has good ball skills (eight career interceptions, 65 passes defended) and has been durable, starting every game over his four seasons with Kansas City.
"He's got such good length," the personnel director said. "He's a young guy. He's a little leggy, but he's got good instincts and he can burst on the ball."
Finnegan (5-10, 188) is no longer an ascending player at age 28, which surely is a concern for a rebuilding Vikings team. But he has the skills to fill multiple roles, starting outside and bumping inside in nickel if the Vikings decide at some point to move on from Winfield.
"Is (Finnegan) a true Pro Bowl player?" the executive said. "Probably not, but I think you could qualify him as a good NFL starter that's going to help your team win."
Scouts consider it a deep class for contributors, too, even with the likes of Baltimore's Lardarius Webb (high restricted tender) and Atlanta's Brent Grimes (franchised) off the market.
Other available cornerbacks age 27 and under include Arizona's Richard Marshall, New Orleans' Tracy Porter and the New York Giants' Terrell Thomas, who may see a light market as he comes back from a second knee reconstruction surgery.
At safety, Oakland's Tyvon Branch, Tennessee's Michael Griffin and San Francisco's Dashon Goldson all received franchise tags, leaving Washington's LaRon Landry as the top player hitting the market. The Vikings play so many deep zones in Frazier's scheme it seems an ill fit for Landry, who is at his best playing near the line.
"Do I think (Landry) could do it?" the executive said. "Yeah, physically, he could do it. Heavy hitter. Plays the run. Run supports. He's a good tackler. Not just a tackler, but he's a striker, heavy on contact. You're not going to get great deep cover ability from him."
And if the Vikings keep playing a defense that emphasizes instincts, positioning and leverage in mostly two-deep concepts, there probably isn't a tremendous need for "A"-level upgrades anywhere in their secondary anyway.
They just need to find players who can be disciplined and follow the fundamental rules of a repetition-based scheme -- although as last season's mess showed, that can be easier said than done.
"I would think they've got to do a little bit better than what they have," the personnel director said, "because those guys that they've got left aren't very good."