Mike Zimmer knows cornerbacks like Andrew W.K. knows partying.
There isn’t a position in which you would trust the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach’s opinion more than cornerback. From coaching Deion Sanders early in his career to guiding a young Jonathan Joseph in Cincinnati to pushing Xavier Rhodes to “shutdown corner” status to knowing that Terence Newman still had a lot left in the tank, Zimmer has an impeccable record with DBs.
So when he says that 2016 second-round draft pick Mackensie Alexander can play, you’re inclined to believe him, even if Alexander didn’t see game action very often in his rookie year. And when he did, he gave up 12.3 Yards Per Attempt according to Football Outsiders’ tracking data.
In an interview with the Vikings’ flagship station, Zimmer said that Alexander will get a chance to win the starting nickel corner job, left open by Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with the Carolina Panthers.
Zim – Mac Alexander gets 1st crack to replace Captain. What he does with the opportunity is up to him. #Vikings
— Stephen A Turner (@StephenATurner) March 21, 2017
A source told ESPN’s Ben Goessling that the Vikings have checked in on free agent nickel corners. Multiple reports linked former Buffalo Bill Nickell Robey-Coleman to the Vikings as a potential replacement for Munnerlyn, but there hasn’t been any reports on the cornerback front in about a week. Robey-Coleman is one of several experienced defensive backs still available, including New Orleans’ Sterling Moore and Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb.
Zimmer has been asked about Alexander several times between mid-season and the NFL Combine and his refrain has been the same, saying it takes more experience for corners to hone their craft than other positions.
“He’s a very, very talented kid,” Zimmer said at the Combine. “I was talking with coaches about this: College rules are so much different for defensive backs than they are in the NFL. That’s why with defensive backs it takes a long time, especially for guys that want to get up in people’s faces. That’s what’s disappointing about not having young guys for a longer period of time in the offseason to teach them.”
Talking about Alexander’s penalty issues (he was called for two coverage penalties in 68 snaps) is a convenient way to avoid discussing any other concerns. When the former Clemson corner went head-to-head with Anquan Boldin, the veteran used his size and strength to push Alexander aside for a touchdown catch. In a game against Washington, Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed made catches in front of him after creating several yards separation out of their breaks toward the middle.
The biggest concern that was voiced from teammates was Alexander’s willingness to listen and learn from veterans. One former Pro Bowl defensive back told 1500ESPN that the Vikings had an ideal situation for a young corner to grow. In an interview with 1500ESPN earlier this offseason, Xavier Rhodes praised veteran Terence Newman for being a “coach on the field.” Not to mention Zimmer and Vikings DB coach Jerry Grey, who was a terrific corner in his day.
None of that is to say that he can’t take the next step, just that there are question marks about stepping into a starting job.
His personality might be a little different than some other players. In Alexander’s final season at Clemson, despite being a major prospect, he refused to do media interviews because he felt it took attention away from the team.
“I’ve never met another player like him,” Alexander’s agent Trey Robinson told 1500ESPN in October. “It’s attributable to his upbringing and the environment that he came from. He doesn’t trust a lot of people. He keeps things close to the vest. He saw his parents working every day and he saw that other kids didn’t have to do that.”
His NFL.com draft profile noted some of same assets and issues that we saw in Year 1, but check out the last line:
“Alexander is a difficult evaluation because there are times on tape that he looks vulnerable to quickness off the line of scrimmage and he doesnt have the prototypical size of a top-end NFL cornerback. However, he was consistently sticky in man coverage and played with the instincts and confidence needed from a true cover corner. Alexander’s confidence may border on cockiness at times, but that also seems to feed his competitive fire. Alexander might struggle early on, but should settle in to become a quality starter by his second year.”
Mike Zimmer seems to agree.
But actions speak louder than words. If the Vikings bring in an experienced starter, then it would send a signal that they don’t believe Alexander is ready to compete. If not, it’s very likely he will get every opportunity to win the job in training camp and preseason.