With the Vikings’ offseason program in full swing, and the team having completed its three-day, post-draft rookie minicamp, here are three questions facing the NFC North champions. (If you’re wondering why I did not address the issue at right guard, it’s because I wrote about that last week.)
Does Mackensie Alexander have a future in purple?
Coach Mike Zimmer did his best to downplay what the Vikings’ decision to take Mike Hughes in the first round of last month’s draft meant for Alexander’s future, but you would have to assume Hughes will jump over Alexander on the depth chart.
Alexander, a second-round pick in 2016, has been a disappointment both playing outside and in the slot. Hughes had limited experience playing inside at Central Florida, but it is likely Zimmer will make sure the youngster spends plenty of time around Terence Newman and that the soon-to-be 40-year-old corner will share his knowledge of playing both outside and in the slot.
Last season, Alexander finished as the 106th ranked cornerback out of the 121 that were given grades by Pro Football Focus. Zimmer prides himself on teaching cornerbacks but that patience only goes so far.
If Alexander can get himself in Zimmer’s good graces there is always a chance he could work his way into regular playing time if there is an injury, or if Trae Waynes leaves as a free agent after the 2019 season.
But the guess here is that the Vikings’ plan involves keeping Waynes for the long term and having him start opposite Xavier Rhodes on the outside. Hughes would become the regular in the slot once Newman retires after the 2018 season. That would mean all three of the Vikings’ regular corners are first-round picks.
This could leave Alexander as a backup, or it could leave him out of the Vikings’ plans entirely.
Does this sound familiar?
I thought the Vikings might be done trying to find kickers in the draft after Blair Walsh went from rookie sensation in 2012 to struggling veteran in 2016. That was the season after Walsh’s 27-yard miss with 22 seconds remaining cost the Vikings a playoff victory over Seattle and also was the season Walsh made it through only nine games before he was jettisoned.
It turns out that not only is general manager Rick Spielman not done drafting kickers, but he has taken one whose resume is very close to what Walsh’s was coming out of Georgia. Only this time instead of taking an SEC kicker in the sixth round, as he did with Walsh, Spielman made a trade to grab an SEC kicker, Auburn’s Daniel Carlson, in the fifth round.
Just like with Walsh, Carlson ran into trouble in his final collegiate season as he struggled with his accuracy. He converted 23-of-31 field-goal attempts in 2017, including 4-of-8 from 50-plus yards, after making 28-of-32 attempts, including 4-of-7 from 50-plus yards, in 2016.
Walsh, of course, bounced back to have a fantastic rookie season, making 35-of-38 attempts, including going 6-of-6 from more than 50 yards.
Carlson will take over for Kai Forbath – you’re kidding yourself if you think there is going to be a kicking competition in training camp – causing many to celebrate the fact the Vikings have gotten rid of a guy who missed an NFL-high five extra-point attempts last season and also missed on six field-goal attempts.
It’s easy to forget that Forbath made some key field goals, such as 49- and 53-yard attempts in the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ playoff victory over New Orleans. He went 3-for-4 in that game, missing wide left from 49 yards.
Carlson will give the Vikings distance on kickoffs and possesses the type of big leg every team covets. But how will the youngster do when the game is on the line? The Vikings appear willing to take a chance on finding out.
Who is next to sign and who will walk?
The Vikings always have been very aggressive when it comes to retaining their own talent and they already have taken steps to do that this offseason by signing linebacker Eric Kendricks to a five-year, $50 million contract.
The Vikings’ list of players nearing the end of their current deals remains an interesting one. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Anthony Barr are up after 2018 and Waynes’ contract expires after 2019.
So who is the most likely to check out the open market and who is next sign?
When Kendricks signed his extension in April, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Barr’s deal is “likely” next on the list when it comes to the Vikings’ priorities. Although Barr has struggled to reach his potential, Zimmer definitely played a big role in the former UCLA Bruin being drafted ninth overall in 2014 and it wouldn’t be surprising if Zimmer is pushing to keep him.
Barr already is slotted to make $12.3 million in 2018 playing for the fifth-year option in his rookie deal. It also has been reported the Vikings might consider putting the franchise tag on the pass-rushing Hunter if he gets close to free agency.
There remains time to deal with Waynes’ contract.
This means that Diggs could be the one to explore free agency and it’s safe to say he would do very well for himself. A fifth-round pick in 2015, Diggs has turned into an impact receiver and he is set to make only $1.9 million in 2018. Diggs had 64 catches for 849 yards and eight touchdowns last season in 14 games.
The only knock against Diggs is that he has yet to play a full 16-game schedule, but that might not matter to some teams with plenty of room under the salary cap.
Top wide receivers are getting paid huge bucks these days and Diggs will look to follow a list that includes Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown ($17 million a year), Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans ($16.5 million), Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins ($16.2 million), Kansas City’s Sammy Watkins ($16 million) and Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry ($15.1 million).
To put things in perspective, the Vikings right now are set to pay a combined $5.8 million to two of the NFL’s top receivers in Diggs and Adam Thielen in 2018. Thielen is signed through 2020 and at some point soon the Vikings likely will have to decide on keeping Diggs or Thielen. Don’t be surprised if Diggs gets a huge multiyear deal elsewhere in 2019.