It’s been said that to in the NFL, you have to be able to pass and stop the pass. The Minnesota Vikings did one of those things at an elite level last year.
Opposing offenses managed just an 84.4 quarterback rating against the Vikings, the fourth best mark in the NFL.
Of the five defensive backs who played 60% of snaps or more last year, two were legitimately elite at their position in Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith, two were savvy veterans who performed well in Captain Munnerlyn and Terence Newman and the other, Andrew Sendejo, had the best season of his career.
Only one of the 2016 full-timers won’t be returning in 2017 – that’s Munnerlyn, who left for Carolina in free agency. That leaves 637 snaps to fill.
In 2015 and 2016, the Vikings selected cornerbacks high in the NFL draft. They picked Trae Waynes in the first round in ’15, then Mackensie Alexander in the second round last year.
Waynes saw his fair share of the field in ’16, playing 55% of total snaps. He filled in for Rhodes in Weeks 1 and 2 and made a key interception to close the door on a win over the Green Bay Packers. But Wayes spent most of that game being picked on by Aaron Rodgers.
That game was a microcosm of Waynes’ season. At times, he made big plays and other times he made big mistakes, like in overtime against the Detroit Lions when he played too far back on coverage and allowed a key third-down conversion.
Throws in Waynes’ direction went for 7.4 Yards Per Attempt, by far the highest allowed by any of the Vikings’ regular corners.
Still, he made progress from Year 1 to Year 2, seeing an increase in playing time and effectiveness. With top-notch athletic ability, Waynes can stay with any of the league’s fastest receivers. However, he has struggled to read receivers at their breaks and make plays on the ball.
Would the Vikings trust Waynes enough to make him the full-time starter across from Rhodes and move recently re-signed corner Terence Newman to Munnerlyn’s old nickel spot?
Newman can play any position in Mike Zimmer’s secondary. The two have been together in Dallas, Cincinnati and now for all four years of Zim’s tenure in Minnesota. Newman shifted to the nickel spot on occasion last year when Alexander struggled and also filled in on a few plays at safety. On a conference call following his singing, Newman said he would be willing to play whatever role the Vikings asked.
Newman was so good in his No. 2 spot last year, it would be tough to argue that Waynes is a better option. Newman was ranked the ninth best corner in the NFL by Pro Football Focus (though Rhodes took most of the toughest assignments) and he allowed the second fewest yards per attempt at 3.9 per throw in his direction.
However, keeping Newman on the outside would leave the Vikings with two options: Move Waynes inside or turn the role over to Alexander, who was slotted as the heir to Munnerlyn’s position when he was drafted – mostly because his height matches many of the league’s nickel corners.
It’s questionable whether Alexander took a big enough step forward in his rookie campaign to be ready for a regular role. Zimmer has insisted that Alexander mostly needs work adapting to NFL pass interference rules, but some inside the locker room suggested that he didn’t utilize veterans like Munnerlyn and Newman to help him learn the position as Rhodes had done over the previous few seasons.
Asking an inexperienced corner to take the nickel spot is risky. As Munnerlyn will point out, it’s a very unique position, the only cornerback spot where defenders can’t use the sideline to their advantage. Some of the best receivers in the league play in the slot, like TY Hilton and Larry Fitzgerald.
The book isn’t even close to written on Alexander, but it would make sense to have a veteran starter penciled into the nickel spot for 2017. There are three experienced nickel corners available in free agency who have performed well in the past and aren’t likely to demand huge paychecks: Ex-Giant Leon Hall, former Buffalo Bill Nickell Robey-Coleman, Baltimore’s Jerraud Powers and New Orleans’ Sterling Moore.
Hall played with Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati and the Vikings’ head coach praised him when Minnesota played the New York Giants earlier this season. He’s 33, but still played well as a fill-in for a terrific Giants secondary.
Robey-Coleman is the most intriguing. He was released by the Bills because they are switching schemes under a new regime. Pro Football Focus ranked him as their 33rd overall cornerback last season and one of the top nickel corners. He is undersized at 5-foot-8 and isn’t the best tackler, but the former USC defensive back is solid in coverage and has a knack for blitzing off the edge.
Powers, 29, has been a solid nickel corner for the Colts, Cardinals and Ravens during his career, picking off 13 passes in eight seasons and ranking average or above average by Pro Football Focus metrics five times.
Moore is a journeyman, playing for four different teams since 2011, but scored well by PFF metrics in every location. He told local media he’d prefer to stay in New Orleans. If they move on, Moore has played both outside and nickel during his career.
Injuries also need to be factored. The Vikings lost Rhodes for two games, Newman missed a game, Munnerlyn went down early in the Detroit game. You can never have too many cornerbacks.
At the safety position, the Vikings could certainly stand to add a backup to the mix. While Zimmer said he saw good things in Jayron Kearse, he struggled in games against Philadelphia and Chicago while filling in for Sendejo. It became clear, too, at the end of the year against Indianapolis that Anthony Harris should be more of a hybrid linebacker than true safety.
If the Vikings were a young team, looking to build toward the future, it would be a no-brainer to play Waynes, Alexander and Kearse as much as possible and find out whether they can be long-term solutions. In Minnesota’s current situation, they should be looking for a more of a sure thing. Even with an improved offensive line, the Vikings’ defense is still their meal ticket to being a legitimate contender.