What Can Mackensie Alexander Bring to the Minnesota Vikings Defense?


It would be easy to end the analysis there, but there certainly are a number of questions surrounding the 54th pick for the Minnesota Vikings. Obviously there are some pretty standard questions to ask about where he fits and how the Vikings plan on using their second-round pick when it seems fairly certain that they have their three top cornerbacks set, and some decent depth—with last year’s starter, Terence Newman, presumed to be a versatile backup.

But there are other interesting questions surrounding Alexander—a player with no interceptions seems like an odd choice for a second-round pick, though something has to be said about a guy ranked 26th overall from the consensus of experts.

The flipside of those missing interceptions is that passes weren’t completed in his direction. Over the course of his career, Alexander saw only 106 targets, and only 33 of those targets were completions—a completion rate of 31.1 percent.

Beyond that, he allowed zero touchdowns in 23 games.

According to Pro Football Focus, eh had the fifth-fewest targets per snap of any defensive back in the draft, and while that sounds impressive on its own, he accumulated that impressive statistic while following the opponent’s best receiver.

Which is to say that over 23 games, the best receiver a team could muster against him produced 33 catches for no touchdowns. In 2016, it was only 19 catches on 57 targets (a 33 percent completion rate) for 258 yards.

If over 13 games, your best receiver was limited to 19 catches, 258 yards, and no touchdowns, you’d want two new receivers.

Consider first-round receiver Will Fuller. Against Alexander, Fuller caught two catches for 37 yards. Or second-round receiver Sterling Shepard—two catches for 27 yards on six targets, before Oklahoma moved him to the slot to get rid of Alexander.

Statistics are nice, but it’s also important to be true to the fundamentals of evaluation—technique, scheme and context. Can his astounding success translate into the NFL?

If we first start by bringing context into the specific statistics of his play, I think his resume grows more impressive. Pro Football Focus typically will argue that an impressive statistical resume hides some schematic advantage or can be boosted by assignment. In the case of Alexander, they think his impressive completion rate underrepresented his play on the field. From their draft guide:

“[Alexander]” was hung out to dry a little by Clemson’s coverages that often left him isolated with no underneath help or safety over the top, leading to easy completions underneath in off coverage.”

This isolation meant he wasn’t the only person to compare himself to Darrelle Revis.

Generally speaking, one has to be pretty careful about evaluating defenders on a defense with a multitude of talented athletes; with Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Jayron Kearse, T.J. Green, D.J. Reader and B.J. Goodson, Alexander saw two of his defensive teammates in the consensus top 100, and six of them in the top 200.

But in the case of Alexander, the other athletes pivoted off of his work, not the other way around.

The Revis comparisons are well-founded in this case, if only to use as an instructive example for how he was used at Clemson. The beauty of the nickname “Revis Island” is less to do with his talent or how alone receivers would feel with him in coverage and more about how the Jets would put him by himself and roll coverage to the opposite side of the field, effectively leaving him not just without safety help but an entire portion of the field to defend.

It made his assignments monstrously difficult, but it allowed the Jets defense to play 10-on-10, and compressed fields are always better for the defenders. While it was a big boon in coverage, functionally smaller fields also contributed to run defense, as run blockers weren’t set up to gain an advantage by moving into the alley.

It’s very easy to use the usage comparison, but in terms of skill set, it’s difficult to figure out a comparison, but Alexander’s own Verrett comparison is not out of line. The differences with Alexander and Verrett are physical, not technical and there’s still a lot of physical comps to be made with both of them.

While Alexander is bigger (in terms of height, weight and general thickness—Verrett was called thin-waisted, and Alexander is not that), both display astounding hip fluidity, play bigger than their size and can play with quickness in step. To some extent, we can break this down.

His work ethic at Clemson was nearly legendary. An ESPN profile couldn’t stop gushing about Alexander and his story, and it’s easy to see why.

“He has this focus about him that not a lot of kids have,” said Israel Gallegos, a longtime assistant coach at Immokalee. “He sees how hard his parents worked, and that’s where his work ethic comes from.”

When Alexander returned home this summer, he was still a fixture on the school’s football field, running sprints all alone. After a few hours, Gallegos’ phone would beep with a text from Alexander asking his former coach to unlock the weight room or prep the cold tub or drag a ladder outside so he could practice footwork.

From Immokalee to Clemson, Alexander’s work ethic is legendary.

After he signed his letter of intent to play for the Tigers, defensive coordinator Brent Venables would send Alexander a few pages of the playbook or a few clips of film each day. Alexander returned the favor by calling and texting his new coach endlessly to ask for more.

“Midnight, I’d be lying in bed sleeping, and my phone would ding,” Venables remembered. “My wife would say, ‘Who’s texting you at midnight?’ but she got used to it. It was just my nightly text from Mackensie.”

After each game, Dabo Swinney would do his radio show then retreat to his office. Along the way, he’d peek in the film room and find Alexander. “I don’t even think he showered,” Swinney joked.

Before the team’s bowl matchup with Oklahoma in Orlando, Florida, last year, the Tigers took a trip to Disney World. Alexander stayed behind to watch film.

“The coaches always know where to find me,” Alexander said. “I have the same routine every day, and it doesn’t change for nobody.”

For Alexander, football is a sanctuary, miles from the fields where his father still earns a living pulling tomatoes from the vine. The hours are long and the work is intense, but the job is easy.

“In his mind,” Venables said, “the game of football is life or death.”

To him, his extraordinary confidence and his legendary work ethic are linked. In a conference call with Twin Cities media, Alexander stressed the connection, saying “Where I come from, you only gain confidence if you work at it and you know you put in the work and you go out and compete.

“That is where the confidence comes from. Working out every day, grinding. It’s having a work ethic and that is what I have. My parents instilled that in me, so that is where my confidence comes from. My town has really molded me to be that guy, that is where it comes from.”

When we circled back around to talking about his family, Alexander had more to say about them than he did almost anything else.

“This means a lot,” he said. “It is bigger than me. It is for my town, my community, and my Haitian folks, the Mexican folk watching this on TV because the Lord knows every morning we get up and we go to work.

“I watched my parents pick oranges and tomatoes and how we use to do it, so for me I grew up around people who just work, work, work. In my town, it teaches you to work and strive for something because there is nothing around but for you to work and go in the hot sun and pick tomatoes and pick oranges and go work at the factory.”

He added, “you are around a bunch of immigrants and they don’t have any other choice but to go and do those jobs so it was important for me, for my family, to bring me here and have me here so I can do better for myself and eventually help them out.”

It may seem irrelevant to talk about upbringing when trying to break down a player’s skillset, but it seems intimately tied to how Alexander plays as a player and will develop in the NFL. If work is fun, it’s not difficult to get oneself to do it.

Cornerbacks who play in man coverage need to have patience and quickness, and the dual responsibilities of both can cause issues. Those without quick-twitch athleticism and high-level instinct can find themselves false-stepping or lunging when it hurts.

Alexander will react quickly to a receiver’s movements without giving up ground, and this can look like bad footwork at times, but without committing to a movement, he can position himself against a receiver’s likely move without overcommitting to a fake. Alexander is patient in coverage and waits to turn his hips on receivers, even those with excellent releases at the line of scrimmage.

In the slowed-down GIF below, you can see Alexander at the top of the screen (ignore the box over Kevin Dodd) and see how he can exhibit patience without sacrificing the ability to set up his move.

Mackensie Alexander Footwork

Below is a less than ideal clip in terms of the viewing angles and the amount of time the broadcasters are on the screen, but look at this slowed-down clip of his fluidity and ability to recover—a result of his natural quickness as a player, his ability to commit without committing and his solid technique.

Basketball Footwork

I’ve become pretty annoyed with the phrase “basketball footwork,” but this is a great example of that phrase, and it helps that Alexander stays low.

Obviously, the receiver thought he had gained an advantage because at the last moment, Alexander’s hips do turn, which should open the gate. But Alexander’s recovery is as fast as the receiver’s movement into his true route, and that’s what’s key. It’s high-level play by both the receiver and corner, and Alexander came out ahead.

Doug Farrar said it better than I could:

Alexander has the best mirroring and transition speed of any cornerback in this class. Takes his receiver seamlessly from the first step throughout the route, and turns and flips on a dime to stay with them through quick-breaking and option routes.

The Vikings defense has vacillated between Cover-3 concepts and Cover-1 concepts as they establish a pattern-matching coverage scheme, sometimes playing Cover 2 in obvious passing and hurry up situations and mixing in Tampa-2 work as well. At times, they will transition to what Nick Saban calls a “Tampa 7.”

That pattern-matching scheme is a mix of zone and man, and something I’ve covered in the past.

Essentially, defenders read route combinations and then pick up receivers in their zones, playing man against those receivers until those players are out of their zones, with rules for which receivers they pick up. This is fundamentally different from zone coverage, because their eyes often leave the quarterback and because they play tight to players instead of loose.

These can involve complex rules for when to play man, which receiver to pick up and when to look at the quarterback but fundamentally it means playing man coverage with awareness of the field and the confidence to leave a receiver who will seemingly become open to cover a receiver who looks like he’s well covered.  Below is a gallery of assignments that a single playcall can result in based on what the offense does:

It requires a multitude of skillsets but results in a tough read for opposing quarterbacks and allows for creative pressures without giving up the integrity of the defense.

Clemson played pattern-match coverage against the inventor of the concept in the national championship game, and though Alexander looked somewhat uncomfortable in the setup at times, he played it well. Alexander has a lot of experience in different coverages, and he wasn’t modest about that fact.

“I was asked to follow the best receivers every week and eliminate them from their game plan,” he told gathered media. “Just win those matchups. I was also asked to play inside and play zone, play multiple things. Whatever the Vikings want me to do I am ready for it. I am just going to be open to everything they ask me to do and be ready for it.”

In general, Alexander is more comfortable in man coverage than zone coverage, but the skills from man coverage will translate a little better. He’s had issues at times dealing with switches against his zone and he doesn’t always drive on the ball as well as the best click-and-close cornerbacks in the game, which will be a point of emphasis with his development in Minnesota.

His understanding of route concepts and his deep film study will allow him to adapt well to the complex rule-based scheme in Minnesota, but he’ll have to react a little faster to those combinations—something that contributed to his discomfort in zone coverage. He otherwise has an extremely quick reaction time, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he anticipated the ball better in Minnesota than he did at Clemson.

His positioning allows him to get away with some of the issues he’s had locating the ball, and while it’s true that his lack of interceptions can be credited to his low target total, his ball tracking when moving targets from the receiver to the ball in flight isn’t the greatest. He told Twin Cities media that he had a “phenomenal pro day” and caught a bunch of passes thrown his way, and while that’s probably true, it doesn’t speak to the differences between snapping one’s head around in coverage to locate a ball and grabbing the rock at a pro day.

Still, his feel for the game should allow him to significantly alter coverage and get into the heads of receivers.

Bigger receivers will give him trouble in the NFL, and many point to the North Carolina game as evidence of that fact, but his struggles in that game were not size-related. He really did have a bad day with false steps and surprisingly poor positioning.

Given the massive amounts of confusion the secondary was in all day, it would be easy to chalk up some of those struggles, particularly in the second half, to overall communication more than size. His first half was also less than ideal, and that’s largely his fault, but he recovered well and played his assignments with purpose.

Beyond that, he’s an alright tackler. He can break down in space when the play is in front of him, but takes poor angles to the ballcarrier and doesn’t always wrap up. His targeting is fine, and he knows where to aim on the player when he’s going in for the tackle, but he’ll sometimes go for the hit over the tackle. That’s not a huge issue; he didn’t have many missed tackles, but combine that with his issues getting off of blocks and you have a player who won’t be as good a run defender as teammates Xavier Rhodes or Harrison Smith.

He’ll have to clean some things up, but he’s an astounding player and many people’s top corner. That’s true for a reason.

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