The Vikings have four first-round picks at cornerback and a second-round pick to add to the group. Behind them awaits a blood bath of talent hoping to secure one of the one or two remaining spots, something not even guaranteed to the multi-talented, multi-phase special teamer Marcus Sherels, who is among the best at what he does. This breadth of cornerback talent is where the Vikings have the most depth, and it makes sense, given how important the position has been to Mike Zimmer and the evolution of the Vikings defense. There’s a lot of drama about which player might be able to fill the nickel role and what could happen long-term with Trae Waynes, but ultimately it means that there’s a lot of talent to work with.
[expand title=”XAVIER RHODES”]
The Mike Zimmer defense cannot reach its pinnacle without a premier cornerback, and Xavier Rhodes is that player. A defensive back just knocking on the door of being a consistent first-team Pro Bowler, Rhodes isn’t entirely there as far as elite cornerbacks go, but pretty close. He just finished a year with surprisingly average-to-poor play by play grading from multiple analysts, like Pro Football Focus and Ian Wharton, but nevertheless inspires confidence from those analysts as one of the best corners in the NFL.
Strengths: Rhodes has improved his use of strength at press or the catch point over the past several years. Can press effectively with one long arm and maintain leverage throughout the route. Length finally used to accommodate issues with quickness, allowing him to finally address one of his biggest weaknesses from earlier in his career: shifty receivers. Did an excellent job shutting down quick receivers like Antonio Brown (54 yards in primary coverage on eight targets) and A.J. Green (30 yards in primary coverage on four targets). Solid understanding of offensive concepts and jumps routes through play and offensive recognition. Deep speed and acceleration allow Rhodes to cover a variety of routes without help. They also provide recovery ability. Hands have seemingly improved, though his interception total dropped once more.
Weaknesses: He still has stiffness issues that require workarounds and through his length and recovery capability he’s been able to cobble something together. Quickness makes off-man coverage a bigger problem; most big plays against him have come in off-man. Perhaps high interception total in 2016 was a fluke—had a few passes hit his hands and drop to the ground, like in previous years. Penalty issues are still concerning—nine penalties (including offsetting and declined) last year; highest number of penalties among corners over the last three years (32) and third-most over last two years (20).[/expand]
[expand title=”TRAE WAYNES”]
After years of underperformance, Trae Waynes put in a stellar year as a number two cornerback for the Vikings, though did it in an interesting way; he exploded in the second-half of the season with shutdown performances – dropping from allowing 70 percent of passes headed his ways to be completed to 49 percent.
Strengths: Dramatically improved over the course of the season. Tightened up coverage and reduced penalties. Played physically in college and the NFL and aggressive in run support; was perhaps the best run-defending corner in the NFL in 2017. Physicality in press works out – hand placement and strength allows him to significantly impede receivers and disrupts timing. Assignment-soundness in college has finally developed in the NFL as someone who has improved in route recognition and pattern awareness. Length sometimes allows Waynes to make up for other deficiencies and does a good job clogging passing lanes, and it expands his coverage range. Reads receiver routes well and shows explosive capability closing down in zone coverage. Improved footwork and commitment to technique has resolved stiffness issues; shorter steps and anticipatory turns let him tack down faster. Reduced penalty liability last year (only four, including two that were declined).
Weaknesses: Light-bodied frame led to issues in college and showed some signs of appearing in the NFL, though his play strength has improved for 2017. Poor turnover production overall despite incredibly high target rates. He plays stiffly and sometimes has poor recovery – if he does fail in press, it’s usually for a big offensive gain. Had issues in college, camp, preseason and regular season covering inside routes—due to stiffness and agility problems. Has improved at this over the course of his career, but it’s still a big issue. Initially had coverage confusion problems as a player and played the wrong assignment on more than one occasion – can’t write off this weakness until he shows more than a half-season of improvement. Played off when he should have been in press and played the wrong receiver. Didn’t defend deep well nearly as often as he should have been able to based on speed and college tape. Grabby; penalty liability may not be entirely gone.[/expand]
[expand title=”TERENCE NEWMAN”]
The oldest non-quarterback, non-specialist in the NFL, Terence Newman may finally be starting to show signs of his age. He still ranked in the top half of a number of categories: yards per snap in coverage, adjusted yards allowed per snap in coverage, PFF grade, passer rating when targeted and so on, but it’s markedly lower than all of his previous years. It wasn’t a given that he’d even return for the 2018 season, so there’s a good chance that this will be his last year in the NFL. For whatever it’s worth, his career has been incredible.
Strengths: Tremendous instincts and understanding of opponent’s offense and routes. Reads receivers hands and eyes to disrupt passes. Physical play jams receivers off their routes and limits yards-after-catch. Open-field tackling among the best at the position. Surprising quickness; can plant against comeback routes and beat receivers to the ball. Great ball awareness. Positional versatility—should be able to play outside, inside or at safety. Great patience, even in press.
Weaknesses: Limited long speed. Deters targets more than baits them; doesn’t create interceptions. Issues challenging the ball high in the air. Age creates the possibility of a cliff—could fall off the cliff at any time. Showed more coverage assignment issues in 2017 than in 2016 or 2015, though that probably will not persist. Short area quickness could be falling off with his long speed.[/expand]
[expand title=”MACKENSIE ALEXANDER”]
This could be a make-or-break year for Alexander, who is not only facing competition from Terence Newman, but first-round draft pick Mike Hughes. If Holton Hill keeps making his aggressive push for a roster spot, he could threaten Alexander as well. The Vikings had high hopes for the second-round pick and he’s entering the same critical third year that proved so fruitful for Trae Waynes. The former Clemson product could be poised for a breakout year, but also might seal his fate with Minnesota.
Strengths: Extremely improved at route recognition, which was an issue in his rookie year. Excellent quickness and agility. Can usually mix patience and aggression very well, and knows when to deploy either. Great footwork and mirroring in press. Gets hands involved at the catch point. Showcased a surprisingly good eye for the ball in 2017 and was a league leader in ball hawk rate despite his reputation for missing on the ball.
Weaknesses: Got his hand on the ball a lot in 2017, but there are still concerns about his ability to convert interceptions. Worrisome long speed that created minor issues throughout the year. Still demonstrated assignment confusion, and would be forced to hesitate. Had zone transition issues throughout his college and NFL career. Problems with late-breaking routes. Size is an issue and can be bullied by bigger receivers. Recovery ability didn’t look as good in 2017 as it did in 2016 and college.[/expand]
[expand title=”MIKE HUGHES”]
The heir apparent to… someone on the roster, Hughes showcased the ability to play outside in college and reportedly did well early on in the offseason playing in the slot. This will be the fourth consecutive offseason where he’ll be learning a new defense. He started for his last two teams despite shortened offseasons each time.
Strengths: Quick to learn defenses. Capable in both man and zone schemes. Despite tested time, showcased excellent recovery and long-speed. Great at diagnosis in both man and zone. Fantastic agility, and good instincts for route concepts. Advanced footwork for a player with his experience. Aggressive, physical player with great strength and technique in press coverage. Good balance, both at the line and in transition. Great ball skills – both at tracking the ball in the air and securing the ball once it hits his hands. Can disrupt the catch point of other receivers. Excellent return work.
Weaknesses: Doesn’t have the size that many desire in a top-tier cornerback. 40-yard dash, which correlates well to CB performance, was lacking (4.53). Some limited vertical performance as well (35.5 inches) for someone of his size. Won’t always trust his instincts. Off-field issues at North Carolina present maturity and availability concerns. A short “weaknesses” section, but both speed and size can be severely limiting flaws.[/expand]
[expand title=”MARCUS SHERELS”]
This could be the year that Marcus Sherels loses his cockroach status and misses out on a roster spot. An incredible corps of cornerbacks, paired with incoming return threats, might finally spell the end for the local Minnesota product, who nevertheless represents the classic tryout-to-NFL-veteran story with plucky play and an astounding special teams presence.
Strengths: Aside from being one of the NFL’s best punt returners—has the second-highest punt return average for any player with over 100 punts returned over the last five years and the most punt return touchdowns—Sherels flashes the kind of hip fluidity seen from elite CBs. He’s developed his transition game and moves well with receivers in man coverage. He can click-and-close on the ball faster than most CBs and has stellar reaction time. His agility is top-notch and he has underrated footwork as a DB. He isn’t afraid to get physical or assert himself despite size concerns. His game against Kelvin Benjamin this last year is a testament to how tenacious he can be despite size concerns.
Weaknesses: Size concerns, magnified by limited vertical lift and poor strength. Not great at reading receivers in man coverage or route concepts—though Sherels did demonstrate better awareness in limited time in 2016. Can lose the positioning battle, especially in the air. Not enough strength to push WRs around or be effective in press. Opens the gate too early. Limited turnover production. Will allow receivers to get a step ahead.[/expand]
[expand title=”HOLTON HILL”]
Suspended at the end of the 2017 season, Hill was on an upward trajectory before a violation of team rules prevented him from entering the normal draft hype cycle. Listed at 6’3” at Texas, Hill’s size was considered a big asset. Though he “only” measured in at 6’ 1 5/8” at the combine (with 32” arms), he’s still considered a favorable, lengthy candidate for a cornerback position.
Strengths: Great size for a cornerback, and very good athleticism to go with it – straight-line speed, agility and strength. Physical player against receivers in jam or against running backs in the running game. Scheme versatile. Good route recognition in both zone and man. Unusually young as an undrafted rookie.
Weaknesses: Needs to pull the trigger on his instincts, especially in zone. Even when he does move quickly off of instincts, mediocre burst limits click-and-close ability. Holds too often. Relies on length to contest in the air instead of vertical lift. Suspensions are a red flag – and he reportedly failed a drug test at the NFL Combine, so he’ll start on the NFL substance abuse protocol. Multiple third-party scouting reports mention maturity issues.[/expand]
[expand title=”JACK TOCHO”]
With his second year on the Vikings squad, Jock Tocho has much more experience with the Vikings defense – which should allow him to play more aggressively and intuitively than he did during the 2017 preseason. If his potential was locked by learning the system, he can unleash the best of his ability. Unfortunately, it appears he is switching back to cornerback – the position he played in college – and won’t have as clear of an opportunity to make the roster.
Strengths: Tocho is a physical player who seeks out contact and was better than most cornerbacks in college at getting off of blocks to make plays in the run game. A good tackler with solid tackling form who plays the open field with a good mix of aggression and patience. An efficient mover without many wasted steps and a good read on the quarterback. Can click-and-close on incoming targets in zone coverage. Good ball-tracking skills. Touted for his intelligence. When forced to play man coverage in preseason, did well.
Weaknesses: Length issues limit his tackle radius, and though he can get off of receiver blocks better than many cornerbacks, he’s not consistent about it. Doesn’t have the speed to play vertical routes in man coverage. Length also limits ability to make plays on the ball. Fluidity issues prevent turn-and-run type coverage. In preseason, showed hesitation; late to react to plays and had diagnosis issues with playfakes. Despite physical play in college, didn’t play with the same aggressiveness when presented with opportunities to hit in the preseason.[/expand]
[expand title=”HORACE RICHARDSON”]
After a good training camp as an undrafted rookie, Richardson comes back with another year of experience and a (fairly long) shot at being a primary backup behind the first- and second-round picks that populate the corps. He was the core of the SMU defense in his final year and could be an interesting long-term development prospect for the Vikings.
Strengths: Experience in multiple systems in college and it showed out in camp in 2017. Did pretty well in the preseason. When square to the line of scrimmage, demonstrates good lateral movement. Has patience when in off coverage. Good awareness in zone coverage and can click-and-close on underneath routes. Solid recovery. Good college production in both raw totals and advanced coverage stats. Hits hard in the run game and when closing on zone coverage.
Weaknesses: Got tricked in play action in the preseason. In press coverage, opens the gate too soon. Limited fluidity when turning hips 180 degrees, though good fluidity when keeping eyes forward in zone coverage. Issues getting off of blocks in the run game. Put together only one healthy season for SMU. Not a particularly great punt gunner. Played a lot of zone in the preseason, so there’s not much recent film of him in man coverage.[/expand]
[expand title=”CRAIG JAMES”]
A former Minnesota Golden Gopher, Craig James transferred to Southern Illinois in part to be closer to his family after an uncle fell victim to cancer and his mother received a medical scare. Now, he’s back in Minnesota hoping that his experience at the FCS doesn’t mar his ability to stick onto an NFL roster.
Strengths: Good in press coverage, patient and willing to jam receivers at the LOS. Good fluidity throughout reps. Stays tight in man coverage deep downfield and on lateral-breaking routes. Good at catch point and ball tracking. Has punt return experience at Southern Illinois and Minnesota. Experience in both man and zone coverage. Purported to be a locker room leader and shows up on the field directing the secondary.
Weaknesses: Not very physical and declines to seek contact against ballcarriers. Not a wrap-up tackler when he does look for the ballcarrier. Gets locked up on WR blocks. Doesn’t read receivers well, even when they are poor route runners. Has issues with burst, click-and-close and stop-start movement, making him vulnerable in zone coverage and particularly against comeback routes. Has issues reading plays as they develop. Poor tackling angles. Gets hands on the ball often, but doesn’t turn them into turnovers as often as he should.[/expand]
[expand title=”TREVON MATHIS”]
There’s not much information out there about Trevon Mathis, Toledo’s number one cornerback last season – a two-star recruit that followed the other team’s number one receiver across the field by his senior year. While he was primarily an outside corner for Toledo, he’ll likely transition inside for the Vikings by virtue of his height, length and speed. With excellent quickness testing, he seems well-suited for the position, though will need some seasoning to make the NFL roster.
Strengths: Incredible agility and explosion scores – 37.5” vertical and 6.84 second three-cone. Should translate well to his expected position with the Vikings at slot corner. Good patience. Willing to play physically. Decent fluidity dealing with lateral-breaking routes. Difficult for receivers to keep their chest clean – Mathis does a good job jabbing in press. Generally good at reading routes and understanding the likely route combinations an opponent will run.
Weaknesses: Has difficulty establishing position after losing it. Sometimes plays with incorrect leverage. Poor 40 time (4.56 seconds) and length (30.75” arms at 5’10”). Didn’t play many inside snaps at Toledo; will be asked to switch positions. Wasn’t great at the catch point and could be muscled out of position. Willingness to play physically doesn’t translate to actual strength; can get pushed around by tall WRs and doesn’t tackle RBs well. Didn’t play very much zone in college.[/expand]
Check out the rest of the training camp guide:
Sam Ekstrom’s Position Battles
Sitting Brian O’Neill: Have “Developmental” Day Two Offensive Linemen Succeeded?
Pay Attention to Tryout Players
How to Watch Training Camp Drills
Can Kirk Cousins Be the Savior? (COMING SOON)