EAGAN — As a rookie second-round pick out of Clemson, Mackensie Alexander showed glimpses in the 2016 preseason, both of his upside as a corner and his at times maddening lack of discipline.
In the waning moments of the first-ever preseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium, Alexander intercepted Mike Bercovici’s pass to seal the Vikings’ win over the San Diego Chargers. He promptly was flagged for taunting and got a lecture from head coach Mike Zimmer.
“He’s going to be a handful until I get him squared away,” Zimmer said that day, “but I love this kid.”
It took a couple more years, but Alexander is rounding into the player Zimmer envisioned. When Terence Newman retired on cut day in 2018, Alexander was immediately thrust into a significant role as the Vikings’ primary nickel corner. His steady improvement throughout 2018 has him primed for an even bigger 2019 that could earn him a new contract. The 25-year-old is entering the final season of his four-year rookie deal.
“He’s probably changed as much with work ethic and attitude and everything, probably more than any guy I’ve ever coached,” Zimmer said Wednesday after practice. “He’s just completely bought in to everything we’re doing, asking the right questions, taking extra reps on the field. He’s turned the corner that way from his rookie year.”
Alexander was forthcoming last year about his own immaturity — or as Zimmer coined it, “bite-back” — admitting he wanted to play outside corner instead of the unfamiliar slot. He was also sharing reps with wily veteran Terence Newman, a pillar of maturity that helped Alexander become a better professional but also took most of the nickel snaps.
Newman spent one year on the coaching staff and continued his mentorship of Alexander but stepped away from coaching following the 2018 season. Alexander has full ownership over the position now as a fourth-year pro, the team’s third-longest-tenured corner.
“Mackensie has grown up a whole lot since his time here,” said defensive coordinator George Edwards. “I think the increased reps and those kinds of things have helped him. … You can tell he has a better feel for it. It’s not the first time he’s been through it so he can lean back on some of that experience and now line up and go play and not do so much thinking.”
As a rookie Alexander played a scarce 68 defensive snaps — not too different than first-round pick Trae Waynes when he was a rookie the year prior. At the time, Alexander was also contending with Captain Munnerlyn, the Vikings’ full-time nickel.
There was cause for concern in 2017 when Alexander’s role increased and he posted the fourth-lowest tackling grade, per Pro Football Focus, of corners with at least 20 percent of snaps. His coverage ranking came in at 106th of 126, and he saw his reps reduced later in the season as Newman took a greater share. But there were still encouraging signs, like his 71.1 passer rating when targeted.
Alexander had an issue with grabbiness in 2017 that led to three penalties. That problem continued into 2018 as Alexander struggled along with the rest of the Vikings’ defense. After missing the season opener with an injury, he committed five penalties and allowed a passer rating over 90 when targeted in each of his first five games.
From Week 7 on, though, Alexander graded out as the No. 3 corner in football, per Pro Football Focus, recording 13 run stops, allowing no touchdowns and posting the seventh-lowest passer rating against (62.7) while committing just one penalty.
Alexander hit a high point against the Miami Dolphins in Week 15 when he broke up a pair of passes, made three run stops and recorded his fourth sack — a Vikings single-season record for a defensive back.
“He understands not only his job, but how his job affects everybody around him communication-wise, technique-wise and fundamental-wise,” said Edwards. “Down the stretch last year, he played pretty good for us and he’s come out here and done a good job thus far as we started camp.”
Edwards also added that Alexander has a better understanding of the Vikings’ pattern-match concept, in which defenders must identify and cover receivers entering their zone.
Zimmer is coy when asked what spurred the change in Alexander’s attitude. When asked if there was a specific event that made Alexander more coachable, he kept it curt. “Probably,” Zimmer said. “He was better his third year, but now it’s like really good. Sometimes I’m more hard-headed than they are.”
The Vikings’ patience is paying off now that Alexander is getting ‘squared away,’ as Zimmer foretold back in 2016.