After a complete offseason overhaul at the cornerback, few positions on the Minnesota Vikings roster were more firmly under the microscope entering the regular season.
In a perfect world, the Vikings had hoped to get stability from their pair of third-year corners while they groomed first-round pick Jeff Gladney and third-round pick Cameron Dantzler. Murphy’s Law took over, though, and has exposed the hazards of having an underdeveloped and unproven cornerback group. Injuries and rookie mistakes have been the theme as their secondary has had myriad struggles and next to no continuity. Six different corners have played over 30 snaps in a game, and the Vikings have yet to have the same three primary corners for the entirety of two consecutive games.
Some of the lessons learned in the first six weeks will surely be useful for the future, but they’ve also contributed to the Vikings’ 1-5 start. Let’s dig deeper into what’s gone on at cornerback.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
It seemed like the grass might be greener once the Vikings moved on from Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, but losing all three players at once might’ve been more drastic of a change that anyone anticipated.
Though Rhodes noticeably declined, Waynes plateaued and the Vikings dropped from third to 15th in yardage allowed last season, their overall coverage still ranked third-best in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. The defense was top-3 in interceptions, and the team’s safety play was extraordinary enough to mask many of the corners’ issues.
The previous group had years of shared experience under Mike Zimmer that wouldn’t be easily replaced. Their ability to communicate efficiently and play the correct technique helped reduce mistakes that led to big plays. The 2020 group has regrettably been a big play machine, allowing 13 pass plays of 30 yards or more. Last year’s team allowed 18 all year.
“When you’re playing off-coverage, the two most important things are the speed of the receiver and the release of the receiver and when to turn,” Zimmer said as he took inventory at the team’s bye week. “When you’re playing press, it’s about getting in the right position at the line of scrimmage and then being good on top so you can be good at the top of the route. Right now our guys, I think they’re kind of looking in the backfield a little bit, trying to see the play-action, the runs, things like that. Consequently, we’re not getting tight enough to the receiver. We’re giving them way too much space, wherever he is, as opposed to getting into the receiver and using our body on their body to try and affect the route.”
While last year’s defense allowed opponents to move the ball more than fans were accustomed, their red zone play was second-best in the league and helped win them games vs. Denver and at Dallas thanks to late-game stops. That part of the 2020 defense hasn’t been atrocious, the Vikings are ranked seventh in red zone defense, but Minnesota also lost a game to Seattle when the Seahawks converted a 4th and goal in the closing seconds because of Dantzler’s coverage mistake.
NFL offenses have never been better, which has put a target squarely on the back of the Vikings’ inexperienced corners.
INJURIES HAVE BEEN PROBLEMATIC
Remarkably, the Vikings have yet to see the same three starting quarterbacks on the field in even two straight games. Here’s what the rotation has looked like:
WEEK 1: Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Cameron Dantzler
WEEK 2: Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney
WEEK 3: Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney, Kris Boyd
WEEK 4: Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney, Holton Hill
WEEK 5: Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney, Mike Hughes
WEEK 6: Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney, Harrison Hand (Hughes was injured mid-game)
Minnesota got exactly one look at their preferred Week 1 lineup with their two third-year corners Hughes and Hill. An early injury to Dantzler (ribs) forced the Vikings to turn to Gladney, then additional injuries to Hughes (neck) and Boyd (hamstring) forced the Vikings to start two rookies in Week 4 — the first time in at least 20 years that had occurred in Minnesota. That became three rookies last Sunday when Hughes exited prematurely against Atlanta, giving the Vikings their first glimpse of fifth-round selection Harrison Hand.
Even though it was not of their own volition, the Vikings have rotated through corners like they might’ve in the preseason. Unfortunately, that’s done little to build chemistry or continuity at a position that demands it.
“Whoever is in there knows their role and knows that we’re depending on them,” Gladney said. “We just got to do our jobs.”
THE “VETERANS” CAN’T HOLD DOWN THEIR SPOTS
As the previous section lays out, injuries have been a thorn in the Vikings’ side. That bodes extra poorly for the two older corners who may feel as if their window is closing.
Hughes has missed time twice now with a neck injury, an issue that also cost him last year’s playoff games. Through two and a half seasons, the former first-round pick has only played 75% of snaps in three straight games once. Those were the three games proceeding his rookie-year ACL tear that set the tone for an injury-prone start to Hughes’ career.
“You can’t control injuries,” Hughes said in Week 6. “I just try my best to get back to being myself 100 percent. Trusting my body and not worrying about those things when I get on the field. I don’t want to use that as an excuse to why I’m not playing at the level I know I’m capable of playing at.”
It’s also somewhat telling that Hughes was relegated to CB3 in Weeks 5-6 with Dantzler and Gladney holding down the top two spots and Gladney acting as the top slot corner when Hughes entered the game. The Vikings have to make a decision on Hughes’ fifth-year option after this season, and if he’s not considered a top-2 corner, it’s safe to wonder if that option will be exercised.
The other Week 1 starter, Hill, has missed two games with a foot issue but hasn’t been great when active. He ranks 69th out of 72 qualified corners, per PFF, allowing a 101.9 passer rating when targeted. It’s uncertain whether he’ll reclaim his starting spot when healthy, possibly after the bye.
Hill had an opportunity this year to be a bounce-back star. One year removed from an eight-game suspension, he was given a shot to start and even become the team’s top cornerback. Hill hasn’t shown a lot of progress, though, and may lose his starting gig to a rookie. It’s entirely possible Hill receives an RFA tender next offseason to stay another year, but any talk of a lucrative second contract is still a ways off.
THE ROOKIES SHOW PROMISE BUT NEED WORK
There are 68 corners who have taken 50% of coverage snaps this season. The bottom two in yards allowed per cover snap? Gladney and Dantzler.
“The game is much faster,” Dantzler said Tuesday. “You’re guarding bigger and better receivers. So I just have to get more physical, make plays when the plays are there for me to be made and just be tight on coverage. I feel like me playing in the four games I have played, I learned from them, so those four games were a learning experience. I just have to move forward and protect my craft.”
Dantzler has permitted four touchdowns and a passer rating of 134.5. He’s allowed a play of 24 yards or longer in each game he’s played. As for Gladney, he’s allowed three scores, a 143.8 passer rating and a play of 28 yards or longer in four of his five games started.
The rookie woes have come from a combination of coverage busts and a lack of assertiveness. Zimmer thought the most recent performance, a lowly 40 points allowed to the winless Falcons, was an example of the latter.
“I think it was just guys playing unsure,” he said. “It really wasn’t coverage lapses. There wasn’t hardly any busts. We just didn’t challenge them enough. There wasn’t really much of that. The one play on the scramble that Gladney gave up, he saw the quarterback running, he had the guy and started to come off and then all of the sudden he tried to get back, and by that time it was too late. The long ball down the sideline on Dantzler, he didn’t get into the receiver. There was a couple times we were way too far away from the receivers and give up easy catches. We didn’t contest any balls. That was disappointing.”
On the bright side, both Dantzler and Gladney have shown a proclivity for making tackles in space and helping with the team’s perimeter run force. Gladney, for instance, leads the league in tackles against the run with 13. But the progress in that area gets vastly offset by monster plays over the top that have been far too frequent.
DEPTH COULD BE A STRENGTH DOWN THE ROAD
Play things forward a year and there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. All six cornerbacks presently on the roster are likely to be back in 2021. Hughes and Hill could be battling for second contracts, Gladney, Dantzler and Hand should be a year more refined with a more normal off-season under their belt, and Boyd will remain a trusty depth option.
While the Vikings are still waiting for a clear starting group to emerge, they are getting their young corners valuable experience that should help inform future decisions, even though it’s costing the Vikings more immediate success.
Minnesota can probably hold off on selecting another early-round corner in the 2021 draft, which opens things up for them to address more pressing needs.