Over the past couple weeks, Sam Ekstrom has dug into some of the biggest Vikings offseason talkers at each position.
At no position do the Minnesota Vikings have more uncertainty next season than at defensive back. With four free agents — three of them starters — and a declining veteran on the chopping block, Mike Zimmer’s once-vaunted secondary may get a whole lot younger, not to mention unproven.
With limited capital to spend on retaining free agents, the Vikings will have to make difficult choices on players they’ve employed for four or more years. Feelings could get hurt, but as the cliche goes: It’s a business.
WILL XAVIER RHODES BE RELEASED?
With his 30th birthday around the corner, Rhodes seems to be falling off the cornerback cliff. The former Vikings first-round pick graded out 119th out of 127 qualified corners last year, per Pro Football Focus. He allowed the seventh-most receptions, the fourth-highest completion percentage and the eighth-highest passer rating when targeted. Part of Rhodes’ statistical regression was by design, but that design was formulated because of Rhodes’ limitations. Zimmer asked Rhodes to stop playing press coverage and do his best not to get burned over the top, which resulted in Rhodes getting beaten on curls and comebacks. But despite the conservative strategy for the once-well-respected shutdown corner, he still gave up several deep balls, a pair of which produced touchdowns and subsequent sideline blowups.
Rhodes continued dealing with frequent in-game injuries of ambiguous severity. Rhodes started each of the season’s first 15 games but missed 20 percent or more of snaps in eight of them. Toward the end of the season, Zimmer went to a rotation at corner to keep Rhodes fresher, and his play seemed to improve marginally.
But the step back marks two consecutive years of decline for Rhodes. Zimmer said last offseason that Rhodes needed to play up to his contract, which didn’t happen in 2019. He will cost $12.9 million against the cap next season unless the Vikings part ways, which would save them $8.1 million. Unlike the team’s other contract situations with Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph — both of whom may still offer value at a lower price — Rhodes was often a liability on the field in 2019. Subpar performance even at a lower salary is still subpar performance, and the Vikings likely wouldn’t want to tolerate that again.
The Vikings still possess young assets at corner, but both have baggage. One year after tearing his ACL, former first-round pick Mike Hughes reportedly suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck and will again be on the mend this offseason. Third-year prospect Holton Hill served an eight-game suspension last year for violations of the league’s substance abuse and PED policies, putting him one misstep away from another long suspension.
Minnesota could be compelled once again to address the cornerback spot in the draft, which is far from a sure thing. But it is probably a safer bet than rolling the dice with Rhodes after a couple of taxing seasons.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER FREE AGENTS AT CORNERBACK?
Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are simultaneously hitting the open market and ready to cash in. Between those two and pending free agent safety Anthony Harris, the Vikings would be smart to retain at least one, if only to avoid a complete overhaul that makes them over-reliant on rookies or low-end free agents. Retaining two could be done, but it might impact their ability to invest elsewhere.
First, let’s evaluate what Waynes might cost. For years, fans have compared Waynes to Marcus Peters, who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round of the 2015 draft. Peters enjoyed three good years with the Chiefs before getting traded to the Rams in 2018, where he struggled. He was traded again to Baltimore, however, which ended up being a great fit as Peters played like a top 10 corner on a great Ravens team and signed a three-year, $42 million extension with the club. Peters has played at a higher level than Waynes most of his career, almost certainly putting Peters’ $14 million per year out of Waynes’ reach.
The 27-year-old may have a better case to get a Janoris Jenkins-like contract that he signed in 2016. The former second-round pick negotiated his deal at the same age Waynes is now, and while Jenkins may have played better in his contract season than Waynes did, the Vikings corner has better height, better tackling ability and better underlying metrics than Jenkins did at that time. Dre Kirkpatrick is another close comparison. Like Waynes, Kirkpatrick was a first-round pick with good speed and above-average height. He played five years with the Bengals — the last two as a full-time starter — before re-signing with Cincinnati in 2017 for five years, $52.5 million at age 27, over $10 million per year. Considering the salary cap has risen since 2017, $10 million would seem to be the floor in terms of annual salary for Waynes — the reality may be closer to $12 million.
The 26-year-old Alexander will not be as expensive, but it’s worth wondering how Alexander feels about the Vikings after the way he was handled at the end of the regular season. An already-banged up Alexander played 50 snaps in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Bears, aggravated a knee injury and was forced to have season-ending surgery on his meniscus. That operation shouldn’t affect Alexander’s value too much, however. Alexander ranked 25th out of 52 corners last year in yards per cover snap out of the slot, and he was 19th in passer rating when targeted. He posted slightly better numbers the year prior, finishing 20th out of 50 in yards per cover snap and 11th in passer rating against.
Last year’s free agency class set a fairly clear market on the nickel corner position. Justin Coleman and Bryce Callahan were both top 10 nickels in 2018 and signed multi-year deals last March. Coleman, 25 at the time, signed for four years, $36 million with Detroit, while Callahan at age 27 signed for three years, $21 million with Denver. If those two set the ceiling, Buster Skrine set the floor. The former Jets corner was coming off a horrific 2018 season in New York where he allowed a league-high five touchdowns, the third-most yards, fifth-most receptions, sixth-highest passer rating and seventh-highest yards per cover snap. He signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Bears to replace Callahan in the Chicago secondary.
It might behoove Alexander to wait a bit before signing a new deal and let another strong nickel class pave the way. Darqueze Dennard (Cincinnati) and Brian Poole (Jets) were the co-leaders in yards per cover snap last season and are both entering free agency. Ross Cockrell also hits the market after a strong year for the Panthers. With all those teams looking for nickel replacements, Alexander has options. It wouldn’t be surprising if he commands $7 million or more. But as we just laid out, there are potential replacements available to the Vikings if Alexander moves on.
If the Vikings are to pursue retaining either Wayne or Alexander, the latter seems far more likely. Not only is Alexander going to come more affordably, but he is also further away from the so-called 30-year-old cliff than Waynes.
Minnesota’s willingness to shell out may depend largely on their ability to lock up the player we’ll discuss below.
WILL ANTHONY HARRIS BE RETAINED?
There’s no free agent on the roster more talented than Harris, the sixth-year safety. Over the previous two years, Harris has allowed just 18 receptions while intercepting nine passes and ranking in PFF’s top five both seasons. He intercepted Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees last season and won the Korey Stringer Good Guy Award as the player most helpful to the media. Harris is the best safety on the free-agent market, and he’s going to get paid like it. Even though Harris will be 29 before next season, the shelf life on safeties is longer than corners, and Harris has less mileage on his body than many players his age, having made only 31 career starts. Last year, four safeties signed long-term deals in free agency worth between $10.5 million and $14 million per year. Harris’s teammate, Harrison Smith, signed for five years at $10.25 million per year back in 2016.
There are a couple of ways for the Vikings to look at this situation. If they release and/or restructure the trio of Rhodes, Griffen and Joseph, that could clear $20-30 million and give the Vikings plenty of money to spend on Harris, who would seem to be worth the investment. On the other hand, paying two safeties almost $25 million combined could be irresponsible allocation of the cap, especially if the team loses Waynes and Alexander as a result and is starved at corner. If the team still believes Andrew Sendejo, or any number of veteran free-agent safeties, is capable of starting at safety, the veteran would be available at a fraction of the cost and would still be playing next to a Pro Bowler. And how does the team prioritize safety compared to outside corner, left guard and defensive tackle, where they also need to invest?
Letting Harris walk would be an unpopular and unsavory decision for the Vikings front office, but it might be the price of retaining myriad other free agents whose contracts are already on the books.