The Minnesota Vikings Cornerback Situation is Better Than You Think It Is

Photo credit: Matthew Emmons (USA TODAY Sports)

One of the biggest concerns for the Minnesota Vikings going into camp was their ability to replace three starting cornerbacks. Even after adding three players in the NFL Draft, the Vikings’ stable was filled with potential. But the group only had nine NFL starts combined and its oldest player, Kris Boyd, is only 23.

Optimism seems to be spreading through the locker room, as it tends to do during training camp. With some of those new players stepping up and others returning to health, Mike Zimmer’s gamble to replace the secondary on the fly could work out better than expected.

What are the Vikings replacing at Cornerback?

When the offseason began, the cornerbacks’ room emptied out pretty quickly at TCO Performance Center. After Xavier Rhodes was a cap casualty, the Vikings weren’t able to keep fellow starting cornerback Trae Waynes and slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who both bolted to Cincinnati in free agency.

Instantly the Vikings went from having three experienced starters to praying that this would be the year that Mike Hughes stayed healthy or Holton Hill stayed out of trouble. Pundits believed that the Vikings defense, ranked perennially in the top 10 of the league, would take a step back and 2020 would be a rebuilding year.

But the question that was never asked is what did the Vikings really lose with that trio?

In the case of Rhodes, it was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL. Long known for shutting down receivers, Rhodes’ catchphrase went from “Rhodes Closed” to “Welcome to the Autobahn” pretty quickly in 2019. According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes was worst among qualifying cornerbacks by allowing 84% of his targets to be completed, and his 127.8 passer rating allowed on those targets ranked eighth.

Waynes fared better, but not in the way that he would be indispensable. Waynes could go step-for-step with anyone in the NFL, but his almost non-existent ball skills led him to just seven career interceptions in five seasons. That’s a big reason why Waynes allowed 653 yards on the season, and had he not missed two games due to injury, his numbers would extrapolate to 746 yards, which would be 10th most among qualifying cornerbacks last season.

For Alexander, his 10-week stretch in 2018 made him one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL, but for whatever reason, that didn’t carry over to 2019. His 85.7 passer rating ranked 19th among qualifying cornerbacks in the slot and a pair of injuries raised questions about his durability, which let the Vikings feel comfortable about letting him walk in free agency.

WHY SHOULD the Vikings be optimistic?

It’s not like the Vikings were losing three All-Pro cornerbacks, which made their departures easier to swallow. What is even more encouraging for Minnesota is that the players they will be relying on have done well in training camp.

Hughes is the player who the Vikings will be leaning on the most, because he has the most experience of the group with five starts. Most Vikings fans will remember Amari Cooper destroying Hughes on national television last November in one of his starts, but Hughes was good enough to replace his predecessor’s production, especially in the slot where he may be asked to start this season.

Hill is another player the Vikings will look to for a big jump, and he seems to have locked down a spot on the outside. Despite the fact that Hill graduated from being in the doghouse to being Zimmer’s favorite chew toy thanks to a pair of four-game suspensions last season, he is two years removed from ranking eighth among qualifying corners with a 67.0 passer rating allowed and would have been an upgrade over Rhodes last season.

The final player in the mix is rookie Cameron Dantzler, who many are writing in as a Week 1 starter. As a player who definitely has the size, he’s shown that his 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine was more of a bad day at the office. Although Alexander Hollins put him through the spin cycle recently, Dantler has impressed throughout camp and created his own highlight reel.

How will the Vikings start the season?

The Vikings have not assembled the Legion of Boom, but they seem to be in a much better spot than many figured them to be heading into Week 1. With Hughes potentially in the slot, the Vikings can rely on Hill and Dantzler to man the outside at least for the start of the season.

You may notice the absence of first-round pick Jeff Gladney here, but that’s what puts this scenario in the Vikings’ favor. The former TCU cornerback has been brought along slowly while recovering from a torn meniscus that he played on during the entire 2019 season. With Dantzler, Hill and Hughes stepping up, the Vikings don’t have to rush Gladney back and could use him as their ace in the hole as the season rolls along.

Yes, there won’t be much time to be acclimated as the Vikings’ rookies suit up for the first time before immediately realizing that Aaron Rodgers is in the opposite huddle. But as it stands, they’ll have two players with experience on the field, and if Dantzler can continue his upward trajectory, Zimmer will look brilliant rebuilding his corners on the fly.

Once again, the Vikings will still have their share of growing pains as the season progresses, but they at least have some knowledge of what their lineup will look like come Week 1.

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