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After the Minnesota Vikings made high-profile cornerback selections on the first two days of April’s draft, fifth-round pick Harrison Hand may have gotten lost in the shuffle.
First-round selection Jeff Gladney and third-round pick Cameron Dantzler were quickly ordained by the fanbase as the team’s cornerbacks of the future, leaving Hand — a lesser-known prospect who played for Baylor and Temple — as something of a footnote.
“We’re all going to have to go in there, get ready to learn, learn the plays,” Hand said the day he was drafted. “Just get used to everything and get ready to work. There’s going to be competition, you know. That’s what we’re here for.”
If you only followed the Vikings, you’d think that cornerbacks were required to be taken in the draft’s first couple rounds. Over the past seven seasons the Vikings have drafted Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes and Gladney in the first round, Mackensie Alexander in the second round and Dantzler in the third round. They also employed former first-round pick Terence Newman from 2015-18. But the reality is that lower-level prospects ascend to be impactful corners all the time.
Out of the top 50 graded cornerbacks in 2019, per Pro Football Focus, 24 were drafted in the fifth round or later — or not drafted at all. That includes former fifth-round pick Richard Sherman (arguably the best cornerback of the last decade), rising star Quinton Dunbar (undrafted) and other familiar names like Nickell Robey-Coleman (undrafted), Jason McCourty (sixth round) and Chris Harris Jr. (undrafted).
The Vikings will be counting on their lower-level picks more than ever in 2020. While they still possess first-rounders Gladney and Hughes, they also are rostering seventh-round pick Kris Boyd, undrafted corner Holton Hill and the rookie Hand — all of whom could make an impact in 2020. Despite some early talk that Hand could transition to safety, the Vikings insist they like the former Temple Owl at corner. Vikings college scouting director Jamaal Stephenson said he could potentially try out the nickel spot.
So what should the expectations be for Hand, the forgotten man in the Vikings’ record-setting 15-player draft?
“I love the fact that Harrison is a competitive corner, a guy with some size,” said Stephenson. “He’s a guy who is really smart. He’s instinctive, has good size. He worked out really well at the combine. … The measureables are there. He’s a guy who is really just scratching the surface of what he can be. He’s a young player, and we think he has a lot of upside, particularly with where we got him in the draft.”
The word “upside” can be interpreted as jargon for ‘not ready yet,’ though in fairness, few corners have been able to make significant impacts as rookies on Mike Zimmer’s defense.
While Minnesota has brought highly-touted corners along slowly in the past, they’ve usually been justified in that decision because of an established veteran above them on the depth chart — think Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn blocking the way for Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. There will be no such barricades in 2020 with Hughes and Hill, the longest tenured cornerbacks on the roster who are hardly ripened in their two NFL seasons. Both of them likely have a leg up because of their experience in the system, but neither have done enough to earn the benefit of the doubt like Waynes or Rhodes the past several seasons. If Hand is deemed ready, there’s a good chance he’ll play.
Hand’s speed is a bit suspect, however. The Vikings typically find corners that can run sub-4.50 (say what you will about Dantzler’s 4.64 at the combine, but the Vikings were convinced he runs faster based on his virtual 40 that he submitted on video). Hand ran a 4.52 at the combine. He also struggled in the three-cone (7.15) and 20-yard shuttle (4.27), yet Hand impressed with a 41-inch vertical and 133-inch broad jump that put him in the top 5% at his position.
Those metrics are indicative of an explosive player, and Minnesota is fond of Hand’s physicality, which may give him the versatility to play all over the field. Hand, who stands 6’0″ and almost 200 pounds, made a career-high 59 tackles at Temple last year, including four for loss. He transferred from Baylor to Temple after the 2018 season to be closer to his New Jersey home.
“I’d say at Temple I was involved a little bit more in the run game than I was at Baylor,” Hand said.
That physicality may serve Hand well in the role where Boyd thrived a year ago: special teams. Boyd played a team-high 303 special teams snaps with a team-leading 11 special teams tackles in his rookie season. That skillset earned him participation in all 18 games, playoffs included.
Any hopes to develop Hand into an immediate contributor may have been dampened by the league’s decision to hold virtual offseason meetings instead of OTAs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zimmer said Wednesday he believes the meetings have been going well, but he thinks defensive backs have the most to lose by not getting on the field right away.
“The defensive backs have a lot of stuff to do,” Zimmer said. “I’ve always had the opinion that you get better at covering when you’re covering somebody. It’s like playing basketball. If I play basketball every day, I’m going to get better at it. So it’s really hard when they’re by themselves and not able to work on the skill of covering a receiver. Receivers can run routes all day long and it’s pretty simple for them. Running backs, it’s pretty simple for them. But defensively because of the reactions … all those things become more difficult when you’re by yourself.”
With Hill, Hughes, Gladney, Dantzler and even Boyd, the Vikings have plenty of options before they’re required to use Hand defensively. Anything they can squeeze out of the fifth-round pick in Year 1 would be a bonus.