Which Vikings Cornerback Will Play the Slot in 2020?

Photo Credit: Noah K. Murray (USA Today Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings have seen their stable of cornerbacks fall apart and be put back together within the course of this past offseason. While losing three veterans who all played key roles could be considered a death sentence for a secondary, the Vikings have done a good job rebounding on the fly as they added a trio of young, physical cornerbacks in the NFL Draft.

But now that Mike Zimmer has new toys to play with defensively, the bigger question is how all of this is going to play out. While the outside corners are a more traditional position for cornerbacks to play, the slot has seemed to require some time to learn in Zimmer’s defense, making the departure of Mackensie Alexander a big one heading into 2020.

After a slow start to his career, Alexander began to find his niche as the slot corner after three years in Zimmer’s system. The first month of the 2018 season was brutal for Alexander, but the lightbulb came on after Week 6, where he limited opposing passers to a 59.1 passer rating and 50% completion rate when targeted over the Vikings’ final 10 games.

While Alexander took a step back last season, allowing a 96.0 passer rating to go along with a 71% completion rate, he was a key piece of the defense that walked out the door, leaving Zimmer to find someone to play that role at a high level.

When looking at the Vikings’ roster, there are several names that wouldn’t make sense to stick in the slot. Third-round pick Cameron Dantzler played just nine snaps in the slot at Mississippi State this past fall and his 6-foot-2, 188-pound frame produced a 40-yard dash of 4.64 at the NFL Scouting Combine. With the Vikings hoping he adds muscle, he’s probably out of the running.

The same goes for Kris Boyd and Holton Hill, who are both bigger corners that the Vikings would like to develop on the outside. By process of elimination, that leaves a pair of first-round picks in the mix, 2018’s Mike Hughes and 2020’s Jeff Gladney.

At first glance, Gladney seems to be the player that the Vikings would love to stick in the slot. At 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds, he’s eerily similar in size to Alexander, who stands at 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds. His playing style also seems to match as he always finds a way to stick to a receiver and not allow him to get the ball.

Playing on the boundary in the wide-open Big 12 Conference, Gladney didn’t let many receivers get a clean release. Pro Football Focus charted 75% of his targets with tight coverage and led the nation with 46 contested targets. Basically, if Gladney is on a receiver, he is stickier than velcro.

The Vikings also see Gladney’s speed as a weapon. While Gladney ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, he did that on a torn meniscus to show coaches how tough he is. Gladney was clocked in the 4.3-second range during his junior season, so the Vikings probably think that he’s more of a fit to keep up with the burners in the middle of the field.

With that scouting report, it’s clear that Gladney checks all of the boxes to play in the slot, but experience is an issue. PFF charted Gladney with just 37 snaps in the slot at TCU, and with the lack of a traditional, on-field OTAs and minicamp, the chance to learn that position doesn’t seem to be possible.

That would seem to open the door for Hughes, whose first two years in the NFL has provided a bunch of up-and-down experiences.

In Hughes’ rookie season, the Vikings toyed with the idea of playing in the slot just to get him on the field with Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes manning the outside. When the Vikings decided to give Hughes a look, the results weren’t impressive prior to suffering a multi-ligament knee injury in mid-October.

Upon his return last season, Hughes continued to have some inconsistent moments, but a positive was his play in the slot. Seeing some more time at the position with the Vikings rotating corners, Hughes’s performance not only improved compared to his work in his rookie season but was much better than when he played on the outside.

2018 in Slot 2019 in Slot 2019 on Outside
Coverage Snaps 42 103 223
Completion rate allowed 9-for-10 (90%) 11-for-18 (61.1%) 30-for-47 (63.8%)
Yards allowed 80 41 421
TD/INT 1 TD/ 0 INT 0 TD / 0 INT 3 TD / 1 INT
Passer rating when targeted 152.1 70.4 105.0

The Vikings would probably like to see Gladney be the long-term answer in the slot, but his development will take time, much like when Alexander took over for the combination of Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn.

With the Vikings needing impact players right away, it might be better to ask Gladney to do what he’s comfortable with and hope Hughes has recovered from a broken vertebra suffered last January. If Hughes is ready to go, Gladney could pair with Dantzler, Hill or whomever the Vikings deem ready to man the opposite corner as they rebuild their defense on the fly.

The Vikings secondary may not be “The Legion of Boom” when it hits the field in 2020, but keeping guys where they’re comfortable could be a key to resisting a drop-off.

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