Last season the Minnesota Vikings felt good about their secondary. After years of development, Mike Hughes and Holton Hill were ready to become weekly starters. And with Cameron Dantzler, Kris Boyd, and Harrison Hand behind them, the Vikings figured there would be growing pains and enough depth if things went haywire.
However, the whole plan unraveled when Aaron Rodgers showed up in Week 1. Dantzler, Boyd, and Hand eventually were able to handle bigger roles, but the lack of veteran leadership made for a rocky situation in the secondary.
“Not being able to learn from some of these older guys [last year], it’s just being thrown into the fire,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said on Thursday. “They’re trying to catch up all the time.”
This was a big reason why the Vikings signed Patrick Peterson last offseason. By putting an eight-time Pro Bowler on the roster, conventional wisdom indicated that Peterson would mentor Minnesota’s young corners. On the first day of camp, we’re getting a sense of how that could play out.
During his time with the Arizona Cardinals, Peterson learned from a veteran secondary that included Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, and Rashad Johnson. Although Peterson had the pedigree coming out of LSU, he quickly learned what it was like to be a professional and how to become a student of the game.
“With me being a top-five draft pick, I was always relying on my athletic ability,” Peterson recalled. “Once I started studying film and having the right practice habits, the game started to slow down for me.”
For the corners on the Vikings roster, the lessons Peterson learned remain the same. Minnesota struggled on the back end last season, allowing 7.3 net yards per attempt (second in the NFL) and 30 passing touchdowns (ninth). While having a veteran like Peterson may not solve all their problems, having someone that has experience could help the rest of the secondary become more comfortable on the field.
“A lot of guys can get in the game, and they can be a deer in the headlights,” Peterson said. “But if you understand what’s coming at you, the game will slow down for you.”
That’s one of the biggest goals that Peterson is entering his first season in Minnesota. While he’s spent time with the corners teaching them the intricacies of how receivers run routes, he has also shown them how to work off the field by studying film and taking care of their bodies.
It’s a lesson that Peterson continues to learn heading into his 30s. Peterson chose the Vikings last season in large part to Zimmer’s reputation as a defensive backs guru. By learning from Zimmer, Peterson believes he can pay it forward to the rest of the secondary.
“When a coach is able to coach up a veteran and a veteran is able to take that in, that gives those young players a kind of enlightenment that everybody’s coachable,” Peterson explained. “[Zimmer is] not just coaching up the young guys. If you’re able to take that coaching and apply it on the field, you’ll be a much better player.”
The tutelage goes beyond what Peterson brings to the team. With the addition of fellow veterans Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander, a player like Dantzler or Boyd can look around and see how the older players conduct themselves and try to mimic that on the field.
If the younger corners can take it in, Peterson’s value to the team will go beyond his performance on the field. His trainer told Peterson that it’s part of his responsibility to help the next generation of players, which Peterson has not taken lightly.
“You don’t want to walk away from the game with all this knowledge and not be able to give it back,” Peterson said. “That’s what I want to do. I want to continue helping these guys. Any nuggets or tidbits I can give them to help the team, the better.”