Where's the Recent Return on Investment at Cornerback?

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)

When you share a division with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, you better make damn sure you have competent play in your secondary. No one can argue against the Minnesota Vikings’ urgency and desire to field a top-notch secondary. Since Mike Zimmer became the head coach in 2014, they have spent three of their eight first-round draft picks on the cornerback position (Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes, and Jeff Gladney). Even though Zimmer inherited 2013 first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes, the former Florida State corner thrived in Minnesota’s defense — for the most part.

While cornerback has been a longtime strength of the Zimmer era in Minnesota, the past two seasons have been a far cry from the domination we’ve been accustomed to. Furthermore, when you consider that the Vikings have had four different first-round draft picks at cornerback over the past two seasons, the struggles are that much more puzzling. Below is a table of Minnesota’s former first-round corners and what their completion percentages and passer ratings were when targeted since 2019.

Cornerback Completion Percentage Passer Rating
Jeff Gladney (’20) 70.5% 118.1
Mike Hughes (’20) 75.0% 126.3
Mike Hughes (’19) 61.2% 91.9
Trae Waynes (’19) 74.0% 107.9
Xavier Rhodes (’19) 81.5% 123.8

Granted, Gladney’s past season is excusable, given that it was his rookie year. Would it have been nice to see the Vikings’ 2020 first-rounder come away with just a single turnover? Absolutely. Per Pro Football Focus, Gladney spent 55.2% of his 958 rookie snaps operating as the nickel back. With Mackensie Alexander‘s return — who has been strictly a nickel back throughout his entire NFL career — it’ll be interesting to see where Gladney finds his niche this season, whether it’s inside or outside. Despite being overmatched and largely overwhelmed in his first season in the big leagues, we’ll give Gladney the benefit of the doubt that he’ll make a sizable leap in Year 2.

Since entering the league, Hughes has battled the injury bug. After returning from a torn ACL in 2018, his rookie year, Hughes bounced back in a big way with a productive sophomore season in which he played 14 games. Hughes’ 2019 is the lone outlier season of borderline-successful cornerback play out of Minnesota’s former first-rounders over the past two seasons, making his recurring injury issues from this past season — this time with his neck — that much more frustrating. Even though Hughes was allowing a career-worst completion percentage and passer rating before being shut down after four games this past season, 2019 provides Vikings faithful with a reason for optimism if Hughes can have a clean(er?) bill of health. With the Vikings declining Hughes’ fifth-year option in 2022, this coming season will prove critical for the 2018 first-rounder.

Before signing a three-year, $42 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2020 offseason, 2015 first-rounder Trae Waynes struggled during his final season with the Vikings in 2019. Following arguably his best season in 2018 — opposing quarterbacks recorded a passer rating of 85.5 when targeting Waynes — they went after him early and often in 2019. He was targeted a whopping 98 times, up from 58 the year prior, and allowed an abysmal completion percentage of 74% on those 98 targets over 14 games. After five years in Minnesota on his rookie contract, Waynes was unable to play a snap for the Bengals in 2020 after suffering a torn pectoral.

Only one question comes to mind regarding the play of Xavier Rhodes in 2019 and his final season in Minnesota: How in the world did he get elected to the 2019 Pro Bowl after allowing a completion percentage of 81.5% on 81 targets and a passer rating of 123.8? For a position whose primary responsibility is preventing completions when opposing quarterbacks decide to throw at you, nobody should be celebrating that sort of inefficiency.

What’s interesting about Rhodes is that after the Vikings (and the rest of the NFL, for that matter) essentially discarded him, forcing him to sign a one-year, $3 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts, he immediately returned to peak form, allowing a far more respectable 51.9% completion percentage and 84.5 passer rating in 2020. Rhodes decided to re-up with Colts this offseason on a one-year, $6 million contract.

The Patrick Peterson signing last week confirmed what both Peterson and the Vikings already knew long before Peterson’s agent, Joel Segal, got Vikings GM Rick Spielman on the phone. The Vikings and their once-upon-a-time cornerback whisperer head coach are desperate for a major boost at the position in this let’s-do-just-enough-not-to-get-fired 2021 season. Whether Zimmer can revitalize Peterson, who’s coming off an age-30 season that saw him allow a completion percentage of 67.1% and a 98.2 passer rating, remains to be seen.

Stats provided by Pro Football Reference.

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