The Minnesota Vikings’ secondary was tough on the eyes last season. With the failed Bashaud Breeland experiment, the mothballing of Cameron Dantzler — and despite solid play from an aging Patrick Peterson — the Vikings’ defense never took off. As a result, Minnesota has a new regime and several new faces.
Even though the Vikings added Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr., there’s still skepticism over how good this group could be. But recently, Luke Kuechly said on ESPN that the Vikings could have the best secondary in the NFL.
“I think when you talk about young guys coming into the league, I think the one important thing is where do they learn from and who do they learn from,” Kuechly said. “You learn from two guys that have played at All-Pro levels for such a long time in [Peterson] and Harrison Smith. I’m excited to see some young with some old.”
Vikings fans may want to have whatever Kuechly is putting in his coffee, but he may have a point. The Vikings have two young players that could become cornerstones to their defense. With several factors in their favor, they are being put in a position to succeed.
Let’s start with the beginning of Kuechly’s comment. Having a solid support system can turn a great college prospect into a legitimate pro. The Vikings enjoyed this at wide receiver when Anthony Carter mentored Cris Carter in the early ‘90s. When Randy Moss arrived in 1998, Carter took him under his wing and helped turn him into one of the most dominant receivers in NFL history.
More recently, the torch was passed to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Thielen mentored Justin Jefferson when the Vikings traded Diggs to the Buffalo Bills, and Jefferson has become one of the best receivers in the NFL.
However, there were no mentors to learn from when Cameron Dantzler arrived during the 2020 season. Mike Hughes and Holton Hill were starters, but neither could be relied upon as great teachers. The Vikings signed Peterson last offseason, but Zimmer wouldn’t allow Dantzler to take his teachings to the field.
Thankfully, Cine and Booth will be walking into a different situation. Peterson and Smith are borderline Hall of Famers. Smith has the added bonus of 10 seasons in Minnesota, giving him the benefit of instilling the culture in his new proteges.
For Cine, this can mean learning how to use restraint on his bone-jarring hits. For Booth, it could be a quicker transition from the grab-happy tendencies of the college game to the tighter technique of the NFL. Both can learn the ropes, but it doesn’t stop on the field.
Rookie corners have entered Zimmer’s boot camp for years. Hell-bent on making sure everyone played his system, Zimmer rarely adapted to his younger players. It took until 2020 for him to use some form of Cover 2. By the end of last season, his system became antiquated even for some of the veterans.
The current coaching staff has a different approach. Ed Donatell praised the ability to teach and adapt to players during his introductory press conference, and Kevin O’Connell assured that every player will have some role on the team. The Vikings have mentioned culture relentlessly during this offseason, and it could play out in their favor.
Cine and Booth will have every chance to compete for a starting spot. If they don’t grab one, they could have a role on special teams and even have the chance to jump into the starting lineup in case of injury.
It’s something that Camryn Bynum didn’t have after playing well in two games in November. The Vikings returned him to the bench once Smith had recovered from COVID-19. It’s also something Dantzler would have appreciated after spending most of last year behind Breeland, who was one of the worst corners in the NFL.
Both of these elements will be critical for a team that needs its top rookies to succeed. Cine and Booth will not only be measured by the expectations of being top draft picks but they will also be measured by who the Vikings passed on.
Jameson Williams could have been a great addition to the Vikings’ receiver room. While selecting him with the 12th overall pick would have been a luxury, it could have been a chance to lean into the offense.
Kyle Hamilton was regarded as the top safety in this class and even had buzz as a top-five selection. The Vikings could have easily tapped into the Notre Dame connection with Smith. Instead, they decided to trade down 20 spots and select Cine.
There’s also the plethora of cornerbacks the Vikings passed on. Trent McDuffie, Kaiir Elam, Roger McCreary, and Kyler Gordon all came off the board before the Vikings traded up to the 42nd-overall pick to take Booth. If Booth’s injury history doesn’t catch up with him, he’ll still have to prove that he was the right cornerback to take out of this group.
That’s what makes this situation so enticing. If Booth and Cine can learn from their environment, it should be a quick transition to the NFL. If that happens, the Vikings’ secondary may not be the best in the league, but it definitely will be improved.