When the Minnesota Vikings were at the height of their powers under Mike Zimmer, their secondary was one of their greatest strengths. Xavier Rhodes was one of the top lockdown cornerbacks in the NFL. Trae Waynes could go stride-for-stride with any receiver. Harrison Smith was a future Hall of Famer. Andrew Sendejo, and later Anthony Harris, gave opposing offenses headaches.
But the secondary began to crumble in the final two years of Zimmer’s tenure. Maybe it was the salary cap issues that forced Zimmer to let Rhodes go. Maybe it was a slew of one-year free agents that didn’t work out. Or perhaps it was a staff that abandoned long-term development in favor of immediate success.
Whatever it was, the Vikings are trying a new strategy under Kevin O’Connell and Ed Donatell.
Like most of the roster, a lot of the faces remain the same. Smith is still patrolling the back end in the twilight of his career. Patrick Peterson, who the Vikings signed before the 2021 season, will also add veteran leadership. But behind them are a slew of young players who offer uncertainty.
Cameron Dantzler is the biggest question mark of the group. Pro Football Focus graded him 41st out of 129 cornerbacks with at least 20% of the league lead in coverage snaps last season. Still, there were moments when he cost his team.
Dantzler lost a training camp battle to Bashaud Breeland last summer and couldn’t get on the field consistently until Week 8. He also had the gaffe of the year, playing beyond the goal line on a last-second touchdown pass from Jared Goff.
Entering his third season, Dantzler has to realize his potential. Then again, the Vikings have added other options to protect themselves.
Andrew Booth Jr. has the pedigree to be an elite cornerback. He was a five-star recruit and the second-rated cornerback in the 2019 recruiting class, then backed that up on the field. A first-team All-ACC selection, Dane Brugler had Booth as his 26th-overall prospect. However, injuries left him available for the Vikings to trade up and select him with pick No. 41.
That last part is the key. Booth told reporters earlier this spring that he hasn’t felt healthy since high school when he only missed two games in four years. The Vikings will need him on the field if Dantzler falters or Peterson, 31, starts to show his age.
The rest of the secondary lies with the safeties. Although O’Connell mentioned Smith as a focal point during his introductory press conference, there is still a question as to who will be playing next to him.
Camryn Bynum graded as the Vikings’ top safety last season but only played 211 snaps. A majority of his opportunities came when Smith missed two games with COVID-19. Bynum responded with a 90 overall grade against the Baltimore Ravens and a 77.4 grade against the Los Angeles Chargers.
But there were still areas where Bynum looked like a rookie. His Week 17 performance against the Green Bay Packers was his worst outing. There also could have been other reasons why Zimmer’s staff wouldn’t let him on the field when Smith was healthy.
There’s still a chance that Bynum could be a starting-caliber player, but Minnesota’s selection of Lewis Cine makes things more interesting. Cine is a wild card in a Vikings defense that shied away from them the past two seasons. An elite-level athlete, Cine could play a role similar to the one that Jayron Kearse wasn’t allowed to play in Minnesota but thrived in once he signed with the Dallas Cowboys.
Donatell has hinted at using three safeties in his scheme. Having Cine line up all over the formation contributes to “The Illusion of Complexity” that O’Connell has preached since his arrival. Zimmer didn’t use safeties like that during his final years in Minnesota, but opposing teams will put Donatell’s scheme to the test with this year’s schedule.
The Vikings are fortunate that they don’t have to face as many elite quarterbacks as they did last season. In 2021, the secondary held on for dear life as they faced Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, Matthew Stafford, and Aaron Rodgers (twice).
The Vikings will get a reprieve this year. They still have to face Rodgers, Murray, Josh Allen, and Dak Prescott, but this year presents a different problem when looking at the receivers they’ll have to go up against.
The Vikings are likely breathing a sigh of relief that they won’t have to face Davante Adams in Week 1, but they’ll have to stay focused to contain A.J. Brown in Philadelphia. Jameson Williams might have a trip to Minnesota circled on his calendar in Week 3 before the Vikings square off with Michael Thomas in London.
Tyreek Hill will be waiting for them in Miami, and DeAndre Hopkins should be coming off suspension just in time to visit Minnesota. Terry McLaurin could help the Commanders pull off an upset in Washington. And you don’t think Stefon Diggs is going to try and hang 200 yards on the Vikings in Buffalo?
The Vikings’ schedule eases up a bit in the final stages of the season. Still, Christian Watson and Garrett Wilson are highly regarded rookies who could be turning a corner.
Put it all together and the Vikings are facing a gauntlet of receivers who belong at the top of someone’s fantasy team. For a team with this many questions in the secondary, they’ll have to figure it out quickly or risk having the same result.