When the Minnesota Vikings selected Mike Hughes in the first round of the 2018 draft, they had Xavier Rhodes at the peak of his powers. They also had used their 2015 first-round pick on Trae Waynes and a 2016 second-rounder on Mackensie Alexander. The Vikings needed offensive line help and could have used an extra linebacker; the Baltimore Ravens would take Lamar Jackson two picks after Hughes. Still, Mike Zimmer insisted that the Vikings take another corner.
After the Vikings drafted Hughes, Zimmer said, “A famous old coach called me this morning,” and told Zimmer that he had made the right pick. I didn’t tap Zimmer’s phone, but it’s safe to say he was talking about Bill Parcells, his longtime friend and coaching mentor.
“[He] said that one of the reasons he likes me is because he understands that you can never have too many cornerbacks,” Zimmer said. “There’s a commercial on TV right now where the lady asks this guy how many guns he needs, and he says, ‘Just one more.’ That’s how we feel about corners — just one more. So as many times as we can find guys that can cover around here, the more we want.”
I’m not familiar with the commercial Zimmer is referencing, nor do I want to wade into the gun debate. Instead, I’d like to ask what’s going on with Minnesota’s cornerback situation. The Vikings spent a lot of draft capital on corners. In 2020, they took Jeff Gladney in the first round and Cameron Dantzler in the third. Last year, the new regime picked Andrew Booth Jr. in the second round. Still, Minnesota’s cornerback depth chart lacked many of their high-end picks by the season’s end.
- Patrick Peterson (32): A Hall of Fame veteran with more left in the tank than the Arizona Cardinals thought when they released him. However, he may be exiting his prime.
- Duke Shelley (26): A 5’9” fireball the Chicago Bears probably regret releasing, Shelley came on late in the season. Still, he’s not a surefire CB1 entering next season.
- Chandon Sullivan (26): The former Green Bay Packers corner played in all 17 games but left something to be desired.
- Cameron Dantzler (24): Limited to 10 games (nine starts) due to injury, Dantzler continues to flash talent. However, Shelley surpassed him on the depth chart. Dantzler remains one of Minnesota’s most perplexing and inconsistent players.
- Kris Boyd (26): Minnesota’s seventh-round pick in the 2019 draft, Boyd is hardly a shutdown corner. However, he’s become an effective special teams player.
- Andrew Booth Jr. (22): The Vikings got Booth, a talented corner out of Clemson, in the second round because of his injury history. Unfortunately, he only played in six games (one start) and had knee surgery after the New England Patriots game in Week 12.
The Vikings don’t have a ton of depth at corner, despite all the draft capital they used on the position. There’s no guarantee Peterson is back, and his days as a bona fide CB1 may be coming to an end. Shelley deserves to be part of Minnesota’s plans, but they shouldn’t try to overextend him. And Dantzler probably will keep getting a shot because he continues to show promise, but he hasn’t proven to be a reliable corner yet. After that? They’ve got some work to do.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will likely address the position in free agency and draft a corner (or two). However, he probably won’t focus on the position as much as Zimmer and Rick Spielman did. Zimmer was a defensive coach in a passing league. He decided to counter the league’s best quarterbacks by locking down their targets and creating pressure with the front four.
But the Vikings only have five picks entering the draft, and they may be more inclined to draft a potential WR2 or Kirk Cousins’ successor with a high pick than grabbing a corner. Furthermore, Adofo-Mensah likely wants to make more than five selections and will probably implement his value strategy from last year. He effectively passed on Jameson Williams and Christian Watson by trading down twice and ended up making ten selections. Lewis Cine got hurt in London, but Brian Asamoah and Akayleb Evans made meaningful contributions this year.
Zimmer believed in loading up on corners because no team can ever have enough. But it was a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways. The Vikings emphasized drafting them when he was head coach, and only a few panned out. Adofo-Mensah will likely take multiple shots at the position later in the draft, increasing the probability of hitting on one. It’s an excellent long-term strategy, but it probably doesn’t help the team next year. Still, looking at Minnesota’s track record, why would he use top picks on the position?
- Trae Waynes (pick 11, 2015): Spent five seasons in Minnesota and made 53 starts before signing with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020. He never became a shutdown corner, and injuries hampered the latter part of his career.
- Mackensie Alexander (pick 54, 2016): He played his first four seasons with the Vikings. He signed with Cincinnati for one season, then returned to Minnesota for a year. He played one game with the Dallas Cowboys last season.
- Mike Hughes (pick 30, 2018): The oft-injured Hughes had talent but only played 24 games (7 starts) in Minnesota. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021 and the Detroit Lions last season, playing in 33 games (11 starts) after the Vikings declined his fifth-year option.
- Jeff Gladney (No. 31, 2020): Gladney made 15 starts in his rookie season, but the Vikings released him after he was indicted on domestic charges. A court found him not guilty in March 2022, and he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. However, he tragically died in a car accident in May 2022.
- Cameron Dantzler (No. 89, 2020): He’s still on the roster but remains one of Minnesota’s most mercurial players.
The list above highlights how volatile the position is and why the Vikings are where they are now. Hughes and Dantzler entered 2020 as Minnesota’s top corners, but Hughes couldn’t stay healthy, and Dantzler is inconsistent. If they had remained starters, things would be a lot different now.
Interestingly, the Vikings may be trying to reverse-engineer the issue. Instead of drafting or signing lock-down corners, perhaps they are trying to get to the opposing quarterback before he can challenge the secondary. They have requested an interview with New Orleans Saints co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. He’s lesser known than Minnesota’s other defensive coordinator candidates. Brian Flores coached the Miami Dolphins and is suing the NFL. Mike Pettine is on the Vikings coaching staff and was the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator from 2018-20. And they interviewed Seattle Seahawks associate head coach Sean Desai last year. But Nielsen offers a unique wrinkle.
Nielsen has been a defensive line coach at every stop in his career, starting with a stint at Ole Miss from 2005-07. If the Vikings hire Nielsen, it may indicate that they’re trying to make life easier on the secondary by improving the defensive line. Even if they don’t hire Nielsen, Adofo-Mensah may add to the D-line in the draft with the same intent. Regardless, cornerback is a position to watch going into next season. Because you can never have enough, even when you keep adding one more.