Inside the numbers: The future of the Vikings’ secondary

Mackey joins for the hour and opens with thoughts on the Vikings offense with Kevin Stefanski and this weekend's game in Detroit. Tom Pelissero of NFL Network checks in with news and notes from around the league. Then it's time for another Positivity Challenge for Judd, where he has to say 5 positive things about a team in town.

By ranking in the top 10 in points allowed four years in a row, the Minnesota Vikings’ defense has already broken a trend in the NFL.

Teams normally fluctuate defensively because of the importance of health and the challenge of keeping star players from leaving on the free agent market. Of the top 10 teams in points allowed in 2016, only the Vikings, Cowboys. Ravens and Patriots were at the top of the league two years later. The Giants fell from second to 23rd and Kansas City sunk from the sixth best defense to 24th between 2016 and 2018.

The Vikings join the likes of the Seattle Seahawks between 2012 and 2015,  which ranked No. 1 in points allowed four times in a row and John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens from 2008 to 2011, which ended the year in the top three in each season.

One of the reasons the Vikings have stayed at the top has been the strong play of the secondary.

Opposing quarterbacks posted just an 83.3 rating against the Vikings this season, the fourth best mark in the league. In a league where passing numbers are through the roof, opponents gained 196 yards per game against Minnesota’s defense.

But as we head into the offseason, there are still questions to be answered. He’s a stats-based look at the future of the Vikings’ secondary…

What do we make of Xavier Rhodes’ PFF grade? 

If you take just a glance at Rhodes’ advanced numbers, you might be confused. While his quarterback rating against wasn’t as outstanding as 2017, the Vikings’ veteran corner still gave up only a 88.4 rating against, ranking 34th of 82 corners with at least 300 coverage snaps. He was also graded 73rd of 79 corners.

Neither of those numbers point to him having an elite shutdown season, but the first suggests a slight dip from last year and the latter statistic might say the Vikings should be hunting on the trade market for someone to take Rhodes’ contract.

How can we make sense of the difference? Start with penalties. In the past, referees might have allowed Rhodes to get away with a little more physical play than they gave him this year. The former Florida State star was hit with nine penalties, the 11th most out of 79 and he missed some time due to injury. His three lowest games came with multiple flags.

Rhodes still only gave up 10.4 yards per catch, good for 14th in the NFL. Most of the corners ahead of him in that category like Captain Munnerlyn, Bryce Callahan and Chris Harris play in the slot where they are routinely tested with short throws.

There was a four-week stretch in which he gave up big receiving games, but over his final nine games this season, Rhodes did not have a game in which he gave up over 50 yards.

The Vikings’ top corner battled injuries throughout the year, saying at locker cleanout:

“You can’t control injuries in this game. You just can’t. I tried this season to do the most, but it happens. I’ve just got to be better at maintaining my composure, not doing too much. Maybe I was overdoing it, overworking my body this year.”

With cap hits of $13.4 million, $12.9 million and $14.1 million over the next three years, the Vikings will hope to get a better performance out of Rhodes in the future than they had in 2018, but it wasn’t anywhere close to as poor as his PFF grade would suggest.

Did Mackensie Alexander take the next step?

Through the first six weeks of the season, it appeared the Vikings may have made a mistake in trusting Alexander with the nickel corner position. He allowed 21 receptions on 24 targets to start the year, but saw a remarkable turnaround in the last seven weeks. The 2016 second-round pick gave up just 12 catches on 25 targets and had five pass breakups in the final three weeks. In six of the seven games, he gave up 10 total yards or less and received a PFF grade over 70 in all but one game.

Head coach Mike Zimmer indicated that he had seen growth from Alexander, saying:

“He’s done a lot better lately,” Zimmer said Thursday. “Probably the second half of the season. I think that’s why we’ve gotten better defensively is that position has gotten much more solidified. He’s done a good job in the running game, he’s had a couple nice pressures and he’s covered pretty well. Earlier in the year he was kind of like Xavier [Rhodes] getting penalties but he’s gotten away from that. That’s helped a lot.”

We can’t often trust small samples and half-seasons, but Alexander appears to be following the same growth pattern as his fellow high draft pick corners by making a significant jump in Year 3. He appears to be a long-term answer at nickel corner.

Will the Vikings lock into Trae Waynes long term? 

One area where the Vikings have a big advantage with Waynes is his tackling. PFF grades him as the fourth best tackling corner in the NFL in 2018 and seventh best against the run. In the passing game, he was about the same in 2018 as in 2017. Overall he was graded 34th of 79 corners and 44th in terms of quarterback rating allowed this season. Last year he was 46th and 42nd, respectively.

As the sample grows, it appears the Vikings have a mid-pack cover corner with top-notch ability against the run. The question will be about his value on the market. This year Waynes is set to make $9 million on the cap playing on his fifth-year option. On the open market he could demand anywhere between $10 million and the $14 million that Rhodes made in 2018.

While many speculated that the drafting of Mike Hughes was meant to put pressure on Alexander, it might have also been about a long-term solution if the team would prefer to move on from Waynes.

What did budding CBs Mike Hughes and Holton Hill show in their debuts? 

Before suffering an ACL tear, opposing offenses took advantage of Hughes’ inexperience, completing 21 of 28 throws in his direction for 12.4 yards per catch. He did have a Week 1 pick-six against the 49ers. Zimmer appeared pleased with his progress in the slot and as an outside corner, but it’s hard to tell from his grades and coverage stats whether he could take the next step in 2019.

Again, small sample, but Hill showed a lot of potential in Year 1. He gave up just a 67.0 rating against, allowing 16 catches on 31 targets, picking off one pass and giving up one touchdown. At 6-foot-3 and with natural playmaking ability, Hill gives Zimmer another young corner with length who could ultimately become a significant player in the future. He will need more experience before the Vikings can be confident that he’s going to reach full potential.

Is Anthony Harris a permanent answer at safety? 

If you gave Vikings fans 10 guesses before the season who the highest rated defensive player by PFF would be in 2018, nobody would have guessed Anthony Harris. Well, that’s what happened. Naturally his play was boosted by playing alongside Harrison Smith, but Harris’s high marks for run defense and tackling speak to his own strength as a safety who can step up and make an important stop. He picked off three passes and did not allow a touchdown.

As the Vikings look for areas to save cap space, it would make sense to turn to Harris rather than keeping Andrew Sendejo at his $5.1 million cap it. While Sendejo was better than most gave him credit for, he’s also into his 30s now and did not have a strong start to the season.

Bottom line

Most defenses fall off because they are unable to keep top talent or develop talent to replace players who are past their primes or leave in free agency. The Vikings have clearly made an effort to have a pipeline beyond their two star corners that could allow them to ultimately let one or both leave and not fall off the map defensively. However, in 2019, it’s most likely that Hughes and Hill will again be depth for Rhodes and Waynes. The Vikings will have to hope that Rhodes can get healthy and return to 2017 form. If he does get back to full strength, they have a shot at getting back to the top spot in points and yards allowed.