Holton Hill was expected to drop in last year’s draft. He wasn’t expected to get passed over by all 32 teams for seven straight rounds. But all three days of the 2018 draft came and went without the explosive Texas University cornerback being selected.
He had projected as high as a fourth-round pick, but dropped out of the draft because of off-field issues. Hill was suspended by the Longhorn program and reportedly failed a drug test at the NFL Combine. The 6-foot-2 cornerback joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent, unsure if he would win the final cornerback spot on the roster.
Now with 16 games and three starts under his belt Hill has put himself in position for more playing time next year. In 213 coverage snaps, Hill allowed just 16 catches on 31 targets and a 67.0 quarterback rating against. Meanwhile all the 2018 seventh-round picks combined started two games.
His solid debut season puts the Vikings in an interesting spot.
Between proven starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes alone, the Vikings are set to spend around $22.5 million in cap space in 2019, according to OverTheCap. On the other hand, starting nickel corner Mackensie Alexander, 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes and Hill only take around $4 million in cap space combined.
When the offseason officially begins, the Vikings are set to have about $11 million in space unaccounted for and Rhodes’ $13.4 million hit is the third biggest on the team, only behind Kirk Cousins and Danielle Hunter.
There are certainly moves the team can make to create space like restructuring the contracts of Everson Griffen and Kyle Rudolph and cutting guard Mike Remmers and safety Andrew Sendejo, but there are also things on the offseason checklist that will be costly, including a new contract for Adam Thielen and filling open spots on the offensive line, at three-technique defensive tackle and potentially linebacker.
Hill’s strong performance could give the Vikings the option to move on from either Rhodes or Waynes and use that cap space to fill bigger needs.
While the success of the ex-Longhorn came in a small sample, he was the fifth highest graded rookie with at least 100 coverage snaps and allowed the third lowest QB rating against.
Among all NFL corners with more than 100 passing snaps, he graded 23rd in coverage, while Waynes was graded 62nd of 131 and Rhodes 111th.
Hill was 11th in rating allowed, while Waynes ended the year 69th and Rhodes 53rd.
Of course, these numbers and grades aren’t apples to apples. Hill’s comes in a much smaller sample size and a major part of Rhodes’ grade comes in the fact he was the 10th most penalized corner in the league last year. Not to mention that both starters battled injuries.
But Mike Zimmer’s defense seems to make corners into kings. After two years of struggling to get on the field, Alexander had a strong finish, ending the year 32rd by PFF. And Hughes showed the potential to make a quick jump when he returns from an ACL injury in his rookie year.
The argument to move on from either starter would be an economic one, not a choice based on either player’s skill. The Vikings will have to ask themselves: What is the difference defensively between having Hill or Hughes in a starting outside spot over either Rhodes or Waynes? If the expected production is close, there is a good case to look for trade options.
Corners are at a premium around the league, so there would presumably be interest in both players. Cutting Rhodes is not a good option with his dead cap hit of $7.2 million, but Waynes could be handed walking papers with zero hit on the cap.
There are a handful of free agent corners who could fill out the depth spots at a much cheaper price if the Vikings were willing to hand the keys over to the young corners. Players like Bashaud Breeland and Darryl Roberts could act as reasonably-priced depth.
This type of move might not have been a consideration in the past because of the Vikings’ commitment to winning with defense. Zimmer has said that he can never have too many corners. But that tune could be altered a bit by the results of this season and the last several years.
The final four teams left rank either No. 1 or No. 2 in scoring. Last year the final teams standing were second and third and in 2016 it was the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked scoring teams in the NFL in Atlanta and New England. In order to compete and give Cousins everything he needs to get the Vikings into that category, it might mean sacrificing something on the back end.
If Hill hadn’t been able to step in so quickly, the Vikings wouldn’t have much flexibility. But their boom-or-bust move to sign him was a hit in Year 1 and it appears there is more room to grow for the 21-year-old defensive back.
There are numerous benefits to hanging onto everyone. Hughes and Hill could become rotational players and about the highest caliber of spot starter that any team in the NFL has to its name. It could allow one more year for both players to develop and a much larger sample size of which to draw conclusions from.
Whether they make a big splash move by dealing a corner or not may depend on whether the organization feels it has been backed into a win-now spot in which they have to become an elite offense. If they do see 2019 as a window-closing type of season, then relying on young players to hold down cornerback positions in order to go all-in on the offensive side might be just the risk the Vikings decide to make this offseason.