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The future of the Vikings, part 6: The secondary

In the lead up to free agency and the NFL Draft, we will look at what happened in 2019 and all the possible options of every Vikings position. Here we take a close look at the secondary…(all stats via PFF and Pro-Football Reference)

PART 1: Quarterbacks

PART 2: Running backs

PART 3: Wide receivers/tight ends

PART 4: Offensive line

PART 5: Defensive line

Who is playing corner? 

The Vikings have two starting cornerbacks who are set to hit free agency and another who is a candidate to be released, which leaves them with all sorts of questions at one of the sport’s most important positions. The team’s 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes and 2016 second-round selection Mackensie Alexander are both unrestricted free agents.

Waynes is coming off his worst season as a starter, allowing a 70% completion percentage against and 105.6 quarterback rating on throws his way. Over his five years as a Viking his target numbers are around league average at 62% completion percentage and 91.3 rating against. Here’s how he ranked by PFF standards since becoming a starter in 2016:

— 43rd of 83 corners in 2019

— 34th of 75 in 2018,

— 47th of 75 in 2017

— 59th of 75 in 2016

Considering that average corners demand somewhere in the ballpark of an average annual value of $8-$10 million like Chicago’s Prince Amukamara ($9.0 million) or Indianapolis’s Pierre Desir ($7.5 million), it would be difficult for the Vikings to spend that much on Waynes when they are short on cap space.

Alexander is in a similar boat. Last year he was a mid-pack nickel corner, allowing a 90.2 rating against and scoring a 65.7 PFF grade — a significant drop from his solid 2018 season in which the ex-Clemson star managed a strong 78.1 grade and 85.6 QB rating.

While Alexander qualifies as mostly a success story, developing into a solid player at a key position in Mike Zimmer’s defense, he resisted the role at first and may be interested in searching for a job as an outside corner elsewhere. He might be a better bargain than Waynes simply because outside corners are oft overpaid but the price for nickel corners is quickly increasing with their positional value. Last year nickel DB Justin Coleman signed with the Lions for a deal worth $9.0 million per year. The Vikings certainly can’t afford to spend in that range for Alexander.

And then there’s Xavier Rhodes. Once the player that Zimmer could hold up as one of his best works as a master of defensive back growth, Rhodes struggled more than nearly every other player at his position in the NFL this year. He ranked 80th of 83 corners by PFF standards, gave up the fourth worst quarterback rating against in the NFL and was the second most penalized corner in the league. Rhodes’s body seemed to betray him as he consistently battled injuries and lacked the burst of the 2017 version that was arguably the best shutdown corner in the NFL.

Releasing Rhodes appears to be a foregone conclusion as he’s set to carry a $12.9 million cap hit and the team can save $8.1 million by moving on.

If the Vikings do not keep Waynes, Alexander or Rhodes, they will be left with only 2018 first-rounder Mike Hughes, 2018 UDFA Holton Hill and 2019 seventh-round pick Kris Boyd on the roster. Hughes is the only one capable of playing the nickel spot.

By the end of the season, Hughes was playing as part of a cornerback rotation, partly because of Rhodes’s play and partly because he showed progress throughout the year. He suffered an ACL injury in his rookie year and needed several weeks into the ’19 season before he could return. Hughes was attacked consistently in a win over the Dallas Cowboys, giving up 11 catches on that night alone but overall he finished giving up a 93.2 rating and 63.1% completion.

No doubt Hughes will take over an opening, should the Vikings make the expected moves. Hill and Boyd are wild cards. The Vikings kept Hill despite an eight-game suspension, which shows that they were impressed by his fill-in work in ’18 but he saw little action this year with just 108 total coverage snaps. Hill fits the Zimmer mold for corners with his height and physicality, though it’s hard to believe they would trust him with an uncontested gig considering past indiscretions off the field.

Boyd is a project. He’s a high IQ player who shined on special teams but would still be considered depth for 2020.

So how will the Vikings fill another outside corner position and a nickel job?

The free agent market doesn’t have much for big game. Cowboys DB Byron Jones and Broncos corner Chris Harris — a nickel corner — are the two top names available. OverTheCap projects Jones to make around $16.5 million per year and Harris to pull in $13.5 million AAV.

Bidding wars, however, are going to be tough to win when there are 15 teams with more than $50 million in cap space and the Vikings are currently over the cap. So they might have to look under the radar for replacements. For example, Troy Hill is rated as PFF’s third best free agent at the position and Jets slot corner Brian Poole rated as the seventh best overall corner by PFF this season and gave up just a 71.6 rating on throws against.

Other possibilities include Ravens veteran Jimmy Smith, Green Bay’s Tamon Williams, Buffalo’s Kevin Johnson and Philadelphia’s Ron Darby.

Taking a corner with the 25th overall pick is an option that might frustrate fans who have seen the Vikings spend two firsts and a second on corners since 2015 but CBS Sports lists five corners as first-round picks, including Stefon Diggs’s brother Trevon, a standout at Alabama. All of the first-rounders are at least 6-foot tall, fitting Zimmer’s specs.

Will they re-sign Anthony Harris?

Of all the players the Vikings have developed during the Zimmer era, Harris is among the most impressive. He was undrafted out of Virginia and cut in his first camp. Over the last two years he’s been one of the best safeties in the NFL, tying for the league lead in interceptions and ranking as the No. 2 graded corner by PFF in ’19.

Along with his playmaking ability, Harris’s high football IQ has made him the perfect partner for Harrison Smith. When throwing toward the Vikings’ safeties this year, opponents had zero touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Harris’s performance has put him in position to make a lot of money. The top players at the position — Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, Kevin Byard and Eddie Jackson — all make north of $14 million per year.

With Smith’s cap hit at $10.7 million, that puts the Vikings in the precarious position of potentially pouring close to $25 million into the safety position if they re-sign Harris at market price. Even on a deal that features a low cap hit in the first year they would be in the upper echelon of spending teams on safeties. Only four teams spent more than $20 million there in 2019.

But what is the answer if Harris leaves?

There a number of quality safeties on the market, including PFF’s top-ranked player Justin Simmons and solid veterans Devin McCourty, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Tre Boston, Jimmie Ward and Karl Joseph.

Can they afford to take a money-saving risk by signing someone for less but hoping they fit with Smith as well as Harris? That might be the only choice if he doesn’t sign a team-friendly deal because — in unusual fashion for the Vikings defense — there isn’t anyone waiting in the wings. It appeared that player might be Jayron Kearse but he fell out of favor with Zimmer and saw his snap count reduced to only special teams. The Vikings preferred bringing back Andrew Sendejo to back up Harris to having Kearse hold down the job.

The future of the franchise

The way the Vikings handle the secondary might tell us about how they view 2020. Bringing back Harris and and investing in an expensive free agent corner (which could be Waynes or Alexander) would be clear sign that they are going all-in on the final year of Kirk Cousins’s contract and taking another big swing at winning a Super Bowl with Zimmer at the helm. If they look to their younger crop of corners like Hill and Boyd and fill in the gap at safety from the bargain bin or draft, that might suggest they are aiming to reload while continuing to be competitive.


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