One by one, the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive backs have gone elsewhere.
On Wednesday, 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes signed a three-year, $42 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was followed to Cincy on Thursday by 2016 second-round pick Mackensie Alexander, who signed for one year, $4 million. Safety Jayron Kearse, a seventh-rounder in ’16, left for the Detroit Lions on a one-year contract for $2.75 million.
The changes of scenery for the three players was followed by a report Tuesday from NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport that the Vikings were looking for offers for Anthony Harris, who was franchise tagged shortly before the deadline to tag players. Rapaport reported a “mid-to-late” round pick could be the going price. Cleveland was reportedly interested but ultimately signed ex-Raider Karl Joseph, leaving Harris’s future up in the air.
The Vikings currently have only Mike Hughes and Holton Hill with previous experience at corner and Harrison Smith as the lone safety.
Pro Football Focus’s Steve Palazzolo joined Purple Daily on Thursday. He said building through the draft makes the most sense but parting with Harris would be difficult.
“It’s tough to handle that many losses all at once,” he said. “Waynes wasn’t great but he was still one of their better guys. Mackensie Alexander was a good, valuable player and Anthony Harris has been sensational at safety so losing him as well would be an issue. The Stefon Diggs trade opening up an extra first-round pick, it almost forces their hand to draft multiple corners. I think that’s the way that they go and maybe it’s, we get worse before we get better type of mentality. But it feels like that was almost inevitable for the Vikings. I think the longer term build is the way to go but I also think Anthony Harris makes sense to be a part of that build. It’s a little combination of drafting and trying to find bargain free agents with what’s left.”
Build completely through the draft
With five picks out of the first 105 players, the Vikings have an opportunity to land several of the top cornerback prospects in a draft that features numerous Zimmer-style corners likely to be picked in the mid-to-late first round such as Florida’s CJ Henderson, Trevon Diggs out of Alabama and LSU standout Kristian Foulton.
They could double down on the full re-working of the secondary by trading Harris, who is likely to garner a third-round pick in return and possibly package it with other picks they received in the Diggs deal to move up. Expected in the late-first to second are quality safety prospects like Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr., Alabama’s Xavier McKinney and LSU’s Grant Delpit.
With this plan there would no doubt be growing pains but the Vikings’ defense would be set up for 2021 and beyond with a vastly talented and young group that they could add when needed because of cap savings down the road.
The veteran/draft route
The free agent market is running out of good deals. Cleveland signed Buffalo’s Kevin Johnson to a contract on Thursday, taking one of the best bargains off the market. But there are still veterans available like Los Angeles’s Nickell Robey-Coleman, who has graded out by PFF as one of the top nickel corners in the NFL over the last three years and veterans Tramon Williams, Aqib Talib, Tramaine Brock and Jonathan Joseph. These players would likely accept one-year contracts, leaving the Vikings with an opportunity to fill holes for 2020 and develop the players they draft in late April.
A pair of veteran outside corners would allow Hughes to play inside at the nickel spot and the Vikings to figure out whether they can believe in Hill long term.
This plan could include signing Harris to a long-term contract that would lower his immediate cap number. The Harris-Smith combo played a major role in the Vikings still coming out of 2019 as a solid overall passing defense despite struggles of once-shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes.
Outside the box
The Vikings could trade Harris and Harrison Smith and bring back an impressive haul and land a bevy of top draft picks. That option does not appear likely at all as the Vikings have not made moves to tear the roster down.
They could also attempt to trade for a big-name corner. Would the Patriots consider trading Stephon Gilmore if they are going to rebuild in the post-Brady era? Would Jacksonville deal DJ Hayden as they attempt to restock their defense? The Vikings would have to create cap room but it’s not impossible for them to find veteran talent by using their picks on the market.