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The future of the Vikings, part 8: The cornerbacks

As the Minnesota Vikings head into a vital offseason, we will look at each position under a microscope. What worked? What didn’t work? What might change in 2019? What are the best and worst case scenarios? What options do they have going forward? Our series will lead up to the opening of free agency on March 13. We move on to part 8, cornerbacks…

Quarterbacks

Running backs 

Wide receivers 

Tight ends

Offensive line

Defensive line

Linebackers

Xavier Rhodes

What worked:

Opposing teams did not have a ton of success when targeting the Vikings’ shutdown corner. They threw in Rhodes’ direction 69 times with 45 completions for 470 yards (6.8 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and one interception, good for an 88.4 rating. While that isn’t quite as good as his previous two seasons (47.0 rating in 2016 and 77.4 in 2017), it’s still a solid mark, ranking 35th out of 80 corners with at least 300 coverage snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Rhodes continued to be a solid run defender, grading 25th of 77 against the run by PFF standards, and was 16th rated in tackling.

What didn’t work: 

While his coverage numbers are still above average, his coverage grade by PFF was well below average. Of 77 corners with at least 600 snaps, he ranked 70th. Why the disparity? Penalties. Only eight corners in the NFL took more penalties in 2018 than Rhodes.

The veteran corner battled injuries throughout the year, which likely played a role in some of his rough games. However, he’s consistently been one of the most penalized corners in the NFL.

Best case scenario for 2019:

Rhodes returns fully healthy and continues to be the lockdown corner he was in 2016 and 2017.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

He continues to battle nagging injuries, causing inconsistency and forcing the Vikings to scramble to fill his shoes.

Trae Waynes

What worked:

After his first two years in the NFL, it was fair to wonder what he might become, but Waynes has turned into a reliable starting corner over the past two seasons. In 2018, opponents targeted him 54 times for 7.9 yards per attempt with a 95.4 rating. Those numbers are similar to 2017, in which he gave up a 92.3 rating. Waynes was only penalized in coverage three times.

The former first-round pick’s best asset is his run defense. PFF graded him the seventh best run defender and fourth best tackler at his position.

What didn’t work: 

If the Vikings were hoping for one more step forward from their athletically-gifted corner, they were probably disappointed. Overall he graded 35th of 77 by PFF — a similar mark to his 46th ranking in 2017.

The silver lining is that, as the Vikings decide whether to give him a contract extension, they know exactly what they have.

Best case scenario for 2019:

Waynes continues to be a league-average cover corner with exceptional tackling ability.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

Opponents find ways to target him down the field more often, where he sometimes struggles to get his head around, and his numbers regress.

Mackensie Alexander

What worked:

The season began disastrously for Alexander. In the first four games, opponents completed every throw in his direction. But during the second half of the season, he proved to be a viable — if not above average — nickel cornerback. Alexander finished the year giving up just an 85.6 rating. Only one time over the final seven weeks did an opponent register a rating over 75 when targeting the former Clemson corner.

Like his cohorts, Alexander rated as one of the best run-stopping corners in the league and he picked up four sacks and eight pressures on 21 pass rushes.

What didn’t work: 

The beginning of the year can’t be completely forgotten. Opponents started the year 21-for-24 for 254 yards (10.5 yards per attempt) over the first six games. While it appeared that Alexander bought into the nickel job and fully took grasp of the job, the final handful of games are an extremely small sample size.

Best case scenario for 2019:

If Alexander carries over his play from the second half of the year, he’ll be one of the better nickel DBs in the NFL.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

If he regresses back to the player he was in the first half, the Vikings may end up being uncertain about his future.

Mike Hughes

Hughes got off to a great start with a pick-six in his first game, but overall it wasn’t an easy rookie year for the 2018 first-round pick. He gave up 21 catches on 28 targets before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. However, the UCF product made a strong impression on head coach Mike Zimmer. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take the same development path as Waynes and Alexander.

Holton Hill

The Vikings were excited to sign Hill as the top undrafted free agent. They likely didn’t expect him to be forced into a starting role at times, but they couldn’t have asked for any more than they got from Hill in Year 1. Opponents completed just 16 of 31 passes with a 67.0 rating against.

Options

— The cap-strapped Vikings  could trade either Xavier Rhodes or Trae Waynes in order to create cap room. Rhodes is set to carry a $13.3 million cap number in 2019 and Waynes is playing on his $9 million fifth-year option. With Hughes and Hill on the rise, dealing either starter might not take as much of a toll on the defense as we might expect. However, the return might not be all that impressive. Last offseason the Chiefs dealt Marcus Peters for a 2018 fourth-round pick and 2019 second-round pick.

— If the Vikings believe Waynes is an answer long term, they could sign him to a contract extension this offseason the same way they did with Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks last offseason.

— There isn’t much reason to sign another corner unless a deal was made. If they did move on from Rhodes or Waynes in exchange for draft picks, they could sign a veteran to improve the depth. Solid (and likely affordable) players set to hit the market on March 13 include: Darryl Roberts, Sam Shields, Bashaud Breeland, Jimmie Ward, Buster Skrine and Darqueze Dennard.

— It wouldn’t be surprising to anyone if the Vikings drafted a corner in the middle rounds.





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