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Vikings counting on Patrick Peterson, veteran cornerbacks to help get defense back on track

NFL: Minnesota Vikings OTA
Jun 9, 2021; Minnesota Vikings defensive back Patrick Peterson (7) and wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) participate in drills at OTA at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings will open training camp Wednesday at TCO Performance Center. For the next four days, SKOR North’s Judd Zulgad will exam a topic that figures to impact Mike Zimmer’s team. The fourth installment involves the cornerback position.

As much success as Mike Zimmer has had developing cornerbacks during his coaching career, the Vikings’ decision to enter last season with so many inexperienced players at such an important position seemed to be tempting fate.

Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, along with nickel corner Mackensie Alexander, had been allowed to walk after being the Vikings’ regular corner trio in 2019. The Vikings took Jeff Gladney (15 starts as a rookie) with their second pick of the first round, Cameron Dantzler (10 starts) with a third-round selection and also hoped 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes could stay healthy.

It was a significant gamble that didn’t work.

Hughes played in four games before a neck injury again ended his season. Gladney and Dantzler experienced what should have been expected growing pains and the Vikings finished 27th in the NFL in total defense and 25th against the pass. Kris Boyd, Holton Hill, Chris Jones and Harrison Hand also were asked to do more than they should have been.

The Vikings learned their lesson. General manager Rick Spielman and Zimmer made significant changes at the corner spot this offseason as they overhauled the defense.

Veteran Patrick Peterson signed a one-year, $8 million contract after playing his first 10 seasons with Arizona; Alexander returned on a one-year, $1.128 million deal after spending last season in Cincinnati; and Bashaud Breeland agreed to a one-year, $3 million contract after spending two seasons with Kansas City.

Dantzler likely will compete with Breeland for playing time, while Alexander should have an opportunity to play inside in the nickel defense as he did before his departure. Alexander played in 55 games, starting 10, after being a second-round pick of the Vikings in 2016.

Peterson is easily the biggest name among this group, but it remains to be seen what type of player the Vikings are getting. The fifth-overall selection in the 2011 draft, Peterson turned 31 on July 11 and is coming off a season in which his overall grade from Pro Football Focus fell to 55.2, the lowest since his rookie season.

Peterson started all 16 games in 2020 and had three interceptions and 61 tackles. That’s the most since his rookie season. He was targeted 79 times and surrendered 53 catches, according to Pro Football Reference. This included five for touchdowns. Peterson was an ironman throughout his time in Arizona — he started all 16 games in nine of his 10 seasons — but did miss six games in 2019 after he violated the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

There are a couple of ways this could go for the Vikings and Peterson. The first is that he’s a veteran in decline and time has caught up to him. The second is that he turns into the new version of what Terence Newman became in the Vikings’ secondary under Zimmer. Newman came to the Vikings in 2015 having played 12 seasons, including several under Zimmer when he was a defensive coordinator.

Despite being in his age 37 season when he arrived, Newman only missed one game over three years in Minnesota and made 33 starts. Newman no longer had the same skill set he did earlier in his career, but he made up for that by using his veteran savvy playing in Zimmer’s complex defense. He also helped his younger teammates in the secondary.

If Peterson ends up starting with Breeland and Alexander (the nickel corner is basically a starter these days), Zimmer will have guys with a combined 22 years of experience, 316 games and 262 starts. The Vikings opened last season with Hughes and Dantzler starting outside and Holton Hill entering the mix in the nickel package. Those three entered that game with a combined four years of experience, 24 games and nine starts.

Breeland, who did not sign with the Vikings until June, sat out minicamp after undergoing shoulder surgery following the Chiefs’ loss to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. It’s uncertain if he will be on the practice field when training camp opens Wednesday.

The Vikings will have 11 cornerbacks on their roster entering camp, although Gladney’s future remains uncertain. He did not participate in the team’s offseason program after being charged with third-degree felony family assault. He was accused of assaulting a woman last April in Dallas. Gladney’s case was scheduled to be presented last Thursday to a grand jury in Dallas County.

The Vikings will return guys such as Boyd and Hand to compete with Amari Henderson, Dylan Mabin, Parry Nickerson and Tye Smith.

The good news for Zimmer is he won’t have to expect as much from his young and inexperienced players as he did at this time last year.