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Zulgad: Secondary move: Patrick Peterson signing fixes mistake Vikings made last year

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Arizona Cardinals
Nov 15, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) and Buffalo Bills wide receiver John Brown (15) go up for a ball during the second half at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There was an assumption last offseason that the Vikings would address their need at cornerback by signing at least one veteran free agent. Xavier Rhodes, whose play had declined drastically, had been let go and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander left for Cincinnati as free agents. This left the Vikings with serious question marks at an importation position.

The Vikings had Mike Hughes returning but he hadn’t played a full season in his first two years because of injury. Minnesota added Jeff Gladney with its second pick of the first round and then selected Cam Dantzler in the third round.

What the Vikings lacked was the type of stabilizing veteran that coach Mike Zimmer liked to have at corner. Zimmer had been hired in 2014 largely because of his ability to coach defense and work with defensive backs. In his second season with the Vikings, Zimmer brought in Terence Newman at the age of 37 and kept him around for three years in part because he served as a coach on the field.

So it seemed odd that Zimmer was suddenly going to rely on three younger corners to be his starters. (We’re including the nickel corner as a starter.) The guess was that Zimmer thought veteran safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris could make up for the inexperience but that proved to be wrong. Hughes was lost to a season-ending neck injury after six games and while Gladney and Dantzler (when healthy) got valuable experience, they had many of the typical rookie struggles going against some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks.

Zimmer, clearly realizing he had misjudged things during a 7-9 season in which the Vikings’ defense frequently struggled, made sure he didn’t repeat the same mistake in 2021. Minnesota signed veteran corner Patrick Peterson to a reported one-year, $10 million deal on Wednesday night as free agency officially started. The Vikings had swung and missed on some of their top targets during the legal tampering period that began Monday.

Peterson’s name will generate plenty of excitement because of his accomplishments during his first 10 NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. The fifth-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Peterson had 28 interceptions in 154 games (all starts), including a career-high seven in 2012. He played in all 16 games in nine of his seasons, missing six in 2019 when he was suspended for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Peterson, who will turn 31 on July 11, went to eight consecutive Pro Bowls, has been an All-Pro three times and was named to the All-Decade Team (2010-2019) by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Peterson, Gladney and Dantzler are likely to open the season as the Vikings’ starting corners, meaning Peterson can serve as a coach on the field while also playing an important role in Zimmer’s defensive scheme. Peterson figures to have plenty of motivation as well. The Vikings face the NFC West, Peterson’s old division, playing his former team in Arizona on a yet-to-be determined date.

If Peterson has the type of season the Vikings are hoping he does, he will hit the free agent market again next March when teams have more salary cap room than the pandemic-impacted $182.5 million of 2021. The Peterson signing comes after the Vikings failed to land cornerback Shaquill Griffin, who left Seattle to sign a three-year, $44.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

So what’s the Vikings’ next move? They continue to look for help at defensive end and guard but their cap space is an issue. The Vikings have about $5.6 million in room, according to Over the Cap. Much of that will have to go toward their draft class, but more could be made available by negotiating an extension with Smith.