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Zulgad: What about the offense? Vikings continue to corner the market on defense

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
Dec 21, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mackensie Alexander (21) and cornerback William Jackson (22) celebrate as the time winds down on the upset win over Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings remain without a starter at left guard or left tackle, but the offseason of Operation Improve The Defense continued on Friday as they brought back cornerback Mackensie Alexander after a one-year stay in Cincinnati.

Alexander, a second-round pick by the Vikings in 2016, agreed to terms with his former team, according to his agent Neil Schwartz. Courtney Cronin of ESPN reported Alexander is expected to sign a one-year deal that will pay the veterans minimum and include an undisclosed signing bonus.

Alexander is the second cornerback the Vikings have added since free agency opened, joining veteran Patrick Peterson, who received a one-year, $10 million deal. Alexander and Peterson are added to a cornerback group that includes 2020 draft picks Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand. Mike Hughes, the Vikings’ first-round pick in 2018, also should be in that group but he has had his past two seasons ended by neck injuries.

The Vikings finished 25th in the NFL in pass defense last season in part because of struggles in the secondary and coach Mike Zimmer, a longtime defensive coordinator, appears set on fixing those issues. The Vikings also signed free agent defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson to a two-year, $22 million contract in free agency to pair him with Michael Pierce as run-stuffing forces in the middle of the line.

The Vikings were 27th against the run in 2020 — they were also 27th in yards against and 29th in points allowed — but did not have Pierce after he opted-out for the season because of concerns about COVID-19. Pierce had received a three-year, $27 million deal from the Vikings last spring, making him the team’s most significant free agent signing in 2020. The Vikings also were without defensive end Danielle Hunter, who had season-ending surgery for a herniated disk in training camp, and lost linebacker Anthony Barr (pectoral surgery) in Week 2.

Minnesota had tried to keep Alexander when he became a free agent after the 2019 season but he decided to sign a one-year, $4 million deal with the Bengals. Trae Waynes, who had been a starting outside corner for the Vikings, also left to sign with Cincinnati at the same time. Alexander had been the Vikings’ starting nickel corner, playing in the same secondary as Waynes and Xavier Rhodes, who was released after the 2019 season and signed with Indianapolis.

Alexander, 27, had one interception in 13 games and 10 starts with the Bengals in 2021. Alexander’s return to Minnesota means there could be competition at multiple spots and Gladney might end up moving from the nickel role to the outside.

While the defense has improved, one has to wonder what the Vikings plan on doing for an offense that finished fourth in total yards and has plenty of talent at the skill positions? The interior of the offensive line hasn’t been strong in pass protection and the entire line was weakened this month when left tackle Riley Reiff was let go to create salary cap room.

The Vikings, in fact, have yet to sign an outside free agent on the offensive side of the ball, having retained running back Ameer Abdullah, wide receiver Chad Beebe and tackle Rashod Hill and traded for center Mason Cole. All are backups and unlikely to compete for a starting job. The Vikings also have brought back defensive end Stephen Weatherly and linebacker Nick Vigil.

The Vikings’ mission to improve their defense is understandable, but you have to wonder if highly paid quarterback Kirk Cousins is starting to wonder who is going to protect his blindside as he stands in the pocket and tries to find guys like Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Irv Smith Jr.?

The Vikings take pride in being able to run block for standout Dalvin Cook, but one would think they aren’t paying Cousins $31 million toward the cap in 2021 to set him up for blindside hits on a weekly basis. With the Vikings salary-cap room now limited, the odds of them finding a guard and tackle on the left side are limited.

They could look to make a trade or draft a left tackle with their first-round pick but that still leaves questions at left guard and a slight improvement on Dakota Dozier isn’t much of an improvement at all. So what will be the Vikings’ next move?

The guess here is they will continue to go on the defensive.