In what's either going to be our last or second-to-last look at the current Minnesota Vikings roster and what they could be doing going forward, we move to the defensive backfield. This unit may have made the biggest strides of any group on the team in their first season under head coach Mike Zimmer, and it appears that they could have some real promise for the future. However, there's also a pretty good chance that Zimmer is looking to add even more talent to the back end of the Minnesota defense.
We'll start at the cornerback position, and when you look at the Vikings' cornerbacks, you have to start with Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes was a player that NFL.com designated as ready to make "the leap" in 2014, and for the most part he did just that. He got off to a bit of a slow start on the season, but by the end of the year he was doing a very good job of locking down the opponent's best receiving target. He pretty much erased Jordy Nelson, Calvin Johnson, and Alshon Jeffery in games down the stretch, and really transformed himself into one of the better cover corners in the NFL. The main issue with Rhodes appears to be injuries. Honestly, it seems like there's a stretch in every. . .single. . .game where I have to mention something about Rhodes being looked at on the sidelines for something. He generally doesn't stay out for extended stretches, but he does have to spend more time with Certified Athletic Trainer Eric Sugarman™ than we might like. All that aside, though, Rhodes is the best cornerback the Minnesota Vikings have had in a very long time, and hopefully we will see him continue to develop next season.
The team brought Captain Munnerlyn into the fold on the first day of free agency last season, and he had a very up-and-down season. He was a starter at cornerback, and slid down to the slot in nickel situations (with Josh Robinson coming in at the outside corner spot). He wasn't as great in coverage as many had hoped he would be, and admitted after the season that he did too much of his own thing and should have "listened to Mike Zimmer more." Gee, you know, that's probably a pretty good idea. Ideally, the Vikings would upgrade at the cornerback spot this off-season and allow Munnerlyn to move to the slot full-time. We'll have to see how that works out.
In 2013, the Vikings attempted to make Josh Robinson their primary slot cornerback, and to put it mildly, he was a dumpster fire. He got beaten repeatedly in the Leslie Frazier/Alan Williams defense, and expressed in interviews how much he hated playing in the slot. The Vikings didn't make him do that in 2014, and he looked a lot more like the player he was as a rookie in 2012. He had one truly disastrous game at Soldier Field (where the Bears' game plan was, basically, figure out where Xavier Rhodes is and throw in the other direction), but there was significantly more good than bad in Robinson's game in 2014. An upgrade at the corner spot would drop Robinson down the depth chart going into a contract year, but really. . .a secondary where Josh Robinson is your #4 cornerback should be a pretty good one.
The other cornerback on the squad was seventh-round rookie Jabari Price, who didn't get a whole lot of action. The team seemed to be pretty high on Price, but a post-season DWI might sour them on him a little bit. Still, he's going to get an opportunity to hang on to his roster spot in camp this coming season, but if the Vikings draft a cornerback early, he might have a hard time sticking in 2015.
Marcus Sherels and Shaun Prater were both on the roster last season, but with a combined 17 snaps on defense (12 for Sherels, 5 for Prater), neither of them got a chance to do much. Prater might have a hard time sticking with the team in 2015, and if Sherels is back, it will be for his special teams prowess only.
Moving on to the safeties, the Vikings have one of the NFL's best in Harrison Smith. After a 2013 that was marred by injuries, Smith missed just 12 defensive snaps all season in 2014. . .and eight of those came in the season opener in St. Louis, a game that was a Vikings' blowout. Seriously, the list of safeties in the National Football League that are better than Harrison Smith is very short. . .unless you're one of the people that makes up the rosters for the Pro Bowl, in which case there are at least a dozen safeties that are better than he is. The Vikings will have to pick up his fifth-year option by 3 May, and a long-term extension for him has to be one of Rick Spielman's priorities in the near future.
The other safety spot is in a bit of flux. Smith's former Notre Dame teammate, Robert Blanton, held down the spot for most of the season. While Blanton had his share of tackling issues during the season, he wound up with a fairly high grade from Pro Football Focus for his run defense. Overall, Blanton wasn't great and he wasn't terrible. . .for lack of a better way to put it, he was just sort of there. I'm not sure if Blanton is really that bad, per se, but his spot is definitely one the Vikings could look to upgrade.
Blanton fought some injuries towards the end of the season, and even though he was reportedly healthy over the last few weeks of the year, Zimmer replaced him in the starting lineup with Andrew Sendejo. Sendejo, whose arms have their own Twitter account, has always been known as a very good special teams player and possesses the ability to hit like a ton of bricks. He could be part of a pretty heated battle to get that starting spot next to Smith in 2015.
Another player that could be a part of that battle is Antone Exum. The Vikings took Exum out of Virginia Tech, where he had played both cornerback and safety. He was coming off of a pretty significant knee injury, and spent most of the 2014 season on special teams. Still, with his size, versatility, and athleticism, he seems like the sort of player that Mike Zimmer could find some real use for. He only got 16 snaps on defense all season. . .eight as Harrison Smith's replacement against St. Louis and eight in the Week 15 matchup against Detroit. . .but he could be up for a significant increase if he's healthy and can show a command of the defensive scheme.
If the Vikings want to upgrade their secondary through the free agency route, there are some big names out there. . .but they're not going to come cheap. Former New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty is the premiere name on the safety market, but there's word being bandied about that he would wind up as the highest paid safety in the NFL when things are all said and done this off-season. I don't think the Vikings are going to jump on that bandwagon. They could look to slightly cheaper alternatives, such as Denver's Rahim Moore, Buffalo's Da'Norris Searcy, or Philadelphia's Nate Allen. Pro Football Focus has the full list of free agent safeties right here.
The cornerback market has a few big names as well, with former Seattle Seahawk Byron Maxwell figuring to be the guy that winds up inking the biggest deal. Again, I wouldn't expect the Vikings to get into a bidding war for his services, but he's not the only fish in the sea. The team could look at Houston's Kareem Jackson (a surprising addition to the market, as it was thought the Texans would re-sign him) or San Diego's Brandon Flowers. There are plenty of other free agent cornerbacks on the market, and you can check out the full list of them right here.
If the team wants to look towards the draft, there's a decent amount of talent to be had there, too. In our most recent Mock Draft Database, Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes made a huge jump, and a lot of folks think that he could fall to the Vikings at #11. Depending on what the Vikings do in free agency, a guy like Waynes would make a lot of sense across from Xavier Rhodes. He's considered the best cornerback prospect in this year's draft by a pretty significant margin.
The Vikings could also look to draft a safety early on if they aren't satisfied with any of the options they currently have. Much like the cornerback class, one safety has stood out above the rest during the pre-draft process, and that's Alabama's Landon Collins. I'm not sure if Collins is worth the #11 pick at this point, but he could be a consideration for the team. . .again, pending what they do in free agency.
And that's your look at the defensive backs for the Minnesota Vikings. After being a complete disaster for most of the past. . .well, couple of decades, if we're being honest. . .it looks like this team has the talent and the scheme to be a real strength for the Vikings going forward.