We've got one more of these after this one, but this is the last one for the defensive side of things as we check out the defensive backfield.
How They Started Last Season: Xavier Rhodes (starter), Captain Munnerlyn (starter), Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, Jabari Price, Shaun Prater
How They Finished Last Season: Rhodes (starter), Munnerlyn (starter), Robinson, Sherels, Price, Prater
How They Head Into Camp: Rhodes (starter), Terence Newman (starter?), Munnerlyn, Robinson, Sherels, Price, Trae Waynes, Jalil Carter, Justin Coleman, DeMarcus Van Dyke
How They Started Last Season: Harrison Smith (starter), Robert Blanton (starter), Andrew Sendejo, Antone Exum
How They Finished Last Season: Smith (starter), Sendejo (starter), Blanton, Exum
How They Head Into Camp: Smith (starter), Blanton (starter?), Sendejo, Exum, Prater, Anthony Harris
One of the more pleasant storylines from the 2014 Minnesota Vikings' defense was the development of Rhodes into a top-flight cornerback. Sure, he had a couple of rough outings, particularly against Julian Edelman and the New England Patriots in Week 2, but for the most part he played very well. By the end of the season, he was matching up against the opponents' top receiver and mostly keeping them off the stat sheet. Is he perfect yet? No, he isn't. But he's as close to a "shut down" type of corner as the Vikings have had in a long time.
Munnerlyn had what can charitably be described as an "up and down" first season in Minnesota. When he wasn't making Drew Brees cry, he was alternating between being decent in coverage and missing tackles. Munnerlyn was the starter across from Rhodes all season in 2014, but some of the recent moves on the roster make it appear that the Vikings are going to attempt to transition him to a full-time slot role in 2015. That's where he excelled when he was with the Carolina Panthers, and if he's allowed to focus exclusively on that, he could probably bounce back for the Vikings this season.
The reason that Munnerlyn will likely be pushed inside has to do with a couple of players at opposite ends of the age spectrum. The team signed Terence Newman, the team's oldest player at the tender age of 37. Newman has some experience with Mike Zimmer from their days together in Cincinnati, and while he has a little less tread on the tires than he used to, he has an intricate knowledge of how cornerbacks are supposed to play in this defensive scheme. If the season started today, he would probably be the starter at corner across from Rhodes, but he was likely signed as much for his experience and knowledge as for what he brings on the field.
The Vikings used their first draft choice this year on Trae Waynes, the consensus top prospect at the position in this year's draft class. Waynes is an outstanding athlete, but he's not the biggest guy at the position. It doesn't sound like the team is going to be pushing him to start right away, but they have been throwing a lot at him in offseason workouts, so it appears they expect him to contribute. He's likely going to start the season behind Newman, but I'm guessing. . .or hoping, perhaps. . .that he will displace Newman sooner rather than later.
A couple of corners are going to have some availability issues at the start of the season. Josh Robinson, who had a bounce-back year in 2014 after a miserable 2013, injured a pectoral this offseason and is a candidate to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List. Jabari Price, on the other hand, will miss the first two games of the year courtesy of a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Robinson being on the PUP list won't affect the 53-man roster, but Price's suspension could give the team an opportunity to evaluate a couple of other players that could take that fifth corner spot.
That list of players includes undrafted free agent Justin Coleman and the ever-present Marcus Sherels. Coleman is an interesting prospect. He's a lot like Munnerlyn in that he's a smaller guy that would be best suited to a slot corner type of role, and somehow fell out of the draft after a productive career at Tennessee. Sherels is listed as a corner, but is primarily on the team for his skills as a punt returner. As I've said in past articles, every year we predict that Marcus Sherels will get cut, and every year he ends up making the team, so I'm not counting him out yet.
The remaining corners on the list, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Jalil Carter, both have to be considered long shots. The Vikings got Carter from the CFL and Van Dyke from the scrap heap (he hasn't seen any on-field action since 2013). Barring a whole rash of injuries, I don't think either of them are long for this roster.
Moving over to the safety, we've talked about Harrison Smith a lot, because he's one of the league's best (even if not many outside of Minnesota seem to realize it). Smith does everything you want a safety to do. . .he covers, he blitzes, he makes stops in the run game, and does all of them very well. He, along with Rhodes, are the cornerstones of this secondary and should make a very impressive pair for a long time to come.
The safety spot next to Smith, on the other hand, is totally up for grabs. At least a couple of sources, Pro Football Focus and Bleacher Report, had Blanton as an above-average safety in 2014. PFF had him scoring much better against the run than in pass coverage, even though he did have a couple of bad moments attempting to stop opposing runners. It appears that he's going to start camp at the top of the depth chart, but there are going to be plenty of people attempting to knock him off.
When Blanton got injured towards the end of 2014. . .and even after he came back. . .the Vikings gave the starting job to Andrew Sendejo. We know how good Sendejo has been as a special teamer, and he has the ability to be a full-time starter. He has good speed and he hits like a ton of bricks against both receivers and opposing runners. He's going to make the team because of his special teams contributions, and we'll have to see if the momentum he picked up by starting at the end of last season continues into this season.
One of the more interesting prospects is Antone Exum, who the team moved to safety last season after he played corner at Virginia Tech. Exum played a lot on special teams as a rookie but saw limited snaps on defense, and should be completely over the knee injury he suffered in his final season at VT. Exum has good size, and if he hasn't lost speed or agility because of his knee injury, he could team with Smith to form one of the hardest-hitting safety duos in the NFL.
Speaking of players that have moved from corner to safety, the team has done just that with Shaun Prater. The Vikings brought him in as a corner in 2013 and he's managed to stick for this long, but the team has decided that a position change would be the best course of action for him. Is he going to be able to overcome the players in front of him and stick with the team?
Finally, we have Anthony Harris, who the team brought in as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia. Most of the pre-draft hype had Harris slotted as a second-day pick, but he managed to fall out of the selection process entirely. He's probably going to start out as a special teamer for the Vikings, but has the ability to be a long-term option as a coverage safety for the future.
The safety battle is going to be one of the best of camp for this team, and whoever winds up next to Smith at that spot will truly have earned the right to be there. It will also be watching the battle for the last spot (or two) at cornerback and whether or not the issues with Robinson and Price figure into how the team does things.
Have we mentioned that camp starts tomorrow? Because it totally does, and it's about time.