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Mackensie Alexander made a huge leap in 2018

And could have made himself a big part of the Vikings’ future

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Year Three was shaping up to be a big year in the career of Minnesota Vikings’ cornerback Mackensie Alexander. After not seeing much time as a rookie in 2016, he had an up-and-down year in 2017 while attempting to make the transition to the slot cornerback role in the Vikings’ defense. With first-round pick Mike Hughes breathing down his neck, Alexander’s role was limited in the early stages of the season.

After Hughes tore his ACL, however, Alexander. . .who had finally decided to embrace the role of slot corner rather than resist it. . .stepped up in a huge way. The folks from ESPN have identified one player that “leveled up” for each team in 2018, and Alexander was the selection for the Vikings. Here’s the case made by ESPN Vikings writer Courtney Cronin:

Alexander admittedly got out of his own way this season and stopped fighting the idea of playing in the slot after so many years of collegiate success as a physical outside cornerback. After dealing with injuries in the preseason, Alexander took hold of his role from Week 2 onward and showed strong signs of improvement, allowing 40 catches on 59 balls thrown in his direction (and 9.6 yards per catch). Alexander’s instinctual, heads-up play allowed him to break up eight passes and be a key part of the Vikings’ third-down blitz package (on which he contributed four sacks). The young corner shined brightest late in the season; in six of the Vikings’ last seven games, Alexander allowed 10 or fewer passing yards while playing at least half of the defensive snaps in each game, per Pro Football Focus.

Alexander was a real force in the second half of the season, as Cronin details. Frankly, you could make the case for him being the best defensive back on the squad after the halfway point. When the Vikings took Alexander in the second round in 2016, he was viewed as a steal, but his struggles in 2016 and 2017 made it difficult to project his trajectory going forward.

With a defensive backfield as strong as Minnesota’s is, it will be interesting to see how the team will handle the corners going forward. Xavier Rhodes fought injuries all year in 2018, and though Trae Waynes has developed nicely, there are still those that don’t exactly believe in him. Add in the return of Hughes and the solid play of Holton Hill from his rookie campaign, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more talented group of corners anywhere.

Alexander is going into the final year of his contract in 2019, so if he wants to be a part of the Minnesota defense in the future, he’s going to need to pick up where he left off in 2018.