With all the turnover on the Vikings roster this off-season, it’s more relevant than most off-seasons to look at the forgotten players this time of year: those promising young players already on the roster.
Every year free agency and the draft brings thoughts of new Christmas presents for the Vikings roster, and like little kids we often disregard those bright, shiny gifts we got last year, and focus on the new ones yet to come.
But in the adult world of the National Football League, developing young players - often 3rd rounders and beyond - is the difference between having a top roster and struggling to fill the holes that opponents exploit as best they can.
No team can assemble a Super Bowl contending roster of first- or second-round draft picks and top free agents. There just isn’t enough draft picks, and any team’s salary cap budget can suffer a pretty big dent by signing just a handful of players in the heady days just after free agency begins.
Certainly a few key high-priced free agents can bring top talent to a roster without breaking the bank. And maintaining a competitive batting-average with top draft picks is important too. But that still leaves a lot of roster spots available for those lesser known draft picks- 3rd rounders and beyond - that often take a back seat on a roster for a year or two before developing into starters.
But in the meantime they tend to be forgotten. Or just assumed that they’ll never be very good because they’re backups. And yet the Adam Thielens, Danielle Hunters, and Anthony Harris’ prove that’s not always the case.
So let’s take a look at some promising backups on the Vikings roster that could prove to be the next man up this season as potential starters.
I’ll start with cornerback Holton Hill.
#24 - CB Holton Hill
In the lead-up to the 2018 draft, most scouts looking at all the key components of Holton Hill’s draft resume might’ve had him ranked among the top 5-10 cornerbacks in the draft. He had an impressive college tape, improving each year, with good measurables. Hill was basically a 4.5” 40, 6’2”, 200 lbs. guy that showed good intelligence and a skill set that works in multiple coverage schemes.
But he also had some maturity issues, and had been suspended his last year in college for marijuana use, and also tested positive for it during the Combine. And that proved devastating to his draft stock, as he went undrafted.
But the Vikings took a flyer on him as a UDFA, hoping he could clean up his act and prove to be a steal. And during his rookie year it looked like it may turn out that way.
In 2018 Hill played in just over a third of the Vikings’ defensive snaps, rotating in most games, but also subbing for injured starters. He ended the season with the highest PFF coverage grade among all the Vikings’ cornerbacks, and second only to Anthony Harris among all defensive backs. All that was very promising.
But then in the 2019 off-season, he was suspended once again for marijuana use, and also for performance enhancing drug (PED) use. Eight games total.
Well, that didn’t exactly endear him with Mike Zimmer, and so he found himself down the depth chart when it came to getting reps in practice as he served his time in Zimmer’s doghouse. But Zimmer didn’t give up on him either. He had this to say about him at the end of training camp last year:
“We obviously knew this could happen with Holton. I’m very disappointed, because I felt like we were doing everything we could possibly do to help him. To put him in the right situations. To get him any kind of help he needed. And, honestly, he’s not a bad kid. He’s really not a bad kid. He’s not a street guy or a gang guy or anything like that. He’s a good kid. And I think he could have a really good future if he ends up getting to play.”
In any case, the disruption and suspension didn’t do anything to help Hill progress much in 2019, as he had fewer snaps than his rookie year. Fortunately for Hill and the Vikings, the new CBA eliminates suspensions for marijuana use going forward, which eliminates a significant risk factor for Hill.
NFL Game Film Notes
One observation worth noting about Hill, after watching his game film, is that he’s not picked on by opposing quarterbacks. Even as a rookie. That is demonstrated in how often he’s targeted. For example, over his career, Xavier Rhodes has been targeted on 15% of his coverage snaps. Trae Waynes on 16.9%. But so far Hill has only been targeted on 12.8% of his coverage snaps, including only 9.3% last year.
The reason behind that can vary.
Hill has not been a cornerback tasked with playing man coverage. Most of the time he plays a soft zone. And so he’s not a cornerback that sticks like glue to his receiver. There’s usually always a little separation - a few yards typically - which is why he only has two penalties. Quarterbacks see this. Smart quarterbacks see this. Hill either started or played most of the game against Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson his rookie year, and was targeted less than 10% of the time.
There were times he had good coverage. Other times another receiver was open and got the target - or it was a checkdown. But there were plenty of times when it seemed a well thrown ball to his receiver with a couple yards cushion would have been a completion. But they didn’t throw it to Hill’s receiver. Sometimes you could even see the QB looking right there and moving on. Why?
Hill was looking right back at them.
Hill does a good job of keeping everything in front of him - he is playing off-coverage most of the time - and getting his eyes back on the quarterback. Neither Brees, Brady or Wilson throw many interceptions, and so even if a receiver looks open, they may continue their progression because the defensive back is looking back for the throw and could make a break on it.
In that sense, Hill could turn out to be a cornerback in the style of Richard Sherman, rather than Darrelle Revis or Deion Sanders. Sherman was never fast for a cornerback (which is why he was a Day 3 draft pick), but the Stanford grad was smart, and tall, and learned to play the Cover-3 zone the Seahawks (and 49ers) use in their defensive scheme. He hasn’t gotten any faster at age 32, but his coverage stats are still top notch.
Another thing to note about Hill’s game tape so far with the Vikings: he’s pretty good and a willing tackler in run support - with good play strength. Whether coming up to help bring down a running back, or getting off his man to help tackle another receiver after the catch, Hill is active in run support, and not afraid to be physical. He doesn’t give up in run pursuit either, even when the play is away from his side. More than once he’s ran the breadth of the field to help make the tackle.
Looking ahead, Hill’s ability to play zone, and Cover-3 zone in particular, could become a real asset in the Vikings’ defensive scheme. As I’ve written in my last piece, the Vikings hired a new defensive backs coach who previously held that job for teams that played a lot of Cover-3 zone. Defensive assistant Dom Capers, who has also been a DB coach, used a lot of Cover-3 zone at times. And he came from the Jaguars last season who, you guessed it, used a lot of Cover-3 zone.
Last year the Vikings used a lot more zone coverage than in previous years under Mike Zimmer. 77% of the time they used some form of zone coverage according to PFF, the most popular being Cover-2 (21%), Cover-4 (18%), Cover-3 (12%), and Cover-6 (10%). So far it seems a good bet Zimmer may use more zone coverage again this year too.
Comparing Holton Hill to Rhodes and Waynes
So far, after a half-season worth of snaps, Hill has compared favorably to both Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes - not only last season but over their careers with the Vikings.
Here are some key stats, with Hill’s stat first, followed by Rhodes and Waynes:
Target rate: 12.8% / 15.0% / 16.9%
Catch Rate Allowed: 56.1% / 60.2% / 62.6%
Passer Rating when Targeted: 82.7 / 86.9 / 91.3
Yards per Coverage Snap Allowed: 0.85 / 1.05 / 1.25
Comparing the Yards per Coverage Snap Allowed stat (which essentially incorporates the other three stats) for last season, Hill compares even more favorably to Rhodes and Waynes.
2019 Yards per Coverage Snap Allowed: Hill: 0.83 Waynes: 1.42. Rhodes: 1.50.
In terms of league rankings last season, for cornerbacks with at least as many coverage snaps as Hill the past two years, Hill would’ve ranked #10 overall in the league with his 0.85 rate. Waynes ranked 66th, and Rhodes 76th (out of 86).
Holton Hill (#24) Week 17 2019 vs. Bears
Hill is at the top of the screen the first half, bottom in the 2nd half.
Holton Hill Week 8 2018 vs. Saints
Holton Hill Week 14 2018 vs. Seattle
Holton Hill has played reasonably well in his half-season worth of snaps so far, and better than Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. The change in the CBA regarding marijuana use lifts a cloud surrounding Hill and possible future suspensions, although he needs to stay clean of PEDs as well.
Even with a top draft pick used on a cornerback this year, Hill still looks in line for a starting job on the outside this season - and could prove to be an upgrade over long-time starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, who’ve either seen their performance drop in recent years, or seem to have plateaued around average among league cornerbacks.
Time will tell.
Do you think Holton Hill will prove to be an upgrade as a starting outside cornerback for the Vikings this season?
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