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Vikings Defensive Secondary Poised for an Upgrade

Probably the biggest area of concern for the Vikings this off-season is the turnover in the defensive secondary. Pretty much any piece on the Vikings this off-season, nationally or locally, has focused on the difficulty the Vikings face in replacing all three starting cornerbacks, and how that could lead to a regression in the Vikings defense.

I haven’t shared that concern, as I’ve noted in previous pieces that Xavier Rhodes was one of the worst performing cornerbacks in the league last season, and Trae Waynes had plateaued as an average/mediocre cornerback. That makes the bar a relatively low one in terms of replacing their level of performance. Additionally, the Vikings were the third best coverage unit in the league last season, despite their poor cornerback performance. That was because they had the best safety tandem in the league last season in Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, along with the best covering linebacker in Eric Kendricks, all of whom are returning this season.

Beyond that, the Vikings also had better performing backup cornerbacks on the roster last season. Holton Hill has performed better in the snaps he’s had over the last couple seasons compared to Xavier Rhodes, and Mike Hughes has been as good or better than Trae Waynes in that respect as well. Even rookie Kris Boyd had better stats than Xavier Rhodes.

And then there was the draft.

The Vikings picked Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand to replenish their cornerback room.

Zimmer: Cornerbacks May Be Better Than Last Year

Since the start of padded practices last week, coaches and players have been praising both Holton Hill and Cameron Dantzler for their performance so far. Mike Zimmer said that Holton Hill came into this season more mature, and maintains a high level of confidence. He’s done very well in coverage so far as well.

But it’s been Cameron Dantzler that’s had the flashy plays that have excited coaches and fans about his promise as a starting cornerback for the Vikings. In my initial piece on Dantzler after he was drafted, I suggested he had at least an even chance to become a starting outside corner for the Vikings this season, and that he looked like a high ceiling corner with immediate starter ability.

That seems to be holding true so far, if not increasingly so, as Dantzler’s Combine 40 time (which was slow because he added water weight) is overshadowed by his plays on the field. And while these can be discounted as “Oh My God Audie Cole” equivalent moments, they were against first-team competition and Dantzler has a whole reel of such plays against top-tier wide receivers in college to back it up. Indeed, Dantzler’s entire college tape and stats point to this type of performance.

What’s more, in comparing him to previous starter Trae Waynes, Waynes was never able to look back to the ball and make plays like Dantzler did in five seasons with the Vikings. Nor did he have the length that Dantzler has to make those plays. Indeed, Waynes on many occasions had good coverage, but either didn’t look back for the ball, or failed to contest the catch well enough, allowing a reception instead of breaking up the pass or making an interception.

Adam Thielen reportedly went over to Mike Zimmer after Dantzler made the pass break-up against him in the first practice and told him, “#27 is going to be a good.” There’s nothing like getting that type of praise from an All-Pro WR to boost a CB’s street cred in advance of his rookie season.

Overall, Mike Zimmer said on KFAN today that his cornerbacks may be better this year than last year, which shouldn’t be all that surprising given the performance of his cornerbacks last year.

Other DBs Looking to Get Settled

Beyond Holton Hill and Cameron Dantzler, who look like favorites to become starting CBs outside, providing they can tackle, which Mike Zimmer emphasized earlier this week as something he has yet to see since they haven’t done much tackling so far.

Mike Hughes could also be used outside as a starter, and potentially moved inside to slot in nickel situations, with Dantzler taking over outside. But if Dantzler continues to check the boxes, I suspect Hughes may be used more exclusively in the slot, with Jeff Gladney and/or Harrison Hand and/or Mark Fields backing him up there.

Mike Zimmer was asked about Mike Hughes and his development in the face of injuries, and said the big thing for Hughes is that he needs to develop confidence, which has been lacking. He needs to feel like he can go up against anyone and cover them. That mental issue can be a big stumbling block for cornerbacks looking to up their game and be among the best in the league. Xavier Rhodes, following his 2017 All-Pro season, talked about that and how another more veteran player told him he needed to have that confidence and swagger if he’s going to improve his game and be more than an average cornerback.

So we’ll see if Hughes can develop that confidence and step up his game. It’s been a tough first couple years for Hughes, who missed most of his rookie year with an ACL tear, and the playoffs last season with a neck injury. He’s been a backup in both seasons, seeing reps both outside and in the slot. It’s difficult to say at this point which position is his best, but given the lack of other experienced slot corners, I suspect the emphasis for Hughes this season will be working out of the slot.

I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point Jeff Gladney is able to take over the starting spot at slot corner, as a more physical player that could potentially add more as a blitzer and run defender. Gladney has the skill set to play inside - good speed, burst and fluid hips - and can be physical too if opponents put bigger receivers inside to match-up against him. Whether he’s able to do that this season depends on Hughes, who I think has the inside track on that starting job, given his experience in the league and system.

Strong Core Fills Out What Looks to be the Strength of the Defense

The emergence of potential/likely upgrades at all three cornerback spots, when added to the best safety duo in the league last season in Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, and the best coverage linebacker in Eric Kendricks, could fill-out what looks to be the strength of the Vikings defense this season- the secondary and pass coverage.

As the #3 defense in pass coverage last season, the Vikings could prove to be particularly tough against the pass this season, and potentially produce more turnovers. They had the 3rd most interceptions in the league last season with 17, but with better play-makers at outside corner, that already high number could go even higher this season.

Different Emphasis in Coverage This Season?

The Vikings under Mike Zimmer have played pretty much every type of coverage, from Cover-1 man to Cover-6 zone and everything in-between (Cover-2, Cover-3, Cover-4). In years past, he’s played more man coverage, but last year switched to primarily zone coverage 77% of the time.

It’s been reported by Anthony Barr and a couple others that Defensive assistant coach Dom Capers has been working primarily with the defensive backs so far, suggesting his influence may be focused on the secondary at this point. As I wrote this spring, Capers has used a lot of Cover-3 coverage schemes, as have the Vikings’ new DB coaches, suggesting the Vikings may use more Cover-3 this season than in the past. Last year they ran it 12% of the time according to PFF, 3rd most zone coverage after Cover-2 and Cover-4, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see that percentage go up. It would seem a good fit for the Vikings new corners, and existing core players like Harris, Smith and Kendricks - who can make plays like this one:

Can the Defensive Front Step Up Too?

While things are looking good so far in Vikings training camp regarding the defensive secondary, there’s still a lot of questions about the defensive front.

That will be the subject of another piece in the coming days.


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