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Vikings Camp Battles & Roster Projection Part IV: Secondary and Special Teams

The last in a series on the competition for Vikings’ roster spots

This is the last in the series on the competition for Vikings’ roster spots in the lead up to the regular season. Part I focused on offensive skill positions, Part II on the offensive line, Part III on the defensive front, and now Part IV will focus on the defensive secondary and special teams, with the last section on the practice squad rules and cut-down dates.

Defensive Secondary

The defensive scheme change this year isn’t likely to have a big impact on roster decisions in the defensive secondary. What is likely to impact it more are the draft picks. This is probably the easiest group to project, as most of the roster spot allocations are pretty well set based on contract, draft, or recent performance status.

Contract Situation

Note: Red numbers represent void years.

Spotrac

Contractually, the Vikings are committed to Smith, Peterson, Cine and Booth- once he signs his contract. Beyond that, Dantzler is a virtual lock based on past performance, and Cam Bynum is too, albeit on limited snaps last season. I’d venture to say that Akayleb Evans has a leg up on the competition further down the depth chart as a draftee of the current regime.

The Vikings typically keep six cornerbacks, and I don’t see that changing. The first three spots will go to Patrick Peterson, Cam Dantzler, and Andrew Booth Jr.. The remaining three spots are more in-play. The new regime brought in both Chandon Sullivan and Nate Hairston to compete at slot cornerback. Contractually they favored Sullivan for that job, but he was mediocre in coverage last season with the Packers, and poor in run defense. That’s not particularly attractive for a starting slot corner. But he’s also easily the most experienced slot cornerback on the roster.

I suspect the Vikings may split the nickel back role between a corner and a safety this season as part of the scheme and adapting to personnel, but they’ll still need at least two cornerbacks that can play in the slot.

One of the remaining options may be Nate Hairston, who played limited snaps at slot corner under Ed Donatell last season in Denver (he was actually acquired mid-season in 2020) and did well in coverage and as a tackler, but nothing special in run defense. This was on limited (148) snaps as well. And this comes after four mediocre years.

Parry Nickerson is another option, but despite his 4.32” speed, he’s never been good in coverage in limited snaps over the past three years since he was drafted.

Tye Smith is 29 and has played primarily outside corner. Myles Dorn is actually a safety, not a cornerback as listed above.

That leaves Harrison Hand, a fifth-round pick two years ago. Hand played reasonably well his rookie season in limited (163 snaps) action and had been trained some at slot cornerback at that time- and played there 24 snaps. But last year he suffered the same fate as Cam Dantzler, being relegated down the depth chart in favor of free agent veterans who were terrible. Hand played a total of 2 snaps on defense last year. But it would makes sense for the new regime to look at him at slot corner, given the depth at outside corner. Hand compares favorably to his slot corner competition in athletic traits and is also 4 years younger than his Temple alum, Nate Hairston. And so I give him the backup slot corner job, with Akayleb Evans taking the last spot as a backup outside cornerback.

At safety, the Vikings typically keep four on the roster and I don’t see that changing either. The first three spots are pretty much locked up: Harrison Smith, Lewis Cine and Camryn Bynum- who played well in limited action last season. He was the 3rd highest graded defender on the team in fact, albeit on only 211 snaps. For the last safety spot I have UDFA Mike Brown beating out Josh Metellus (and Myles Dorn). Brown is a bigger strong safety (220 pounds) but otherwise comparable with Metellus athletically. Metellus hasn’t shown much as a safety after two seasons and was not that good (49.5 PFF grade) in special teams last season, which leaves an opening for a guy like Brown to make the roster.

Cornerback Roster Projection

  • Patrick Peterson
  • Cam Dantzler
  • Andrew Booth Jr.
  • Chandon Sullivan
  • Harrison Hand
  • Akayleb Evans

Cut: Parry Nickerson, Tye Smith

Practice squad: Nate Hairston, Kris Boyd

Safety Roster Projection

  • Harrison Smith
  • Lewis Cine
  • Cam Bynum
  • Mike Brown

Cut: Myles Dorn

Practice squad: Josh Metellus


Special Teams (3)

New special teams coordinator Matt Daniels has said there will be a full-on camp competition for both the kicker and punter jobs, which creates camp battles between Greg Joseph and Gabe Brkic for the kicking duties, while Jordan Berry and Ryan Wright compete for punter duties. Long snapper Andrew DePaola will continue in that role, as the Vikings did not bring in competition at that position.

Contract Situation

Spotrac

Greg Joseph has been okay as a kicker for the Vikings- he has an 86.8% field goal percentage- but missed four extra points last year, which isn’t that good. Brkic has a longer field goal range, but only marginally so. Brkic had a 82.6% field goal percentage at Oklahoma, but a higher percentage of 50+ attempts which brought his made FG percentage down a bit. Brkic also had a touchback rate of around 60% while Joseph’s is around 80%. And so it’s not clear that Brkic is the better kicker going into the competition, but I’d also say based on the contract situation, that a tie in the competition goes to Brkic. Not only is Brkic about $1.7 million cheaper this year, and Joseph has no dead cap hit if released, he’d likely be about that much cheaper the next two years as well compared to extending Joseph, and maybe more. And so Joseph will need to earn his salary cap by beating out Brkic in the camp competition. Will he do it? I’m guessing not.

The salary differential at punter is not significant, so I don’t see that being as big a factor. Both punters have about the same career punting average (44.8 vs. 44.5), but Berry is 31 years old, and at some point age will begin to have its effect. Like Joseph and DePaola, he’s a free agent after this season. Ryan Wright does appear to have a much stronger leg than Berry, however. He’s improved his punting every season in college, and in addition to having a quick, 2-step process, he also has excellent hang time on his punts. Last season he had a 47.5 net yard punting average, having worked on increasing his hang time. He’s had punts in practice go 60 yards with a 5.5 second hang time- (3.9 seconds is average). He’s also played quarterback, which is a nice background to have for fake punts. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if Wright wins the punter competition outright over Berry.

Lastly, while this isn’t purely for roster spots, who the kick and punt returners are will influence whether they make the roster at their other position. It’s pretty clear after last season that Kene Nwangwu has got the kick returner job locked up, and Matt Daniels’ comments this week seem only to confirm that.

But there will be a competition for punt returner, with Daniels listing KJ Osborn, Jalen Nailor, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Thomas Hennigan, in that order, as potential punt returners. Osborn was pretty lack-luster last season returning punts, averaging just 5.8 yards a return and with a long of only 11 yards. But he had better punt return averages in college than Nailor, who averaged 9 yards/return on just four punt returns in 2019-2020, while Smith-Marsette never returned punts in college. Hennigan did return punts at App State, but averaged 7.5 yards/return, which is worse than both Osborn and Nailor in college, and that was against lesser competition. And so there isn’t a clear improvement over Osborn at the moment, so maybe he ends up keeping that job. Other potential punt return candidates could include Bisi Johnson (who did return punts in college) and Ty Chandler, and perhaps one or two others.

Roster Projection

  • Kicker: Gabe Brkic
  • Punter: Ryan Wright
  • Long Snapper: Andrew DePaola
  • Kick Returner: Kene Nwangwu
  • Punt Returner: KJ Osborn

Cut: Greg Joseph, Jordan Berry


Practice Squad

It’s worthwhile going through the practice squad rules, which have been updated in recent years, then temporarily changed due to Covid, then reverted back to the original 2020 CBA rules, and now just changed again:

  • Practice squads are limited to 16 players, with one additional international player allowed (must have non-US residency and citizenship).
  • Up to six players on the practice squad can be veterans, with no limit on the number of accrued seasons.
  • Up to two players may have two accrued seasons with no limit on the number of active games in each of those seasons.
  • The rest must have either no accrued seasons (i.e. less than 6 games on the active roster in one season), or one accrued season with fewer than nine games on the active roster.
  • Teams may no longer protect practice squad players from being signed to another team’s active roster, which was the case last season. A practice squad player may not move to another team’s practice squad, it must be a promotion to the active roster.
  • Teams may promote practice squad players to the active roster for a game up to three times during the regular season and revert to the practice squad after the game without going through waivers and not having to clear a spot on the active roster.

Additionally, the league also announced the roster cut down dates:

  • August 16th: From 90 to 85 players.
  • August 23rd: From 85 to 80 players.
  • August 30th: From 80 to 53 players.

So, each cut-down date will be 2-3 days after each Vikings pre-season game.


Poll

Who will be the Vikings’ kicker this year?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Greg Joseph
    (427 votes)
  • 56%
    Gabe Brkic
    (581 votes)
  • 2%
    Someone Else
    (22 votes)
1030 votes total Vote Now