The Minnesota Vikings are in an interesting situation heading into the draft. Unlike previous years where there was a clear and obvious need that stood above all others, There are several position groups that the Vikings could reasonably use a first-round pick on. Some people want a quarterback, others want a wide receiver, but a lot of the fanbase thinks it’s in the team’s best interest to draft a cornerback in the first round.
It’s easy to understand the rationale. Despite Patrick Peterson and Duke Shelley playing well individually, the unit as a whole struggled mightily. Last season, the Vikings' secondary gave up the second most passing yards in the league, and they also allowed the most passing first downs out of any defense. The need for depth at cornerback has become more apparent with Peterson, Shelley, Dantzler, and Boyd no longer on the team.
Make no mistake, Minnesota desperately needs to add cornerbacks via the draft and free agency. I think signing someone like Rock Ya-Sin or drafting a cornerback as early as the third round would be a good idea. However, the Vikings would be making the same mistakes that Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman did by putting too much emphasis on drafting a cornerback in the first round.
The problem with drafting a cornerback early is that it is one of the hardest positions for college players to transition to in the NFL. There is such a steep learning process that makes it very difficult for most players to have a positive impact early in their careers. Guys like Sauce Gardner and Patrick Surtain are the exception to the rule.
My hypothesis is that there isn’t a significant difference in production between rookie first-round corners compared to cornerbacks drafted in later rounds. Let’s see if that holds up. The Vikings have drafted four corners in the first round since 2013. Those players are Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes, and Jeff Gladney. Here are their PFF Grades from their inaugural seasons.
First Round Rookie Cornerback PFF Grades
|Average Combined PFF Grade
As you can see, the Vikings' corners were mediocre at best during their rookie years. While it’s fair to say they each showed varying levels of promise on the field in terms of their athletic ability, none of them came close to their college production. Given the steep learning curve I mentioned earlier, that’s to be expected. Now let’s compare this to the first year of some Vikings corners drafted in later rounds. (Minimum 100 snaps to be considered inaugural year)
Mid to Late Round Rookie Cornerback PFF Grades
|Average Combined PFF Grade
So what can we take away from this data? Unsurprisingly, the first-round corners played better than their late-round counterparts. That would dispel the theory that the Vikings can get reliably better production in the later rounds. However, my hypothesis that there isn’t a significant difference in production between the two groups holds up. The first-round corners were only better than the mid-to-late round picks by 3.5 point margin.
Even if you accounted for Cam Dantzler’s stats inflating the combined grades of the later-round picks, the difference in production still isn’t large enough to be of any significance. Removing Dantzler gives you a combined grade of 53.1, which is only 8 points lower than the first-round corners. That’s not a large discrepancy by any means.
This is likely part of the reason why Bill Belichick and Brian Flores never drafted cornerbacks in the first round of the NFL draft. In most cases, the production you’d get by drafting a corner on Day 1 does not provide a good return on investment. If a defensive guru like Bill Belichick never drafts cornerbacks early, there’s probably a reason why. Yet, Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer repeatedly made the same mistake of investing too much draft capital into the cornerback position for diminishing returns. Out of the four cornerbacks the Vikings drafted in the first round, only one of them received a contract extension.
Not only would drafting a first-round cornerback be wasteful, it would show a lack of confidence in the development of Akayleb Evans and Andrew Booth Jr. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah needs the players he drafted to show signs of improvement. Drafting another first-round corner means one of two things. Either the first-round rookie wins the starting job, which makes Kwesi’s 2022 draft picks look worse in comparison. Or, we have a first-round draft pick riding the bench behind a second-round pick and a fourth-rounder. Regardless of the outcome, young players are getting less playing time and Kwesi’s reputation as an evaluator takes a hit, which is not ideal.
The great Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The Vikings would be doing just that by drafting a cornerback in the first round.