It’s no secret that Minnesota Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer loves defensive backs. The Vikings shocked a lot of people when they avoided drafting a cornerback early in last month’s draft. Still, there are still questions to be answered about the secondary before training camp this summer. Will anyone be traded? Are there any open spots up for grabs? Who will make the final roster? Well, let’s take a closer look at the Vikings secondary.
The Current State of the Minnesota Vikings Secondary
Minnesota will head into 2019 with a majority of the same faces as last season. The only change to the (expected) starting lineup is Anthony Harris at safety in place of Andrew Sendejo. Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes are both on the roster despite some trade rumors. 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes will return from a torn ACL on time, so it appears.
Holton Hill is suspended the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He should have a chance to play when he returns, as he showed flashes as a rookie. Mackensie Alexander will also be expected to step up in 2019. Alexander will most likely be the nickel corner as the team begins training camp. Kris Boyd was the only cornerback selected by the Vikings in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Safety presents a whole new issue for the Vikings. Harrison Smith is one of the best in the league at the position, and he is a staple of the defense. After him, there aren’t any guarantees. Anthony Harris will be the frontrunner to start next to Smith at the start of camp. He showed tremendous growth while Sendejo missed time last season. The only other safety on the roster with any meaningful experience is Jayron Kearse. Kearse has been a stud on special teams in his career, but recent murmurings suggest he could move to linebacker next season.
2019 sixth-round pick Marcus Epps joins Derron Smith and Micah Abernathy in the competition for a backup spot. The Vikings lack depth on the back end of the defense, which is vital for their defense.
What to Expect
There is still a slight chance that the Vikings move Trae Waynes in order to create space for the 2019 draft class under the cap. While there are plenty of options behind Waynes if he were to be moved, he is the clear-cut number two. Waynes has improved year after year and developed into a very good cornerback in the NFL. Moving on would require a brisk shift in the culture of the defensive backs room. Xavier Rhodes is a lockdown-caliber corner coming off a rough season by his own standards. With Zimmer on his tail, Rhodes will return to a high level of play in 2019. Mike Hughes looked excellent in his brief sting before the injury, but he isn’t quite ready to be a starter on the outside. Mackensie Alexander has played almost exclusively in the slot, which suits him well. Holton Hill is the only player with the size to really stand out on the perimeter, but he will not be available early on.
Harrison Smith is one the best safeties in football, that’s just who he is as a player. He is Zimmer’s toy, and that’s that. He will have an enormous impact on the team’s overall success. Anthony Harris is the only safety left on the roster with the skill set to play every snap. He should have the keys for the future. There were reports earlier in the week that Jayron Kearse was going to practice some at linebacker in camp in preparation for a new role in 2019, but he shut those reports down. The move could give him a chance to see the field more, but the Vikings need depth at safety as things stand. The Vikings currently have no cap space to sign any significant names that can contribute right away.
A Closer Look
There are a lot of expectations for Mackensie Alexander as he heads into year four. After a quiet rookie season, Alexander has shown considerable growth in each season since. Last season was by far the best of his career, and it is a great building block for 2019. In 2018, Alexander started six games and recorded 10 pass deflections. The more reps, the quicker Alexander adapted to the new role.
Now, what is crucial in the slot is the ability play both the run and pass. We have seen that growth in Alexander’s game as well. In 2018, he racked up 43 tackles, four sacks, and five hits on the quarterback. Seven of his tackles came for a loss, a huge boost to the defense. He blows up the short screens and can get through the line on hand-offs and tosses. His experience inside gives him a slight edge over the rest of the corners fighting for a starting spot.
These first two clips are from Alexander’s rookie season.
Commercial Break: Once Mackensie Alexander learns to stop being so grabby, he's going to be ok. Where have we heard that before? pic.twitter.com/q0tWANLM1t
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) March 11, 2017
Mackensie Alexander saw some time at nickel vs. the Texans. It's going to be a work in progress with him. pic.twitter.com/FJigiJnSqa
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) July 3, 2017
This last clip is from Alexander’s second season, showing his growth as he adapts to the nickel role.
The development of Mackensie Alexander is coming along very nicely. He's getting better with each rep. pic.twitter.com/rRI4BDmVDO
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) October 16, 2017
Mike Hughes came in as a rookie and made an immediate impact within an already elite secondary. His debut included an interception that was returned to the house. He continued to play well before his injury in week six. Now, he is on a road to recovery with a ton of talented corners behind him. If the roster stands as it is now, Hughes will have a somewhat difficult task of regaining a starting role next season.
A pick-6 in the NFL debut from the @UCF_Football rookie!
We see you, Mike Hughes! #SFvsMIN pic.twitter.com/ztlC9241uJ
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 9, 2018
There is hope for Hughes in 2019 as he is arguably the most versatile cornerback on the roster. He can play on the outside, but he has also shown comfort in the slot when asked. He was trusted by Zimmer to play from day one, which is high praise from Minnesota’s head coach. It appears Hughes will be ready to go at the start of the season, which is a huge bonus for the Vikings. Expect the Vikings to play a lot of four-corner sets with Alexander and Hughes on the inside, adding flexibility to the defense.
One of the most versatile players on Minnesota’s roster is Jayron Kearse. Kearse is a 6’4” safety with good speed and the ability to tackle in space. His length provides a safety net over the top of the defense when he’s line up deep. Most shockingly, Kearse lined up in the slot to a great degree in 2018, where he made a huge impact. His size allows him to press at the line, but his long arms enable him to break up plays if he’s beaten. In Mike Zimmer’s defense, Kearse is the perfect type of gadget.
Zims D went 4 for 4 in 3S look w Jayron Kearse..
Play 1- Lines up in off nickel. Result: Incomplete pass on 3rddown
Play 2- Lines up in press nickel. Result: INT by X.Rhodes
Play 3- Blitzes from nickel. Result: Incomplete pass
Play 4- Lines up over slot. Result: H.Smith sack pic.twitter.com/gNIvu8mPj1
— Luke Inman (@Luke_Spinman) September 10, 2018
Jayron Kearse can be used in a variety of ways on the defense, but he is also an ace on special teams. His punt coverage is among the best in the league. He was second in the NFL in special teams tackles in 2018 with 14 combined tackles. He gets down the field quickly and does a great job of tackling in space.
Jayron Kearse has drastically improved as a punt gunner and is turning into one of the BEST ST players on the Vikings roster before our eyes pic.twitter.com/SMpyOkgt9q
— Luke Inman (@Luke_Spinman) September 13, 2017
No matter the situation, Jayron Kearse rises to the occasion. He may not be a household name, but he is an integral part of the Vikings secondary. A bigger workload with Andrew Sendejo no longer on the roster should pave the way for Kearse to finally get his recognition. If the Vikings do decide to play him at linebacker, he has the size and athleticism to succeed. He plays downhill with speed and aggression, but he can also cover well for his size. It will be interesting to see where he lines up in 2019.
How the Rookies Can Contribute
Kris Boyd will not have too much pressure right away. He is a seventh-round pick on a roster built through the secondary. However, his presence will be crucial in Minnesota. Boyd is a versatile corner that can line up inside and outside. He plays physical at the line and after the catch, which is what the Vikings crave. However, he will need to work closely with defensive backs coach Jerry Gray to develop his pressing ability.
Terry McLaurin (OSU) beats Kris Boyd (Texas) and makes thenone-handed grab.
Turns to Boyd after and says, "I had you on the go route too." pic.twitter.com/nDlFVlJZqB
— PewterReport (@PewterReport) January 22, 2019
He shows tendencies of getting beat in press coverage despite being physical, which presents some problems. Of course, as a seventh-round pick, there are going to be flaws in his game. All you can ask for is a guy who loves the game and is willing to learn. That’s exactly what the Vikings are getting in Kris Boyd.
Texas Cornerback Kris Boyd (bottom of the screen) is …enthusiastic… about tackling pic.twitter.com/c6wqAQeHJA
— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) August 4, 2018
Boyd was also a teammate of Holton Hill at Texas. With Hill’s troubled past and recent suspension, Boyd could be useful in keeping him on the right track. We cannot overstate the value of locker room character when looking at the roster. If Boyd can improve his game and help the locker room atmosphere as a rookie, he will be a perfect draft pick.
The Vikings also selected safety Marcus Epps on day three. Epps, a sixth-round pick from Wyoming, will have a chance to make the roster due to the lack of depth. With only a few experienced safeties on the roster, Epps can contribute on special teams right away. If he is needed on defense as a rookie, we can expect a ball-hawking safety with a knack for takeaways. Epps was a major contributor in Wyoming’s secondary for four years. In 50 career games, he forced five fumbles and intercepted nine passes. His 2016 season was by far his best as a Cowboy. He racked up 111 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. He averaged 23.4 return yards on interceptions, which is nothing to laugh at. Epps can make plays with the ball.
#6 Marcus Epps with a pick six! @WYO_Football strikes first at the Factory of Eastern Michigan. Watch on @CBSSportsNet! #mwfb pic.twitter.com/jBJJyJwRKt
— Mountain West (@MountainWest) September 23, 2016
Given that the Vikings have limited options at backup safety, Epps should have a big opportunity to shine in camp. A good summer program and preseason will be enough to land him a spot on the final 53-man roster.
The Minnesota Vikings have a ton of talent in the secondary. Mike Zimmer loves his corners, and that unit is among the best in the league as it stands. The safeties are a little deprived, but Harrison Smith masks a lot of problems in that regard. As the team prepares for training camp in July, they have a lot of options on defense.
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