During the off-season, the Minnesota Vikings lost several key starters on defense. Perhaps the greatest turnover took place in the secondary; all three starting corners found new teams. Xavier Rhodes – a true shutdown corner only a couple seasons ago – is now with the Indianapolis Colts. Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are now playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. As a result, the Vikings’ coaching staff faces a significant challenge as they rebuild their secondary for the 2020 season.
Vikings Cornerback Kris Boyd Has Huge Opportunity
Mike Zimmer is widely recognized as an expert at coaching corners. Even with this expertise, Zimmer faces a difficult task. Collectively, Rhodes, Waynes, and Alexander played 2,098 snaps in 2019. Rather than being discouraged, though, Zimmer has been upbeat about Minnesota’s defense, repeatedly emphasizing that the roster turnover has been energizing. “Some positions we’re pretty young,” Zimmer recently acknowledged, “but honestly that doesn’t bother me.” Zimmer then suggests that a large part of his confidence rests in the growth of the second-year players.
Drafted 217th in the 2019 NFL Draft, Vikings corner Kris Boyd is one of the second-year players Zimmer is relying on. Boyd performed remarkably well as a rookie given that he was a seventh-round pick. Vikings fans will know him from his exceptional play on special teams, most notably in punt coverage. He led the Vikings in special teams tackles.
In off-season press conferences, Vikings coaches have praised Boyd. Special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf explained that “the things that coach Zimmer sees are [Boyd’s] ability to make plays in the open field” while elsewhere praising Boyd’s explosiveness and tackling. Maalouf suggests that Boyd is “going to have a big role on defense.” Co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer is similarly complimentary, explaining, “I like Kris a lot, I think he has a good mental attitude.” Shortly thereafter, the younger Zimmer explained that even though he needs to continue refining his technique, Boyd is “going to do everything he can to be in the mix for us.” Combined with the opportunity at corner, Boyd’s impressive rookie season means that there is legitimate potential for him to be a key contributor on defense.
Mike Hughes – a first-round pick from the 2018 draft – is essentially locked-in as the Vikings’ number one corner. After Hughes, though, nothing seems certain. Holton Hill has been impressive through two years, but he missed eight games last year because of two separate suspensions. Jeff Gladney was chosen in the first round of the 2020 draft, an obvious sign that the Vikings are impressed by his abilities. Even still, Gladney will need to prove he can compete at the NFL level. Plenty of young corners struggle early in their career, and the Vikings haven’t been shy about sitting high draft picks; Waynes was chosen 11th overall and he sat for most of his rookie year. Cameron Dantzler, the Vikings’ third-round pick, offers plenty of upside, but he will need to prove (like Gladney) that he can cover NFL wide receivers.
Vikings reporters recently asked veteran safety, Harrison Smith, about the turnover at corner. Hughes and Hill were highlighted as the main returning corners, but Smith brought Boyd into the mix: “[Boyd] did some really great things on special teams.” Smith goes on to indicate that Hughes, Hill, and Boyd are all players who are “active, physical, can get in and out of cuts.” Keep in mind that Smith was asked about Hughes and Hill; Boyd was brought up unprompted. The competition at corner is wide open in Minnesota. The veteran players recognize that Boyd has a good chance of earning meaningful snaps.
In Week 17 of last season, Boyd finally had the opportunity to play extended snaps on defense. Minnesota was essentially locked into their playoff spot, so Zimmer decided to play the backups. The Vikings were leading the Bears 19-18 late in the fourth quarter. The Bears got the ball back with just under five minutes left in the game. At midfield, Chicago faced a fourth and nine. If the Vikings could get one more stop, they would end their regular season with a win against a divisional rival. When the ball was snapped, Boyd lost his footing, leaving Bears wide receiver Riley Ridley open. Mitchell Trubisky completed the pass to Ridley for the first down. A few minutes later, the Bears kicked a game-winning field goal with 12 seconds left on the clock, securing the win.
To be successful in the upcoming season, the Vikings need growth from their young players, Boyd foremost among them. Zimmer often reiterates his desire for “smart, tough, passionate football players.” Boyd certainly seems to qualify, and he can further demonstrate his intelligence, toughness, and passion by addressing the weaknesses in his game. His rookie year was encouraging, though it was not without its shortcomings. If he can successfully address these shortcomings, the Vikings will gladly allow Boyd to help fill the opportunity at corner.