Projected starters: Antoine Winfield (14th year) and Chris Cook (third year)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Zackary Bowman, *Brandon Burton, *Chris Carr, Bobby Felder, Corey Gatewood, Reggie Jones, *Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, Nicholas Taylor
The breakdown: Let us know if you’ve heard this before: Minnesota seems pleased with its depth at cornerback heading into the season. It’s become a yearly statement for the Vikings, only to have injuries absolutely decimate the position the past few seasons. There have been the occasional injuries for veteran standout Antoine Winfield. Cedric Griffin, released in the offseason, had two separate knee injuries and didn’t return to the form he showed early in his career. Chris Cook was the top pick in 2010, an early second-rounder, but he missed much of the past two seasons, first with injuries and then a lengthy legal issue. In the end, Minnesota was left relying on the players such as Asher Allen, Benny Sapp, Sherels and Burton last season.
Allen was their top cover corner at times last season, but he abruptly retired before organized team activities began this summer. With the newfound depth, Allen was going to have to fight for playing time, but the Vikings figured they could count on Allen, even though he was overmatched at times. Allen’s retirement puts more pressure on Burton and Robinson to develop quicker. Burton is in his second year after being a fifth-round draft pick last season and he was slow to pick up on the defense, as was many of the rookies who were affected by the lockout. Robinson was a third-round pick this season, but has outstanding athleticism and confidence. He must translate those tools to being a quality cover corner. The two young players will be given more time to develop this season, but accelerated growth would help Minnesota.
Carr and Bowman were signed as free agents to give the secondary some more experience. Carr started 16 games in 2010 for a good Baltimore Ravens’ defense and earned a long-term contract. But he dealt with injuries last year that limited him to nine games and Baltimore cut ties quickly despite being one year into the new deal. Bowman started 12 in 2009 for the Chicago Bears, before becoming a reserve. He also seemed to struggle during the offseason with the Vikings and was often working with the third-team defense or was used at times as a sub. He will have to prove he can pick up the defense and help quickly to be the player Minnesota thought it was signing.
But the cornerback position comes down to two players who’ve been the deciding factors the past two years, Winfield and Cook. Winfield says he is completely healthy after a neck injury early last season and then a broken collarbone, which ended his season after just five games. The Vikings have talked about limiting the reps on the now 35-year-old Winfield. Winfield will move inside to cover the slot receiver in the nickel package, a position the three-time Pro Bowler excels at. And his reps on the outside in the base defense could be reduced as well to save wear and tear on his body and keep him playing at a high level.
Cook might be the most important player in Minnesota’s secondary. He has the size and coverage ability no other player on the Vikings can match right now. He was acquitted in his well-publicized domestic abuse case last year, which caused him to be suspended and then ultimately told to stay away from the team while the case was pending. He played only six games last year and in his two NFL seasons has 12 games played and five starts, leading to questions about what kind of player he really is. He was matched up against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson in a game last season where Johnson finished with two big touchdowns, but Cook also showed his ability with a pair of big pass deflections. For all of his ability, Cook is still looking for the first interception of his career too. If Cook can play to his potential, he could make the Vikings beleaguered secondary look better than it has in a few seasons.
Best position battle: Coach Leslie Frazier wants to find a reliable third cornerback, someone who can play on the outside with Winfield moving inside. For now, that appears to be Chris Carr with the possibility of Robinson growing into the role as he gets more comfortable in his first season. Carr has NFL starting experience and could prove himself even further with a strong training camp, giving Robinson time to mature. Brandon Burton could be improved in his second season, but he doesn’t have the experience of Carr or the athletic ability of Robinson. Minnesota used a high third-round pick on Robinson and are high on him. He has to show he is ready for the role. Bowman was added in free agency, but seemed behind the curve during minicamp. Carr likely exits training camp as the third cornerback until Robinson is deemed ready. Whether Carr is ready to take additional snaps and help limit Winfield in the base defense is another scenario, but it appears unlikely at this point.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Packers; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions. A division with very notable passing offenses, the NFC North needs to have strong secondary play and for the most part, the teams grade out fairly well. Minnesota’s group looks improved from the atrocious unit it was last season, but it still can’t match up with two very good groups of corners in Chicago and Green Bay. The Bears have Charles Tillman, now the best corner in the division. Tim Jennings is a good fit as the other starter in Chicago’s Cover-2 system and there is strong. Green Bay’s Tramon Williams is still solid on the outside. Charles Woodson tied for the league-lead with seven interceptions, but his outside coverage has begun to slip heading into his 15th season. The Packers still plan to take advantage of his playmaking ability though, using him inside in the nickel package similar to the Vikings hope for Winfield. If so, Sam Shields or Jarrett Bush would play on the outside and second-round pick Casey Hayward has the talent to force his way into the conversation. Detroit has a mix of players none of which have really established themselves as NFL-caliber starters, other than maybe Chris Houston.
Frazier says: “In today’s NFL, you really need three starters in the secondary at corner. You see so much three, four, now five wideout sets that you need three starters. It would be great for us to have three guys that we like can be starting corners. We’d be so much better if that were to happen. If Chris (Carr) or Josh (Robinson) or Zack (Bowman) or one of the other guys steps up, it would be great for our team. We need three starting caliber players to compete in today’s NFL.”