Vikings free agency 2017: What cornerbacks are available?

Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

What players available this offseason have the best chance at joining the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive backfield in 2017?

Three years after he was hired, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has successfully transformed the team’s once embarrassing secondary into one of the best pass defenses the NFL has to offer.

In the season before Zimmer was brought on (2013), the Vikings’ defense was the second worst in the league when it came to average passing yards allowed per game. Fast forward to 2016 and Minnesota is home to the NFL’s third best pass defense.

Much of their improvement can be attributed to the tutelage of Zimmer, the progression of cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and the veteran leadership of cornerbacks Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions

But Newman and Munnerlyn are free-agents this offseason and there is a good possibility that at least one of them will not be returning to the Vikings’ roster in 2017. As of right now, Minnesota’s three best corners consist of Rhodes and the inexperienced duo of Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander.

The Vikings could decide to add another player or two to this group in the draft. But Zimmer likes to keep the experience level high in his defensive backfield so bringing in a new corner via free agency seems like the route that is more probable for Minnesota this offseason.

Which current free-agent cornerbacks have the best potential to sign on and become a part of the Vikings’ defense in 2017?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Logan Ryan

  • 26-years-old
  • 5-foot-11, 180 pounds

2016 stats (in 16 games with the New England Patriots):

  • 92 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
  • 2 interceptions, 11 pass breakups

Oddly enough, Ryan is one of the players the Patriots selected with the picks they acquired in the Cordarrelle Patterson trade with Minnesota back in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Four years later, Ryan has become a key part of New England’s defense and one of the many reasons the team has won two Super Bowls in the past three seasons. His efforts last Sunday against Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was huge as Ryan the Patriots’ secondary were able to hold the superstar pass catcher to under 100 yards receiving and no touchdowns on just four catches.

The Vikings turnaround on defense in the last three years has a lot to do with the great improvement in the tackling abilities of their players. Ryan is one of the better tackling corners in the NFL today and even led all New England defenders in 2016 with 92 total tackles.

He also does have experience as a slot corner, so if Minnesota opts to not re-sign Munnerlyn, Ryan could become an intriguing option for the Vikings to add to their defense.

Dec 20, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) celebrates after an incompletion during the third quarter of the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 20, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) celebrates after an incompletion during the third quarter of the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Dre Kirkpatrick

  • 27-years-old
  • 6-foot-1, 186 pounds

2016 stats (in 15 games with the Cincinnati Bengals):

  • 46 total tackles
  • 3 interceptions, 10 pass breakups

Selected by the Bengals in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Zimmer is very familiar with Kirkpatrick’s abilities as the Minnesota head coach was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator for the cornerback’s first two seasons in the league.

He did not play much when Zimmer was in town (only three starts), but Kirkpatrick has been the Bengals’ starting corner for the past two seasons. He has been solid during his time as a starter and in 2016 he allowed the eighth lowest yards per cover snap in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.

Cincinnati is probably going to do their best to re-sign the former first-round pick, so his price tag may end up being a bit too high for the Vikings to land him. Especially since Xavier Rhodes is going to be in need of some big-time money in the near future.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans

A.J. Bouye

  • 25-years-old
  • 6 feet, 186 pounds

2016 stats (in 15 games with the Houston Texans):

  • 62 total tackles, 1 sack
  • 1 interception, 16 pass breakups

Mainly a backup during the first three years of his career in Houston, Bouye got the opportunity to start in more than half of the Texans games in 2016 due to injuries in the team’s secondary.

He definitely made the most of his increased time on the field last year as he was given the top coverage grade (92.7) and the second best overall cornerback grade (92.5) by Pro Football Focus for his play in 2016.

It would be smart for Houston to keep the young corner on the team for the next few years. But if ends up wanting to sign elsewhere, the Vikings could be in the running to land the talented defensive back.

NFL: New York Giants at Green Bay Packers

Leon Hall

  • 32-years-old
  • 5-foot-11, 193 pounds

2016 stats (in 12 games with the New York Giants):

  • 30 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble
  • 1 interception, 2 pass breakups

Another former member of Zimmer’s defense when the Minnesota coach was with the Bengals, Hall could be a good candidate to land with the Vikings if the team decides to move on from Terence Newman.

Hall has played in the NFL for 10 seasons and he started 76 games for the Bengals when Zimmer was coaching the defense from 2008 to 2013. During that time, the cornerback racked up a total of 18 interceptions and 84 pass breakups.

Despite his experience in the league and in Zimmer’s defense, Hall is not the player he once was and Minnesota could opt to just roll with one of the younger corners on their roster next season instead.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts

Darius Butler

  • 30-years-old
  • 5-foot-10, 180 pounds

2016 stats (in 12 games with the Indianapolis Colts):

  • 33 total tackles, 1 forced fumble
  • 3 interceptions, 7 pass breakups

Butler could be another option for Minnesota if the team ends up needing a player to replace Munnerlyn in the slot. With the Colts for the past five seasons, Butler has developed into one of the NFL’s best coverage corners when tasked with the duty to cover the opposing offense’s slot receiver.

In addition to his experience in the slot, he also played for bit as a safety in Indianapolis last year. Zimmer loves to have versatile players on his defense and Butler’s ability to play well at multiple positions on the field fits that mold.

Due mainly to his age, Butler likely will not be commanding a big-time contract in free-agency this offseason so the Vikings should be able to add the corner to their team for a relatively cheap amount of money.

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