Starting all 16 games last season, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had career-highs with 74 tackles and 3.5 sacks while playing for the Carolina Panthers. This year, the Vikings will rely on him to lead a so-so cornerback corps.
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Derek Cox, Kendall James, Julian Posey, *Shaun Prater, Jabari Price, *Josh Robinson, *Marcus Sherels, Robert Steeples
The breakdown: Years of little depth, poor play and injuries have Minnesota trying to truly address the cornerback position. There’s been a lot of turnover and the group is younger as a result, but the Vikings knew they needed some veteran leadership, as well. There was a noticeable void after the team released Antoine Winfield last offseason.
Enter Munnerlyn, who is similar to Winfield in many ways. Munnerlyn is smaller (5-foot-8, 195 pounds), experienced and excels playing in the slot. In Carolina for the first five seasons in his career, Munnerlyn comes to Minnesota off his best NFL season. Starting all 16 games last season, he had career-highs with 74 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He tied a career-high with 12 pass deflections and was one off a career-high with two interceptions.
Munnerlyn will be a good, veteran complement to Rhodes, the first-round draft pick last year who really started to come on late in the season. Rhodes has the size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) and talent to match up with some of the top receivers in the NFC North. Rhodes excels in press coverage and loves to get his hands on receivers, but will need to learn the fine line between playing physical and using too much contact. He’s still waiting for his first NFL interception, but he had 48 tackles and 10 pass deflections in 13 games and six starts last season and was the team’s best cornerback down the stretch.
Robinson was asked to fill the Winfield role, at least on the field, last season and struggled mightily. He never became fully comfortable while playing inside in the nickel defense, and he had his issues when he was on the outside in the base defense, too. Robinson is speedy but it hasn’t translated on the field. A third-round draft pick in 2012, the Vikings are still putting hopes in Robinson finding his game.
Entering training camp, Robinson will compete with Munnerlyn to be the starter on the outside in the base defense and is expected to be on the outside in the nickel with Munnerlyn covering the slot. Robinson has spoken of his frustration last season and how he feels much better this time sticking full-time on the outside. Minnesota still needs Robinson.
Sherels makes the Vikings’ roster as the team’s top punt returner, but he’s been forced into action the past few years because of injuries and always provides steady play at cornerback. The same situation is likely this season. He’ll be on the roster, but other cornerbacks will begin the season ahead of Sherels on defense.
Prater got a chance late in the season after he joined the team midway through the campaign. He started the last three games and showed some potential, coming through with his first career NFL interception against Philadelphia.
Cox struggled in his one season in San Diego last year after signing a big free-agent contract. He was a cap casualty by the Chargers and signed a one-year deal with the Vikings to re-establish his value. Cox has 13 interceptions in five NFL seasons. Posey was signed late in the offseason after being waived by Cleveland. Steeples saw limited action in two games last season.
Minnesota also addressed the position in the draft, selecting James in the sixth round and Price in the seventh round in May. Both might have an uphill battle for roster spots, though. Price is bigger and might have the edge for a roster spot after showing promise during offseason workouts.
Best position battle: How the Vikings round out the final cornerback spots will be interesting to watch. Four spots are likely secured with Munnerlyn, Rhodes, Robinson and Sherels. There are possibly two or three more positions on Minnesota’s active roster.
Cox has the best track record and likely the edge for one of the final spots. Prater showed well last season, but it was under a different coaching staff. The Vikings could also look to keep their young draft picks for the potential growth in James and Price, who are also tied to low-cost, four-year contracts. If James or Price don’t make the final roster, Minnesota could try to pass them to the practice squad.
Based on summer workouts, the decision could come down to Cox, Prater, Price, James, Steeples, in that order.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Bears; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions. Munnerlyn should provide a boost to Minnesota’s group and Rhodes could take another step, but there is more certainty with Green Bay and Chicago. Detroit is in a similar situation as the Vikings.
The Packers made the big move to keep Sam Shields in the fold by signing him to a four-year, $39 million contract. The deal makes Shields one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the game and he leads a crew that also returns Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde, who will see time at safety but also play as an inside cornerback.
Shields had four interceptions last season. Williams had 83 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions. Hayward had the big rookie season in 2012 with six interceptions, but was limited to three games last year because of injury. Hyde showed some playmaking ability in a partial role last year and Green Bay still has Davon House and Jarrett Bush as well. Green Bay has the strongest starters in the division and the most depth.
The Bears’ group is aging with 33-year-old Charles Tillman and 30-year-olds in Tim Jennings and Kelvin Hayden. So Chicago addressed the concern by skipping out on a safety early in the draft and selecting Kyle Fuller in the first round out of Virginia Tech. Fuller was the second cornerback drafted, behind Cleveland’s Justin Gilbert, when the Bears made the pick at No. 14 overall.
Fuller has good size (6-foot, 190 pounds) and athleticism, and should contribute right away. He gets the chance to be eased in because Tillman and Jennings are still around. A two-time Pro Bowl selection and 2012 first-team All-Pro, Tillman was held to eight games last season and he had three interceptions. Jennings started all 16 games for the first time in his career and led the team with four interceptions.
Detroit released Chris Houston in June, deciding to go with its young cornerbacks. The Lions enter the season with Darius Slay, a 2013 second-rounder, and Bill Bentley, a 2012 third-rounder, as starters. The team also drafted Nevin Lawson in the fourth round in May. Rashean Mathis started 13 games last year and returns. No cornerback on the roster had an interception last year, though.
Slay is the projected top cornerback and Detroit needs to see more from the 6-foot, 192-pounder out of Mississippi State. He played in 13 games as a rookie, starting four, and finished with 34 tackles, five pass deflections and no interceptions.