Vikings hope young corners are ready to step forward
This is the ninth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 26 start of camp.
TODAY'S POSITION: CORNERBACKS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5
Projected starters: Chris Cook (fourth year) and Xavier Rhodes (first year)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): Brandon Burton, Bobby Felder, *A.J. Jefferson, *Jacob Lacey, Greg McCoy, *Josh Robinson, *Marcus Sherels, Roderick Williams
The breakdown: It's tough to lose your best cornerback and improve, but Minnesota might be better at the position this season even after losing Antoine Winfield. Winfield was a cap casualty on the first day of free agency once the Vikings saw tackle Phil Loadholt's price rising. Winfield, who was a steady veteran and one of the defensive leaders, was released, but the team -- particularly coach Leslie Frazier -- hoped he could be re-signed. Instead, Winfield shunned Minnesota's offer and signed with the Seattle Seahawks. Winfield was one of the league's elite run-defending cornerbacks and was solid covering slot receivers in the nickel defense, despite his short stature. He will be missed, especially from a leadership and on-field coaching perspective.
Without Winfield, the Vikings are hoping its young corners are ready to step forward. Minnesota used one of its three first-round draft choices on Rhodes, a tall corner who can likes to play press coverage and can also hold up in man-to-man and zone coverages. Rhodes has a chance to step in as a starter right away as a rookie and take Winfield's starting spot. Robinson is similar in stature to Winfield and might inherit Winfield's role inside in the nickel covering slot receivers. Robinson was a third-round pick last year. He got plenty of playing time last season, but was inconsistent at best and ceded time to Jefferson as the season continued. But he's fast, has potential and could be the nickel cornerback.
Cook might be the most important player to the Vikings' defense. Minnesota needs Cook to stay on the field. He has the size (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) and ability to stick with most of the league's top receivers, but he has yet to play a full season in the NFL. His rookie season in 2010 was cut short by injuries. Off-field issues ended his 2011 season and last year it was another injury that limited him to 10 games, which was his career high. He suffered a broken arm, but was able to return late in the year thanks to a new NFL rule regarding injured reserve and showed how valuable he is to the defense. He's still looking for his first NFL interception, but he's shown glimpses of being a true No. 1 corner. He is also taking on more of a leadership role with Winfield's departure, remarkable considering he's played only 22 NFL games in his three seasons.
Marcus Sherels played more on defense than the team probably wanted last season. His chances of making the roster this time around almost completely depend on special teams. He's still considered the team's most reliable returner in special teams coordinator Mike Priefer's eyes. If the Vikings are comfortable with any of the other options for returning, such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Robinson, Jefferson, or maybe even Joe Webb, Sherels could be released and the team would have room for another cornerback such as Burton, Felder or Lacey.
Best position battle: The second starter alongside Cook will be one of the most interesting battles to follow in training camp, but Rhodes is expected to eventually earn the spot. He will battle with Robison and Jefferson, who both started games last season. Robinson is small, but very quick. Jefferson adds to the team's height at the position. But it's Rhodes who was targeted in the draft with a first-round pick and would give Minnesota two starting corners that are tall, physical and aggressive and could really change the outlook in a secondary that has struggled in recent seasons. Rhodes will be given every opportunity to earn the starting spot and will, at least, be on the field in nickel situations on the outside. Robinson would be the inside slot corner in the nickel. Rhodes' talent and potential has the Vikings' excited and he should earn the starting spot eventually, if not right away.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Packers; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions.
Chicago features maybe the best two cornerbacks in the division in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Tillman was a first-team All-Pro last season and Jennings led the NFL in interceptions last season with nine. Both graded out in the top nine of all NFL cornerbacks according to the website profootballfocus.com. The Bears also have Kelvin Hayden, a former starter, as their third corner.
If Chicago has the best starter, Green Bay might have the best depth. Casey Hayward proved to be a big-time playmaker in his rookie season last year with six interceptions and 21 pass deflections and he might only come on in nickel situations. Sam Shields was a restricted free agent, but he returns on a one-year contract and is slated to start alongside Tramon Williams, but there will be an open competition in training camp, including Davon House, who started five games last season.
Losing Winfield is going to hurt Minnesota, but Cook, Rhodes and Robinson offer potential. Health with Cook and quick development by Rhodes and Robinson is needed.
Detroit has one corner it can trust in Chris Houston and is hoping second-round pick Darius Slay can contribute immediately. A pair of 2012 picks, Bill Bentley and Jonte Green, are the backups. But neither is proven and Bentley, a third-round pick, struggled as a rookie.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams on the deciding factor for the second starting spot: "Production as well as not giving up big plays . . . The thing that happens on defenses, a lot of teams don't necessarily win ballgames, they give up ballgames or get beat or beat themselves. We're trying to make sure first that we don't beat ourselves and then we take the next step and win ballgames. So we want to see if they can execute within the defense, take care of their assignments, play consistent football. And when you play consistent football, you always have a chance to win. Whoever does that, they'll be the starter. The good thing is when you have a lot of DBs, you can play multiple packages. And in today's NFL pass-happy world, the nickel is a starter. He's playing almost 50 percent and sometimes more in the base package. So you need three, four, five corners to function in today's NFL."
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