In an election year, Captain Munnerlyn is hitting the campaign trail.
When the Vikings secondary arrived in Mankato late last month, they were outfitted in team-issued swag that supported the cornerback’s campaign. On those T-shirts was an oversized nickel with his bust — the forehead and all — instead of Thomas Jefferson. The nickel read “In Captain We Trust.”
Munnerlyn’s platform is simple yet smart. He believes cornerbacks who cover the slot, known in football vernacular as nickelbacks, should be added to the Pro Bowl ballot, differentiating it from the outside corner position.
“Last year, I played almost 70 percent of the snaps. Fullback, they make the Pro Bowl and they’re not even on the field half of the time, you feel me?” Munnerlyn said. “It’s a position. It’s a position! It’s like a starting corner. The league has evolved into a passing league where they have three receivers out there. I definitely feel like we should be in the Pro Bowl.”
NFL offenses used three or more wide receivers on 61 percent of their plays last season, the highest mark in NFL history, a record that probably will be broken again in 2016. The annual increase in the usage of three-wide sets has made the nickelback position a critical one for NFL defenses.
Yet, in the past five years, the only two corners who predominantly played in the slot to be selected to the Pro Bowl were Denver’s Chris Harris last season and Carlos Rogers, playing for San Francisco, in 2011.
“I wasn’t even on the ballot [last season]. So I don’t think this is fair,” Munnerlyn said. “Slot receivers get to go. Why not nickel corners?”
Making his case
The NFL only lists two cornerbacks from each team on the fan ballot for Pro Bowl voting. Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman represented the Vikings. Every player is listed on the ballots for players and coaches, though.
“You [play] three guys now, so why not include a nickel?” agreed Newman, who plays on the outside for the Vikings. “Cap’s a pretty dang good one. He works hard. He’s smart, very cerebral. The best nickel in the league.”
Munnerlyn played a league-high 444 snaps in pass coverage out of the slot in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus. He led the league in 2014, too, and is the only NFL player to top 300 snaps in each of the past four seasons.
Overall, including playoffs, Munnerlyn ranked 18th among all Vikings in snaps played. He was on the field more than All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, starting weakside linebacker Chad Greenway and, yes, fullback Zach Line.
He drew the tough task of keeping up with top slot receivers such as Green Bay’s Randall Cobb, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Detroit’s Golden Tate, all of whom put up big enough numbers to earn a Pro Bowl nod in 2014 or 2015.
“Some teams are putting their best guys in the slot,” Munnerlyn said.
The Carolina Panthers put Munnerlyn in the slot full-time in 2011. Before then, the scrappy 5-9 corner had held his own on the outside in the SEC at South Carolina and in the NFL. He wasn’t thrilled initially about moving inside.
“It’s a tough position,” Munnerlyn said. “They’ve got a two-way go on you. [Slot receivers] can go anywhere, across the field. They’ve got all this room.”
Nickelbacks also must be sound tacklers. They at times have to set the edge in run defense. And they are the critical first line of defense on screen plays. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer also likes to send Munnerlyn on blitzes.
Grading out well
After his bumpy debut season with the Vikings in 2014 when he admittedly freelanced too much, Munnerlyn was one of the NFL’s better nickelbacks in 2015. Pro Football Focus graded him as their 18th-best cornerback overall.
“I do feel like I’m one of the best in the business at the position,” he said.
That is the main reason why Munnerlyn has tried to start the grass roots movement for the league to add a nickelback position to the Pro Bowl ballot. At one point, though, Munnerlyn had something at stake financially in this campaign, too. He would have triggered a $500,000 escalator in his contract had he been selected to and played in the Pro Bowl in either 2014 or 2015.
“Yeah, most definitely!” the 28-year-old said with a big laugh after he got busted. “But I also want the recognition that slot corners are important.”
There is nothing in his contract that says Munnerlyn will be compensated if he reaches the Pro Bowl after this season. He can, though, earn a $500,000 bonus if he plays at least 85 percent of the snaps, which he did in 2014.
More importantly, though, Munnerlyn is playing for a new contract. The three-year deal he signed in 2014 is set to expire after the season and the Vikings used their second-round pick to draft nickelback Mackensie Alexander. Munnerlyn, who wants to stay in Minnesota, has a lot at stake in 2016.
“I’m just trying to take it to the next level, man,” Munnerlyn said. “I want to go out there and have the best year possible, get a lot of interceptions, don’t give up many big plays, get after the quarterback whenever I’m asked to blitz and get this team to the Super Bowl. That’s my goal.”
If he can do all that, he better be on that ballot this time around.