Vikings secondary might have time to age

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2012 - 12:53 PM

The Vikings' young defensive backfield could catch a break early in the season because it'll face several young QBs, too.

Antoine Winfield was trying to guess what his peers in the Vikings secondary were doing when the Buffalo Bills drafted him in the first round in 1999.

"Probably getting on a bus on their way to middle school," he said.

Not exactly. At least not all of them.

The Vikings kept 11 defensive backs. Nine are younger than 26. Winfield, 35, is the only one older than that. As for 21-year-old rookie Josh Robinson? Well, he was in second grade when Winfield was a rookie.

In so many ways, all of this seems like a recipe to be torched beyond recognition in the NFC North. However, if ever there were a good time for a certain purple-colored NFC North cellar dweller to be executing the ultra youth movement in its secondary, this might be the year.

Let us count the ways ...

1. Of the first nine starting quarterbacks the Vikings are scheduled to face, three are rookies, two are second-year players and only one is older than 24.

2. Six of those nine quarterbacks have started fewer than 15 NFL games. Only one of them has a winning record.

3. Of the 10 non-division quarterbacks the Vikings face this season, only Houston's Matt Schaub would be considered an elite NFL quarterback. That's the product of the Vikings playing the NFC West and the AFC South. Compare that with next season, when the Vikings play the NFC East and AFC North, adding Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco to their list of opponents.

4. The Vikings don't play Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and the Bears until Week 12.

5. The Vikings don't play reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers until Week 13.

The Vikings open the season Sunday at home against the Jaguars and second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert. The 22-year-old Gabbert, last year's 10th overall draft pick, posted a league-worst 65.4 passer rating while finishing 4-10 as a starter last year.

After that, the Vikings face rookie Andrew Luck (Colts), Alex Smith (49ers), Matthew Stafford (Lions), second-year player and first-year starter Jake Locker (Titans), rookie Robert Griffin III (Redskins), John Skelton (Cardinals), Josh Freeman (Buccaneers) and rookie third-round pick Russell Wilson (Seahawks).

"I think it could potentially help us, because young quarterbacks tend to make decisions that more veteran quarterbacks wouldn't make," cornerback Chris Cook said. "It definitely gives us more chances to make plays on the ball and get more interceptions as a secondary."

The secondary had only seven interceptions while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 68.2 percent of their passes a year ago. That led to this year's youth movement, which includes a rookie starter at free safety (Harrison Smith), the likelihood of a rookie at nickel back (Robinson) and six backups with fewer than four years of NFL experience, including cornerback A.J. Jefferson, who was acquired in a trade six days ago.

"We're young, but I think our confidence is high," said Cook, who has played only 12 games with eight starts in his three NFL seasons. "It helps the confidence knowing we have such a more complete group than we've ever had back there as far as athletically."

Facing Gabbert at the Metrodome should be an advantage for the Vikings. No quarterback in the league was more skittish in the pocket a year ago than the youngster from Missouri.

"First of all, he was a young player," said new Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey, the former Falcons assistant who helped Matt Ryan develop after he was selected third overall in 2008. "I had Matt Ryan as a fifth-year senior. This year would have been Blaine's fifth year at Missouri. Then to come in [during the NFL lockout] and have no OTAs [organized team activities], no minicamps, no nothing. It's very similar to [Vikings quarterback Christian] Ponder."

Mularkey hired Greg Olson as his quarterbacks coach. As offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, Olson helped Freeman develop during his successful second season two years ago.

"Blaine's pocket presence and fundamentals in the pocket have helped his accuracy," Mularkey said. "He also was a 21-year-old quarterback who started 14 games. That will always be in his favor."

Meanwhile, from the Vikings' perspective, they're seeing the potential for things to be in their favor early on against so many young quarterbacks.

"That's the position you look at first on offense to see if you can get a gauge on the quarterback and his capabilities," Frazier said. "It's a big deal how confident that guy is under center. It does make a difference."

  • VIKINGS WEEK 1 • Season opener: Noon Sunday vs. Jacksonville • Mall of America Field • TV: Ch. 4 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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