Chip Scoggins: Time to start over in Vikings secondary

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2011 - 11:16 PM

Among the veterans, only Antoine Winfield should remain, and he shouldn't be a first-stringer.

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Longtime Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield (right) only played in five games this season before ending up on injured reserve.

Photo: Michael Perez, Associated Press

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The Vikings played extensively last Sunday with a secondary that featured two rookies, a cornerback with two surgically repaired knees and a guy who spent most of the season out of football.

No wonder Leslie Frazier had steam coming out of ears after watching Tim Tebow torch his defense by throwing into suburb-sized gaps in their coverages. A toxic combination of injuries, legal problems and ineffective play has left the Vikings completely overmatched and overwhelmed at a position that screams for quality depth. They are just trying to hang on for four more games.

This can't happen again next season. The Vikings to-do list is longer than Santa's, and fixing the secondary should be their top priority.

By fix, we mean implode. Scrap the entire thing and start over. Teams don't often make wholesale changes in their secondary from one season to the next, but these are desperate times for the Vikings. Status quo won't work. Tweaking isn't enough.

Other than Antoine Winfield, name one defensive back who should be an absolute lock to make the team next season. OK, we'll grant exceptions to rookies Mistral Raymond and Brandon Burton because we haven't seen enough of them yet. But who else? The coaches like Asher Allen a lot, but the former third-round pick is a nickelback at best in a competent secondary.

The Vikings need four new starters in the secondary, three if they decide to keep Chris Cook, who remains on a paid leave of absence while he tends to his legal problems.

They should bring back Winfield and make him their full-time nickelback. That's still a prominent role, since the Vikings employ their nickel package about 50 percent of the time.

Injuries limited Winfield to five games this season before he was placed on injured reserve. He turns 35 next summer and is better suited to play in the slot than chase young receivers down the field all game. Winfield remains a reliable tackler who can blitz off the edge.

The wild card is Cook, who is away from the team while he fights felony assault charges. Cook put the Vikings in such a horrible position with his alleged actions that they should have zero tolerance if they allow him to return. So far, they haven't closed the door completely on him.

Cook started to show signs of his potential on the field before his legal troubles. He's a big, physical cornerback who plays with confidence against elite receivers. If he can pull his life together and get with the program, maybe he can salvage his football career.

If the Vikings decide to part ways with him, they should be in the market for two starting cornerbacks because it's hard to picture Cedric Griffin in that role going forward. Frazier delivered a scathing evaluation of Griffin this week, essentially acknowledging that the veteran is playing only because the Vikings have no other healthy options.

Griffin earned nothing but praise -- and deservedly so -- for the way he tackled his rehab after tearing the ACL in both knees. But he works in a bottom-line business, and he's just not the same player he was pre-injuries.

Their situation at safety isn't much brighter. Husain Abdullah and Jamarca Sanford haven't exactly solidified themselves as future starters. Abdullah came out of nowhere to win the job last year, but he regressed this season before landing on injured reserve. Sanford brings a physical element, but he is so inconsistent that he's hard to trust back there.

Frazier, a former cornerback, clearly is exasperated by the situation. His postgame remarks after a 35-32 loss to the Broncos had an unusual bite to them.

The Vikings can blame injuries and tough luck, but some of their problems are self-inflicted. They traded up in the second round to select safety Tyrell Johnson, who has been a major disappointment. They spent big money on free-agent safety Madieu Williams, who had little impact and never looked the same after injuring his neck in his first season.

More than tweaks, the secondary needs a complete makeover. The Vikings are staring at a top-5 pick in the draft, possibly as high as No. 2. If they get that pick, they would be crazy not to take Southern California left tackle Matt Kalil -- if he doesn't return to school -- and pencil him in long-term. But if they fall down the order a spot or two, Louisiana State cornerback Morris Claiborne should be their guy.

That would be a nice start but not nearly enough. A situation this messy requires more than just one move to clean up.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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