Vikings secondary, in search of its identity, loses Allen

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2012 - 8:13 AM

Asher Allen's retirement did catch the Vikings off guard. However, it's one of many issues the rebuilding unit is trying to sort out.

As Antoine Winfield came off the practice field Wednesday, finished with his second day of organized team activities, he was asked which of his fellow cornerbacks had made the biggest impression.

Winfield squinted, looked around, then smiled.

"Uhhhh, I'm not familiar with names yet," he confessed.

Hey, who could blame him for the confusion? With all the new faces roaming around the Vikings' defensive backfield right now, it might take flash cards to keep the names and faces straight.

To make matters more confusing, one of the few notable returnees expected to be in the secondary mix was missing Wednesday.

For good, too.

Cornerback Asher Allen, it turns out, informed the Vikings last week he was retiring -- after only three seasons, at age 24. Head coach Leslie Frazier revealed that surprise after practice but offered little to explain Allen's reasoning.

"I didn't see that coming," Frazier said. "But everybody has to make the decisions they think are best for them."

It's hard to say at this point whether Allen's decision was influenced by health worries. Attempts to reach the young defensive back were unsuccessful. But as safety concerns elevate across the NFL, it is worth nothing that Allen was listed on the injury report before nine games last season and missed games in Weeks 1, 4, 13 and 16 with foot, shoulder and head injuries.

Most significant, he suffered a concussion Dec. 18 against New Orleans. He'd also had a concussion a year earlier.

Quick change

Who knows how important a role Allen might have played in 2012? Out of necessity, he was a significant contributor last fall to a weakened defensive backfield. But with the aggressive rebuilding efforts ongoing, he might have had to battle just to make the roster.

Allen's exit, it's presumed, will open the door for the Vikings to add another body to their secondary. Whoever that turns out to be will have to introduce himself to Winfield, who in recent days has been getting to know new corners Chris Carr and Zack Bowman (both signed in free agency) and rookie Josh Robinson (drafted in the third round in April).

Oh, a pair of rookie safeties (Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton) also could be in line to earn significant playing time this fall.

Plus, promising corner Chris Cook is back after missing last season's final 10 games following his arrest on domestic assault charges.

No wonder Winfield has been admittedly dizzied by all the turnover.

"When you go 3-13, it happens," he said. "This is a business and hopefully change will be good. We have a lot of young guys hungry to compete."

At 34 and heading into his 14th season, Winfield admits he feels his clock ticking but vows to be a vocal veteran leader for all his new teammates.

"I'm very familiar with this defense," Winfield said. "I'm sure a lot of the young guys will have questions. My door is open. My phone is available. They can call me. I'll help with anything."

Winfield's new defensive coordinator, Alan Williams, is thrilled to have that stability. Especially amid all this change.

"I want Antoine to be himself," Williams said. "He's speaking up, taking guys under his wing and is showing them how the Vikings do things. You can't overstate the value of that. He's earned the right to be heard."

Hey, with so much secondary improvement needed, every little thing counts.

'It takes time'

Williams knew what he was getting into when he arrived in mid- January, inheriting a pushover pass defense that opposing quarterbacks bullied for 4,019 yards, 34 touchdowns and a startling 68.2 completion percentage last season.

The defensive coordinator knows improvement is mandatory. Still, he has no plans to dramatically change the system.

The personnel refurbishment should help.

For what it's worth, the Vikings used 11 different starters in the defensive backfield last season. Five of those players (Allen, Cedric Griffin, Tyrell Johnson, Husain Abdullah and Benny Sapp) are no longer with the team.

So while Williams acknowledges the struggles of 2011, he's not so sure how relevant they are going forward. After all, as Winfield will confirm, an array of new troops has arrived.

And so far Williams is encouraged by what he's seen. He sees Robinson's upside.

Bowman and Carr? They're experienced and hungry and will heighten the competition.

And Cook, Williams believes, should be in line for a breakout year.

"Before I even got here, I knew about Chris' talent," Williams said. "We looked at him when I was in Indianapolis. You very rarely get corners like him, a big guy who has little man features as far as quickness and an ability to run and change directions. He can be an elite corner in this league."

Still, for now, Williams is keeping his expectations tempered and the slogan simple: "It takes time."

If you ask the new defensive coordinator to convince outsiders that the secondary will be OK, he'll simply shrug, not ready in late May to make promises.

"That's not my job to convince anyone," he said. "Our job is to show results."

So how can the Vikings show results during OTAs and minicamp and into training camp?

"I don't think we can," Williams said. "This is a work in progress. And the only true way to show results and change minds is to win games."

Dan Wiederer • dan.wiederer@startribune.com

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