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Another one? Why Vikings keep looking for defensive backfield help

Leading into the NFL Draft starting Thursday, April 25th, the Star Tribune will assess the Vikings roster, draft history and college prospects during this eight-part series.

No. 8 need: Quarterbacks
No. 7: Running backs
No. 6: Receivers
No. 5: Linebackers
No. 4: Defensive backs

Four of the Vikings’ more experienced defensive backs enter the final seasons under contract. That includes cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, as well as safeties Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse. The long-term outlook, combined with cornerback Mike Hughes’ recovery from a torn ACL and cornerback Holton Hill’s four-game suspension, again make the secondary an area to add in the draft.

This NFL Draft class is regarded as deep at cornerback and, in particular, safety, where the Vikings may seek to bolster its own depth considering Harris is playing on a one-year deal and both safeties Andrew Sendejo and George Iloka left in free agency.

Level of need
No. 4. The Vikings’ stingy secondary doesn’t have many long-term fixtures at this point. Only one proven cornerback, Rhodes, is signed beyond this season. Vikings coaches obviously expect big things from Hughes, but he may not be cleared for team drills until training camp. Depth needs to be addressed at both cornerback and safety.

Contract years

Cornerbacks
Xavier Rhodes (2022)
Trae Waynes (2019)
Mackensie Alexander (2019)
Mike Hughes (2021)
Holton Hill (2020)
Craig James (2020)
Duke Thomas (2019)

Safeties
Harrison Smith (2021)
Anthony Harris (2019)
Jayron Kearse (2019)
Derron Smith (2019)
Jordan Martin (2021)

Draft history

Cornerbacks
Mike Hughes (2018, 30th overall)

Jack Tocho (2017, 245th overall)

Mackensie Alexander (2016, 54th overall)

Trae Waynes (2015, 11th overall)

Kendall James (2014, 184th overall)
Jabari Price (2014, 225th overall)

Safeties
Jayron Kearse (2016, 244th overall)

Antone Exum Jr. (2014, 182nd overall)

Harrison Smith (2012, 29th overall)
Robert Blanton (2012, 139th overall)

Mistral Raymond (2011, 170th overall)

Don’t forget about
S Anthony Harris. Harris grabbed hold of the starting job in Week 8, and this time he didn’t let go. The former undrafted safety out of Virginia has made the leap to starting material, leaving a reputation as one of the most intelligent players in the room. The Vikings gave him the second-round restricted free agency tender (worth $3 million), showing the team’s brass thinks highly of him. A long-term contract extension down the road wouldn’t be a shock. Even then, depth may be added. The Vikings have five safeties under contract, including two signed from the defunct AAF.

Five names to know
CB Isaiah Johnson, Houston: Johnson is just two seasons into playing cornerback after moving from receiver. That makes his team-leading seven deflections as a senior more impressive. He’s likely a mid-round project pick with a lot of upside. NFL teams should be drawn in by height (6-2) and arm length (33″) just shy of Xavier Rhodes. The Vikings hosted Johnson at team headquarters on a top 30 visit this month. He’s projected as a fourth-round pick.

S Amani Hooker, Iowa: As an intelligent hybrid safety, Hooker has a lot to offer to NFL defenses trying to combat the rise of athletic tight ends. The Park Center, Minn. native practiced against 49ers tight end George Kittle and current first-round prospects T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant throughout his time at Iowa. Hooker (5-11, 210 pounds) has had formal visits with the Vikings and Titans, he told the Star Tribune. The Seahawks have also shown a lot of interest. He’s a projected mid-round pick.

S Marquise Blair, Utah: A second-team All-Pac-12 honoree, Blair made his mark as a hard-hitting safety with two tackles for a loss, two interceptions, two deflections and a forced fumble. The junior college All-American played two seasons at Utah. Draft analysts say Blair (6-1, 195 pounds) will need to play with more discipline in the NFL due to targeting penalties in college. Mike Zimmer might not mind that, as he says he’d rather tell his defenders ‘whoa’ than ‘go.’

CB Alijah Holder, Stanford: An All-Pac-12 honorable mention as a senior, Holder progressed toward the end of his college career and should be an intriguing late-round project. It’s because he stands 6 feet and 1 inch and has fairly long arms that could ease his transition to the NFL. He had just two interceptions to 24 deflections at Stanford, illustrating his work in progress.

CB Derrick Baity Jr., Kentucky: Baity Jr. (6-2, 197 pounds) has the size coveted by the Vikings and Zimmer, who was at Kentucky’s pro day last month and worked closely with Baity Jr., according to reporters at the school. Didn’t produce a lot of deflections and picks despite being a three-year starter, so he could be a late-round or undrafted project. Zimmer also saw Baity Jr.’s teammate, cornerback Lonnie Johnson (6-2, 213 pounds), who is a possible Day 2 pick.

How it’ll happen
Our best guess is the Vikings draft another cornerback, perhaps as early as Day 2. General manager Rick Spielman has taken three first- and second-round corners since 2015, so you know they want pedigree at the position. A safety could be on his way to bolster depth, perhaps as a late-round pick.

2019 Vikings schedule: What are the toughest games, key matchups, best road trips?

For whatever it’s worth in April — before the draft, and well before the commencement of injuries that inevitably alter the course of a NFL season — the Vikings’ 2019 schedule is the league’s eighth-toughest, in terms of the winning percentages their opponents had a year ago.

That’s a function of the league’s schedule rotation, which has the entire NFC North playing all four teams from the AFC West this season. The Vikings and Packers, as part of that rotation, each have road games against the Chiefs and Chargers — a pair of 2018 playoff teams — and travel to Dallas and New York as part of the NFC North’s set of games against the NFC East.

In other words, there’s really not much about a team’s schedule that’s determined by how it fared the previous year. Only two games — the Vikings’ season opener against the Falcons and their Monday night game in December in Seattle — were determined by their second-place NFC North finish in 2018, with the rest determined as part of the league’s rotation.

That said, the order of the games adds some wrinkles to the equation — and provides plenty of material for digital prognostications destined to age poorly. With that in mind, here’s a look at the 2019 schedule in more detail:

Toughest stretch: The Vikings have just one home game between Oct. 24 and Dec. 8, and the road trips they’ll take during that span are arguably their most difficult of the year. They’ll travel to Arrowhead Stadium on Nov. 3 to face the Chiefs, before playing on Sunday night the following week in Dallas, against a Cowboys team that’s beaten Kirk Cousins six times in seven meetings. After a Week 12 bye — the Vikings’ latest since 1991 — it’s on to Seattle for another Monday night game, after the Vikings were nearly shut out there last year and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired following the game. Two of the three road games are in a pair of the league’s most formidable venues, and two of them are in prime time, where the Vikings were 1-4 last year.

Easiest stretch: It comes right before the Vikings travel to Kansas City, when they’ll need to feast on four opponents that were a combined 27-37 last year. The Vikings will face a rebuilding Giants team on Oct. 6, before returning home to take on the Eagles in what figures to be a game rife with subplots (Carson Wentz back in the Midwest, the Eagles returning to the building where they won the Super Bowl, the budding rivalry between the teams after the 2018 NFC title game, etc.). The Vikings travel to Detroit on Oct. 20, before coming home to play the Redskins on Thursday night. Mike Zimmer grumbled last year about how the Vikings are consistently sent on the road for Thursday games, and the league gave the Vikings their first short-week Thursday home game since 2013, when they beat the Redskins. They hosted a Thursday night game in 2016, but that came against the Cowboys a week after they’d lost to the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

Division road wins could hold the key: The two times the Vikings have made the playoffs under Mike Zimmer — in 2015 and 2018 — they’ve won the NFC North by beating all three division foes on the road. The three years they’ve missed the playoffs, they’re a combined 1-6-1 on the road against the Bears, Lions and Packers. The fact they have all three of their NFC North road games within the first seven weeks of the season, then, could point their season in one direction or the other before they start their tough stretch of road games in November. The Vikings will again visit Lambeau Field in Week 2, facing a Packers team that will have had 10 days off after opening the NFL’s 100th season on Thursday night against the Bears. Their last two division road trips at least come against teams facing short weeks following Monday night road games; the Bears play in Washington before taking on the Vikings Sept. 29, while the Lions are at Lambeau Field six days before the Vikings head to Detroit on Oct. 20.

West Coast night games: We talked at length last year about the difficulty of winning on the West Coast at night, and the Vikings will have to deal with it twice in three weeks this year. Both games come against 2018 playoff teams (the Seahawks and the Chargers). Vikings fans could flood the StubHub Center for the Sunday night game against the Chargers on Dec. 15, like they did for a Thursday night game against the Rams last year. They’ll also benefit from an extra day of rest after the Chargers game, before they face the Packers on Sunday night at home on Dec. 23.

Fan-friendly travel schedule: The 2019 season will be my eighth covering the Vikings, and it will take a while before anything tops my favorite slate of Vikings road games (2015, when they opened the season in San Francisco, traveled to Denver in October, went back to the Bay Area to face the Raiders in November and visited Arizona in December). But this year’s slate, with its December West Coast trips, lack of cold-weather games and enjoyable destinations, could be a highlight for those traveling to Vikings games. While Lambeau Field is a lot of fun in December, it’s much more palatable early in the season, and the atmosphere in Green Bay should be charged up for the Packers’ home opener.

The Vikings’ back-to-back big-city trips — to Chicago and New York — come in the early autumn; having covered MLB and NHL games in both of those great cities, there’s no better time of year (in my opinion) to visit either one than the fall. Arrowhead Stadium in early November could bring resplendent football weather, and it should still be warm in Dallas the following week when the Vikings hit the big stage against the Cowboys. The worst you might do on the road this year is some in rain in Seattle, but I’m always a fan of West Coast trips late in the season (for the brief respite they offer from the cold), and a Dec. 15 game in Southern California is a nice treat for Vikings fans looking to see the team on the road this year.

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