The Vikings used their first-round pick last offseason on Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes. But he played mostly on special teams as a rookie due to the steady play of their other significant secondary addition.
Veteran corner Terence Newman, who turned 37 days before the start of the 2015 season, started every game for the Vikings in his first season in Minnesota. His familiarity with coach Mike Zimmer’s scheme allowed him to be a steadying presence and, as a result, keep Waynes off the field.
Zimmer tried to give the top pick a handful of defensive snaps every game. And after a rocky introduction to the NFL, Waynes played better late in the season, including the playoff loss to the Seahawks, during which he got his first career interception. He can earn a starting job this offseason.
Fellow corners Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn are also penciled in as starters in the nickel. Rhodes didn’t take the big leap forward that some pundits predicted but was solid in the season’s second half. Munnerlyn, meanwhile, played much better in his second season in Minnesota.
At free safety, Harrison Smith finally got some national recognition for his stellar play, though it took injuries to get him selected to his first Pro Bowl. He should get a lucrative contract extension this summer.
But there was a revolving door next to Smith, with Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton, Antone Exum and undrafted rookie Anthony Harris all getting starts at strong safety. The Vikings should look to stabilize that spot this offseason, especially with Sendejo and Blanton headed to free agency.
Vikings free agents: Sendejo and Blanton are free agents, and the Vikings could choose to let them walk. Josh Robinson is also likely a goner given Zimmer’s disdain for short cornerbacks, especially on the outside. They should keep reserve corner and punt returner Marcus Sherels around, and it would also make sense to re-sign Newman for another season, too.
Level of need: Moderate. Strong safety is again a need, though the position may be the least important in Zimmer’s defense. With Munnerlyn’s contract expiring after the 2016 season, the Vikings could look to draft a potential replacement at nickelback, unless they think Jabari Price is the guy.
Stat that stands out: 23 — combined pass break-ups for Rhodes and Newman. Both ranked in the top 40 players in the NFL in that category, but interceptions were lacking as the Vikings got just six of them from their cornerbacks. Those guys on the outside, particularly Rhodes, need to come up with more picks to discourage QBs from targeting them.
Burning question: What will the Vikings do at strong safety? Over the past two seasons, Blanton and Sendejo allowed too many big plays, but the Vikings didn’t feel they had a better option ready. Exum and Harris are under contract and will be around to compete for the job. The Vikings could also bring back Newman and shift him to safety, a position injuries forced him to play in the late-season loss to the Cardinals. Either way, though, they are expected to bring in a newcomer or two to battle for playing time.
Check out the Access Vikings blog tomorrow for a look at the special teamers.