After the 2017 NFL Draft, the Vikings entered Organized Team Activities with nine cornerbacks on the 90-man roster.
The Vikings currently roster five corners ahead of this month’s draft, setting the stage for Mike Zimmer to add another (or a couple) young defensive backs.
The need enters into focus when considering only two of the Vikings’ current cornerbacks — Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes — have played more than 400 defensive snaps for Zimmer. It may be inevitable Terence Newman and the Vikings settle financial differences, but he’ll be 40 in September coming off a career low in starts and playing time (56.1%) for the Vikings last season.
So that brings the Vikings, with pick No. 30, to a 2018 corner class on which they’re doing homework. At least two corners — UCF’s Mike Hughes (above) and Illinois State’s Davontae Harris — were among the team’s 30 pre-draft visits in Eagan last week. The Vikings also looked into the restricted free agency of Bears slot corner Bryce Callahan.
While a corner might not be the first-round selection (they’ve got an $84 million quarterback to protect, if you’ve heard), a possible Day 2 addition would make sense for a handful of reasons.
Corners go early. The 29 cornerbacks selected in the first and second rounds since 2015 mark the highest three-year total of this millennium. After years of abstaining from early-round corners, the Vikings have pivoted with three such picks in the past five years between Rhodes (No. 25, 2013), Waynes (No. 11, 2015) and Mackensie Alexander (No. 54, 2016).
“I think we’re still trying to get through the corners and figure out, after Denzel Ward, where everybody goes,” said NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock after the scouting combine. “Josh Jackson, Mike Hughes, Isaiah Oliver, Jaire Alexander, [Carlton] Davis from Auburn. I mean, there are six guys there. I think at least four of them are going to go in the first round.”
Five corners have gone in the opening round in three of the last four drafts. The Vikings could add some help at both ends of the draft, aside from eventual undrafted signings.
The clock is ticking on Alexander and Waynes. General manager Rick Spielman ponied up last summer to keep Xavier Rhodes on a five-year extension worth up to $14 million annually. The time is coming for the Vikings to decide on Waynes’ long-term future. Waynes made strides in his third season and has stayed healthy, meaning the Vikings this spring will likely pick up his fifth-year option for the 2019 season. Under Spielman, the Vikings typically extend core players before their final season under contract. So Waynes may be up next after Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter are possibly addressed this summer. Either way, the Vikings could use cheaper rookies at corner to either offset Waynes’ increased pay or replace him.
Alexander’s future with the Vikings is less certain. He saw the field more in Year 2 as tempers simmered between the brash 24-year-old Alexander and his hard-nosed head coach. But he’s yet to live up to the billing as the Vikings’ answer at slot cornerback after letting Captain Munnerlyn go in free agency. He was one of the league’s worst-rated tacklers, according to Pro Football Focus, and found himself in Drew Brees’ crosshairs while the Vikings nearly blew a 17-point lead in the NFC Divisional playoffs.
The draft provides intriguing options for slot corners, including Louisville’s Jaire Alexander, LSU’s Donte Jackson or a likely Day 2 hybrid defensive back like North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart. The Vikings got a closer look by hosting a possible first-round pick in Hughes, the one-year Central Florida starter who had off-field issues that led to a misdemeanor assault charge, suspension and departure from UNC.
Depth is running low. Regardless of how they’re added, the Vikings need bodies at cornerback to simply hold practices this spring and summer. Currently, Marcus Sherels, the special teams leader, and Horace Richardson are the only cornerbacks under contract behind Rhodes, Waynes and Alexander. Re-signing Newman provides short-term depth, but no long-term solution. The Vikings could be targeting a corner on a couple days of the draft with their eight selections (30th, 62nd, 94th, 167th, 204th, 213th, 218th, 225th).
Help wanted at returner. A new kick returner again will be sought this summer after last year’s primary option, Jerick McKinnon, left in free agency. The Vikings had failed to find a steady replacement for Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs and could use another punt returning option alongside Sherels. A few cornerback prospects come with returning experience, including Hughes (three returned touchdowns in 2017), Alexander (43 returned punts) and Kansas State’s D.J. Reed (34.2-yard kickoff return average).