The Vikings have enough options at the nickel corner spot that they’re not beholden to Mackensie Alexander in his third season. Terence Newman returns at age 40, after playing 55.8 percent of the Vikings’ defensive snaps last year to Alexander’s 32.5. And though the Vikings would likely prefer to bring Mike Hughes along slowly, the first-round pick does give them another option in the slot should they need one.
But even though they have a number of ways they could go, the Vikings certainly seem to be proceeding as though the nickel corner job is Alexander’s to lose. He’s been with the Vikings’ first-team nickel package since the spring, and started training camp there, as he gets his chance to become the kind of nickel that can play almost every down.
That’s Alexander’s goal headed into 2018, and it’s noteworthy that the Clemson product is as enthusiastic about his role in the nickel as he seemed to be on Saturday. By his own admission, Alexander “fought the situation” as a rookie. He mostly played in the nickel on passing downs last year, with Newman working when the Vikings were in nickel in running situations. This year, Alexander said, he’s fully embraced the role, and has his sights set on standing out at the position he used to detest.
“I showed a splash of things I can do last year,” he said. “I’m ready to be a Top 5 guy at my position this year and take over my job and do what I can do. I have high expectations for myself, I’m about to be one of the best at my position this year. There’s no question about it. Fully confident, got everything down. It’s Year 3.”
After the Vikings took Alexander in the second round of the 2016 draft, they seemed set to have him succeed Captain Munnerlyn after apprenticing for a year. Both Munnerlyn and Newman tried to mentor Alexander during his rookie year, but after spending much of his college career as Clemson’s No. 1 corner — where he was lined up outside and matched up against an opponent’s top receiver — Alexander pushed back on their advice.
He looks back on the situation now with gratitude, thankful that Newman didn’t give up on him.
“Think about so many guys and so many pros at any level, right?” Alexander said. “They are in a situation where they have a mentor in front of them and a lot of them [don’t] capitalize and you realize, ‘This guy played for 16 years in the league, and I only played five. If I would have known back then …’ I don’t want to be one of those guys. I want to be like, ‘Yeah, I came up under T-Newman.’ And not have an ego about it, but be like, ‘Yeah, I came up under one of the best to ever do it.’ That’s what you want.”
For Alexander, embracing the nickel spot has meant studying film differently. His role is often more intricate than that of an outside corner who can squeeze receivers toward the sideline. Alexander has a larger responsibility against the run, and he has to be cognizant of where he has help in the defense, since receivers can go inside or outside against him.
“Film study definitely changes: what you’re asked to do, how they’re going to attack you, understanding the defense, understanding what’s going on,” he said, “That’s the biggest key.”
Had Stefon Diggs’ last-second catch not turned into a game-winning touchdown, Alexander might have been the goat of a playoff loss against the Saints. He gave up a 4th-and-10 completion to Willie Snead that set up the Saints’ go-ahead field goal, before Marcus Williams’ missed tackle contributed to Diggs’ historic 61-yard touchdown to beat the Saints and send the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game.
If he can take the next step this year, though, the Vikings’ secondary could gain another measure of versatility. Munnerlyn played 61.5 percent of the Vikings’ snaps in 2016, and if the Vikings can count on Alexander that much, it’d allow them to move Newman around to a number of different spots. He’s played safety in the past, and has been working in a number of different spots before this season. The Vikings haven’t used many dime coverage shells, but they’d certainly have the depth to tinker with something along those lines if they chose to do so.
In any case, Alexander seems determined to take another step forward as a nickel corner in 2018. It’s certainly a significant change from where he was just two years ago at this time.
“I noticed I was holding myself back,” Alexander said. “I didn’t want to be in that situation where you’re not putting your best foot forward, because you don’t want to do something. You’ve got to grow up, do your job and do what’s asked of you. I turned it around, and that’s what I want to do. I want to be the best nickel for the Minnesota Vikings, period.”