As a former fifth-round pick who’s been part of eight different NFL teams, Vikings cornerback Bene’ Benwikere knows a thing or two about the battle for roster spots in which he and his younger teammates are engaged this month.
“I know for me as a young guy, I was a draft pick [No. 148 overall in 2014], but I wasn’t necessarily the lottery pick of the draft,” he said. “I definitely think you feel that stress. I think for me, understanding now, it’s more so that coaches are looking for who can be accountable. I would advise them not to try and make the all-out play; just be consistent in your techniques and be where you’re supposed to be.”
Heading into the Vikings’ final two games of the preseason, the challenge before the team’s young defensive backs is this: They must improve on their uneven play — after a performance against the Seahawks in which some of the coverage issues that started with the first-team defense continued — or risk missing out on a roster spot for a team that could need to lean on its secondary depth.
The Vikings’ top three corners are set, with Mackensie Alexander handling the nickel role and Xavier Rhodes playing in the base defense with Trae Waynes. A team stocked with top-end talent, however, hasn’t been able to hang onto many moderately-priced veterans who could help in a pinch; Benwikere, who joined the team earlier this month, is the only other healthy corner on the roster who’s got starting experience and could be available in Week 1.
On Tuesday, as the Vikings got back to work following a win over the Seahawks on Sunday night, cornerback Mike Hughes continued to rehab his torn left ACL, doing single-leg stair bounds on the steps off in the corner of the practice fields. Holton Hill, who stepped in to start three games last year, will miss the Vikings’ first eight games because of two suspensions.
That leaves Benwikere — whom coach Mike Zimmer said fits best as a nickel cornerback — battling for a roster spot along with a group of young corners that still has plenty to prove. Kris Boyd, who was injured for the Vikings’ first preseason game, played only one special teams snap on Sunday night, while Hill was disqualified from the game for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Seahawks quarterback Paxton Lynch. The play of the rest of the group, Zimmer said, has been hit-and-miss.
“Kind of like the young receivers, kind of up and down,” Zimmer said. “They have a good play or a bad play. Speaking of the couple coverage busts, a couple of them were the young guys the other night, too. They need to be more consistent like the [young] receivers [do]. I would probably put them in that category.”
With less than two weeks left before rosters are cut down to 53 players on Aug. 31, much of the Vikings’ plan in the secondary could hinge on whether they believe Hughes has a chance to return early in the regular season. Even if he is, the Vikings could opt for caution with how much they use him in their early games.
An injury to Rhodes, Waynes or Alexander — or to Harrison Smith or Anthony Harris at safety, for that matter — could force the Vikings to learn quickly what their young defensive backs are capable of. The final weeks of the preseason could serve as a proving ground of sorts.
“I think all of them understand about being coachable; they understand it’s a different environment,” Benwikere said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, I used to do it this way.’ This isn’t college anymore. This isn’t your old team, or wherever you came from. I think they have that aspect under control.”