The Vikings secondary, which for much of the year started five players who had been together for at least four seasons, is approaching a crossroads.
Five contributors, including three starters in cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander and safety Anthony Harris, have contracts expiring in March while the group’s highest-paid member, Xavier Rhodes, has nothing guaranteed after what the former All-Pro described as a “long season for us as DBs, especially me.”
Rhodes’ hefty contract, currently commanding the seventh most expensive salary cap charge on the roster at $12.9 million, could be an initial domino to fall as the cap-strapped Vikings seek room to make moves.
“I ain’t thinking about that,” Rhodes said Jan 1. “I’m just playing ball. Whatever happens — happens, whether they want me here or they don’t. If they do, I’m here.”
Below, we’ll deliver 2019 grades for Vikings defensive backs and set up the 2020 outlook.
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Pending free agents
S Anthony Harris
CB Trae Waynes
CB Mackensie Alexander
S Jayron Kearse
S Andrew Sendejo
CB Marcus Sherels
Under contract through (+ 2020 cap hit)
2020: CB Holton Hill ($665K)
2021: S Harrison Smith ($10.75M), CB Mike Hughes ($2.7M), DB Nate Meadors ($510K), CB Mark Fields ($510K)
2022: CB Xavier Rhodes ($12.9M), CB Kris Boyd ($612K)
Grades are based on a 1-to-5 scale, with ‘5’ marking excellence, ‘4’ for above-average, ‘3’ for average, ‘2’ for below-average and ‘1’ for failure to perform. Players that did not accrue a season (weren’t on the active roster for at least six weeks) or played in five games or fewer are not graded. Below are individual grades, based on game and practice observations, weekly film reviews and interviews with coaches for 13 defensive backs who finished the season on the Vikings’ active roster, injured reserve or practice squad. Unofficial NFL stats, such as QB pressures, missed tackles and targeted passes, are compiled by ProFootballFocus.com.
S Anthony Harris (4.5) — Made himself a lot of money in his contract season. Led all NFL safeties with six interceptions and no touchdowns allowed in coverage during the regular season. Excellent vision and anticipation, not unlike Harrison Smith, of a safety well-prepared on the opponent’s tendencies. Knocked as a 2015 undrafted rookie for not being “athletic enough,” but he doesn’t need to be a world-class sprinter to make plays like the interception off future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees in the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans. Began tracking Ted Ginn’s deep post route during Brees’ windup, giving him ample time to make the impressive leaping pick (seventh on the year) and 30-yard return to set up a Vikings touchdown drive. One All-Pro vote. Snubbed from his first Pro Bowl. Played 922 snaps [83.1%]. One of eight Vikings to eclipse 1,000 snaps, including 92 on special teams. Missed Week 11 win vs. Denver due to groin injury. Penalized three times, including unnecessary roughness for helmet-to-helmet contact on Jason Witten in Week 10 win at Dallas. Sure tackler, but not a bully in the secondary. Missed five tackles, including Damien Williams during the 91-yard touchdown run in the Week 9 loss at Kansas City. Bounced off Taysom Hill during 28-yard run in New Orleans.
Primary deep safety, but also dangerous lurking from the box. Played robber throughout the season, starting in Week 1 win vs. Atlanta with two interceptions. Read Matt Ryan’s eyes from near the line, dropped and cut off Julio Jones’ crossing route for his first pick. Right place again when Russell Wilson batted his own deflected pass into an interception returned 20 yards for Harris’ first NFL touchdown in the Week 13 loss at Seattle. Biggest play against in coverage was Marvin Hall’s 47-yard grab off a jump ball in the Week 7 win at Detroit. The Vikings haven’t used the franchise tag since 2011, but the projected $11.5 million tag for safeties could make sense if a long-term extension in the $14 million annual range isn’t reached by mid-March. That would give both sides more time to hammer out a deal, if needed. Pending free agent.
S Harrison Smith (4.0) — One of six NFL safeties, including teammate Anthony Harris, with at least three interceptions and no touchdowns allowed in coverage. Seven All-Pro votes, falling one vote shy of a second-team honor. Named to his fifth straight Pro Bowl. Covered as well as ever, not allowing a touchdown for the second regular season in three years. Played 984 snaps [88.7%]. One of eight Vikings to eclipse 1,000 snaps, including 53 on special teams. Hamstring injury forced him to miss final six minutes, including the late goal-line stand, of Week 11 comeback win vs. Broncos. Penalized twice for defensive holding. Career-high three forced fumbles included slapping the ball out of Davante Adams’ hand in Week 16 loss vs. Green Bay. Heavy hands also ripped a deep pass away from Tyreek Hill in the Week 9 loss at Kansas City, one of Smith’s 11 pass deflections. Baited fellow veteran Philip Rivers into a dumb interception by turning hips to sideline covering a go route, then pivoting to pick off a deep crossing route at midfield. Spent fewer snaps on the line of scrimmage or in the box (369) than any season since 2015, perhaps due to problems covering at cornerback.
In turn, Smith struggled to maintain same impact against the run: career-high nine missed tackles and career-low 11 stops. Tied for team-worst 12 missed tackles overall. Misread play, out of position during Damien Williams’ 91-yard touchdown run in Week 9 loss at Kansas City. Remained secondary’s top pass rusher sent on 37 blitzes, but had fewest pressures (6) in a season under Mike Zimmer. Swiss Army Knife in coverage, part of why Vikings allowed an NFL-low one touchdown to opposing tight ends in the regular season. Deployed as a red-zone matchup against Saints tight end Jared Cook during the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans. However, Taysom Hill ran by him for a 20-yard touchdown catch in that win. Deserving of a new contract as current deal ranks ninth among safeties in average salary ($10.25M) with just two years left. Turns 31 on Feb. 2.
CB Mackensie Alexander (4.0) — Started best NFL season with a dislocated elbow on 19th snap in Week 1 win vs. Falcons. Missed two games against the Packers and Raiders before returning with an elbow brace in Chicago. Returned too soon and missed following game against Giants. Ran the post route for tight end Dallas Goedert during second NFL interception in Week 6 win vs. Philadelphia. Played 541 snaps [48.8%]. Not penalized. Immense growth as tackler, having missed 15 in past two seasons; led the defense with no misses this year. Reacts quickly and makes anticipatory plays in coverage, which coaches say is a testament to his film study. Jumped Michael Gallup’s whip route in Week 10 win at Dallas, deflecting the second-down pass. Ranked sixth among NFL slot corners allowing an 85.7 passer rating on throws his way. Surrendered two touchdowns in consecutive weeks against the Cowboys and Broncos, but couldn’t have covered much better on Dak Prescott’s perfectly-placed, 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Played well enough to get paid by the Vikings, but a league source indicated to the Star Tribune in December that he’s looking to top out his value in free agency. Could be too expensive. Pending free agent.
CB Mike Hughes (3.0) — Debuted Week 3 vs. Oakland with a brace on his surgically-repaired left knee as the slot corner while Mackensie Alexander nursed a dislocated elbow. Played outside and in the slot in Week 5 win at the Giants, deflecting three Daniel Jones passes while replacing Alexander and then Rhodes. Played 505 snaps [45.5%]. Missed six tackles. Started three games, two at left corner for Waynes (Cowboys, Bears) and one in the slot (Giants). Penalized twice. Given punt return job in Week 7 win at Detroit. Season-long, 23-yard return at end of Week 16 loss vs. Green Bay. Forced fumble on 34-yard Mecole Hardman kickoff return out of halftime of the Week 9 loss at Kansas City. Instinctive, quick cover corner willing to tackle. Ranked fourth on team with nine deflections. Second NFL interception on an underthrown deep ball by Philip Rivers in Week 15 win at L.A. Willing to play physical, but limited by size. Allowed three touchdowns, all as Mike Williams, Amari Cooper and Marvin Jones boxed him out or, in Cooper’s case, pushed off. While starting for an injured Trae Waynes in the Week 10 win at Dallas, couldn’t keep up with Cooper (11 catches, 147 yards). Expected to recover and play again after suffering a broken vertebrae in his neck during season finale loss to Bears. Placed on injured reserve two days before Jan. 5 playoff win in New Orleans.
CB Trae Waynes (3.0) — Fifth and final season under rookie contract for Vikings showed Waynes is above average when the play is in front of him, but things got dicey when the ball was overhead. Evident in Week 1 win vs. Falcons, crashing from the edge with a low tackle on Devonta Freeman to force fumble; Calvin Ridley caught a 20-yard touchdown over him two quarters later. Surrendered jump balls to the Broncos’ Tim Patrick (38 yards) and Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill (41 yards), the latter helping set up a Chiefs game-tying field goal in the Week 9 loss at Kansas City. Tied Xavier Rhodes for team-worst five touchdowns allowed, including a 40-yard score to Hill. Hardnosed on short routes, capable of jarring the ball loose with a hit to Alshon Jeffery like he did in the Week 6 win vs. Philadelphia. Nine pass deflections, including one in seven straight games from Weeks 4-11. Only interception came off Matthew Stafford’s desperation deep throw at end of Week 7 win in Detroit. Played 782 snaps [70.5%]. Missed Week 10 win at Dallas due to ankle injury. Penalized five times, including twice on the same third down in Week 1. Tied career-worst nine missed tackles, most among Vikings corners. Whiffed on Marvin Jones during one of the Lions receiver’s four touchdowns in Week 7 win. Part of a three-man rotation, with Xavier Rhodes and Mike Hughes, at outside corner in last month. Pending free agent.
S Jayron Kearse (2.5) — Named special teams captain entering his fourth and final season under contract, but the ‘C’ was removed from his uniform by November after an Oct. 27 DUI arrest. Fifth on the team with 223 special teams snaps [52.3%]. Busy September included replacing Mackensie Alexander as the slot corner in Week 1 win vs. Atlanta. Continued role in Week 2 loss at Green Bay, where he was pulled briefly after a 21-yard catch by Davante Adams and six-yard run by Aaron Jones his way. First NFL interception on Dak Prescott’s Hail Mary in Week 10 win at Dallas. Replaced Andrew Sendejo in Week 11 win vs. Denver, covering tight end Noah Fant on last two incompletions of goal-line stand. Played 275 snaps [24.8%]. Not penalized. Missed games against Chargers and 49ers due to a toe injury. Career-high five pass deflections came as he put a 6-foot-4 frame in the right places, with throws hitting his back in games against the Broncos and Packers. Vocal on social media about desire to move on from the Vikings. Pending free agent.
CB Kris Boyd (2.5) — Led the team in coverage tackles (10) and special teams playing time with 304 snaps [71.4%]. Not bad for a rookie seventh-round pick out of Texas who struggled through training camp and September, when he drew five flags in his first three games. Fined $28,075 for late hit on Packers punt returner Trevor Davis, negating a hold Boyd drew on same play at end of Week 2 loss. Flagged just once in next 15 games, drawing praise from coaches for his growth on and off the field. Played 97 defensive snaps [8.7%]. Carries himself with an edge, annoying the typically stoic receiver Allen Robinson during a season-high 49 defensive snaps in Week 17 loss vs. Bears. Pointed to the flag after Robinson faced up to Boyd and yelled something worthy of a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Put an exclamation point on his rookie year with a third-down pass breakup on Robinson and two tackles for losses.
S Andrew Sendejo (2.0) — The Vikings moved on from Sendejo last spring, when he signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia. The Eagles waived him after nine games, gaining compensatory-pick leverage, and the Vikings scooped him up. Started the following game in Week 11 win vs. Broncos due to Anthony Harris’ groin injury. Appeared in eight games. Played 153 snaps [13.8%]. Flagged once for unsportsmanlike conduct in season finale vs. Bears for tossing Tarik Cohen’s shoe. Missed fourth-and-1 tackle on quarterback Brandon Allen, setting up the Broncos’ three goal-line attempts at end of comeback win. Cut off tight end Noah Fant’s deep route to intercept Allen earlier in the game. Second pick came off David Blough’s desperation attempt at end of Week 14 win vs. Detroit. Only targeted five times as slot defender in playoff games at New Orleans and San Francisco, allowing four catches for 60 yards. Pending free agent.
CB Xavier Rhodes (2.0) — Looked lost in moments of seventh NFL season, which does not bode well for Rhodes’ future in Minnesota without guaranteed money remaining on his contract. Only two NFL cornerbacks, rookies Lonnie Johnson Jr. and DeAndre Baker, allowed more touchdowns (5) without an interception than Rhodes. Candid about his own struggles in season that bottomed out with confusion and sideline anger following a 60-yard touchdown to David Moore in the Week 13 loss at Seattle. Appeared slow and easily manipulated in coverage on plays like Darius Slayton’s 35-yard sluggo for a touchdown in the Week 5 win at New York. After solid debut in Week 1 win vs. Falcons, Rhodes was briefly asked to follow Davante Adams in the Week 2 loss at Green Bay; couldn’t keep up on crossing route for 15 yards. Allowed two touchdowns to Marvin Jones in the Week 7 win at Detroit. Not only didn’t shadow receivers anymore, but was demoted into a cornerback rotation with Mike Hughes after Week 11 issues with Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton who had deep catches for 43 and 48 yards. Put into the spin cycle by Saints receiver Deonte Harris on a nice route during a 50-yard catch in the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans. Gave up 21-yard crosser to Kendrick Bourne on third down of NFC divisional playoff loss in San Francisco.
Played 807 snaps [72.8%]. Deflected eight passes, including two in the playoffs. Stuck with Michael Thomas on a third-down comeback route, deflecting the pass to force a punt. Only forced fumble came on DK Metcalf in fourth quarter of Week 13 loss at Seattle. Led the team with 10 penalties, including eight for illegal contact (DPI/holding). Seven flags in the first eight games led Rhodes to claim there’s a “target on my back” from officials. Fined $21,506 for horse-collar tackle in Week 5 win vs. Giants. Five tackles for losses most in Vikings secondary. Nine run stops topped Vikings corners, including two in Seattle; drew an unnecessary roughness flag after the first for tossing Chris Carson while on the sideline. Missed seven tackles. Rhodes had problems in 2015, too, so down years in 2018 and 2019 are making his two-year run (and one All-Pro selection) look like the anomaly. Potential restructure or cut candidate with a $12.9 million cap hit, $8.1 million of which clears upon release.
CB Holton Hill (1.5) — Missed the first half of his second NFL season while serving two four-game suspensions for separate violations of the league’s PED and substance-abuse policies. Debuted on defense in Week 10 at Dallas as part of a dime personnel grouping, deflecting a third-down pass to tight end Jason Witten. Played 150 snaps [13.5%], half in season-finale loss to Bears. Aggressive man-to-man corner prone to crossing the line. Penalized once for unnecessary roughness after tossing a 49ers blocker out of bounds post play, giving San Francisco another 15 yards out of halftime of the playoff loss. Fined $10,527 following ejection from Aug. 18 exhibition vs. Seahawks for flagged helmet-to-helmet hit on quarterback Paxton Lynch. Missed two tackles. A lot to prove entering Year 3.
DB Nate Meadors (N/A) — Appeared in three games as an undrafted rookie out of UCLA. Played 13 snaps [1.2%]. Vikings coaches put much on his plate, playing Meadors at safety, corner and slot corner. Made NFL debut in slot during Week 2 loss at Green Bay. Blitzed Aaron Rodgers on first NFL snap; surrendered a 12-yard touchdown to Geronimo Allison on third and final snap vs. the Packers. Promoted Jan. 10 to the active roster after the Vikings reportedly worked out (and chose against signing) retired corner Terence Newman following season-ending injuries to Hughes and Alexander. Smart player expected to compete for reserve/special teams roles in 2020.
CB Marcus Sherels (N/A) — The Vikings decided to move on from Sherels, the franchise’s all-time leading punt returner, after nine NFL seasons last spring. Only to twice re-sign Sherels due to his replacements being injured. Re-signed Sept. 24 to replace Chad Beebe as punt returner. Fielded six punt returns for 33 yards in three games before he was replaced by Mike Hughes. Re-signed Jan. 3 after Hughes’ season-ending neck injury. Fumbled two returns (one lost) in NFC Divisional playoff loss at San Francisco. Pending free agent. Turns 33 next September.
CB Mark Fields (N/A) — Acquired Aug. 31 via trade with the Chiefs for a 2021 seventh-round pick to provide cornerback depth while Mike Hughes (knee) and Holton Hill (suspension) were unavailable at the start of the season. Made NFL debut in mop-up duty in Week 1 vs. Falcons, playing six snaps [0.5%]. Undrafted free agent out of Clemson. Waived Week 2, re-signed to practice squad where he spent rest of season. Signed reserve/future deal on Jan. 12.