Since Mackensie Alexander was in high school, he’d always loved the stage on which the cornerback position put him: split wide from the defensive formation, away from the din of clashing bodies, locked in a balletic duel with an opponent’s best receiver.
What the Vikings had in mind when they took the cornerback in the second round of the 2016 draft, though, was not the role he’d always cherished.
With Captain Munnerlyn set to hit free agency in a year, the Vikings wanted Alexander to master the nickel spot: stationed near the middle of the defensive formation, opposite a receiver who could go any which way, tasked with memorizing run fits and zone coverage rules. He did not want to sit and learn. And he did not want to be a nickel corner.
“It was a different role for me, and I didn’t want to take the role,” Alexander said. “I didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t want to play it. I didn’t want nothing to do with it.”
After a year in the league — and some hard conversations with Vikings coaches — Alexander says he has a new outlook. And if the Vikings stick with their initial plan to play the second-year corner in the nickel, he’ll still have plenty of attention coming his way at what’s become one of the most important spots in an NFL defense.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the use of a nickel corner has been on the rise for the better part of the past decade, as the frequency of teams using three or more receivers went from 50.6 percent of snaps in 2007 to 64.8 percent last year.
Munnerlyn was on the field for 636 of the Vikings’ 1,035 defensive snaps a year ago, and was in the slot for 567 of them, according to Pro Football Focus. The Vikings will begin their season against two teams, the Saints and the Steelers, that use plenty of multiple-receiver sets.
The Vikings’ trade for Tramaine Brock gave them some insurance at the nickel, if not an alternative to Alexander. But if the 23-year-old is on the field against Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and the other veterans he’ll face early this year, he knows he’ll be tested.
“When you’re a young guy, they’re going to try to attack you, see if you can play and stuff like that,” Alexander said. “I’m looking to make an impact there.”
Last year, Alexander tried the patience of coaches and bucked against veterans who offered to help. Before this season, coach Mike Zimmer made it simple.
“I think he figured out that he wasn’t going to play the way he was doing things,” Zimmer said. “… Everything happens quick in there. It’s a lot of change of position. You still have to play the run. You’ve got to blitz, and really, a lot of it is understanding the route combinations and the formations, especially in zone. In man-to-man, it’s, ‘I’ve got this guy.’ It’s more about understanding where your help is, and, especially in the zones, understanding the route combinations.”
Alexander has now dedicated himself to learning the nuances of the nickel. As for the position itself, Alexander now says he welcomes it.
“You’re almost a [line]backer, but the same time, you’re a good cover guy,” Alexander said. “You’ve got to be able to be smart. I mean, it’s going great. I’m embracing the role, and I’m loving it.”
The big stage might have moved a few feet, but it will still be there.
“You’ve got to grow up. In every job situation,” he said, “you’ve got to grow up, and you’ve got to accept what’s the new job for you. I’ve always been good, so I embrace the role, and I’m going to be the best at it.”