When the Vikings rotate cornerbacks for practical reasons during games, symbolism is in play too. Just as it's uncertain who's in from play to play, it's uncertain who's in next season, in the case of three starters.
Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander all reach turning points once this season ends.
Rhodes, two years removed from an All-Pro season, has no guaranteed money left beyond this season on a five-year, $70 million contract. Last weekend, the two-time Pro Bowl selection was replaced by Mike Hughes for three series of the rotation against the Lions before injuring his ankle in the third quarter.
After being limited in practices this week, Rhodes is expected to play against the Chargers despite being listed questionable, according to coach Mike Zimmer. Rhodes said he has maintained a positive outlook regardless of the plans for his playing time or long-term future in Minnesota.
"I just have to make plays when I'm in the game," Rhodes said. "That's my mind-set. I'm not worried about [it]. I mean, when I get in the game that's when I have to flip that switch. When I was in, I was able to make those plays, make those reads."
Rhodes and Hughes said this week they're expecting more of the same rotation against the Chargers unless told otherwise by coaches before kickoff.
"It's just something that we decided to do last week," Zimmer said. "We may not do it this week, just felt like it was the best thing to do at this point."
Zimmer said the cornerback rotation helps a Vikings secondary allowing 22 passing touchdowns this season, approaching as many as the past two years combined (28).
"Yeah, we played better," Zimmer said. "There was only like one or two things that during the course of the ballgame that we did not do like they're being coached to do. Hopefully that continues to improve, maybe take a little wear and tear, where they have to be thinking all the time, off their plate. I don't know, we'll see what this week holds."
Alexander, the slot corner and a free agent in March, played more (80%) against the Lions than any Vikings corner because of the three-man outside rotation with Rhodes, Hughes and Waynes. Alexander, who declined an interview request Friday, has taken over the Vikings' slot role since the Nov. 3 loss at Kansas City, ending a previous slot rotation with Hughes.
Alexander's strong play should create suitors, and a league source said he is "looking forward" to testing the open market in March, adding to the Vikings' uncertainty at corner. Waynes, the 2015 first-round pick, is also a free agent in March. The Vikings' future salary cap situation is $1.2 million over the projected 2020 cap, according to Spotrac.com, meaning to sign anybody the front office will need to select among many potential roster moves to clear cap space.
The only current long-term certainty is Hughes, the 2018 first-round pick who has played left, right and slot cornerback for the Vikings.
"I'm glad they trust me to put me anywhere on the field," Hughes said. "I kind of take it as a compliment. Obviously, they think I'm a pretty smart guy, I'd like to think I'm a smart guy, too, so anywhere they want to put me I'll be ready to go."
Hughes, 22, said he has passed what felt like a rookie wall earlier this season, when he returned from last year's multi-ligament knee injury that forced him to miss 10 games, training camp and the preseason.
"I kind of hit a wall, but I think the bye week helped out a lot," Hughes said. "You just really have to take care of your body. That's a really important thing. I think a lot of guys say it, but actually doing it is really important."
Vikings cornerbacks had only positive reviews of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, talking up the frenetic veteran's arm and fortitude. But the trash-talking Rivers has nearly as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns (20) this season, an issue that could boost the rhetoric around the Vikings secondary while quieting another potential critic in Rivers.
"Philip will hurt you in many ways," Rhodes said, "but also with his words, without cursing."