The Vikings' spring practices have been a meet and greet, of sorts, for a reconfigured secondary boasting experienced newcomers.
Six of the Vikings' 11 cornerbacks on the offseason roster did not play in Minnesota last season, and half of the new players – Bashaud Breeland, Tye Smith and Amari Henderson – signed in the past two weeks.
"Right now, it's just trying to learn some of those new faces," co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said Thursday. "They're trying to get acclimated into the system. The good news this year is that we're out on the field with them and we get chances to work with them."
These organized team activities, which are the first 11-on-11 practices allowed by NFL rules and wrap up for the Vikings on Friday, provide needed time together for an overhauled cornerback group that could start three new players in Week 1. Minnesota's formal spring practices conclude with next week's three-day mandatory minicamp.
Patrick Peterson, the former All-Pro Cardinals cornerback, is cemented in the starting lineup after signing a one-year deal in March. Mackensie Alexander is the presumed starter in the slot after returning on a one-year deal. And Breeland, another veteran who signed a one-year deal last week, could supplant second-year corner Cameron Dantzler on the outside.
Dantzler, who started 10 games as a rookie last year, has yet to practice in three sessions open to reporters while nursing an apparent leg injury. The corner additions also indicate the Vikings aren't banking on Jeff Gladney, who started 15 games as a rookie, to be available after he was arrested and accused of domestic assault in April.
"You've got guys out there who've played in NFL games, so they have experience," co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. "They're not going through it for the first time like we did a year ago. But I think the other thing that's very important is you have a lot of competition."
But Breeland, who has 14 interceptions in 88 regular season games, is nursing a surgically-repaired shoulder that is delaying his first full Vikings practice. With Peterson and Alexander missing a practice or two this spring, younger corners like Kris Boyd and Harrison Hand have been getting plenty of reps along with advice from the new veterans.
"Patrick has been really great taking the young guys under his wing and helping with what he knows and sees with their game," Zimmer said. "Bashaud, we just got him, but he's won a Super Bowl as a corner so he knows what it takes to win in this league and cover in this league. That's valuable for us as a defense and it's also valuable for the young guys because they can lean on them and pick their brains. These guys have skins on the wall."
Who's the No. 3 linebacker?
Former Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson's free agency departure for Philadelphia opened the door for a new weakside linebacker in the base defense – and a top backup behind Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks in the often-used nickel defense. Second-year linebacker Troy Dye has taken the lead this spring, but the job won't be decided for a while.
"We'll rotate Troy and Cameron Smith, or we'll rotate Chazz [Surratt] in there some," Adam Zimmer said. "Nick Vigil has rotated in there some. We're just going to see who's the best player. We've got three preseason games for evaluation. It's the guy who's consistent and makes the fewest mistakes, but also makes plays. We want playmakers out on the field, just like Eric and Anthony."
Surratt, a rookie taken in the third round, is expected to return to practice Friday, according to Zimmer, after being absent from the June 2 and June 9 sessions open to reporters.
Patterson, the longtime NFL defensive line guru and Zimmer confidant, got a promotion to assistant head coach this offseason, which he said Thursday comes with more administrative duties while maintaining a similar dynamic among defensive coaches.
"Nothing's changed as far as the roles between Adam and I," Patterson said. "I have added responsibilities as far as working with things with Zim as far as overall big picture with the team and making decisions on what we want to do with the schedule, and those kinds of things. Trying to help him out and take some of the duties off of him."
New DT tandem
The presence of new Vikings defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson won't truly be felt until they put on pads over their combined 659 pounds. But Patterson said he's been pleased with their professional approaches as well as what he's seen from them during non-padded practices.
"The one thing that's been surprising is how sudden and how quick their feet are for big men," Patterson said. "What we've been doing [in non-padded practices], I've been able to get a lot out of it, as far as the run game is concerned and us being able to fit blocks correctly and being in the right position. So the only thing we're not getting is the full-speed pass rush out of them."