The Vikings have signed six free agents from other teams in the past two weeks. All six additions are to a defense that coach Mike Zimmer called "the worst one I've ever had" at the end of the 2020 season, and half of the group is part of the Vikings' effort to remake a secondary that lacked both depth and experience a year ago.
If the Vikings' first two free-agent moves — bringing back Stephen Weatherly and signing former Giants defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson — reflected how big of a priority it was for them to fix their defensive line, their subsequent moves have seemed like a realization they couldn't leave themselves as exposed on the back end as they were last year.
The team's 2020 plan for its secondary differed from Zimmer's carefully constructed template in several major ways. Instead of awarding rookies playing time once they've shown they're ready for it, the Vikings were forced to start young players right away, giving more defensive snaps to rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler than any first-year defensive backs in Minnesota under Zimmer. A salary cap conundrum meant they had little veteran experience after letting Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander leave, and a canceled offseason program meant Zimmer's customary way of vetting young corners — through hands-on training that functions like something of a boot camp — couldn't happen.
It's possible the NFL and NFL Players Association will agree on a virtual offseason program again this year, likely much to the chagrin of coaches like Zimmer who value on-field time in the spring and summer as a way to drill the details of their systems. At least if that happens again in 2021, though, the Vikings will be able to handle it with more experienced players than they had in 2020.
Alexander, who returned on a one-year deal, knows the Vikings' scheme from his four years in Minnesota, and new safety Xavier Woods, who agreed to a one-year deal worth up to $2.25 million, spent four years with the Cowboys after playing for new Vikings secondary coach Karl Scott at Louisiana Tech. Woods would seem the early favorite to start at safety next to Harrison Smith, whose presence in Minnesota was a big selling point for the safety.
"That was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be here, to be able to learn from him," Woods said Monday. "Be able to play, hopefully get the opportunity to play [with] him, and not only Harrison, but [Patrick Peterson]. That was the main reason why I wanted to be here.''
Peterson is the only addition to the secondary that hasn't been coached by a member of the Vikings' staff before is also the most experienced member of the group: He made eight Pro Bowls in his 10 seasons with Arizona, and comes to Minnesota knowing he will likely be asked to mentor players like Gladney and Dantzler at the same time he works on his own game.
"I know we have some young guys in that room that earned a lot of playing time last year," Peterson said on March 22. "I won't mind showing them the ropes like I alluded to earlier with [Cardinals receiver] Larry [Fitzgerald] showing me how to be a pro, showing these guys how to be a pro, how to study, how to take their game to the next level for sure."
That the Vikings added two corners to the secondary doesn't indicate they have soured on the rookies they added last year; though Alexander had grown as a slot corner during his time in Minnesota, his veteran minimum deal wouldn't seem to suggest he's a lock to take over that role.
His first stint in Minnesota ended on rocky terms, with Alexander playing on a knee injury as the Vikings rested starters in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Bears in 2019. It led to a torn meniscus that caused Alexander to have season-ending surgery and miss both of the Vikings' playoff games.
"That was an unfortunate situation that happened, my situation being dinged up and not able to go in the playoffs," he said Monday. "Like any other player you want to go out and compete. We're doing well, we're heading to the playoffs and you get injured. Things happen like that. There's not really much to say. Things happen."
Assuming Peterson occupies one of the outside spots, Dantzler could end up in the other and Gladney in the nickel role, with Alexander also factoring into the group.
The player whose future could be most in question might be Mike Hughes, who played in only four games last year after breaking a bone in his neck during the 2019 regular-season finale. The Vikings figure to decline Hughes' fifth-year option this spring, and he's due to count for $3.139 million against the cap this year, setting the team up to save $1.177 million by releasing him if he doesn't pan out this year. A source close to Hughes said this spring he's feeling healthy and working out regularly with the expectation of being back in Minnesota this year. If he struggles in training camp and the Vikings feel good about their depth at corner, though, his roster spot could be in jeopardy.
Zimmer hasn't talked to reporters since the end of the regular season, so the coach's plans for his new-look secondary are somewhat unknown. When he does speak next, it's a safe bet he'll talk about creating competition among the defensive backs, while accumulating more experience than the Vikings had last year.
After a year where the Vikings had to rely on young players — and in some cases, rely on midseason pickups like Chris Jones after injuries to Hughes and Dantzler — it's clear they wanted to leave themselves with more options in 2021 than they had in 2020.
"We've got, in my opinion, two future Hall of Famers already in the secondary," Alexander said of Smith and Peterson. "Me just being there is just a little bit of a bonus, but with those two guys [Peterson and Smith] it's going to help out tremendously."