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The future of the Vikings, Part 7: Cornerbacks

Bring Me The Sports on FanNation 2/1/2023 Paul Hodowanic of Purple Insider
© Provided by Bring Me The Sports on FanNation

Minnesota has long tried to address its issues in the secondary and it will once again be a top priority heading into 2023.

Pass defense was at the forefront of the Minnesota Vikings’ issues all season long. It didn’t matter if it was Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts or Mac Jones and Mike White, the team struggled against nearly every opponent and every quarterback.

The stats bore it out. The Vikings ranked 30th in yards per pass allowed, 22nd in opponent passer rating, 25th in success rate and 26th in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA.

Those numbers reflect poorly on all three levels of the defense. The blame doesn’t solely reflect on the cornerbacks, the secondary at large or the defensive scheme. Just as consistent success takes a village of people contributing – so does consistent failure.

The cornerback position and the secondary at large was a priority last season – the Vikings spent three draft picks in the first four rounds in the area, but after a lack of first-year results and a bevy of expired contracts, the unit again figures prominently on Minnesota’s offseason to-do list.

The contracts (sorted by snap count):

  • Patrick Peterson – free agent
  • Chandon Sullivan – free agent
  • Cam Dantzler – in the final year of his rookie contract, a $3 million cap hit
  • Duke Shelley – free agent
  • Akayleb Evans – second year of his four-year rookie contract, a $1 million cap hit
  • Andrew Booth Jr. – second year of his four-year rookie contract, $1.89 million cap hit
  • Kris Boyd – free agent

Will the Vikings bet on Patrick Peterson again?

Three of the Vikings’ top-four cornerbacks in snaps are currently free agents and there are major question marks in deciding whether to bring back each of them. Maybe none as important as Peterson, Minnesota’s No. 1 cornerback from a year ago.

Peterson will be 33 years old at the start of next season but is coming off a career renaissance year. His 79.7 PFF coverage grade ranked 10th among all cornerbacks last season and his best grade since 2018. He allowed a 77.3 quarterback rating, the 13th-best mark among cornerbacks that played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps. His nine pass breakups were the highest in his career and the five interceptions were the second-most in his career. He also registered a career-high in run stops and cut his missed tackles percentage in half.

He was also among the least-targeted cornerbacks in the NFL. Peterson was targeted on about 1 of every 9 snaps, the fourth-lowest rate in the league. The only cornerbacks targeted less frequently were Patrick Surtain II, Jaycee Horn and Marlon Humphrey – three of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL. Peterson seems like the odd man out in that group – and some of that could be due to teams taking advantage of all of Minnesota’s other weak links, but Peterson’s numbers when he was targeted indicate he stood up well.

Like many decisions this offseason though, whether Peterson is retained will depend heavily on which direction this franchise chooses to take – contention or rebuild. It may also depend on the Vikings’ defensive coordinator hire. Peterson’s rejuvenation in Minnesota over the past two years has coincided with a massive shift in what the veteran cornerback is asked to do.

Through his All-Pro years in Arizona, Peterson was consistently relied upon in man coverage. In his final year with Arizona in 2020, he played man coverage over 40 percent of the time. In Minnesota last year it was just 15%, a career-low.

If the Vikings opt to keep a zone-heavy scheme with another Fangio disciple – like Seattle assistant Sean Desai – the odds Peterson is retained likely jump up dramatically. If it’s a more man-heavy scheme – like Pittsburgh assistant Brian Flores – Peterson may be less likely to return.

Peterson could continue to be a value as a locker room presence regardless of the scheme, especially as the cornerback group remains full of young and inexperienced players. Though that may depend on what type of contract he asks for.

Last year all Peterson could fetch in free agency was a one-year, $4 million to return to Minnesota. After the way he performed last season, it’s safe to assume the veteran will be looking for more than that – as he should.

But do the Vikings believe Peterson’s performance last year is sustainable? Even if they do, will they hedge with another free agent signing or draft pick?

Can they rely on the young guys?

When Minnesota drafted Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans, it did so hoping they could help the team immediately but also that their development would usher a transition of younger talent into the secondary unit – making it easier to replace the likes of Peterson and Harrison Smith this offseason

That didn’t happen in 2022 as injuries shut them all down – and it has left the team in limbo about how much to rely on them moving forward.

Booth Jr. struggled to stay healthy all season and it’s been a consistent issue throughout his playing career. The rookie missed time in OTAs recovering from a quad strain and double hernia surgery he had leading up to the draft. Then he injured his quad on his second career special teams snap in the season opener against the Packers. Booth returned in Week 6 and got his first defensive snaps in Week 10 and his first start the following week, but after that game against Dallas, he was held out with knee soreness. The next week it was announced Booth would have season-ending knee surgery.

Evans, meanwhile, suffered three concussions during his rookie season. Cine’s issues were documented in yesterday’s breakdown,

Those are scary injury histories for the Vikings to bet on. Booth has had multiple injuries to his lower body, including several knee and quad issues. Evans is dealing with life-altering concussions.

That’s before Minnesota even considers how they played on the field in year one – which is already a small sample size.

Out of necessity and a lack of resources (both in cap space and draft picks), the two second-year players are likely to have prominent roles on next year’s team, but what the Vikings can expect from those players remains a massive question mark.

Is Cam Dantzler part of the future?

Dantzler was among the preseason favorites to “make a leap.” Entering his third year in the NFL after showing signs of improvement in his first two seasons, that expectation was sound. Instead, Dantzler was hampered by injuries and by the end of the year had effectively been replaced by midseason waiver pickup Duke Shelley. He played just 41 snaps after injuring his ankle in Week 9.

And when he did play at the beginning of the year, it wasn’t good. Dantzler allowed a career-high 78.4% of his targets to be caught, a massive uptick from the 52.4% he allowed in 2021. His passer rating allowed jumped from 70.3 in 2021 to 123.0 last season.

Now Dantzler is in the final year of his rookie deal, and while it’s relatively inexpensive to keep him ($3 million cap hit), it’s just as easy to cut him. Dantzler’s contract carries less than $250,000 in dead money if they release him this offseason. If Minnesota is pinching pennies and they don’t have interest in extending Dantzler, he could be squeezed out.

What puts him on shakier ground is that the coaching staff’s confidence in him clearly waned and he has no ties to this front office. Dantzler was drafted in the Mike Zimmer/Rick Spielman era. The Vikings resorted to Shelley instead of giving the former third-round pick a chance when he returned from injury.

Minnesota has already cut bait from many Spielman’s former mid-round draft picks. Will Dantzler be next?

Issues in the slot

Minnesota’s problems also extended into the slot with Chandon Sullivan, who was brought in in the offseason to replace Mackensie Alexander. Given Sullivan’s one-year $1.75 million contract, it would’ve been farfetched to expect Sullivan to shine in that role, but he turned out to be one of the most picked-on slot cornerbacks in all of the NFL.

Sullivan registered 570 slot coverage snaps, the most of any player in the NFL. He allowed a 109.6 passer rating, the second-worst among slot cornerbacks (who registered more than 300 slot snaps) and gave up 796 yards, the most in the NFL. His 1.40 yards allowed per snap was also the worst in the league.

The free-agent market

Per PFF, these are the top six cornerbacks in free agency.

  1. Jamel Dean
  2. James Bradberry
  3. Cam Sutton
  4. Patrick Peterson
  5. Jonathan Jones
  6. Marcus Peters

The top names on that list will likely be re-signed or receive contracts that the Vikings just can’t match given their cap restraints. That will likely leave them bargain-hunting once again.


Minnesota’s current cornerback situation is a product of repeated misses at drafting and developing. Since 2018, the Vikings have drafted Mike Hughes, Kris Boyd, Jeff Gladney, Dantzler, Harrison Hand, Cam Bynum, Cine, Booth Jr. and Evans. Many of those players are no longer on the roster and none of them are guaranteed starters for 2023. The Vikings haven’t given out a notable second contract to a cornerback since Xavier Rhodes in 2017.

And while they’ve invested plenty of draft capital, the same can’t be said about financial resources. Minnesota spent just $10.7 million on its cornerback room in 2022, the sixth-lowest in the NFL. That doesn’t necessarily need to be an issue if you draft well. The Seahawks and Chiefs ranked 29th and 31st respectively, but both hit on multiple draft picks in the secondary. The Vikings aren’t spending well and they aren’t drafting well.

That’s forced the team into the situation they found themselves in last year – relying on the trio of Peterson, Shelley and Sullivan.

Without a change in fortune or strategy, they’ll enter 2023 with the same passing defense vice that plagued them all season long. 

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