Yesterday we gave out the top candidates for offensive breakout players. Today, we address the defense. The Vikings possess arguably the top unit in the league with stars at all three levels. Most of the starters have already had their breakouts. But there are a few guys to look at to add their name to elite status.
Let’s look at the players to watch for a boost of stock in 2018.
The Vikings essentially gave Johnson their vote of confidence with their offseason moves, or lack thereof. They addressed the starting three-technique with Sheldon Richardson and upside in the draft with Jalyn Holmes. But as far as immediate depth goes, it is basically Johnson and no one else.
Johnson saw few snaps behind Shamar Stephen last year, playing in only five games. But with Stephen and Tom Johnson leaving in free agency, the stage is set for Johnson to finally show off his interior pass rush ability. Coming out of Iowa, Johnson had the reputation of a long, athletic pass rusher who struggled in the run game. Last year’s postseason demonstrated how starved the Vikings were for pass rush depth. Enter Johnson.
He is unlikely to get enough game time to put up ridiculous sack numbers. But by merely taking on an advanced role and becoming a player teams have to gameplan for, Johnson can take a massive step from his lackluster rookie year.
Terence Newman will probably get the most nickel snaps in the first week or two. Mackensie Alexander will get his run, as well. But at this point in their respective careers, the promise Hughes brings as a man-to-man cover point to him taking over the primary nickel role sooner rather than later. True, he is only a rookie with exactly zero career game snaps of any kind. It is also true that Alexander took a bit of a step forward in 2017, which included the fourth-best passer rating allowed on third down. But given Hughes draft status, man cover skills and superior physicality, it could just be a matter of time before Alexander is relegated permanently.
The preseason will better shed light on Hughes’ ability to translate his play immediately. He figures to play a lot of slot/a hybrid safety role, whereas he was primarily an outside cover at Central Florida. One comp could be Tyrann Mathieu, with whom Hughes shares similar size and aggressive play style. It will also give fans an idea of where Hughes figures into the kicking game. He was one of the best returners last season, but Marcus Sherels and Stacy Coley will also factor into the return man competition.
A few years ago, a big, athletic first round corner floundered in his first year as a starter. With a couple of years of slow progression, that man developed into one of the five best covers in the NFL. That man was Xavier Rhodes. Waynes’ development has been similarly steady, yet tumultuous. After disastrous first two seasons, Waynes finally showed he belonged as a starting outside corner in 2017. And then perception of him took a nosedive when he played arguably the worst game of his career in the NFC Championship Game. In his defense, most of the secondary played equally as poorly in that game.
Waynes has shown himself to be a steady cover in short and intermediate routes, but he has the tendency to implode on deep balls. Whether it is bad penalties, inability to find the ball or inconsistency of technique, those four or five plays over the course of a season do a number on metrics. Last year, however, Waynes seemed to have tightened things up. Few deep balls his directions ended in completions, including a handful of pass breakups and interceptions.
If Waynes cuts his allowance of big plays, fans may be looking at a top-flight number two corner. He has skills and physicality to hold up against any manner of receiver. He breaks quickly on the ball and even if he allows catches underneath, Waynes is in position to make the tackle. The last step to being a guy fans never sweat is shutting down plays over the top. He flashed that in 2017. As he approaches his contract year, the time is now for Waynes to justify Zimmer’s faith in him.
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