This week, we are taking a look at the makeup of each position group on the 2019 Vikings. That means who returned, who is new and who departed that needs replacing. First up, the defensive backfield.
Returning Full-Time Starters: Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, Trae Waynes
Returning Significant Rotation Players: Mackensie Alexander, Anthony Harris, Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, Jayron Kearse
Returning Depth: Craig James
Veteran Additions: Derron Smith, Duke Thomas
Rookies: Micah Abernathy, Terrence Alexander, Kris Boyd, Marcus Epps, Nate Meadors, Isaiah Wharton
Truth be told, the Vikings are returning almost all of their significant rotation players. All five of their end of year “starters” (for nickel defense) figure to continue in those roles, since Anthony Harris took over for the injured Andrew Sendejo last year, and largely out-performed him. With Mike Hughes also returning from ACL surgery in year two, Minnesota is looking strong in the secondary.
Barring injury, there is not much reason for concern with regard to the starters. Sure, Waynes and Rhodes were relatively shaky in 2018. But injuries may have played a factor, and the Vikings have decent enough depth to give them more rest down the stretch. As for the safety position, Anthony Harris proved last year that he deserves to start and take on the massive weight Mike Zimmer requires from his safeties. And of course, Harrison Smith remains a star and probably the Vikings’ best player on either side of the ball.
The immediate depth also is pretty sound on paper, with a caveat. Holton Hill played a fairly significant role in year one against expectation due to injuries elsewhere. And when he was on the field, the undrafted rookie played reasonably well. He had his hiccups, as all rookies do. But the coaching staff was clearly comfortable giving him extended run. The issue this year is that Hill will miss four games due to a banned substance suspension, which will open up a roster spot early on for someone else, and may cost Hill some of that good will he established in year one.
Jayron Kearse is also returning, and his ever-expanding role will be an interesting follow this season. Through his first few years, Kearse was primarily a special teams ace with minimal contributions defensively. But last season saw him take on an interesting job as a big nickel who can step into the box and blitz. It seems the Vikings are looking at him as a hybrid safety-corner-linebacker type who they can move wherever needed. And given his combination of athleticism and size (6-foot-4, 215), it seems well-suited for him.
The remaining roster spots appear to be up in the air, probably among the rookies. Minnesota generally retains double-digit defensive backs, and with Hill out, only seven appear to be locks out of camp. And that is assuming the Vikings make no moves with Trae Waynes or Xavier Rhodes at some point. Minnesota drafted two defensive backs: Marcus Epps out of Wyoming and Kris Boyd from Texas. Boyd seems a favorite for a roster spot, given his physical style that should lend itself to kick coverage, whereas Epps was a bit more of a reach in the sixth round.
Truth be told, undrafted rookies have typically fared better than late-round picks out of Vikings camp. Of the eight returning roster members, two were undrafted as opposed to just one day three pick, that being Kearse. As such, expect Micah Abernathy from Tennessee, Terrance Alexander from LSU or Nate Meadors from UCLA to get long looks this summer. Abernathy in particular could be intriguing, given his tremendous production in the box in college and his solid length and explosion.
The development of Mike Hughes this year will be of vital importance to the Vikings’ future plan. Hughes took well to nickel in year one, but the assumption is that the Vikings drafted him in the first to step outside and be a lock down corner. Keep in mind, Waynes is a free agent at the end of this season, and may be on the block at this exact moment. Hughes is physical and athletic, so the biggest step for him is handling the intricacies of coverage in the NFL. If he takes that step, Minnesota will be more than willing to move on from Waynes.
Last year’s leap in play from Mackensie Alexander could also open up those opportunities for Hughes to get more reps on the edge. Like Hughes, Alexander was an outside corner who had to learn the slot. It took him some time, but he was arguably the Vikings best cover corner last season as the primary nickel. With him handling the bulk of slot cover snaps, Hughes can get more run against the bigger, faster receivers on the edge.
Overall, Minnesota boasts a pretty strong secondary as they continue to pine for the Super Bowl. Last year’s disappointments aside, the Vikings are still roster ready to make a playoff run, and their defensive backfield is a major reason why.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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