Three Vikings Breakout Candidates: Defense

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Vikings DT Hercules Mata'afa
Star Tribune

Yesterday we gave out the top candidates for offensive breakout players. Today, we address the defense. The Vikings possess one of the better units 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 2019. Again, no rookies allowed on this list.

CB Mike Hughes

Hughes made our list a season ago as a breakout player, and in a way he fulfilled that. For a relatively inexperienced first round corner, Hughes showed himself up to the task at the NFL level from the get-go, returning an interception for a touchdown in his debut. But an ACL injury and some inconsistencies made 2018 a somewhat unmemorable season for him, albeit with plenty of reason for optimism. 

We have not had a glimpse of Hughes’ recovery yet as he sat out of all spring activities. Given the typical ACL timeline, one would assume Hughes will be ready for at least a portion of camp, and could be full-go come week one. So the question with Hughes is going to be how the injury stunts his development entering year two. The Vikings took Hughes in the first to give them roster flexibility at corner, since Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander could be gone before long. But more than that, with Hughes’ physical and athletic profile, it could be that the Vikings see Hughes as their outside cover moving forward opposite Xavier Rhodes.

Alexander’s development last year and Hughes’ injury mean Hughes will probably not be competing for starting time initially. That said, Hughes’ positional flexibility means he will get plenty of reps all over the field. If he can build on flashes from last season and shore up his inconsistencies, Hughes could make someone (likely Waynes) expendable.

S Anthony Harris

Like with Brian O’Neill in yesterday’s piece, one could argue that Harris made his breakout last season. He stepped in when Andrew Sendejo went down with injury and not only played admirably, he surpassed Sendejo’s level in nearly every fashion. According to Pro Football Focus, Harris allowed a rating of 24.0 on 13 throws into his coverage, best among safeties. Simply put, Harris played the position, at least in coverage, as well as it can be played.

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So where is the room for breakout? Well frankly, Harris’ 2018 season shows superstar potential, but one has to be wary of it being a fluke. Playing safety in the Vikings’ system means moving all over the field, handling a myriad of assignments. Sendejo and Harrison Smith were largely interchangeable as far as roles go. While Harris was excellent in coverage, the small sample of throws his way indicates that Smith held more coverage responsibilities than Harris, at least in terms of versatility (playing the slot, the box, etc.). This year, he enters as the presumed starter alongside Smith, so Zimmer’s trust in him is going to kick to an extra gear. Harris will see many more throws, and probably move around a bit more. With his play-making ability, Harris should flourish this year. Still, some skepticism is healthy, given Harris’ out-of-nowhere ascent. As such, Harris’ breakout will come from proving that 2018 was the Anthony Harris fans will see moving forward. 

DT Hercules Mata’afa

Despite being one of the most productive collegiate interior defenders in recent memory, Mata’afa was overlooked in the 2018 draft. He was small for a tackle, around 250, but not long or bendy enough to kick outside. And the Vikings shared that opinion. Though they signed him as an undrafted free agent, Minnesota moved Mata’afa around in camp last season, starting at linebacker before trying him at end. Alas, the intrigue with Mata’afa died out quickly, as he tore his ACL in training camp.

Now, Mata’afa is back healthy, back at his natural defensive tackle and up 25 pounds. Coaches called him the surprise of minicam as he saw reps with the second team in the tackle rotation. And now fans and analysts alike are speculating if Mata’afa can become a key piece of the Vikings’ tackle depth. 

Truthfully, size has always been the primary concern with Mata’afa as a tackle. His burst off the line and exquisite leverage got a lot of movement at Washington State. But down blocks and double teams could finish him if he did not win off the snap. Now, with extra mass and presumably extra power, Mata’afa may have mitigated his greatest weakness. At the very least, Mata’afa will be must-watch in preseason as he looks to unseat the presumed favorites for tackle depth, Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes. Do not be shocked if Mata’afa gets some reps next to Linval Joseph at some point in the near future.

–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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