With Chris Cook lost until the end of the regular season with a broken right arm suffered Thursday night, the Vikings have their first real test of depth ahead of them at a position that was likely to get tested more stringently in the second half of the season anyways.
The process of backfilling a roster that was dangerously old in 2009 and 2010 is far from complete, but next Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks will provide the first indication of how deep the secondary has become.
To be sure, it wasn't good at all last year when the Vikings' starters began dropping. First out was Antoine Winfield in Week 5 after he had started the first four games of the season. After a month off to rehab a shoulder injury, he returned for one game before fracturing his collarbone to end his season.
Chris Cook also had his 2011 season end early, but for a completely different reason. The Vikings suspended him for one game and then made him active for the last nine contests of the season after he was arrested for domestic assault.
Upon his return this year, Cook was really starting to show why the Vikings took him with the No. 34 overall pick in the 2010 draft. He was displaying a true knack for handling the bigger receivers on other teams and led the Vikings in passes defensed with 11 heading into the Thursday night game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On a personal level, he knew he needed to earn back the trust of teammates who were disappointed he put himself in a position to leave them hanging last year. In the first half of this season, he had earned that trust back.
"I think a lot of people have always thought Chris has so much ability, and once he got over that being-young thing, now he's really come into his own and he's a mature leader on this team and especially in this defense," linebacker Chad Greenway said just days before Cook's injury. "A guy you can count on and a guy who can go out there with his size and match up with anybody."
Cook admitted it took some time for him to get up to the speed of the game, but he had done that and had become more comfortable with the physical requirements of the game. And then it struck. The broken arm made it the third straight season he has missed games. He could return if the Vikings make the playoffs, but until he returns the onus will be placed squarely on a secondary that will be younger still.
Winfield continues to play at an extremely high level, and he will likely be joined in the starting lineup by somewhat his clone – although much younger and far less proven – in Josh Robinson. Robinson, the team's third-round draft pick in April, has more speed than Winfield. In fact, Robinson has more speed than anyone in the 2012 rookie class that attended the NFL Scouting Combine, but he doesn't have the experience diagnosing NFL offenses and covering top-notch receivers to know for sure if he is a legitimate starter.
No matter, he will be called into action by force. Fortunately for the Vikings, they have been giving him a pretty heavy dose of action in the first half of the season. With Cook's injury happening on the Bucs' first drive of the second half, Robinson ended up playing in 73 percent of the defensive snaps Thursday night. That wasn't even a season high, as the Vikings made the decision to have him start and played him 83 percent of the snaps against Tennessee in a timeshare with Winfield in order to save the body of the 14-year NFL veteran.
Those days will be over, however, with Cook's injury. Winfield and Robinson can both expect to play between 90 and 100 percent of the defensive snaps, and A.J. Jefferson, acquired in a trade from the Arizona Cardinals as teams set their 53-man rosters, should be ready to see about 50 percent of the snaps as their nickel cornerback. Marcus Sherels and Brandon Burton could see action when the Vikings use six defensive backs.
The Seattle game also marks the expected return of safety Mistral Raymond. It's uncertain if he will start right away, but he should be available for the first time since partially dislocating his ankle on Sept. 23. If he does start, supplanting Jamarca Sanford, it means the top four defensive backs after Winfield would have a combined 24 starts, or 1½ years of NFL experience.
General manager Rick Spielman wanted to get the roster younger – mission accomplished – and build for a brighter future, but he likely didn't envision that sort of youth playing quite this much this early. The Vikings have 16 players on their roster that joined the team this year, including eight rookies, and 16 draft picks over the last two years.
Nowhere is that more apparent in the secondary, and it can expect to be tested often in the second half of the season, when the Vikings face some of the league's most dangerous quarterbacks, including Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler twice, and Matthew Stafford.
At the very least, even if the Vikings don't make the playoffs, they should know what kind of young talent they have in what will be a battle-test secondary by the end of season.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.