For the month-long organized team activities and minicamp, the Minnesota Vikings defense spent a good deal of their time working in the nickel defense. There's good reason for that: They spend a lot of time in their nickel defense during the season facing teams with strong passing attacks.
So maybe the difference between starting cornerback and nickel cornerback isn't all that important. Both will play a great deal, but there is still a battle expected for that final "starting" spot between Josh Robinson, rookie Xavier Rhodes and possibly A.J. Jefferson.
Although Robinson, a third-round draft pick in 2012, spent most of the May and June as the starting left cornerback in an effort to replace Antoine Winfield, Rhodes had the strong minicamp.
"He got his hands on some balls and he's not giving up deep balls," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said after one minicamp practice last week. "That's the big thing because a lot of guys like to sit on passes and you see them intercept balls and you say ‘wow' and then a lot of balls are going over his head. And he's not giving up either. He's tough down low and up top."
Rhodes, one of three first-round selections for the Vikings in April, is known for his physicality and could show even more of a presence after the initial days of training camp, when the players are allowed to start wearing pads.
Rhodes has the size. He is 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds. Robinson, who is 5-foot-10, 199 pounds, has at least some NFL experience. Although the Vikings won't be able to replace the savvy and guile of Winfield, a 14-year veteran of the NFL, Robinson played in 56 percent of the team's defensive snaps last year.
So what will be the deciding factors between Rhodes and Robinson?
"Production, as well as not giving up big plays," Williams said. "The thing that happens on defense is a lot of teams don't necessarily win ballgames. They give up ballgames or get beat or beat themselves. We are trying to make sure first that we don't beat ourselves and then we take the next step and win ballgames."
The good news for both of them, and Jefferson, is they likely all will play significant roles in the defense, whether that's because of health or rotation. Last year, Winfield played in more than 90 percent of the team's defensive snaps – far more than the coaching staff would have liked – Chris Cook played in 54 percent, Robinson in 56 percent and Jefferson in 51 percent.
As a first-round pick, Rhodes should eventually become that starter opposite Cook, but if his preseason is as strong as his minicamp was, he could earn it sooner than later. The deciding test for all of the candidates will come in the preseason.
"We want to see if they can execute within the defense, take care of their assignments and play consistent football," Williams said. "When you play consistent football you always have a chance to win, so whoever does that will be the starter. The good thing is when you have a lot of (defensive backs) you can play multiple packages. In today's NFL pass-happy world, the nickel is a starter. He's playing almost 50 percent and sometimes more than the base package. You need three, four, five corners to function in today's NFL."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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