With new coaches at every level – head coach, coordinator and position coach – the Minnesota Vikings' defensive backfield won't look too similar to those of the recent past, even if some of the players remain the same.
The starting lineup could be comparable to one of the many combinations the Vikings had last year due largely to injury.
In 2013, the Vikings had four starters at left cornerback, four at right cornerback and two at nickel cornerback. Blame scheme, injuries or lack of talent, but the Vikings finished with the 31st-ranked pass defense in the NFL. For all of those reasons, head coach Mike Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray have been focusing on the techniques and scheme awareness of the cornerbacks from the start of team's offseason program.
Xavier Rhodes, a 2013 first-round draft pick, has been one of the focuses.
"Not just Xavier, it's all of the defensive backs. We're stressing fundamentals with how we teach," Zimmer said. "Xavier has a lot of ability. I'm talking to him about being the same guy every single day, on every play, not one play where he's good and one play where he's not as good. But he has a lot of ability. I'm excited."
Rhodes appears to have the best chance of all the cornerbacks to be a starter. He has been implanted at left cornerback since the start of minicamps while the right side has seen a rotation of players. Josh Robinson might have the inside edge on that spot, but he has missed practice time with injury.
Captain Munnerlyn, a free-agent acquisition, is another option on the outside, but his forte is being used in the slot, where he operates efficiently in traffic and can use his blitzing ability.
"He's a smart guy, he's got some knowledge about things, but he's been very good in the slot," Zimmer said. "He understands route concepts. He communicates well, so that part has been good to have him in there, because if I can continue to get him to do what I want him to do, then he is a calming factor. Sometimes he wants to do his own thing, so I have to talk to him a little bit."
Derek Cox was a low-level free-agent signing, but he is a former starter – he started 56 games in his five-year career – looking to get back to that level after a down year in San Diego in 2013. He was benched repeatedly last year after signing a four-year, $20 million contract in March. He was released a year later.
Cox came down with the lone interception of full-team work last Thursday when Christian Ponder stared down receiver Adam Thielen.
"He's got good size. He's catching on to the defense we're trying to teach, and really, he's been getting better every single day that we've had him," Zimmer said of Cox. "For all these guys, you get going against your own team, you see the receivers running the route, running the route, running the route for, I don't know, six days or something. You kind of get a feel for each receiver. The real judge is when we get in the preseason against other receivers."
That will be the determining factor for the Vikings with numerous decisions they will be making in the defensive backfield. For now, they are giving different players opportunities at cornerback and trying to assess their progress while wearing no pads.
Zimmer still sees the benefit of trying to teach technique now and hopes it carries over when bump-and-run and tackling become part of the training-camp equation.
"When we coach on defense, we coach from the ground up," he said. "The first thing we start with is the feet. The next thing is the hands. We work on the pad level. The thing you get to do is, you get to watch their steps, where they put their hands, where their body position is. You can watch how they're playing a combination of people."
In two months, the competition will get much more serious, but in the final weeks of the offseason program the options at cornerback are plentiful and varied.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Cornerback offers plenty of possibilities
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