Vikings’ deep pre-camp preview: Cornerbacks

The Vikings secondary will have a new look this year, starting at cornerback, where three players were added in free agency and two in the draft. We look at the spending, the key players in the battle for playing time, and a potential breakout player and sleeper.

The players: Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Robinson, Derek Cox, Marcus Sherels, Shaun Prater, Jabari Price, Julian Posey, Kendall James, Robert Steeples.

Positional spending: Look to the Carolina Panthers for proof that a strong pass defense can be built without breaking the bank on cornerbacks. Last year, the Panthers had the lowest salary dedicated to the position – only $3.2 million, according to overthecap.com – and came away with the No. 6 pass defense in the NFL and second defense overall. This year, the Panthers are also lowest in the league in cornerback salary ($4.39 million).

So how about the Vikings? They signed Captain Munnerlyn away from the Panthers and dedicated a $3.3 million cap number to him alone on their way to an $11.2 million dedication to the position this year. They also added Derek Cox for a very reasonable one-year, $780,000 contract and have 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes returning with a $1.77 million cap hit in 2014. Overall, the Vikings are 21st in cornerback salary in 2014 with a lot of very manageable contracts belonging to players that could be contributors at or below the $1 million mark.

Last year: The Vikings knew they needed to upgrade the position after finishing 31st in the league in pass defense. But in addition to adding Munnerlyn, Cox and Posey in free agency and Price and James in the draft, a change in system and coaches should also help. In addition to the 31st-ranked pass defense, the Vikings gave up the most points per game, finished 26th in red zone percentage and goal-to-go percentage, 30th in third-down percentage, 24th in sacks per pass attempt, and 29th in interception rate. In other words, they were a bad pass defense on numerous levels and needed a change.

The outlook: The uncertainty among the starters lies in the cornerback opposite Rhodes. Rhodes was the only cornerback that consistently got first-team reps during OTAs and minicamps. Robinson despised playing in the slot last year and is contending for the right cornerback spot this year opposite Rhodes, with Munnerlyn and Cox offering competition and Munnerlyn slated as the lead nickel back. After releasing Antoine Winfield mainly for salary-cap reason in March 2013, the Vikings knew they needed an upgrade there and Munnerlyn should provide that over what Robinson did there last year, but the battle for the right outside spot is pretty wide open between the two of them and possibly Cox, with Sherels also able to provide support in the nickel and dime packages. The depth appears to be as good as it has been in years, but several key spots are still up for grabs.

Deep stats: None of the Vikings cornerbacks fared well in pass differential, a statistic that measures a team’s success in passing downs with the player on the field versus when he is off the field. Rhodes (minus-0.04) and Robinson (minus-0.06) were best, following by Chris Cook and Prater (both at minus-0.15). The order was similar on third downs among those who played regularly.

Still, Rhodes was only ranked 47th in Pro Football Focus’ rating of cornerbacks, and Sherels, Robinson and Cook all finished ranked between 90 and 100. The good news is that Munnerlyn ranked 10th, ahead of well-respected cornerbacks like Alterraun Verner, Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden.

Breakout possibility: We will find out this year just how much of Robinson’s struggles last year had to do with him being asked to play in the slot. He is being given the chance to start now on the outside, making this a pivotal career year for him. But if he struggles, at least there is some decent depth behind him.

Sleeper potential: Price was the final pick in the draft for the Vikings, but he looked like he had a shot to make the 53-man roster in unpadded practices. Will that continue in the padded preseason auditions?


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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