Zimmer agrees: Munnerlyn ‘probably a nickel’

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer talked about how Captain Munnerlyn’s role changed from what was expected as a free-agent signee in 2014 and why he ended up as a starter.

Without the aid of working with his players first-hand last year before the start of free agency, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer thought his roster needed to add a nickel cornerback. They did that by signing Captain Munnerlyn to a three-year, $11.25 million contract.

But Munnerlyn ended up being much more than a nickel cornerback that would typically see the field a little more than 50 percent of the time. Munnerlyn competed for the starting job opposite Xavier Rhodes and won it over Josh Robinson.

But, according to both Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, that wasn’t necessarily the plan.

“We thought we needed a nickel. I didn’t know how we were going to be at corner,” Zimmer said this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., reflecting back on his first season as a head coach. “I didn’t know much about Xavier other than his background. I knew he didn’t play much the year before and I didn’t know much about Josh Robinson or any of those guys. It was just (that) we needed a nickel for sure. We needed a corner, too, but it was just get some guys in here and let’s figure them out.”

Zimmer, a defensive-minded head coach with defensive backs his specialty, quickly found out what he had. Munnerlyn, although short, doesn’t lack confidence but would occasionally freelance too much for Zimmer’s liking.

Munnerlyn admitted he might have had his worst season as a pro, and Spielman called it an “up and down year” for the free-agent cornerback. But Spielman knows that a free agent switching schemes occasionally can struggle in his first year with a new team.

“I think Captain learned a little bit of the new system. We signed Captain as a nickel and he ended up having to be a full-time starter for us. I thought he had some struggles this year, but I think he has the potential,” Spielman said. “I just kind of look back at the history of some of the UFAs and they’re farther along than some rookie draft picks, especially these rookies that come in that are 21, 22, 23 years old. But you know, an example would be like (Visanthe) Shiancoe, when we signed him his first year it was like, ‘Well, he was just okay.’ But then all of the sudden his second year in the system and stuff, he kind of excelled and took off. Sometimes you expect some things right away from those UFAs but also sometimes those guys will take a potential year to understand what’s being asked of them. I know Captain stated he was disappointed in his year and everybody expects him to play a higher level next year.”

Zimmer didn’t expect Munnerlyn to be a starting cornerback, but Munnerlyn ended up playing 98 percent of the defensive snaps, 4 percent more than Rhodes and 35 percent more than Robinson.

“He was the best guy at both spots. He’s probably a nickel corner. That’s probably what he is,” Zimmer said.

But Zimmer is well aware of the importance that a nickel cornerback has in today’s NFL, playing in more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps. That’s one of the reasons the Senior Bowl, with its own set of rules about how many offensive and defensive schemes can be employed in one week of practice before Saturday’s all-star game, is allowing the use of a nickel cornerback this year.

That gave Zimmer a chance to scout out more options, or at least more cornerbacks in different situations, this week.

“That’s what the league is now. That’s where everybody plays,” Zimmer said. “That guy really plays more than one of the linebackers does nowadays. … I think that’s good to be able to evaluate these guys more.”

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