Having lost 15 pounds between the end of the 2014 season and the start of the Minnesota Vikings’ offseason program in mid-April, Captain Munnerlyn felt quicker, faster and better before a minor injury in June.
But Munnerlyn isn’t just feeling better in the physical realm. Mentally, he’s ready to put an admittedly poor season behind him.
There were plenty of reasons Munnerlyn didn’t perform to his expectations in his first season with the Vikings. The scheme and teammates were all new to him. A training camp injury didn’t help him get accustomed to either new aspect. And Munnerlyn was initially signed as a free agent with the intention of being a nickel cornerback that ended up playing full-time and moving between inside and outside because of a lack of quality talent on the outside.
But, more than anything, Munnerlyn might have been putting too much pressure on himself last year.
“It was a little pressure because I know I was the oldest guy in the secondary. When I was in Carolina, I was the oldest guy there, too, in my year five. We had a young secondary there, too, so I had the pressure on me before, and I know the year before I think (the Vikings) finished 31st in the NFL and I was like, ‘Man, I can’t allow that to happen; all eyes on me,’” Munnerlyn said.
The Vikings went from the 31st-ranked pass defense in 2013 to No. 7 in 2014, but Munnerlyn has admitted “a million times” that it wasn’t his best performance.
It seemed like for most of the 2014 offseason and preseason that head coach Mike Zimmer wanted someone to step up and take the outside cornerback position so Munnerlyn could concentrate on nickel duties. No one besides Xavier Rhodes performed to the degree that Zimmer hoped and Munnerlyn became a default full-time player. It was a role he embraced, continuing to say he considered himself a starter, but ideally he seems more suited playing inside.
“They were looking for a nickel guy to come in and make plays and I felt a little pressure, but at the same time I’m built for it. I’m built for the pressure,” Munnerlyn said toward the end of minicamp last month. “I was looking at being 31st in the NFL (in 2013) and I was like, ‘We’ve got to finish at least in the top 15.’ That was my goal. Xavier had a great year. Harrison (Smith) had a great year. Robert Blanton had a great year. Josh (Robinson) had a great year, but I was just so hard on myself that I feel like we finished seventh (and) if I would have made this play there or this play there, maybe we would have been in the top five, maybe one or two.”
The Vikings made big strides in their pass defense last year, but Zimmer indicated toward the end of the season that Munnerlyn was out of position at times, perhaps trying to do too much.
Looking back now, Munnerlyn agrees.
“Yes, I think I was. I think I was trying to do entirely too, too, too much,” he said. “Instead of letting the game come to me, I was trying to take the game and trying to go in and make plays, make everybody play instead of sitting back and relaxing and let the plays come to me. I wasn’t doing that. I was trying to make everything, make every play, make every check and my head was spinning out there, like, ‘Man, I’ve got to put him here, got to make this call for him’ instead of just letting the game come to me and just play football. I was.”
This year, Munnerlyn has sat out most of the organized team activities and all of minicamp because of a foot injury he suffered early in the offseason practices that had his foot in a walking boot for a few weeks.
But there is hope for a rebound for Munnerlyn and continued improvement for the pass defense. Munnerlyn expects to be ready for the training camp on July 25 and the Vikings have relieved the pressure on him to have to be a starter. They signed Terence Newman, a veteran of the Zimmer system, in free agency and the two of them have hit it off on a personal basis. In addition, Rhodes remains entrenched at right cornerback and the Vikings selected Trae Waynes in the first round of the draft.
Munnerlyn would still like to earn a starting spot, but the pressure is off and he isn’t the first option at left cornerback. Right now, that’s on Newman, and Waynes is likely to present stiff competition in training camp.
“I’m a competitor, man. I look at all the positions. I know every position. You could even go to the safety position,” Munnerlyn said. “I know all the positions, just in case. You never know what can happen. This is the NFL. But, no, I still focus at corner, but I know nickel, that’s the biggest position in Coach Zim’s defense.
“The nickel back is a big part of this defense. If you look back at his old teams, when he was in Cincinnati, Leon Hall was their No. 1 corner, but he played the nickel position. So I had to always go look back and I was like, man, what Coach Zim wants from me. If he wants me to focus in on nickel, I’ll focus on nickel and I’ll be the best nickel in the NFL. But I’m still going to compete at the outside. I’m still going to be an every-down corner and I still want to be the best to ever do it – that’s the type of player I am.”
But with a year in the system and other options more likely to start on the outside, the pressure is off him to be the savior of the pass defense, which seems to be how he felt last year.
“I always have big shoulders. I feel like I can handle anything,” he said.
“… Like I said, I always got to have pressure on myself. With that being said, I guarantee I’ll have a better year because I feel more comfortable in the scheme, I’m more comfortable with the players that I’m around and I’m more comfortable with the coaches.”
Munnerlyn admits trying to do too much
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