Vikings vs. NFC North: Cornerbacks

The Vikings’ cornerback corps has improved immensely in the last year and could be the best in the division.

1. Minnesota Vikings
Starters: Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman, Captain Munnerlyn
Key Backups: Trae Waynes, Josh Robinson
Rhodes took a big step in development during his second year in the NFL. After the Vikings selected him in the first round of the 2013 draft, it seemed to take him awhile to see the field consistently. Even when he did see the field as a rookie he never looked really comfortable, possibly because Leslie Frazier had more of a zone coverage scheme and Rhodes’ physical play made him better at press coverage.

Mike Zimmer, who became the Vikings’ head coach in 2014, is known as one of the best defensive backs coaches in the NFL. He took Rhodes under his wing and turned him into one of the better corners in the league. Last year, Rhodes recorded 49 tackles, one interception and 18 pass breakups.

The starting spot opposite Rhodes is a little up in the air right now, but at this moment it seems as though Newman will win the spot. The Vikings signed the 36 – soon to be 37 – year-old veteran this offseason. He has a lot of experience working with Zimmer, and even though he is one of the older players in the NFL and likely lost a step, his instincts and understanding of techniques make it so he is not a liability in coverage.

The player who will likely be competing against Newman for the starting spot is the Vikings’ 2015 first-round draft pick, Waynes. He was considered the best corner in this year’s draft and has good size and speed. Even if Waynes does not win the starting job Day 1, expect him to make an impact at some point this season.

Then there is Munnerlyn, who had a down year in 2014. The Vikings originally brought him in to play in the slot during nickel situations but he outperformed Robinson in the offseason and won a starting job. This year, with the additions of Waynes and Newman, Munnerlyn should be able to focus on just playing in the slot and should be able to bounce back from what he called the worst year of his professional career.

2. Green Bay Packers
Starters: Casey Hayward, Sam Shields, Micah Hyde
Key Backups: Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins
Hayward is arguably the best cornerback in the NFC North and usually does not get the credit that he deserves. At 5-foot-11, 192 pounds he is a little on the smaller side but has shown time and time again that he has the leaping ability and ball skills to make a play on almost any ball thrown his way. The problem, though, is that balls do not get thrown his way very often – targeted just 26 times in 2014 – so he does not put up the impressive stats that other cornerbacks will post.

In 2014 he recorded 43 tackles, two fumble recoveries, three interceptions – one returned for a touchdown – and seven passes deflected. He will be entering his fourth season in the NFL and his trend as a top corner should continue for many more years.

The reason why Hayward is targeted so few times is because the other starting cornerbacks are just not as good as he is. Shields is expected to be the other outside corner, and after being in the NFL for five seasons his development seems to be over and fans should expect to continue to see the same player year in and year out.

For his first three years in college, Shields was a wide receiver but converted to cornerback during his senior season. Since he used to play receiver, he is always a threat when the ball is in the air, but he often gets beat on double moves and vertical routes because of inconsistent footwork. The Packers can help protect him with a high safety, but it seems he will always be at risk of giving up a big play.

Heading into training camp, Hyde is projected to be the starting slot corner. That could change very quickly, though, if he does not play well. The Packers have two talented rookies in Randall and Rollins who will be looking to take time away from both Hyde and Shields at some point during the season. And you have to imagine both the veteran players are going to have a short leash, especially if the rookies perform well in the offseason and in practice.

3. Detroit Lions
Starters: Darius Slay, Rashean Mathis, Nevin Lawson
Key Backups: Quandre Diggs, Chris Owens
The Lions have what appears to be the most balanced group of cornerbacks out of all the teams in the NFC North, but the problem is they do not really have a shutdown guy. Right now their No. 1 cornerback is likely going to be Mathis, but he does not have the ability to line up on any receiver and be able to contain him.

Mathis is 34 years old and will be 35 by the start of the regular season. Even though he is entering into the twilight of his career, he proved last year that he still has the ability to cover receivers down the field, which is why the Lions re-signed him to a two-year deal this offseason. He plays his best when in zone or off coverage and can struggle when forced to play in press coverage.

Slay was a second-round draft pick back in 2013 and had what many considered to be a disappointing rookie season. He recorded 34 tackles and five pass breakups in 13 games. But he seemed to begin to turn things around in his second season, playing in all 16 games and recording 61 tackles, two interceptions and 17 pass deflections.

Even though Slay showed improvement during his second season, there is still plenty he needs to work on. He is a fast cornerback that can keep up with any receiver, but he will still get beat deep from time to time. He also struggled with routes breaking to the inside of the field. If he can improve on those things, however, he could become the Lions’ No. 1 cornerback by the end of the season.

The biggest question mark for this group of cornerbacks heading into training camp is who is going to be the starting nickel cornerback. Heading into training camp it seems as though it is going to be second-year player Lawson. He does not have a lot of experience – playing in just two games as a rookie – and he is on the smaller side, measuring in at 5-9, 192 pounds. It is no guarantee that he will be named the starter and will likely be challenged the most by Owens.

4. Chicago Bears
Starters: Tim Jennings, Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter
Key Backups: Alan Ball, Demontre Hurst
Jennings has always been considered an undersized cornerback since he entered the NFL in 2006 as a second-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts. Even though his 5-8, 185-pound frame usually leaves him with a disadvantage against taller receivers, he has had a successful career because of the physicality he tends to play with. However, that physicality seemed to dissipate during the 2014 season and you have to start to wonder if his age is finally catching up to him.

By no means is Jennings a slouch. He is still a very versatile cornerback with good discipline, quick feet and good awareness, but his physical play is what put him on another level. Last year was also the first time that Jennings did not record an interception in a season – since he joined the Bears in 2010, he has had 16 total.

Where Jennings may be on the back end of his career, Fuller is still early in his career and has shown a lot of promise. He had to step in as a rookie last year when Charles Tillman went down with injury and he also played a few games with a broken hand. He got beat on multiple occasions by more veteran receivers, but he also showed that he had the ability to be a lock-down corner one day.

With a 5-11, 190-pound frame, he is a little slighter than some of the other cornerbacks in the league, but he has good footwork, awareness, physicality and ball skills, which all help make up for his slender frame. If he can improve on his consistency, he should be a much-improved cornerback, maybe one of the better ones in the division, during his second season.

Porter is expected to be the nickel cornerback for the Bears at the start of the regular season. The seven-year veteran has been a journeyman around the NFL, spending four year in New Orleans and then a year in Denver, Oakland and Washington. He has dealt with injury problems throughout his NFL career, but when he is healthy he has the ability to be a good defender.

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