The Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive-minded guy. His entire career, before becoming the Vikings head coach, has been spent working on the defensive side of the ball for several different teams. His positional expertise, though, is with the defensive backs.
That makes it kind of odd how defensive backs may be the one area on the football field where the Vikings have been least affected through the draft since Zimmer took over. If you count the two safeties and the three cornerbacks (including nickel corner) that started the first game of the season a year ago, not a single one of them were drafted by the Vikings since Zimmer took over in 2014.
There have been plenty of defensive backs drafted by the Vikings in the past three drafts, but none have been able to crack the starting lineup of Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman, Captain Munnerlyn, Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo.
This could be the season that changes, though, as the team’s first-round pick from 2015, Trae Waynes, might be ready to take the next step in his development.
It is not often that a first-round pick is not a starter with a team the first game of his rookie season, but Zimmer knew that there were still some things he needed to work on with Waynes and he knew he had other players that could start while Waynes developed. Waynes made a couple appearances last season due to injury and seemed to play well, which would only lead to the belief that he is ready to become a full-time starter in the near future.
He will not just be given the spot, though, as there is a lot of talent still in the Vikings secondary and he would have to beat one of them out. The most likely scenario for that is for him to beat out Newman, who will be turning 38 in September. Don‘t let his age fool you, though; Newman proved a year ago that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
Exum was a sixth-round draft pick back in 2014 and he will be in the mix for the starting spot next to Smith this offseason. The biggest thing he has going against him is that Zimmer has seemed to believe that Exum was just not mature enough to be lined up as a starter and he has seemed to have a difficult time grasping some of the concepts that Zimmer has been teaching.
He got the opportunity to start a couple games last season because of injuries to the players in front of him and appeared to hold his own on the field. He wasn‘t able to prove that he is the answer next to Smith, however, because he ended up injuring himself after just a couple games, and those couple games were not a big enough sample size to assure him a starting spot.
Harris was an undrafted free agent that the Vikings signed last offseason and he eventually went from the practice squad to starting in a nationally televised game against the Arizona Cardinals in one week because of all the injuries suffered by the Vikings‘ safeties. The Cardinals had one of the best passing attacks last season and Harris seemed to do well against them. He also started the next week against the Bears and, again, appeared to be able to hold his own.
All the original starters were able to return to return to the field after that game, though, so Harris’ sample size is also pretty small. Both Exum and Harris showed a lot of promise during their time starting and will both be in the mix, trying to beat out Sendejo and veteran acquisition Michael Griffin for the starting spot next to Smith.
There are two other players the Vikings drafted this season that have a chance to make an impact as rookies. The first is the team’s second-round draft pick, Mackensie Alexander. He was considered to be one of the best cornerbacks in this year’s draft and he has already shown some flashes in rookie minicamp. The biggest thing going against him, though, is his size and the fact that he is viewed as a nickel corner. That means that he would have to beat out Munnerlyn, who had a very good season last year, if the Vikings plan to use him strictly at nickel.
The second player is safety Jayron Kearse, whom the Vikings selected in the seventh round. He is still a very raw player, but he has great size and a lot of athleticism to work with. Zimmer and his coaches have been able to utilize those types of players well in the past, so it is very possible they do the same with him this year and he breaks the starting lineup by the end of the season.
Even though defensive backs are Zimmer’s specialty, the players he has drafted to those positions since taking over as the team’s head coach haven‘t made much of an impact. That all could change, though, as Zimmer has a lot of young talent waiting on the sidelines and contracts of multiple veterans set to expire after 2016.