Since Mike Zimmer first arrived in the NFL, his strength as a coach has been on the defensive side of the ball. More specifically, it has been in the secondary, working with the defensive backs. It should come to no surprise that the Minnesota Vikings secondary has been vastly improved since his arrival as their head coach in 2014, but it didn’t happen overnight.
On the roster: Mackensie Alexander, Keith Baxter, Captain Munnerlyn, Terence Newman, Jabari Price, Xavier Rhodes, Tre Roberson, Marcus Sherels, Trae Waynes, Melvin White, Antone Exum, Anthony Harris, Jayron Kearse, Andrew Sendejo, Harrison Smith, Michael Griffin
Expected starters: Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, Terence Newman
It was clear that Rhodes was going to be his go-to guy in the secondary since Zimmer arrived in Minnesota. Either Zimmer or defensive backs coach Jerry Gray would be in Rhodes’ ear after nearly every snap he took during the 2014 organized team activities, minicamp and training camp, just to make sure he was doing things right. And once the regular season rolled around, it even evolved to Rhodes moving all over the field, which he never did under Leslie Frazier, to line up against the opponent’s No. 1 receiver.
Rhodes took a bit of a step back in the early parts of the 2015 season by racking up a lot of defensive holding and pass interference calls. It got to a point where Gray made him wear boxing gloves during one of the team’s practices so he would grabbing. Pro Football Focus ended up giving Rhodes a grade of 70.6, which was the lowest among the Vikings’ top three cornerbacks. He ended the season with a career-high 58 tackles, one interception and 11 pass deflections.
Newman signed as a free agent with the Vikings in the 2015 offseason and, while he might have been new to the team, he was no stranger to Zimmer. The two had played together in Dallas and Cincinnati, so the transition was a very easy one for Newman to make. He was brought in to add some stability to the secondary and had a good season, despite being 37 and in his 13th NFL season.
The veteran cornerback recorded 62 tackles, three interceptions and 12 pass deflections, which led to him receiving a grade of 76.3 from PFF. A lot of people thought that he might decide to retire after the season, but he signed another one-year deal with the Vikings and has been working with the first-team defense through OTAs and minicamp. He will have to be careful, though, as Waynes, the Vikings’ 2015 first-round draft pick, will be looking to take his starting spot.
Smith is the type of player that Zimmer loves to have on his team. He is talented, smart, hardworking, versatile and never complains about what is happening on the football field. He just goes about his business, and that attitude and his performance on the field led to him landing a five-year, $51.25 million contract this offseason.
PFF rated Smith as the No. 1 safety in the NFL last season with a grade of 92.8, despite the fact that he missed three games. Even though he missed those games, he was still able to record 66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two interceptions - one of which was returned for a touchdown - and three pass deflections. He has become a staple in the Vikings defense because of all the different things he can do on the field; he just needs to figure out how to stay on the field for all 16 games year in and year out.
Of all the starters, Sendejo seems to be at the biggest risk of losing his job. Zimmer has expressed the need for the position next to Smith to play at a higher level, but so far the job seems to be Sendejo’s to lose. He has been working with the first-team defense through OTAs and minicamp, but one little slip-up could see those snaps go to someone like Griffin, Exum or Harris. All three of them have experience starting at safety, Griffin more so than the other two, although not with the Vikings, and all three of them are looking to take Sendejo’s starting spot.
Sendejo received a PFF grade of 52.0 last season, making him the 85th-ranked safety in the NFL. He recorded 74 tackles, 0.5 sacks, one fumble recovery, one interception and three pass deflections last season, but the thing that really hurt him is that he seemed to be out of position too often. He did improve toward the end of the season, which may be enough for him to keep his starting job.
Munnerlyn is another important name to mention. Even though he is not a starter, he is the Vikings’ nickel cornerback and the team plays in the nickel more often than the base defense. He was the Vikings highest rated cornerback by PFF last season, receiving a grade of 82.3 after he recorded 55 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and four pass deflections.
Keep an eye on
Who ends up starting next to Smith: As previously mentioned, Sendejo appears to have the edge here after being the only player to play next to Smith during OTAs and minicamp, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way during training camp. Griffin is a player with a lot of experience under his belt, and the Vikings signed him to a one-year, free-agent deal this offseason. Harris and Exum both received playing time last season, with Harris receiving a PFF grade of 87.0 after playing in just two games.
Harris may not have the experience the other two do after spending most of the 2015 season on the Vikings’ practice squad, but he seems to possess what Zimmer is looking for. He doesn’t make mistakes out on the field and his strength is playing the deepest part of the field, which would allow Zimmer to use Smith all over the field.
When will Waynes play: It’s not too often that a first-round draft pick sits for nearly an entire season and only sees the field due to injury in today’s era of football. Usually a team’s first-round pick will be a Day 1 starter and learn the position on the go. Waynes got a full year to sit back and learn the position and that should help him in the long run, but he is now going on Year 2 of not starting.
He has all the talent required and could very well be given the chance to beat out Newman for a starting spot, but at this point in time he has mostly worked with the second-team defense. It’s going to be a difficult task to beat out a veteran like Newman, but Waynes should have a chance.
Rhodes, Smith, Newman and Sendejo should remain the starters Day 1 of the regular season with Munnerlyn coming in as the nickel corner, but that could change as the season progresses. The most likely one of them to lose their starting job is Sendejo and right now the most logical choice to take his place is either Griffin or Harris. Waynes should also push Newman for a starting spot if the second-year player can show real progress in the preseason.