As the Minnesota Vikings prepare for the next wave of free agency, they had two highly used cornerbacks – Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn – out on the open market. One is still there but the young-un is gone.
Munnerlyn signed a four-year, $21 million contract with the Carolina Panthers on Friday.
Behind Munnerlyn and Newman last year, the Vikings were developing two younger guys, which means it was always unlikely the team would keep both of the veterans but instead opt to get their younger players – like Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander – on the field more often.
While Waynes, a 2015 first-round draft pick, increased his playing time significantly in 2016, playing in 56 percent of the snaps, Alexander, a 2016 second-round pick, saw the field on less than 7 percent of the defensive plays.
“He’s a very, very talented kid. … College rules are so much different for defensive backs than they are in the NFL. That’s why defensive backs, a lot of times they take a long time, especially if they’re guys that want to get up in people’s faces because they got away with a lot more things than they can get away with [in college],” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Alexander. “That’s the disappointing thing about not having especially young guys for a longer period of time in the offseason when you can kind of teach them. They can’t bump and run in phase two and really in phase three even. They’re learning things that they’re not able to be doing so they’re definitely way behind the eight ball.”
If Alexander was disappointed with the amount of playing time he got in his rookie season, Waynes is a testament to the Vikings’ ability to have patience at the position while developing the younger guys. In his rookie season, Waynes played in only about 20 percent of the snaps, despite some injuries that caused a shuffling in the defensive backfield and gave him much more time in certain games.
In his second season, Waynes played in more than 55 percent of the defensive snaps, despite a healthier crop of cornerbacks.
The Vikings front office and coaching staff has maintained their enthusiasm, both on the record and in private, with the potential that Waynes and Alexander have.
“When Mackenzie came in, he had a good preseason, but he was behind four pretty good corners. So when you’re taking a Mackenzie Alexander, what you weigh in when you’re making these decisions so you can see what I’m weighing in, we have Trae Waynes, Captain and Terence Newman, so we felt Mackensie was great value in where we were picking,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. “Was it a need we had to get filled? No, because technically he was behind those four guys when he came in.”
It may be more of a need this year. Although Zimmer said that he believes the 38-year-old Newman may want to play another season, he remains out on the free-agent market.
Munnerlyn had stated his desire to rejoin the Vikings, but he was hoping to make more – both in salary and years – than the Vikings were willing to pay at his position. A return to the Carolina Panthers made sense and he got a four-year deal that the Vikings were never going to offer with Alexander in the wings.
“Going into this year we have two of those guys out of contract – Captain and Terence Newman – so Mackenzie had developed, until he got hurt,” Spielman said earlier this month. “So has Mackenzie developed into a potential guy who can replace those guys? So sometimes when you draft guys, they may not make an impact their rookie year, but you can see two, three years down the road they can fill a significant role because you know what’s coming up.”
When asked about Munnerlyn, Zimmer said all the factors are taken into account when deciding whether or not bring back a free agent.
“It’s really the same with every position with all these guys that are free agents. You talk about the guys you have on the team. You talk about the value of the player,” Zimmer said. “A lot of times players have to go out and test the market to see what their market value is and then come back. We always keep the door open.”
In this case, Munnerlyn shut the door, but the Vikings were helping him close it due to the potential they see in Alexander.