Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings will be looking for several young players to step into bigger roles in 2017.
It’s part of the plan at Winter Park, and 2016 second-round pick Mackensie Alexander will be one of those given the chance to step out from the shadows and into the spotlight.
With nickel back Captain Munnerlyn signing a multi-year deal with his old team, the Carolina Panthers, it creates an opening at a position that usually plays about 60 percent of the time on defense. Alexander’s opportunities were limited last year with Munnerlyn still playing at a high level and Alexander still just a rookie.
“He’s a young guy that he’s kind of a guy that has a ton of talent,” Zimmer said. “He’s a good kid. He just needs to be more consistent with really everything – practice habits, things like that. A lot of times young guys come in and – I’m not talking specifically him – but they don’t trust enough. It’s just that kind of stuff.”
Alexander had plenty of bravado before his rookie season, leaving no doubt among those that attended his NFL Scouting Combine interview with the media that he considered himself the best cornerback in the draft. However, he lasted until the second round.
The Vikings didn’t necessarily need a cornerback when their turn came to pick in the second round, but they loved the value of Alexander there and continued to see his promise in the offseason.
Despite the struggles he had adapting to the NFL rules, where penalty flags get unleased from officials’ pockets for minor offenses compared to the college game, Minnesota’s brass remained high on his potential throughout his rookie year.
However, Alexander played only 68 snaps, or less than 7 percent of them, on defense. He had a two-game stretch where he was used for a combined 32 snaps when Munnerlyn was out or limited with injury, but Alexander generally saw very little action.
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So what does he need to transform into a regular contributor on defense?
“Understand his assignments better,” Zimmer said. “Understand the NFL rules better and pass coverage. It’s really just those things. Be consistent.”
With Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Terence Newman all under contract for at least another season, the Vikings should have enough talent and depth at outside cornerback, but Newman could also be a fallback plan if Alexander struggles at nickel back.
“He’s done it in the past,” Zimmer said of Newman.
An additional veteran cornerback signing is also possible, especially if the Vikings don’t find more depth in the draft.
“We always have other plans in place. I don’t know about bringing in another veteran, but we’ll have some guys that play the position,” Zimmer said.
For now, however, it appears the most desirable option is to have the relatively inexperienced Alexander be that guy for years to come.
“At the end of the year I thought he did better,” Zimmer said.