[NOTE FROM ADAM: This is another installation of my position-by-position breakdown of the Vikings offseason. You can click the links to view previous installments: The Passers, The Runners, The Wide Outs, The Tight Ends, The Offensive Line, The Defensive Tackles, The Defensive Ends, and The Linebackers.]
Injuries. Legal troubles. Age. Confidence. Salary Cap numbers. Talent.
These are all issues facing the various members of this Vikings secondary, which is why fans would just assume the team clean the slate, fire them all, and start over.
While the changes might be drastic, they probably won’t be that drastic, but things could get very interesting, especially within this group of cornerbacks that each come with their own dramatic storylines.
Let’s take a closer look.
While the Vikings roster is riddled with question marks, it is hard to find an area needing more attention than the secondary. The team finished last season 21st in total defense, 26th in passing yards allowed, and 31st in points allowed.
After week five, the Vikings went for a record by playing nine straight games without generating a turnover via an interception. Focusing particularly on cornerbacks, they went a total of 10 weeks in between interceptions.
In fact, no Vikings cornerback picked off more than one pass all season long and only three cornerbacks managed to get solo interceptions: Antoine Winfield, Cedric Griffin, and Asher Allen. That’s pathetic, especially considering the hefty pass rush they should have been benefitting from all season long.
34 year old Antoine Winfield was only able to play five games in 2011 before injuries shut him down, but even in limited action he was clearly still the Vikings best cornerback. In those five games he tallied 40 tackles, a sack, a defended pass, a forced fumble and that lone interception.
For the second season in a row, Chris Cook was only able to play in six games, but this time it had more to do with being charged for a horrible domestic abuse crime than the injuries that had plagued him previously. He started three of those games and seemed to match up pretty well against some of the big, strong receivers like Calvin Johnson that he faced. He managed 17 tackles and four defended passes before getting himself tossed in jail, suspended, and eventually sent home with pay.
It probably would have been in everybody’s best interest if Cedric Griffin had a greatly reduced role in 2011, having had his second knee surgery within a year, but injuries and arrests caused him to play in all 16 games and he started 14 of those. He had a miserable season in which he looked slow as can be, was held out at times for disciplinary reasons, was benched, was short and snippy with the local media, and had an overall bad season. He ended up with 67 tackles, nine defended passes, and three forced fumbles. He was flagged nine times and gave up five touchdowns. Griffin ended the season questioning his own future with the team.
Asher Allen would not make a roster, let alone be starting, that had more talent on it. He has very little special teams value and has had real issues proving himself worthy of playing corner in the NFL despite getting multiple chances to start. He played in 12 games with nine starts in 2011, with multiple injuries sidelining him for multiple games. He notched 49 tackles, four defended passes, and an interception. Allen was tasked with shadowing receivers with superior talents than him, but his lack of production was one of the most consistent things about this secondary in 2011.
Marcus Sherels had decent value as a special teams player, particularly as a return man, while serving better than expected as a reserve corner. Sherels played in 16 games and started three as a defender. He had 27 tackles, a sack, and three defended passes. He often looked lost in coverage but was also proving plenty capable of making the occasional big hit. He gave up two touchdowns and was flagged once.
Benny Sapp was cut by Miami after an embarrassing performance in week one. A number of weeks later, the Vikings depth issues at cornerback reached crisis level and the Vikings brought Sapp back into the fold. He played in seven games, starting three, and brought a certain amount of intensity to the defensive backfield. Unfortunately, however, that intensity did not translate to much on the field. Sapp ended those seven Vikings games with only 25 tackles and three defended passes. Sapp missed four tackles, gave up two touchdowns, missed a team meeting and was benched, and was cited for assault following a bizarre incident at a Children’s Hospital.
Rookie Brandon Burton played in ten games, credited with one start, but played mostly on special teams. He got burned and pushed around by nearly every wide receiver he was allowed to line up against. Burton ended the season with eight tackles.
Asher Allen is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is a relatively cheap option for the Vikings with a salary of $565,000. The team is sure to add enough competition, however, that it will not be guaranteed that he gets a roster spot when September rolls around.
Brandon Burton is entering the second year of his rookie contract and is scheduled to earn $465,000. Like Allen, he figures to be competing for a job in Mankato this offseason. The fifth round pick from 2011 drew plenty of praise from coaches following practices last year, but it never translated to the field.
One of the bigger questions surrounding this group is whether or not Chris Cook will even be a free man when football season starts. He is scheduled for court in March, and the Vikings seem to be waiting to hear how those proceedings end up before making any decisions on his future with the team. He is due to make $490,000 in 2012 and could an emerging talent, but he could also be a public relations nightmare waiting to happen. Players that don’t allow themselves to succeed off the field can seldom succeed on it, so a lot depends on Cook’s ability to stay out of trouble from this point forward.
In 2009, the Vikings signed Cedric Griffin to a five year deal worth $28.5 million. That contract included $10.5 million in guarantees and was quite the vote of confidence from the organization. Now scheduled to earn $4.1 million following a dreadful season, however, it remains to be seen if the organization still has confidence in the 29 year old corner. There were indications at the end of the 2011 season that Griffin may jump the gun on the Vikings and request his own release.
Benny Sapp becomes a 31 year old unrestricted free agent. He is a favorite amongst some of the players and coaches in Minnesota, but Spielman shipped him out a couple of years back in a trade, and I don’t think he’ll hesitate to let Sapp walk away for good this time.
Marcus Sherels is entering the final year of his rookie contract and will make only $415,000 next season. Considering he showed some ability to play on defense, and has considerable value on special teams, Sherels figures to get more than a fair shake at winning a roster spot once again.
Antoine Winfield’s lack of playing time triggered a de-escalator built into his contract that will greatly reduce his cap number for 2012. He was expected to make over $7 million next year, but the contract clause has him making $3 million instead. That clause was put there by design so that he would not become a cap casualty and would be able to retire as a Minnesota Viking, and I suspect it will succeed in doing just that.
After being cut by the Raiders, Stanford Routt’s agent reportedly received a call from the Vikings front office to inquire about his price tag. It should be of no surprise to anyone, but this is evidence that the Vikings plan to aggressively pursue upgrades to their situation at cornerback this offseason.
There is still plenty of time for franchise tags to be placed and for contracts to be extended, but the cornerback position is looking to be one of the deeper positions as free agency approaches. Cortland Finnegan (age 28) of the Titans and Brandon Carr (age 26) of the Chiefs headline the class and will almost certainly net big paychecks if they hit the open market. Personally, I think Carr is the better fit for this Vikings defense, but they will have to massage the salary cap significantly to make a run at him.
Brent Grimes (29) of the Falcons, Carlos Rogers (31) of the Niners, and William Gay (age 27) of the Steelers all could represent upgrades for the Vikings, too. Richard Marshall (27) of the Cardinals, William Middleton (26) of the Jaguars, Tracy Porter (26) of the Saints, and Terrell Thomas (27) of the Giants could also be youthful options for the Vikes to consider.
One other option is an older guy, who has struggled with back issues, but could be an incredible steal if he flies way under the radar for the first week or so of free agency. Marcus Trufant missed the final 12 games of Seattle’s season, but he has been an incredible talent over the years, and the Vikings should perform their due diligence on his health just in case he can turn things around and end up being a huge steal.
Given that the Vikings are unlikely to know how things will turn out with Chris Cook until after many of the top free agent cornerbacks have been signed, so they may be in a position to be seriously aggressive during the NFL Draft.
Morris Claiborne from LSU is the forerunner at this point, but seems to be an unlikely choice to be selected third overall by the Vikings. If they are to trade back a few spots, however, then Claiborne could end up bringing his playmaking abilities to Minnesota’s secondary.
More likely, however, is that the Vikings begin looking for cornerback value in the second round and after. If guys like Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama) and Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama) are to fall due to character concerns, they could represent risky values when the Vikings make their second round selection. Alfonzo Dennard (Nebraska), Chase Minnifield (Virginia), Jayron Hosley (Virginia Tech), Desmond Trufant (Washington), and Stephen Gilmore (South Carolina) would all also be deserving of consideration in the second round. In fact, this class is so deep that one of these guys might fall to them in the third.
The Vikings may be looking to add size to their secondary if things go south with Cook and Griffin. Mid round players like Micah Hyde (Iowa), Xavier Rhodes (Florida State), D’Anton Lynn (Penn State), and Isaiah Frey (Nevada) could each be potential targets.
Consider this scenario for a second: Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin make strides with their health while Chris Cook avoids jail and further suspension. Asher Allen, Marcus Sherels, and Brandon Burton round out the depth. As unlikely as all of those things falling into place seem, it is possible that the situation isn’t as dire as it seems to be.
More likely, however, is that the Vikings need some quick fixes.
Lardarius Webb (age 25) of the Ravens is one of the best cornerbacks to see his contract expire after the 2011 season. Unfortunately for teams like the Vikings, however, is the Ravens will certainly be able to retain him because of his restricted free agent status. Still, for a guy that had seven interceptions and allowed no touchdowns last year, it is worth monitoring the level at which he is tendered by Baltimore.
Given the Vikings current cap situation and the presence of plenty of uncertainty, it is conceivable that the Vikings decide to play the waiting game. With a deep free agency and draft class, teams will likely be cutting talented players after they replace them in March and April. These released players could represent cheap alternatives, but it would be a risky move to wait it out.
The future of the Vikings cornerback position is a tough one to predict not only for fans and hack bloggers, but probably for Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier, as well. A lot hinges on Chris Cook’s fate in court and the health of Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin.
Still, I have to give it a shot, or else this wouldn’t be a complete “Offseason Preview” segment.
I think Antoine Winfield will be back. Many seem to have already considered Cedric Griffin a goner after this season, but I am not so sure. They have a lot invested in him and Frazier seemed convinced that Griffin’s issues had more to with confidence than anything last season. Right now, I’m going to say I am 51% convinced Griffin will actually be back with the Vikings in 2012.
Asher Allen, Marcus Sherels, and Brandon Burton will all make it to Mankato but they each have an uphill battle after the Vikings bring in some serious competition.
Expect the Vikings to make a sizeable investment to the cornerback position this offseason. I think it will be in free agency, with some late round additions in the Draft. How these slots are filled, however, depends on how much the front office decides to clean the slate.