When it comes to roster depth, Minnesota is doing quite well at the cornerback position.
On Monday, the Vikings added Jabari Price back to the active roster, leaving only Josh Robinson inactive. Robinson suffered a torn pectoral muscle prior to team OTAs and is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
Head coach Mike Zimmer came to Minnesota with experience as a defensive coordinator, and it’s no secret that his specialty lies on that side of the field. Even more specifically, defensive backs seem to have a special place in his heart.
Associated Press Dave Campbell wrote the following last month:
Zimmer coaches [cornerbacks] as critically as any players on the Vikings, and if there were a contest held to determine his favorite position on the field the others would probably be fighting for second place.
Last December, Xavier Rhodes specifically credited Zimmer for being a mentor and teacher as he improved and developed as an NFL cornerback.
Zimmer boasts not only experience with that position, but more importantly, success. The defensive-minded coach has produced several years’ worth of strong defenses, and cornerbacks thrive under his direction.
The team still has room for improvement, but major development was evidenced in just one season with Zimmer at the helm. From 1994-2013, the Vikings finished almost exclusively in the bottom third of the NFL for fewest yards passing allowed; the exceptions were 1996 (ninth) and 2010 (tenth). In 2006 and 2013, Minnesota ranked dead last.
After Zimmer’s 2014 debut year, the Vikings ranked No. 7 overall in that category.
Zimmer’s system requires effective corners, and the Vikings’ depth for 2015 especially lends itself to the nickel package. Since NFL teams so often play three cornerbacks simultaneously with the nickel defense, there really can never be too many options on a roster.
Former Vikings beat reporter Master Tesfatsion explained that Zimmer develops a very specific focus for his schemes by “eliminating the run and having technically sound cornerbacks.”
The former coordinator wants his corners to play press coverage, and Rhodes has made significant strides in that area. Consider that veteran Terence Newman starts opposite of Rhodes and worked with Zimmer in Cincinatti, and it’s shaping up to be a strong area for Minnesota.
When the team sets up with five defensive backs, Captain Munnerlyn is the go-to nickelback.
In late August, Star Tribune writers Matt Vensel and Mark Craig discussed Zimmer’s defense and specifically the cornerback position. One name that cropped up was Munnerlyn, who had an underwhelming 2014 season after plenty of hype surrounding his move from Carolina.
“He’s probably too good to just dismiss,” said Craig. “There’s gotta be a spot on this team for him. Just because you need the ultimate cliche: you can’t have enough corners.”
When Minnesota drafted rookie Trae Waynes, it seemed that Munnerlyn may forfeit his nickelback role. Waynes’ learning curve has been a big one, though, and Munnerlyn has maintained his role of covering slot receivers.
Minnesota demonstrated its strength at nickel against Detroit in Week 2. Munnerlyn notched seven tackles over 65 snaps, while Rhodes and Newman took all 78 snaps.
Although the Lions are often known for their defense, their offense is no cake walk. One of the biggest threats heading into the game was Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who makes a habit of snagging great catches and out-matching his defenders. Although Johnson did come away with 10 catches (83 yards) and a touchdown, the damage from a receiver of his caliber could have been much worse.
Munnerlyn covered Johnson on three targets when he weaved into the slot, holding him to two catches for 10 yards. Rhodes covered Johnson on 13 of his 17 targets, and he held his own against the incredibly athletic Megatron.
The Munnerly-Newman-Rhodes trio seems to work well for playing the nickel package, and the fact that Minnesota still has options in Marcus Sherels, Price and Waynes proves reassuring. It will be interesting to see where the Vikings plug in Robinson, who played all 16 games and started six in 2014, upon his return to the field.
Regardless, the position gives Zimmer plenty of flexibility, and the threat of injury seems a bit less intense. With question marks spotting other positions, Vikings fans can feel confident in the current cornerbacks, the depth at the position and the coach leading them all.