This 10-part series focuses on the biggest questions facing the Vikings as they head into Mankato for their training camp festivities. Be sure to answer the first three questions HERE, HERE, and HERE.
CAMP QUESTION #4 – BATTLE OF THE YOUTH
The Minnesota Vikings are primed for a competitive 10 days of training camp in Mankato. From the battles at offensive line to the stalemate at strong safety, the team’s depth chart is sure to be in a constant state of flux. But neither position will experience as much jockeying as cornerback, where general manager Rick Spielman has said the team is “trying to keep as much competition” as they can.
Xavier Rhodes is the clear starter on one side of the field, and he’s in no place to lose his job in the next two years. Minnesota picked up his fifth-year option this offseason, locking up Rhodes through 2017. It’s on the other side of the field where things get complicated.
Sure, Terence Newman returns on a one-year, $3-million deal this year, but second-year cornerback Trae Waynes is waiting in the wings. Not to mention, the Vikings drafted Mackensie Alexander with this year’s second round pick, muddling an already deep unit of the roster.
Right now, it’s Rhodes, Newman, and Captain Munnerlyn at the top, with Waynes and Alexander sitting impatiently on the sidelines. Waynes enters training camp following an encouraging finish to 2015, while Mackensie arrives with the distinction of being a more pro-ready prospect coming out of college. Both have a chance to play this season, but it’s a matter of timing, circumstances, and performance; let the games begin.
The groans that accompanied Minnesota’s selection of Waynes in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft were loud enough to hear in California. Well, not really, but the point is this — many felt Waynes was a reach with the 11th-overall selection, and rightfully so.
Waynes, a traditional press cornerback at Michigan State, was doomed from the start. He was too grabby in college, too stiff to recover after the initial press, and too reliant on his 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed. That showed up in Minnesota’s first preseason game of the year, a nationally televised outing against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The rookie was flagged three times after pulling, tugging, and locking onto receivers with reckless abandon. Fortunately for Waynes, he plays for a team with some of the league’s wisest defensive minds, including head coach and defensive backs guru Mike Zimmer. George Edwards, Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, explained why the transition was so rough for Waynes early on.
“When a young player comes in, especially a rookie … [he’s] not only learning what we’re doing schematically and technique and fundamental-wise, but also the college game is so much different than the professional game,” Edwards said, per the Star Tribune. “I think there’s a learning curve in there, a lot more so than it used to be years before. [Waynes] has gotten acclimated to what he’s going to see week-to-week, the different concepts that we have and technique and fundamental-wise. We want to be able to apply those things.”
This offseason, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a starting role. While Waynes played in 15 games last season, he started just one, spending most of his times on special teams. But when he did get the chance to move to cornerback, he raised some eyebrows. In just 195 snaps, he deflected five passes, hauled in an interception, and appeared sure of himself in Zimmer’s tough-to-learn system. And according to ESPN 1500, the staff is pushing for Waynes to vault Newman at some point this year.
“It’s time to continue to push him into making more plays on the ball,” Zimmer said. “And that’s what I’m trying to get him to do. My expectation is to get him to be more aggressive in the coverage because he knows what to do now. Now it’s time to go be aggressive.”
Training camp will spell Waynes’s fate. A strong showing could land him the job as early as Week 1, but another offseason of mental lapses and regression could open a spot on the bench for the second-year corner.
Alexander doesn’t lack for confidence, but right now, he’ll need more than swagger to guarantee playing time in 2016. Unlike Waynes, the former Clemson cornerback was considered a steal after falling to the Vikings in the second round and projects to be a starting corner sooner rather than later. But like Waynes, it’s the difficult transition that could slow things down for Alexander.
“He’s another one coming in making that transition,” Edwards said, per Vikings.com. “He’s come in, we’re playing him at the nickel, we’re playing him outside so they can get a bigger scope of what we’re trying to do schematically overall. I think that puts a little bit more added work to him mentally and just schematically what we’re asking him to do, but in the long-haul we think it will pay big benefits for us.”
One of Alexander’s greatest strengths is his ability to play multiple positions; a distinction that doesn’t define Waynes (to a degree). He can play outside, rotate into the Nickel, and line up anywhere on the field. That’s an excellent trait, but one that’d be even more beneficial on a team with question marks at either spot. Munnerlyn is the incumbent starter at Nickel and isn’t expected to give up the role, especially after a solid 2015 campaign. And outside, it’s Newman, then Waynes, and then Alexander.
Ben Goessling at ESPN doesn’t think the Vikings are in any rush to put Alexander on the field, but acknowledges that Zimmer drafted the Alexander because he “loves his coverage skills.” He writes that if Alexander makes the transition quickly, he could easily compete for a role on the outside, thus leap-frogging Waynes and potentially overtaking Newman.
With that, the question becomes: Does experience trump skill?
Waynes has the experience in making the transition, but Alexander was a more NFL-ready product coming out of college. His growing pains may not be as severe as the ones Waynes experienced, but a logjam on the depth chart could keep him on the bench for a year. This will be one of the most exciting battles to watch at training camp this month.