the cornerbacks
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Our second installment of our Vikings Free Agency Primer series: The cornerbacks

LAST SEASON

No viable NFL franchise can afford to remain complacent. Even if said team has, for example, the league’s best quarterback, contingency plans must always be a part of the front office’s long-term outlook. For the Minnesota Vikings, assessing and evaluating the cornerback position falls under this category of thinking.

Any measure would label the unit’s collective 2016 efforts a success. Most notably, Pro Football Focus ranked Minnesota’s secondary seventh-best last season. The highly-regarded site graded Terence Newman as a top-10 cornerback in the league, and his ageless performance was nearly matched by that of Xavier Rhodes.

By most counts, Rhodes was the Vikings’ best cornerback in 2016 and a surefire candidate—at least in Minnesota—for top-tier money in the coming seasons. He emerged from the shadows after his shutdown outing against Odell Beckham and never looked back, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Over the course of the season, Rhodes allowed an NFL-best 48% completion rate and 47.0 passer rating, cementing his status as cornerback No. 1 in Mike Zimmer’s secondary.

Success fluctuates once you travel down the depth chart. Trae Waynes played far more snaps in his second year—55% vs. 18% in 2015—and enjoyed a few baby steps of growth along the way. As Matthew Coller points out, Waynes displayed all the traits of a first-round draft pick but failed to progress in a few key departments — consistency, ball skills, and awareness. He did record four interceptions in spot duty but still conceded playing time to Newman opposite Rhodes on the outside.

Second-round draft pick Mackensie Alexander was nearly invisible, playing just 68 snaps his rookie year. His struggles were expected given his smaller size and the general adjustment to the NFL, but the jury’s still out on his potential to replace impending free agent Captain Munnerlyn. Despite spraining his ankle in November, Munnerlyn missed just one game and remained a reliable presence at nickel corner; a position Munnerlyn claims on the field “80% of the time.”

THE SITUATION

General manager Rick Spielman has two free agent decisions to make in less than a month, and both rest on the foundation of trust. Munnerlyn’s contract expires on March 5th and represents what’s sure to be Minnesota’s toughest transaction. On the one hand, he’s proven valuable as a scrappy, do-it-all defender against screens passes and opposing teams’ slot receivers. But on the other, the cost of high-end nickel cornerbacks is only rising in today’s pass-happy NFL.

“You’re playing nickel 80 percent of the time of the game,” Munnerlyn said in a recent interview with NFL.com. “If teams gameplan you, they might not do that; they might try to keep a linebacker out there, but this is a passing league. Everybody wants to throw the ball. Everybody wants to see the scoreboard light up, so hopefully, teams see that. Definitely hoping the Vikings see that because we play it a lot, I hope they value my position and value my talent and bring me back.”

The question of trust falls on the shoulders of Alexander. If Spielman believes he’s ready to take over for Munnerlyn, then releasing the veteran cornerback should be a no-brainer; Munnerlyn could demand upwards of $5 million per year in the current cornerback market. But Minnesota’s failure to turn their interest in K’Waun Williams into a signing changes things for Spielman, who may look to keep Munnerlyn for stability at one of the team’s strongest position groups.

Had the Vikings signed Williams, a somewhat proven nickel corner, cutting Munnerlyn would’ve been a simple pill to swallow, allowing Zimmer to bring Alexander along slowly while rotating Waynes in the slot. Now, it’s a “one-or-the-other” choice between Munnerlyn and the elder statesman, Newman.

Newman was fantastic in 2016 and could very well repeat his performance in 2017. He will turn 39 before the season begins, but what’s another year going to do to Newman? By proving the doubters wrong—thanks to a healthy dose of red wine—Newman’s eliminated any further questions about his age; it’s just a number at this point. The more important number, though, is his contract.

The Vikings paid Newman $2.5 million in 2016; a realistic figure if the team decides to bring him back on another one-year deal. Still, Newman’s reliability doesn’t extend much further than 40 years old, even if now, his age isn’t making a difference. The human body has a fascinating way of turning on players, regardless of their training regimens or routines.

There’s an argument for Munnerlyn; that he’s the smarter if more expensive future investment. He’s only 28 and likely has his best football in front of him. He’s finally comfortable in Zimmer’s system, well-liked in the locker room,  and a proven commodity in a market lacking other top nickel cornerbacks. Newman’s an excellent piece to a championship puzzle, but the Vikings can’t let their Super Bowl window close by keeping old contributors like Newman and Chad Greenway on the roster.

POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS

According to Spotrac, here are the possible unrestricted free agents at cornerback:

Trumaine Johnson CB LA $13,952,000 UFA Market Value
Brandon Carr CB DAL $10,020,000 UFA Market Value
Sam Shields CB GB $9,750,000 UFA
Tramon Williams CB CLE $7,000,000 UFA
Prince Amukamara CB JAC $5,500,000 UFA Market Value
Captain Munnerlyn CB MIN $3,750,000 UFA
Justin Gilbert CB PIT $3,208,376 UFA
Leodis McKelvin CB PHI $3,100,000 UFA
Stephon Gilmore CB BUF $3,021,038 UFA Market Value
Morris Claiborne CB DAL $3,000,000 UFA
D.J. Hayden CB OAK $2,580,925 UFA
Terence Newman CB MIN $2,500,000 UFA
Darius Butler CB IND $2,500,000 UFA Market Value
Nolan Carroll CB PHI $2,360,000 UFA
Dre Kirkpatrick CB CIN $2,155,699 UFA
Josh Robinson CB TB $2,000,000 UFA
Jerraud Powers CB BAL $1,750,000 UFA
A.J. Bouye CB HOU $1,671,000 UFA Market Value
Antwon Blake CB TEN $1,500,000 UFA
Leon Hall CB NYG $1,500,000 UFA
Johnthan Banks CB CHI $1,181,580 UFA
Teddy Williams CB CAR $900,000 UFA
Mike Jenkins CB ARI $885,000 UFA
Corey White CB BUF $840,000 UFA
Greg Toler CB WAS $840,000 UFA
Kyle Wilson CB NO $840,000 UFA
Chykie Brown CB CIN $760,000 UFA
Sterling Moore CB NO $760,000 UFA
Leonard Johnson CB CAR $760,000 UFA
Coty Sensabaugh CB NYG $760,000 UFA
Brandon Boykin CB CIN $760,000 UFA
Joshua Thomas CB DAL $760,000 UFA
Asa Jackson CB DET $760,000 UFA
Crezdon Butler CB DET $760,000 UFA
Robert McClain CB LAC $752,500 UFA
Logan Ryan CB NE $693,313 UFA Market Value
Kayvon Webster CB DEN $686,450 UFA Market Value
Antonio Allen CB NYJ $675,000 UFA
Neiko Thorpe CB SEA $675,000 UFA
Darryl Morris CB IND $675,000 UFA
Blidi Wreh-Wilson CB ATL $675,000 UFA
Dwayne Gratz CB PHI $675,000 UFA
Trevin Wade CB NYG $630,000 UFA
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu CB MIA $584,325 UFA
Marcus Cooper CB ARI $551,474 UFA

STAND OUTS

LEON HALL: Like Newman before him, Hall has a connection to Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer; the two spent 2008 to 2013 together in Cincinnati. There, Zimmer made the most of Hall’s versatility, sliding him inside in certain nickel situations. With his experience in a Zimmer defense, Hall would provide a nice bridge between Munnerlyn and Alexander if the Vikings part ways with the younger of their two free agent cornerbacks.

BRANDON BOYKIN: Boykin is only 26 years old and is widely considered one of the league’s better slot cornerbacks. So, what’s the catch? He may have a potentially career-ending hip injury. Boykin’s mystery health is likely why he hasn’t found a home since the Steelers cut him in 2015 and why he made just $760,000 last season. The Vikings could snag Boykin on the cheap, but injury questions remain a major roadblock for this snakebitten franchise.

STERLING MOORE: There’s a theme here — the Vikings are set at the outside cornerback position with Rhodes and Waynes (who I think starts in 2017). Bolstering the slot has to be a priority for the Vikings, and Moore is another sound veteran option. He wants to return to New Orleans, but he has bounced around the league and could make Minnesota his next home.

LEONARD JOHNSON: A relative unknown, Johnson only played 10 games for the Carolina Panthers last season. But in those games, Johnson recorded 30 tackles, a sack, and was not called for a single pass interference penalty. He’s Carolina’s first real nickel cornerback since Munnerlyn signed with the Vikings in 2014; could he follow in those same footsteps and land in Minnesota this offseason?

MOVING FORWARD

If you can’t tell, I’m pretty set in my opinion for the Vikings at cornerback:

  • Retain Xavier Rhodes and sign him to a long-term contract this offseason. Rotoworld reports the team is expected to open such talks soon.
  • Make Trae Waynes the full-time starter on the outside. There are sure to be some bumps in the road, but Waynes’ only chance to grow is on the field. It’s now or never for the 2015 first-round pick.
  • Re-sign Captain Munnerlyn. It’s probably an unpopular opinion, but Munnerlyn is one of the league’s best slot cornerbacks and a “sure thing” in Minnesota’s defensive backfield. It’ll come at a price, but the long-term value is worth it, especially if Alexander is versatile enough to play inside and outside.
  • Part ways with Terence Newman. For as much as he’s given to the Vikings, something tells me last year’s mutinous actions won’t sit well with Zimmer this spring. Age is just a number at this point, but Newman’s future with the team simply can’t extend more than a year or two.

Again, this is all just speculation on my part. If the Vikings did, in fact, follow this plan, there’d be no need to sign a free agent slot cornerback; they’d be set with Munnerlyn and Alexander inside. Still, Zimmer employed plenty of rotation at cornerback last year, signaling he wouldn’t be content with just five total players at the position.

This year’s crop of free agents includes a handful of solid names, but none the Vikings should splurge on; save that money for Xavier Rhodes. Adding a veteran like Sterling Moore or Leon Hall would give Zimmer some flexibility at cornerback, but right now, Munnerlyn is the top dog among nickel options.

There isn’t need at cornerback as there is at offensive tackle, but a franchise like the Vikings can’t stand pat with the status quo. To maintain success and achieve greater heights next season, Zimmer must challenge the conventional and shake up his depth chart in whatever way improves his already stellar defense.