The secondary is worth panicking about and here’s why

One of the largest pet peeves I have as a Vikings fan is when other Vikings fans don’t allow me to wallow in the palpable self-pity that comes from being a fan of the purple and gold each off-season. After nearly six decades of existence, those of us who lean more towards the glass half empty (or rather, the glass is completely empty because it’s been thrown against the wall) perspective on life/the team have yet to be wrong.

That’s not to say that I want the team to fail, of course I don’t. Instead, I think that there’s a bit of a coping mechanism inherent in aiming low because when the team ends up shooting even lower than that, you can at least feel the validation of being right about the outcome.

Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those times. At least, not completely. Instead, my concern about the state of the team isn’t the typical “WE’RE SO CURSED!” fare. Rather, I feel like the concerns that I have about the moves this team is making are some of the most powerful and important that I’ve seen since I started writing about the team (on these sites at least) in 2015.

With the number of draft picks, and sudden cap space, the team finds itself with, it isn’t an emotional overreaction to ask whether or not Zimmer (and Spielman) are the right men for the job of rebuilding the defense they put everything into and then in the last week (plus) dismantled. So, while this article is about the secondary specifically, it’s about the team as a whole and the future of that team more generally. While some of my recent articles may seem reactionary, after taking a step back I think that the secondary is a canary in the coal mine situation.

So why would we be excited that the management that let that canary die is in charge of going to the pet store with more cages and money than the mines have had in a really long time?

That’s not to say, again, that I want the team to fail. I don’t. I can count on one of the hands of that lobster hand family from that documentary/circus about … That lobster family from the circus, the things that I want more in my life at 35 years old than a Vikings Super Bowl. The other things? A family of my own and perhaps the ability to fall asleep at night without taking enough medication to kill a mid-sized elephant.

Somehow, I think those three things are related…

Anywho, that brings me to the topic of today which is an article from one of the new (and soon to be ex)writers for our little network of sites, Ben Lyso, the headline and crux of which is that we needn’t panic about the state of the Vikings secondary. As one of the charter members of the off-season panic club, I think that I need to respond to his great piece and explain at least why I’m currently one of the people that agree with the Pioneer Press’ Charlie Walters when he says that the ‘Depleted Vikings look like a five-win team’.

First, let’s look at what Ben says (and again, I implore you to read his piece, as it’s really, really great and entertaining).

The main point that Lyso makes is that the Vikings’ secondary was, as he says, “… The weakest part of the [Vikings] defense” in 2019. As he put it:

“The team allowed the 6th highest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks last year with 65.6%, most of which can be attributed to Mike Zimmer constantly calling for loose coverage to avoid yet another play in which Xavier Rhodes gets embarrassed.”

So, he asks, validly:

“Why is everyone panicking about the Vikings not re-signing the mediocre talent from last year?”

As I alluded to in the last sentence, that’s a very valid question. I also think that there’s a portion of the fan-base that is panicking solely about that so I also think it doesn’t entirely miss the point. However, I think it overlooks why people like me are upset and that’s what I’m here to explain.

Lyso follows up his question by saying:

If your only answer is, “So we have depth that is familiar with the playbook”, you aren’t thinking in the right terms.
Well-run franchises don’t pay for mediocre talent just to keep familiar faces on the roster.

That’s true.

That’s not what I’m worried about. Although, I could argue that well-run teams don’t invest that much draft capital into a position and have it completely implode to the point of cutting bait with all three starters in a single off-season because well-run teams don’t keep the same management around for a rebuild.

Sure, I do wish that the team would’ve retained as much of their defense as the cap allowed to make one last Zimmer-lead push for a Super Bowl as I did think that with Gary Kubiak (and company) being in charge of the offense, back when Stefon Diggs was still a part of the team, perhaps the offense could be elite enough to win with a defense that has been kinda good at its peak.

Instead, the team decided to cut, trade or let players walk into free agency (although there were some that turn the team down) and amass draft picks and cap space to rebuild the defense almost from the ground up. That’s where my fear comes in.

Yes. I did initially react poorly to Waynes or Alexander leaving, as I wasn’t ready to admit this team was going into rebuild mode and perhaps I didn’t think the cap situation was THAT bad. But once they reached a tipping point and now what is best for this team is exactly what Lyso says. However, and again, my fear is that we’re in for a lot more of the same for the next half-decade thanks to the sheer amount of open positions, draft picks and salary-cap space this team has.

Again. Why would we trust Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman with that process?

Lyso spends the second part of his article essentially stating that we shouldn’t fret as Mike Hughes looked every bit the shutdown corner fans hoped he’d be before going down with an ACL tear during Week 6 of the 2018 season. While he admits that Hughes has struggled since returning, it does take time for players to return to full strength from an ACL and we should give Hughes time to get back to full strength.

While that’s true, I don’t… the rest of the article essentially states that other Zimmer/Spielman drafted or coached corners (you know, his supposed strength) weren’t good enough to keep around. Former top 15 pick Trae Waynes? Not worth the $14 million that the Bengals gave him. Former elite CB Xavier Rhodes (who was with the team before Zimmer became the head coach, but didn’t acclimate fully to the position until he was coached by Zimmer)? Was falling apart despite only being 29 years old during the 2019 season and was thus bad enough to just cut (and eat his dead cap space).

Mackenzie Alexander? Lyso states:

“Mackensie Alexander signing with the Cincinnati Bengals for $4M is a bit disappointing, but someone else on the team, quite possibly Anthony Harris, can spend time in the nickel cornerback position.”

So what we have are basically every type of disappointment possible. Rhodes? He was a first-round pick that was with the team before Zimmer was hired and who had a really good run as one of the best corners in the league, but then fell apart and became a huge liability and thus was cut.

Trae Waynes? He was drafted by Zimmer 11th overall and while he had a rough start to his career, he ended up being a more than respectable (and in my opinion and criminally underrated player/source of consistency at the position that had none in 2019) cover corner that also was one of the best run-stopping backs in the entire league. He cashed in on that at the tune of $14 million a year, something the Vikings couldn’t and at this point, shouldn’t have matched (why keep him if you’re going to tear everything else down?).

Mackenzie Alexander was a second-round pick that had a rough start to his career as well, which makes sense as he was going from playing as an outside corner in college to a nickel guy in the NFL. He had an up-and-down 2019, as well, but he wouldn’t have cost the team much to retain as he only cost the Bengals $4 million. There’s been talk that Mack could’ve stayed as the Vikings made him a similar offer to that of the Bengals, but he left because he wasn’t happy with how he was treated by Mike Zimmer. Perhaps there’s more to that ‘Toxic Leadership’ quote from Rhett Ellison’s dad than we all let on.

Although, replacing two starting corners as well as your nickel guy seems like a pretty daunting task.
Sure, the team has Hughes as well as undrafted free agent Holton Hill, who as Lyso points out had a better combined PFF grade than Rhodes and Waynes. Although they played far less than Rhodes and Waynes, so I guess we will see if that holds up in 2020. Lyso seems to think so, but I don’t really think having the 5’10” Hughes as your best corner (when he’s four-or-five inches shorter than Rhodes or Waynes) is something NOT to panic about. Especially considering his ratio of bad-to-good plays since returning from his ACL. If not for those good plays being very splashy (big hits, almost picks, etc.), I think people would be looking at the situation differently.

Then there’s Holton “Pass me the Blunt” Hill, who was suspended for the first eight games of the 2019 season and who saw limited playing time after his return. He is one more infraction away from getting suspended for a whole season and he’s also shown very, very spotty play at the position. He’s more similar in size to that of Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, which is probably the only reason he wasn’t cut in the first place (Zimmer does love his “length”-y corners).

But again, my source of panic isn’t even from the names (or lack thereof) on the roster. Even though there’s a lot to panic about, clearly.

It’s the fact that people are saying that we should trust Zimmer and Spielman to rebuild this roster when every kind of player possible at the corner position (ones they drafted, ones they didn’t, inside guys, outside guys, etc.) have clearly, as Lyso points out, been bad enough to let walk despite the fact that Zimmer is supposedly a cornerback guru.

If it’s so easy to let those guys go. If they aren’t worth the money. If they didn’t resign with the team despite being matched because they didn’t like the team/Zimmer (as has been reported about Mackenzie Alexander… and Jayron Kearse), then why would we let Zimmer handle the upcoming draft (one in which the team has the ability to, more than any recent draft, (re)build the core of the future).

The Vikings gave Zimmer the keys to the franchise and allowed him to build the defense of his dreams over the course of the last five seasons. That experiment lead to the team being maxed out in terms of the cap last season/recently, and what do we have to show for it? So, we’re supposed to just dump everyone and start all over again? The Vikings have a tremendous opportunity with the amount of draft picks that they currently have to perhaps build something special, and considering the amount of time it takes for corners to develop in Zimmer’s system, if you allow him to control the draft like he’s been allowed during his tenure, you’re essentially agreeing to keep him around for another five or six seasons.

Why would anyone do that?

That brings me to the other fear/source of panic that I’ve felt from this situation. The fact that Zimmer and Spielman will use all of those picks to rebuild the defense, and that they’ll then yet again ignore the other main issue that has kept these Zimmer lead teams from reaching their full potential. The offensive line.

Zimmer and Spielman have done a great job of identifying, developing and utilizing talent in the draft. On the defensive side of things. Which may seem counterintuitive based on what I’ve said above. It’s true, though, as they’ve at least been able to get starting quality play out of the vast majority of their top picks on defense. While the overall result from those players has been spotty, at best, they’ve at least panned out to the point of receiving $14 million a year from other teams (regardless of what you feel about that move). So, perhaps we will see that it wasn’t necessarily the players, but the coaching, that limited the ceiling of these players (or it could be the opposite).

The offense is a different story, though, the offensive line especially. Think of how different things would’ve gone when the Vikings started the season 5-0 with Sam Bradford as their starting quarterback going into the Bye had they had even a halfway decent offensive line? Or if those two first-half turnovers in the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles hadn’t happened thanks to shoddy line play? Or if Cousins wasn’t playing behind the 27th-ranked offensive line (in terms of the pass rush) in 2019? Think of how many times we’ve said something like, “If only they had a halfway decent offensive line!” during the Cousins era? Or rather, the Zimmer era?

Because of that, I look at the cornerback/secondary position as the canary in the coal mine in terms of the Vikings during the Zimmer era. It’s the position that they’ve arguably invested the most draft capital in per capita (Xavier Rhodes, 1st round pick, Trae Waynes, 1st round pick, Mike Hughes, 1st round pick, Mackenize Alexander, 2nd round pick…) and it’s also the unit that Zimmer used to coach and is known for. And they, in one way or another, are all gone.

If this is the result that we’ve had, why allow Zimmer to re-up?

So, Ben Lyso isn’t wrong. They needed to cut Rhodes. They couldn’t afford to match the Bengals’ offer of $14 million per, and sure, losing Alexander kinda sucked but it isn’t the end of the world. But, if you take that logic one step further you’ll realize that if you’re saying that every player that possibly could’ve left, should’ve, in the position that the coach/general manager has invested the most in (per capita) in the off-season before what could be the most important draft in recent team history…

.. Then yeah, I don’t think we should settle down. Quite the contrary.

We need to ask whether or not Zimmer and even Spielman (look at his record drafting players on offense and then look at the players he wasn’t drafted, and the positions that he has ignored). Neither has shown the ability to build a complete team, or show restraint. Zimmer can’t help but draft corners and Spielman can’t restrain Zimmer from doing so.

And this is what we have to show for it.

It’s pretty clear, to me, that Zimmer and Spielman had two options after the 2019 season. They could attempt to move some money around, ask players to restructure and keep the defense mostly (or more so than now) intact from 2019 in the hopes that they could somehow make one last run for the Super Bowl in their final contract year(s). Or, they could start a rebuild that hopefully would show ownership that they have a promising enough young unit to warrant a contract extension for both.

Obviously they decided to go with the latter. Which raises the question as to why we should let them. So, yeah, I’d say that while the status of the secondary is something we should use to point out that while sure, it was the right decision to let players go, the fact that it was the right decision means that the last thing we should do is “settle down” as that implies that we trust Zimmer and Spielman to rebuild this Vikings defense.

There’s a reason that the Vikings hired from within for their defensive coordinator position and while perhaps 80-to-90% of it is that Zimmer is the defacto defensive coordinator, the other 20-to-30% is that Zimmer’s defense from a position-by-position standpoint is built to run his system. If we allow Zimmer to use this draft to rebuild his defense, it’ll not only compound issues that this defense/offense has had for over half-a-decade, but it’ll all but lock Zimmer in as the head coach for the next half-a-decade.

Why would anyone want that?