Will There Be a Slot Cornerback Battle for Vikings?

May 24, 2021; Englewood, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos cornerback Nate Hairston. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports.

The position of the slot cornerback is getting more important every year. Teams use more wideouts, so, subsequently, the defense has to counter with more cornerbacks. The skillset of a nickel cornerback is a very specific one.

In addition to the coverage skills of an outside cornerback, he has to be quicker for obvious reasons. A slot receiver can go in either direction. The difference to the outside is that the sideline doesn’t help the defender. It even gets tougher because slot receivers are, most of the time, extremely quick in their own right. The slot cornerback has to be so quick that he can always respond to the change of direction of his counterpart.

The snap counts are interesting as well. Mackensie Alexander, who handled the slot cornerback position in three of the last four seasons for the Vikings, played about 60% of the snaps in Mike Zimmer’s defense. The former Packers slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan played 71% and 77% of snaps in Green Bay in the last two campaigns.

Green Bay Packers defensive back Chandon Sullivan. Glasheen USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.

Former Broncos slot cornerback Bryce Callahan played between 66% and 77% in four of the last five seasons. The range is clear. Whoever will be the nickel cornerback for the Vikings will play in the ballpark of 65%-70% of the defensive plays. That’s an important role and not just some sub-package player anymore. Nickel is the new base defense in 2022.

The Vikings signed two cornerbacks in the offseason with a chance to start in the slot. The aforementioned Chandon Sullivan came over from the Green Bay Packers. He handled their slot duties. In the last three seasons, Sullivan appeared in all 49 games in the regular season and five playoff matchups. Especially in the last two campaigns, the defender played a big role for the green rivals of the Vikings.

In 2020, PFF graded him with a 60.2 grade, and in 2021 with a 55.0. That’s below average but a full 15 points better than Mackensie Alexander last year. His problem is the run defense, and he just got a 37.6 grade in that department. Rushing defense is a big part of a spot cornerback’s game because he’s closer to the ball compared to an outside CB.

The other cornerback signing was Nate Hairston. He’s almost a forgotten signing. The 28-year-old played for the Colts, Jets, and Broncos. The Broncos are interesting because defensive coordinator Ed Donatell coached there before he came to the Vikings.

Dec 5, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Denver Broncos cornerback Nate Hairston. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports.

His evaluation is not an easy one. He played just 148 snaps last year. That’s not a huge sample size. However, he played most of them in the slot and received a 73.3 grade from PFF. Like Sullivan, he’s not a great run defender, but if the grades are correct, he’s a lot better than the former Packer. If his small sample size can translate to a full season worth of slot CB snaps, he could be a real asset for the defense.

Mike Renner from PFF had Andrew Booth in his starting lineup as the nickel cornerback. In theory, Booth has the moving skills and can defend the run. However, he didn’t play that position in college. It would be a surprise to him in that role, especially after missing time earlier in the spring.

Harrison Hand was penciled in as the starting slot cornerback for the Vikings before the franchise added cornerbacks to the group in the offseason. He played exactly two snaps on defense last year. It would be a stretch to expect him to play a significant role.

Who Starts for Vikings in the Slot in Week 1?

The starter will be Chandon Sullivan. He’s a veteran, so he’ll beat out Booth if that’s even a conversation in the coaching staff, but Booth will try to compete for an outside job. If there’s a battle, it’ll be between Sullivan and Hairston, but Sullivan played a lot more in the last two seasons. The assumption has to be that he’s the better player. If Hairston were a starting-caliber player, someone would’ve found him by now. Sullivan is capable of handling the Vikings’ slot duties for one season.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt