MINNEAPOLIS -- It has been a priority of Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to have an abundance of cornerbacks dating back to his days as a defensive coordinator. While some may laugh off his "just one more" philosophy of filling out a roster with as many cornerbacks as possible, Minnesota's situation at the position is no joking matter.
On paper, the Vikings have plenty of depth between Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes on opposite sides of the secondary and Mackensie Alexander coming along at nickel corner. Then there’s Mike Hughes and Holton Hill, two promising second-year players.
But there are underlying issues with all five of them.
Last season, Rhodes missed time with injuries and didn’t play up to his ability, according to Zimmer. He vowed at the NFL owners meetings to help Rhodes, who will be 29 in June, get back to his 2017 Pro Bowl form, but that remains to be seen.
There has been no public timeline revealed for 2018 first-round pick Hughes, who is coming off a season-ending ACL tear that interrupted his encouraging rookie season. At the NFL combine, Zimmer said he didn’t know whether Hughes would be ready for the start of the season.
Hill was suspended by the NFL earlier this month for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Alexander and Waynes, who is set to play out his fifth-year option in 2019, are free agents after this season. The pre-draft rumor mill has circulated with Waynes as a possible candidate for a draft-night trade. But given the multitude of questions at the position, Minnesota isn’t in the best spot to lose any of its depth.
The Vikings are one injury away from being in a further bind, which is why replenishing their depth is always on the table.
“We’re always going to keep looking for corners because they get hurt and it’s important in our defense that we have them,” Zimmer said at owners meetings.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay doesn’t list cornerback in his top-five needs for the Vikings, who have the 18th pick in the first round. Mel Kiper Jr. sees them going offensive line, defensive tackle and running back -- in that order -- with their first three picks. Offensive line is the largest need, and the team’s thinking reflects that after Minnesota hosted more than 15 offensive linemen throughout the pre-draft process. But there’s reason to believe cornerback depth could alter their draft plans.
“Nobody wants to see a team continually swing and miss at the same position or just keep plugging away at the same position in the draft,” Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson said on SKOR North. “If you look at the Vikings' cornerback group over the last couple of years, it hasn’t been good. Holton Hill was the second-best graded cornerback on the team last season ... in far fewer snaps than some other guys but they’re not in a good position at cornerback despite big money tied up in Xavier Rhodes and the first-round pick tied to Trae Waynes.
“This is a team that could easily upgrade at cornerback and if the right guy is there at 18, I don’t think it’s a bad position to again try and upgrade at that spot. I think they’re in this strange position where they’ve thrown a lot of resources at the cornerback position but it’s still not become the strength that it should have been given that investment. So the answer to that isn’t to run away and try and focus on another position, it’s to keep going until you fix it because cornerback remains one of the most important positions in the NFL and is one of the most vital facets when it comes to winning games. So if you’re not good there, you need to get better."
Monson expects Byron Murphy, Greedy Williams and DeAndre Baker will be the first three cornerbacks off the board and likely not available if the Vikings wait until the second round, but there are other corners with second- and third-round grades. They are players with talent but more flaws to their game who could certainly fill in as reserve options for a group struggling with depth.
Given Minnesota’s history of drafting cornerbacks high, altering its strategy to bolster a group that remains in question could be the way to go.