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Vikings go all in on revamping secondary through free agency

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings went into free agency with a series of priorities. First they had to address their pass rush. Nothing would fix Minnesota’s defense, the worst one coach Mike Zimmer said he ever had, if it couldn’t pressure quarterbacks.

Rush and cover is a phrase reiterated by Vikings coaches and others around the NFL and involves two defensive assets working in harmony to force offenses off the field on third down. That led the Vikings to sign defensive end Stephen Weatherly and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency. Paired with the expected return of Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce, Minnesota addressed a major concern before focusing its efforts at an even more vulnerable spot.

The Vikings’ pass defense contributed to a unit that ranked 29th in points and 27th in yards allowed last season. A young, vulnerable crop of cornerbacks were exposed on the back end of the defense and often ineffective in covering receivers no matter how many adjustments Zimmer and his coaches made.

Thus came an overhaul in the secondary with the addition of cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander along with safety Xavier Woods. The familiarity with Alexander, who played nickel corner with the Vikings from 2016-19, and Woods, who was coached by new defensive backs coach Karl Scott at Louisiana Tech in 2015, made these easy choices.

Peterson’s pedigree as an eight-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer spoke for itself, along with the Vikings’ belief that the 30-year-old veteran will revert back to his high-level form after back-to-back down seasons.

The onslaught of defensive back additions doesn’t magically transform the Vikings’ secondary from worst to first nor point to a lack of faith coaches have in second-year cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. It simply provides Minnesota with options and depth -- two things it lacked in 2020.

Zimmer’s proclamation that a defense can never have too many cornerbacks is playing out in real time. The Vikings no longer have to worry about getting their corners from “kindergarten to a master’s program” in a hurry. With abundant experience interjected into the secondary, they have options to work with during training camp.

After a year in Cincinnati, Alexander is back playing in a system he’s familiar with for a coach who molded him into one of the league’s better nickel corners. Though Alexander admittedly fought the transition from playing outside to the slot early on, he developed into a critical part of Minnesota’s secondary from 2018-19. That’s the role he played in Cincinnati last season and will seemingly compete for again in 2021.

“Honestly, I’m all about the big picture,” Alexander said. “Wherever they want to play me, I’m a team guy. We’re going to compete as a unit and we’re going to see where it all falls. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Gladney, the 2020 first-rounder who allowed a 124.7 passer rating and seven touchdowns, occupied that role as a rookie. It’s possible Minnesota wants to explore moving him back outside, where he played both corner spots, as he works to improve his coverage skills in Year 2.

Peterson seemingly fits in one of the outside spots. Dantzler, who spent the majority of his rookie season at right cornerback, could fill the other. With Alexander an option for the nickel role, how the Vikings use Gladney and other corners, and whether they adjust their tendencies with scheme (i.e. playing more zone in certain instances than man coverage) will be based on how the new personnel meshes with the young players.

Perhaps the most important addition was the most recent made in the secondary. Woods, a 25-year-old former sixth-round pick who transitioned into a solid three-year starter in Dallas, is penciled in to start opposite Harrison Smith. Minnesota had almost no depth at the position before officially signing Woods to a one-year deal worth $2.25 million on Monday. Between Myles Dorn, Luther Kirk and Josh Metellus -- the three other safeties on the 90-man roster – just one had real game experience last year with Metellus’ measly 16 snaps.

Woods was widely considered one of the top remaining players available after the first wave of free agency. He can contribute in different places, including covering the slot. He played more in the box last season than previously throughout his career. A return to free safety where he has thrived could be the perfect fit for both parties as the Vikings’ secondary takes shape. Playing next to Smith can’t hurt, either (see Anthony Harris’ career trajectory).

On paper, the secondary is vastly improved, and the flexibility provided by these additions will allow the defense the opportunity to reclaim its role as the strength of the team. The Vikings might not be done addressing the secondary either, with an abundance of corners available in the draft and the need for more safety depth.