Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
Mike Zimmer has gone through a lot during his six years as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
In his first year, Zimmer inherited a team that ranked 32nd in defense and lost Adrian Peterson to a suspension. That was followed up by a Blair Walsh kick that sailed wide left in the 2015 playoffs, Teddy Bridgewater’s catastrophic knee injury, an eye issue that required multiple surgeries in 2016, Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook’s injuries in 2017, an offensive coordinator firing in 2018 and the extreme struggles of his formerly elite corner Xavier Rhodes last year.
Now, after cutting Rhodes and losing Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander to free agency, the former defensive backs coach is tasked with training a collection of six promising cornerbacks who are under the age of 24 -- without the benefit of traditional rookie minicamp, OTAs or mandatory minicamp.
It may be his biggest hurdle yet because of the steep adjustment curve faced by rookie corners and the unique situation caused by COVID-19.
The development of first-round draft pick Jeff Gladney, who is likely to see a great deal of playing time in his debut season, will be a top priority for the Vikings’ coaching staff.
“Gladney reminded me of a lot of guys that played similarly for me in the past,” Zimmer said on draft night. “Very good acceleration. Tough, competitive kid. Wants to challenge receivers. Good in and out of the breaks. Long arms. So you know, I know he's a shorter guy, but I think he makes up for it with his toughness and his length.”
Gladney was one of the more experienced corners in the draft with four years of playing time under his belt but nothing can effectively prepare NCAA corners for the NFL game. For starters, the best receiver they ever faced in college is now the norm from week-to-week at the pro level. Plus he will now be asked to slow down the freak athletes and route technicians of the NFL with pass interference rules that are vastly different from the college game.
The Vikings hope that Gladney’s personality will make the adjustment smoother than most.
“When we called him... on the phone and he said, ‘Been waiting for you guys to call.’ That's part of the things that you like about him is he's a competitor and wants to be out there and go,” Zimmer said.
But numbers clearly show rookies’ struggles. In 2019 eight rookie corners played at least 400 coverage snaps and five of them allowed quarterback ratings of over 100 on throws in their direction. Five of the eight rookie corners were also hit with nine or more penalties. To put that in context, the league leader in this dubious category drew 12 flags (per PFF).
A Pro Football Focus study found that most corners make their biggest gains in year two.
“Cornerbacks... largely follow the general trend of increasing the rookie production by roughly 80% and reaching their potential during their sophomore campaign,” PFF’s Timo Riske wrote.
The Vikings were hoping for that jump last year from Mike Hughes -- and they saw flashes of it -- but injuries have kept him from getting the same type of experience as other third-year corners. Hughes opened his career as a role player but suffered a season-ending ACL tear after six games. Recovery time from the injury ate into his 2019 season.
Hughes returned to action in Week 3 and found himself in a rotational role by the end of the year. Still he’s played less than a full season’s worth of snaps and has given up a 99.0 rating into his coverage as an NFL’er. And he might be called upon to take on the challenge of a new position.
None of the other corners have experience at nickel corner, which is a big part of Zimmer’s defense. In years past, the Vikings have received strong play from that spot from Terence Newman and Mackensie Alexander. Hughes has gotten some work there over the past two training camps and appears to be the favorite to play in the slot.
It happens to be the most difficult cornerback job to master, according to GM Rick Spielman.
“I think the slot is the most difficult to learn because of the different combinations of the man and zone schemes that Zim runs,” Spielman said. “We started to train Mike Hughes last year and we expect him to play a lot in there...The hardest part is the mental part. How quickly do you know the different route combinations and how the coverage adjusts behind you according to the route combinations where you don’t have to think and where you can get to the point where you can react and play.”
And because of COVID-19, Hughes won’t have a chance to get in any on-field work until training camp (assuming that it starts on time).
“You can do it on paper and they’re gonna do it with the virtual classroom but to me until you get out on the field and see it at full speed and you have to physically do it beside just doing it in your head, that’s where we’re going to have to get caught up pretty quickly,” Spielman said.
Hughes’s experience makes him the favorite for nickel corner but Zimmer said on draft night he sees Gladney as having the skillset to play there as well. The focus will be on effectively teaching players remotely and then adapting to their needs quickly once camp begins.
“To me, it's going to [depend on] how we adjust without having OTAs and getting ready for training camp,” Zimmer said. “And when we do get into training camp, understanding what is important with our guys, and what's important with what we have to teach them and what we have to do to get ready.”
While we can draw conclusions about the bumps in the road that are likely for Gladney and the adjustments for Hughes, the wild cards in the cornerback group are third-round pick Cameron Dantzler and 2018 undrafted free agent Holton Hill.
Against top college competition, Dantzler was a standout. The Mississippi State corner allowed just a 41.5% completion percentage into his coverage (per PFF) and was one of the few corners in the country to succeed against LSU. His drop in the draft was likely connected to a slow 40-yard dash time rather than his play on the field, which opens the door for the youngest player on the roster to compete for playing time as an outside corner right away.
He will be battling with Hill, who looked like a terrific find for the Vikings in 2018 when he stepped in for Rhodes and gave up just a 67.0 rating when targeted on 31 throws his way. But the former Texas Longhorn was suspended for the first eight games of 2019 and only saw the field for 168 total plays. If Hill can prove to Zimmer that he can be trusted, there will be an opportunity for him to flourish as a starter.
If Zimmer and the Vikings’ coaching staff can harness the talents of the youth at corner, they can be better at the position than last year. The two outside starters graded as the 80th (Rhodes) and 43rd (Waynes) ranked corners by PFF and gave up nine touchdowns to just one interception. And the Vikings still finished with the fifth-best points allowed mark in the league.
But the schedule won’t make things easy on these new corners. The likes of Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Drew Brees will certainly test the inexperienced players. So it will be up to Zimmer’s staff to teach on the fly and scheme them into success.
And if they play well enough to maintain the standard of previous Zimmer defenses, it will be one of his biggest successes as Vikings head coach.