If there's one thing that Mike Zimmer knows it's cornerbacks. With a pedigree that saw him coach Deion Sanders and turn Xavier Rhodes into an All-Pro, Zimmer's ability to turn the Vikings defense around over his six years in Minnesota has been thanks to his ability to find studs to play on the outside.
But as the Vikings enter this offseason, Zimmer's pride and joy saw plenty of cracks in 2019. With some of his beloved corners suffering from performance-related issues and others primed to hit free agency, the secondary could look much different when the Vikings take the field for OTAs in a couple of months.
2019 in review
From the cornerback position, there has been no development that has been more shocking than the rapid decline of Rhodes. After being named an All-Pro cornerback in 2017, Rhodes' play has fallen off a cliff the past two seasons.
The exclamation point on Rhodes' demise came last season where seemingly anyone he lined up against racked up catches and yards. Rhodes averaged eight coverage snaps per reception according to Pro Football Focus and opponents completed 84.2% of passes that were thrown to the guys Rhodes was covering.
By comparison, the next closest percentage by a corner with a minimum of 70 targets was Vernon Hargreaves, who allowed a 73.8% catch rate.
On the opposite side, Trae Waynes was far from a shutdown corner allowing a reception every 7.6 coverage snaps, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. His catch rate of 72.6% wasn't much better and he was prone to giving up big plays with 653 yards allowed and five touchdowns. These numbers might've been even bigger had he not missed two games.
With Rhodes and Waynes not living up to their first-round draft statuses, the hope was that Mike Hughes could step up and show the form that made him the Vikings' first-round pick in 2018.
But things didn't get off to a great start when it was revealed that Hughes was recovering from a multi-ligament knee injury suffered in October 2018 and the results were plenty of ups and downs. He allowed three touchdowns and tied Rhodes with eight coverage snaps per reception.
This left the cornerback room dangerously thin when Mackensie Alexander suffered a dislocated elbow in Week 1, made his return a couple of weeks later and then tore his meniscus in a meaningless game against the Chicago Bears in Week 17. These injuries took a toll, but Alexander's 2019 performance (85.9 passer rating allowed) didn't cause a major dropoff from 2018 (82.1 passer rating).
With inefficient performance and injuries running all over the Vikings secondary, the duo of Kris Boyd and Holton Hill provided cameos, but neither became trusted weapons for Zimmer as he used Andrew Sendejo in the slot during Minnesota's two playoff games.
The salary cap situation
This will be a position that will make Rick Spielman and Rob Brzezinski sweat it out this spring. With several declining players due for a pay raise or a new contract, Brzezinski will have to bust out his magic wand to make sure the Vikings don't have to go through a cornerback 101 course this summer.
The first item of business will be figuring out the contract of Rhodes. His 2018 season was given the benefit of the doubt after being so good in 2017, but this season showed that his body is turning against him and no longer will let him perform at that level, which is something that puts his $12.9 million cap number into the crosshairs of a team currently $12 million over the salary cap.
Although Rhodes' amount of dead money is hard to swallow at $4.8 million, it's a steep drop from his 2018 dead money of $17.7 million. That makes the decision to release Rhodes a fairly easy one even if he's willing to restructure his cap number.
Waynes' up-and-down season is something that may not constitute a massive free-agent contract, but his departure would leave just Hughes, Hill and Boyd as the three cornerbacks on the roster (assuming they release Rhodes).
That list also does not include Alexander, who will also hit the market. While his overall numbers have tailed off, the Vikings have invested plenty of time making him their slot corner and his 59.1 passer rating allowed in the slot in the final 10 games of 2018 could give the Vikings pause from the idea of letting him walk.
Determining the value of Waynes and Alexander on the open market is another exercise in financial gymnastics. Pro Football Focus has Waynes as their fourth-best corner on the open market, which stands to be deeper than it was a year ago when Pierre Desir scored a three-year, $22.5 million deal from Indianapolis.
On the flip side, Bradley Roby ($10 mil with Houston) and Jason Verrett ($3.6 million from San Francisco) were both limited to one-year deals, which would be surprising for a corner of Wayne's pedigree.
For Alexander, he could be looking at a similar deal to Bryce Callahan (three-year, $21 million from Denver last offseason), who had comparable performance to Alexander in 2018 (78.9 passer rating allowed).
The Vikings have been known to overpay for familiarity (check Anthony Barr and Shamar Stephen for examples), but they'll still need to find cap room somewhere if they want to keep Waynes, Alexander or both.
Potential free-agent targets
With not much money available to spend, the Vikings are likely stuck with pursuing their own free agents to prevent a mass exodus. But there are a couple comparable targets that could represent a "Plan B" and prevent Zimmer from being stuck with a group of rookie cornerbacks.
One idea could be to sign Kendall Fuller, who was one of the league's premier slot corners two years ago. That caused him to be a key piece in a trade that sent Alex Smith to Washington (and introduced the world to Patrick Mahomes), but his performance hasn't kept up mainly due to a position change to safety. With his value low, Fuller may be a worth a look if Alexander heads somewhere else.
Roby could be another free agent for the Vikings to look at if they let Waynes walk as he revived his career with a strong showing for the Texans. Roby doesn't have the size that Zimmer prefers for his cornerbacks, but he's fast with a 4.39 40 time back in 2014 and he ranked 24th among NFL corners with a 77.4 passer rating allowed.
Potential draft targets
While the free agents in this class are not expected to be cheap, Zimmer will feel like a kid in a candy store when he sees all of the big, fast cornerbacks available in this year's draft.
Ohio State's Jeffrey Okudah and LSU's Kristian Fulton represent the top of the class but are likely to be gone by the time the Vikings pick at 25. A more likely scenario may be a familiar name in Alabama's Trevon Diggs. Diggs, the younger brother of Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, is a coverage dynamo but will need to work on his tackling before becoming a finished product, the experts say.
If tackling is a concern, TCU's Jeff Gladney could make up for it as a prospect that has the size and coverage ability to provide an upgrade on Waynes. While he isn't much of an opportunist, he's simply good at denying the receiver the ball and with his ability to stop the run and get physical, he'd be a perfect fit in Zimmer's defense.
Florida's C.J. Henderson also fits the bill as a long defender that can make plays on the ball but will need to learn to let up on his physicality to win at the next level.
Overall, this is a cornerback class that is deep on talent and even if the Vikings wait until the second or third round to address their needs, they should be able to add depth to a unit that was falling apart toward the end of last season.
As you can see, it's shaping up to be a busy offseason for the Vikings in the cornerback room. With Rhodes likely on the way out, it will be interesting to see if Minnesota pays up for continuity to keep Waynes and Alexander around or if they'll try to rebuild on the fly – a risky preposition considering how long it takes for corners to grasp Zimmer's defense.
In any event, there is plenty of talent for the Vikings to choose from and when the smoke clears, there could be plenty of different players suiting up at cornerback in 2020.