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Zone Coverage: Ranking Vikings defensive backs in the NFC North

Minnesota's safeties are elite, but the cornerbacks bring them down the rankings.
Holton Hill

This story first appeared at Zone Coverage and was re-shared through a collaboration with Bring Me The News

The NFC North team positional ranking series ends with defensive backs, which could be either positive or negative for Minnesota Vikings fans.

On one hand, the Vikings’ secondary boasts perhaps the best 1-2 punch at the safety position in the NFL. Harrison Smith has been an elite safety essentially since he entered the league in 2012. Meanwhile, Anthony Harris has vaulted to the top of the ranks thanks to his incredible coverage ability as a ranging centerfielder.

Minnesota is reeling at the cornerback position, however. Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander were arguably the top three cornerbacks on the roster in 2019. All of them have departed. That leaves third-year man Mike Hughes as the leader of the cornerback group entering 2020.

The rest of the NFC North is littered with superb secondary players. Detroit lost Darius Slay, but added Desmond Trufant and drafted the best cornerback in the 2020 draft in Jeff Okudah. Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson are still roaming the back end of the Chicago defense, while Jaire Alexander will continue to lock down opposing No. 1 receivers in Green Bay in 2020.

All four of these groups are close in performance.


This might be a controversial ranking, especially given the fact that Minnesota’s pass defense was actually quite good overall in 2019. The Vikings defense was No. 7 in the NFL in net yards per attempt allowed and intercepted 17 passes, good for third in the league.

And of course, Smith and Harris will remain an elite safety tandem in 2020. The best part is that they complement each other perfectly. Smith lurks at the line of scrimmage while Harris roams on the back end, reading the quarterback’s eyes like a hawk. They were the top two coverage safeties, according to Pro Football Focus, in 2019.

The cornerback position has a larger impact on the success of the team, unfortunately, and the position was a liability for the Vikings in 2019. Rhodes, Waynes and Alexander were the best Minnesota could put on the field, and yet the front office didn’t feel they were worthy of bringing back. Hughes has shown promise, but anyone who watched the 2019 game at Dallas knows Hughes has a long ways to go. Minnesota did spend a first-round pick on Jeff Gladney, who will be expected to jump in right away and contribute in a big way.

Luckily for Vikings fans, Mike Zimmer is a defensive genius and was able to hold the Vikings defense together while the cornerback position fell apart in 2019. But in 2020, many questions remain at that position.


The Lions ahead of the Vikings? Yes.

Detroit did give up the fourth-most net yards per attempt last season (7.1) and also lost star cornerback Darius Slay. Both of those notes are not promising.

However, the Lions replaced Slay, and then some, by adding Desmond Trufant and then drafting Jeff Okudah with the No. 3 overall pick. Trufant has sneakily been a terrific cornerback for years now and will be an excellent mentor for Okudah as the youngster begins his NFL career. That projects to be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback in the division.

Meanwhile, Justin Coleman showed flashes of brilliance in 2019 as a slot cornerback, specifically in the early stages of the season. With Trufant, Okudah and Coleman, the Lions have a pretty darn good trio of cornerbacks leading the secondary.

Duron Harmon will fill a starting safety spot after spending nearly a decade in New England. He was effective on the field and brings both a championship pedigree and a familiarity with head coach Matt Patricia that could be quite useful for Detroit.


Jaire Alexander is one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the NFL, and a big reason why the Packers are No. 2 on this list. He had the second-best forced incompletion rate in the NFL in 2019 (20%) and has been elite when it comes to sticking to receivers down the field.

Plus, he’s got the instincts and the attitude necessary to be elite.

Meanwhile, safety Adrian Amos can do it all for the Packers defense. He allowed just one touchdown in 668 coverage snaps in 2019 while simultaneously setting a career-high for quarterback pressures with eight. He’s also one of the surest tacklers in the entire sport.

The rest of the Packers secondary oozes talent that has yet to come to complete fruition. Kevin King took another step forward in 2019, while safety Darnell Savage was a classic boom or bust player at safety. In many cases, those players turn out to be pretty good once the risks become more calculated.

Green Bay’s defense is loaded with talent, especially in the secondary and along the defensive line. The Packers will remain competitive in 2020 because of it.


The Bears are not the defense they were in 2018, and probably not even the defense they were in 2019. But that secondary is still tough to throw on. Eddie Jackson seemingly knows where the ball will be thrown before the snap and has unlimited range on the back end.

Additionally, Tashaun Gipson also brings a hard-hitting attitude at safety that will be an excellent complement to Jackson’s centerfielder role.

At cornerback, Kyle Fuller took a step back in 2019 but he remains one of the most trustworthy cornerbacks in the NFL. Since 2017, he has forced the second-most incompletions in the league at 50, trailing only Stephon Gilmore.

The Bears also spent their top draft pick on cornerback Jaylon Johnson, a prospect the Vikings showed significant interest in prior to the draft. Johnson does have an injury concern heading into the 2020 season, but his skillset should translate well to the NFL right away. And it will have to, because he is slated to play a big role as a rookie.

Buster Skrine is another wily veteran in the Chicago secondary that will provide depth and also slide into the slot when needed.

All in all, the NFC North secondary groups are pretty close to one another in terms of performance and production heading into 2020, but Chicago takes the top spot.

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