By Andrew Krammer | @Andrew_KrammerMay 9, 2016 10:58 am
http://www.1500espn.com/vikings-2/2016/05/vikings-method-in-defensive-secondary-you-can-never-have-enough-corners/


Minnesota Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes (26), cornerback Terence Newman (23) and Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) come off the field in the second half of an NFL football game against the San Diego Chargers in Minneapolis, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. (AP...


EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Mike Zimmer is revered around the NFL as one of the league’s premier defensive planners and player-makers.

The Vikings enjoyed a potent mixture of young talent and a defensive coaching staff’s Midas touch during an 11-win season, in which Zimmer flexed his creative muscle in the secondary. At one point, they were down both starting safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo on a short week. Because of the talent at cornerback, they moved veteran Terence Newman to safety and gave rookie Trae Waynes his first career start against then-MVP candidate Carson Palmer.

Though through two seasons, a lack of top-shelf options has forced Zimmer to assign his best cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, to track some of the league’s best receivers, including Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffery.

Flipping sides of the field is not ideally how the Vikings want to play cornerbacks.

So general manager Rick Spielman has continued to invest valuable resources at the position, which only heightens the already increased expectations for this improved Vikings defense.

The 2015 first-round pick of Trae Waynes was paired with 2016’s second-round pick in Mackensie Alexander. That’s in addition to the 2013 first-round selection of Rhodes, made before Zimmer was hired, which now sets up a potential long-term trio in Minnesota.

“It’s hard to find really good corners in the draft nowadays,” Zimmer said after the selection of Waynes. “It seems like everybody with great athletic ability is playing offense, they’re playing wide receiver with the way the ball is being spread around in college.”

Enter three top-60 picks at cornerback in the last four years.

“I am just happy the Vikings made this move today,” Alexander told Twin Cities media after he was drafted in last month’s second round. “Coach Zimmer really believes in me and you know he knows about the cornerback position.”

To this point, Spielman’s major investments have been met with results. The Vikings hit an all-time low when they tied a modern-era record with 37 passing touchdowns allowed during the 2013 season. In two years under Zimmer, they’ve whittled that mark down to 26 passing touchdowns the first season and 24 touchdowns last season. The development of Rhodes and longevity of Newman have been the primary achievements to date. Now the focus turns to Waynes, and eventually to Alexander.

Detroit’s loss of Johnson will provide one fewer long day for the Vikings, but the reprieve won’t last. The NFC North returns two big-time threats this season in both Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson and Chicago’s Kevin White. Jeffery also remains the Midway’s monster after receiving the franchise tag this offseason.

“As Zimmer always says, you can never have enough corners,” Spielman said after drafting Alexander.

Alexander, the 54th-overall pick, will play in the slot and could eventually take over for the 28-year-old Captain Munnerlyn, who has held down those duties for the past two seasons. After the Waynes pick and signing of Newman last year, Munnerlyn was relegated to the part-time role (~60 percent of snaps). He’s entering the final season of a three-year contract and is set to make $4.2 million in base salary, the fifth-highest earnings in a young defense.

Munnerlyn had a solid 2015 season, though the Vikings may be seeking a cheaper option with Spielman anticipating ‘significant’ extensions soon, likely to include Smith and Rhodes.

Alexander’s prowess in man-to-man spots drew attention of Vikings evaluators while he was at Clemson. That skill is critical in Zimmer’s press and pattern-matching coverage schemes and even more so as NFL offenses trend toward spread formations with three- or four-receiver sets.

“Just love the kid, not only as a high character kid but for the way the kid competes,” Spielman said of Alexander. “The skill set that he has to play man coverage especially, and his feet and his quickness and the way he can mirror routes fits what we try to do from a scheme point.”

Once again, Spielman used the draft to address a top priority on the defensive shopping list.

As the top picks stack up, so do the expectations.