Mike Zimmer has earned the reputation as a cornerback whisperer when it comes to molding young players at that position. The Vikings are banking on his magic touch in rebuilding on the fly a group that is young and inexperienced.
To no great surprise, the Vikings selected two cornerbacks with their first four draft picks and three total in their top eight. Zimmer’s standard quip when asked how many corners he needs — “just one more,” the head coach jokes — has never been more on brand than now.
The Vikings lacked bodies at cornerback before the draft. They solved that issue this weekend. Now, Zimmer must nurture rapid development in a group of mostly unproven youngsters while facing the real possibility of no formal offseason and knowing his defense will encounter a gantlet of top-tier quarterbacks this season, including Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers all in road games.
The whisperer has a big challenge on his plate.
If ranking positions by importance, cornerback falls second or third on that list in this era of air-it-out offense. It’s awfully hard to hide a bad or inexperienced cornerback. They stick out like a fluorescent yellow car on a freeway.
The Vikings are basically starting from scratch after losing their top three cornerbacks on the depth chart in Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander this offseason. Their departures weren’t unexpected, but replacing them falls on the development of guys still trying to gain their footing in the league.
Mike Hughes, the presumptive No. 1 corner, suffered a broken vertebra in his neck at the end of last season. The team expects a full recovery and Hughes has shown promise when he’s on the field, but the former first-round pick’s résumé includes a torn ACL and a neck injury in his first two seasons.
Holton Hill and Kris Boyd are two candidates for increased roles, but it’s hard to know if they are capable of being full-time starters.
“We’ve got a lot of young depth there,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. “Now we’re going to add another layer of depth into that corner position. We feel very confident we’ve got a lot of young talent there to develop.”
First-round pick Jeff Gladney of TCU seems to fit Zimmer’s blueprint for that position. He’s tough, aggressive, willing to challenge receivers. He might be thrust into a starting role from Day 1.
Zimmer and Spielman trusted their evaluation and not their stopwatch in selecting Mississippi State’s Cameron Dantzler in the third round.
Dantzler ran a slow 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, but the Vikings focused more on how he performed in games, especially against top SEC competition, which should outweigh measurables. He didn’t look slow when covering LSU’s big-play receivers.
Zimmer is notoriously tough on young corners, but he won’t have much choice but to rely on them this season. Unless, of course, the team signs a veteran free agent who gets cut before or during training camp, which would be a smart option for Spielman to consider. That position room would benefit from veteran experience and leadership.
Uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and when teams will be allowed to convene for workouts complicates this entire discussion. Young players will lose valuable developmental time, on the field and in meeting rooms. Zimmer also has a new defensive backs coach after veteran Jerry Gray moved on.
As a position, cornerback is Zimmer’s baby. He spends a lot of time in practice watching and instructing and correcting that unit. He has quite a project on his hands.
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