Minnesota’s Corners Are Missing an Ever-Present Detail from The Zimmer Era

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Buffalo Bills
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

During his time as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer never trotted out a corner room without first-round talent. Right now, Minnesota’s corners look a lot different.

The defensive backs expert always had top-tier talent at the position. We’re now entering Year 2 without the crusty coach calling the shots. Ed Donatell tried and failed to replace Zim, and the task now swings around to Brian Flores. What kind of talent is Flores working with heading into 2023?

Minnesota’s Corners and The Lack of 1st-Round Talent

Zimmer was at the helm for eight seasons.

During that time, he put together some truly marvellous defenses, and the corner talent was often a major reason why. Take a look at his years to see who he was able to lean on:

  • 2014: Xavier Rhodes
  • 2015: Terence Newman, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes
  • 2016: Terence Newman, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes
  • 2017: Terence Newman, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes
  • 2018: Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes
  • 2019: Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes
  • 2020: Jeff Gladney, Mike Hughes
  • 2021: Patrick Peterson

It didn’t always work out, but Zim’s desire was clear. The coach continually wanted high-end talent at one of the game’s most critical positions. During his heyday, Zimmer put together elite defenses predicated on stingy coverage and deceptive blitzes.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Jan 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer waves to the crowd after the game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Ed Donatell had the benefit of working alongside Peterson. Without the former Cardinal, the Vikings’ already-putrid defense would have been even more ghastly. At times, Peterson was the only DB to provide strong coverage, so navigating last season without him would have been ugly.

Eventually, Duke Shelley – 205th, RD6 – helped to stabilize the position, but the defensive backfield was certainly a work in progress throughout the season.

The team is entering a new era, one that doesn’t have the same level of draft capital invested in the position. Take a look at the Minnesota’s corner position and how they entered the NFL:

  • Byron Murphy: 33rd, RD2
  • Andrew Booth: 42nd, RD2
  • Joejuan Williams: 45th, RD2
  • Mekhi Blackmon: 102nd, RD3
  • Akayleb Evans: 118th, RD4
  • John Reid: 141st, RD4
  • Tay Gowan: 223rd, RD6
  • Kalon Barnes: 242nd, RD7
  • C.J. Coldon: UDFA
  • Najee Thompson: UDFA
  • Jaylin Williams: UDFA

Tossing Jay Ward into the corner mix doesn’t do much. The LSU alumnus entered the league as a 4th rounder in the most recent draft.

The Vikings’ CB1 – Mr. Murphy – comes the closest to having had the honor of being selected in the opening round. He went at the very top of the 2nd round, an indication that Arizona felt very strongly about the corner.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
Nov 6, 2022; Phoenix, Ariz., United States; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. (7) breaks up a pass intended for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) during the second quarter at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael Chow/Arizona Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK

In the end, the draft selection spot doesn’t matter too much. More often than not, elite corners get selected high in the draft. That’s not an ironclad truth, though.

Swinging over to the PFF rankings for best CBs in the NFL last season underscores that truth. Sauce Gardner, Patrick Surtain II, Jalen Ramsey, and Jaire Alexander are all opening-round choices. Duke Shelley, Isaiah Rodgers, Charvarius Ward, and Tyson Campbell all fail to have been picked so high.

Of course, the franchise won’t care one iota where someone was selected if the player is capable of offering high-level play at the crucial position. The lack of 1st-round talent at CB is notable simply because of how much of an emphasis that spot was while Mike Zimmer was in town. Deviating from that draft strategy won’t matter if the pass defense improves by a substantial amount in 2023.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.