The Minnesota Vikings have an offseason task list that is unbending due to the stakes. The franchise is at a crossroads as head coach Mike Zimmer enters year eight of his tenure, and 2020 was a sour campaign. The pandemic had lofty standards because the team employs a rather expensive quarterback in Kirk Cousins and inked halfback Dalvin Cook to a sizable deal just before the season began.
Even with the departures of several notable defensive players – and wide receiver Stefon Diggs – pundits expected the Vikings to win north of nine games. They didn’t.
2020 was the fall of the defense, the prolonging of offensive line woes from a pass-protection perspective, and gruesome special teams output. While talent remains on the roster and noteworthy players will return from injury, 2021 must encase more than the seven wins that 2020 showcased.
The buzzworthy needs for the team in the offseason include defensive end, defensive tackle, offensive guard, and free safety. Indeed, these spots need healthy players and some new faces. It is unclear if the team will rely on maturation from men already on the roster to fix some of these holes. Free agency can be a venue for repair at some of the positions, but Minnesota has slim pickings in the bank account. Then – on to the NFL draft. This will be a forum for replenishment, and then general manager Rick Spielman will wait and see if the selections are game-ready for 2021.
The stakes are high. Zimmer probably needs a playoff win or extremely competent showing in a playoff game to again lead the team in 2022.
To actionize this, Minnesota would be best served to also invest at cornerback, if only as an insurance policy.
The Hughes Factor
The Vikings have two promising corners on the depth in Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney. Dantzler was the NFL’s top rookie cornerback per Pro Football Focus. He was discovered in the 3rd-Round of last year’s draft, so his rise to first-year prominence is particularly impressive.
Gladney was an admirable, scrappy tackler that will seek improvement in pass coverage – a common “ask” for a second-year cornerback.
And then there is Mike Hughes. The Vikings used 1st-Round draft capital on him in 2018, and he showed signs of proficiency – when he is on the field. But that caveat is the problem. He has missed half of all football games since the Vikings drafted him – plain and simple. The future was so bright, too. Hughes returned an interception for a touchdown in his first career game against the San Francisco 49ers three years ago.
If Hughes orchestrates a bust-out season, well – great. It will be gravy. By no fault of his own, though, he cannot be trusted to play in more than half of 2021’s games if history is any indicator.
Promising Future As-Is but Experience Won’t Hurt
To be clear, this is not an endorsement for Minnesota to select a cornerback in the 1st Round of the draft. The team has the infrastructure with Dantzler and Gladney to embrace their development as a cogent plan of on-the-field success.
Consider this a recommendation to sign a veteran free agent. They’re out there. Ronald Darby, Quinton Dunbar, Xavier Rhodes, Jonathan Joseph, Mackenzie Alexander, Dre Kirkpatrick, etc. are all free-agent corners available in March.
As a contingency plan for Hughes’ injury history and the uncertainty of Dantzler and Gladney’s sophomore performances, landing a veteran cornerback is not going to hurt or seem wasteful.
Would Not Regret Veteran CB
What’s the worst that can happen? Dantzler, Gladney, and Hughes morph into gangbusters and the unnamed veteran corner doesn’t get enough playing time? Too bad, so sad.
In an ultra-pendulous season, shoring up questionable depth-chart spots is wise. Cornerback is one of them. The Vikings passing defense was uncharacteristically fusty in 2020. Zimmer’s secondary ranked 24th leaguewide in passing yards allowed and passing touchdowns allowed. In Zimmer’s peak form, the Vikings are a Top 5 bunch in passing defense.
This request is very doable from a philosophical standpoint. There is a need. Zimmer’s credo is coaching defensive backs. He likely already knows the team must fortify the secondary. The most encouraging tidbit of this underrated need is the feasibility. A shutdown corner like Jalen Ramsey is not the requisition. To complement Dantzler, Gladney, and Hughes, a serviceable and experienced cornerback will do the trick.