Xavier Rhodes is going to be a Minnesota Viking for a very long time. Yesterday's contract extension, for five years at up to $78 million, makes Rhodes one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. The Vikings have been busy of late locking up their defensive stars, recently giving DE Everson Griffen a new five-year contract worth $58 million. Last offseason the Vikings signed star safety Harrison Smith to a 5-year deal worth $51 million. The size of Rhodes' contract relative to those of Griffen and Smith points up how prized cornerbacks have become in the pass-happy NFL. Rhodes is one of those rare corners who combines shutdown coverage skills with sound run-support ability, making him the total package. The versatile Smith had a bit of a down year in 2016, but he has the talent to be one of the top safeties in the league if he pulls it all together. With Smith and Rhodes both arguably top-5 in the league at their positions, Mike Zimmer has two key pieces in place as he tries to build a dominating secondary. But what about the other pieces? That's where things become a little bit troublesome but also potentially exciting.
On paper, the Vikings should have the parts necessary to put together one of the top secondaries in the NFL. But for the secondary to realize all that on-paper potential, a few of the Vikings' younger, more unproven players will have to step up big time. The Vikings last year filled out their defensive backfield with Andrew Sendejo at the other safety spot alongside Smith, veteran Terence Newman at the other cornerback spot opposite Rhodes and veteran Captain Munnerlyn in the all-important nickle corner position. This year, Minnesota tentatively has Sendejo at safety again, third-year player Trae Waynes at outside corner and Newman locking down the slot after Munnerlyn's departure via free agency. It's possible Newman could play outside as well and kick inside in nickel situations with Waynes then playing outside. Both Sendejo and Newman could be pushed for playing time by younger players. The top challenger for Sendejo's safety job should hypothetically be Jayron Kearse, the physically gifted but very raw safety the Vikings drafted in 2016 out of Clemson. Newman's main competition at slot corner should be 2016 draft pick Mackensie Alexander, also out of Clemson.
After a very strong 2016, the 38-year-old Newman is someone Mike Zimmer believes he can rely on (notwithstanding the odd communication issue), but ideally I'm sure Zimmer would love for Alexander to push Newman in camp and perhaps even squeeze out the old man. Ideally, I'm sure Zimmer would love for Trae Waynes to show that he was worth the #11 overall pick in 2015, or if that's too much at least become reliable enough that he can stay on the field the majority of the time. The inconsistent Andrew Sendejo ideally is someone Zimmer would love to relegate to the bench in favor of Jayron Kearse, a player who has the physical tools to be a good player. It's asking a lot for all three of the Vikings' young potential secondary contributors to come on strong this training camp and make believers of Mike Zimmer. Or is it asking a lot? Certainly, Waynes is someone it's not unreasonable to expect greater things from given where he was drafted. Last year Waynes only got spot action, but he did show improvement over his rookie campaign. Mackensie Alexander was pressed into service at times last year and did not distinguish himself, but he's also someone who bears the burden of expectations after being taken in the second round. Kearse only cost the Vikings a seventh-round pick and was seen as a project player, so perhaps there are not big expectations on him, but still given his length and range he could potentially be an upgrade over Sendejo.
The Vikings should field a solid secondary this season no matter what happens. Two of the five main spots are being filled by arguably elite players, Newman is still performing at a top level and Sendejo is a serviceable safety. But let's dream big and imagine the Vikings taking the next step to become one of the best secondaries in the league. Can they do that with Newman playing a big role at his advanced age, the underwhelming Sendejo still holding down the other safety spot and Waynes still not earning the full faith of his coaching staff? To my mind, for the Vikings to take the next step as a secondary, the young players in that secondary need to take the next step as individuals. Mackensie Alexander needs to learn the slot corner position and become someone Zimmer can trust to hold down that spot, rather than relying on the aging Newman to chase slot corners all over the field. Jayron Kearse needs to sharpen up his technique, learn to use his physical tools and most importantly stay motivated, and become a player Zimmer can deploy both in single-high coverage and near the line of scrimmage in order to maximize scheme flexibility. Of all the Vikings' young players, perhaps the most pressure is on Trae Waynes, who was taken high in the first round and has not lived up to his potential yet. Waynes seemingly has the talent to be at least a good cornerback, and with Rhodes able to shadow the other teams' best receivers, Waynes seemingly should not often be placed in positions where his deficiencies in coverage really burn the team. A Rhodes/Waynes/Smith/Kearse/Alexander secondary could be special. The more-veteran iteration of that secondary, with Waynes still sharing time at outside corner with Newman, would only be good and might actually take a step down if Newman begins showing his age and Sendejo is exposed.
It will be fascinating to watch as camp proceeds to see whether the Vikings' young, promising secondary players begin popping. Because the potential is there for the Vikes' secondary to become very good if not great. But for that potential to be realized, Waynes, Alexander and Kearse have to show that they are worthy of expanded roles. It's great that Minnesota has a pair of elite secondary players on their roster, and a wily veteran in Newman who everyone loves, but for me that's just not enough. I want a truly elite Vikings secondary. Is that asking too much? We'll see.