Way back in 2004, the Minnesota Vikings took a gamble on a short, scrappy cornerback named Antoine Winfield, giving the former first-round pick a six-year deal to help fix a pass defense that ranked near the bottom of the NFL the year prior.
The details are a little different 10 years later, but the Vikings have likely found their carbon copy of Winfield in former Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who signed a three-year deal with Minnesota during the first week of free agency.
Just last March, the Vikings cut the then 35-year-old Winfield in a cap-saving move. He later retired after a brief and unsuccessful venture in Seattle.
After one disastrous year without him, the Vikings pounced on the opportunity to add a player that looks and plays so much like Winfield did for nine years in Minnesota.
While lacking in the height department, the 5'8", 195-pound Munnerlyn compensates by smothering receivers in the slot, attacking against the run and causing the occasional disruption blitzing the quarterback. He's also as good a tackler as the NFL has at the position.
It comes as no surprise Munnerlyn has crafted his playing style in the Winfield mold.
"Actually when I first got to the NFL, my coach showed me tape of him, making plays, flying around," Munnerlyn told Brian Hall of Fox Sports. "He was like, 'Man, you remind me of Antoine Winfield.' I was like, 'Man,' so I started watching film on him. I kind of stole some of his game and brought it to my game."
The comparisons to Winfield ooze out of Munnerlyn's game.
|Munnerlyn 2013||Winfield 2012|
|Passer Rating Against||85.5||70.4|
Source: Pro Football Focus
For starters, the 25-year-old should be a natural replacement for Winfield as a slot cornerback.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Munnerlyn played 406 of his 992 defensive snaps in the slot last season. He allowed zero touchdowns on 70 targets, with an opposing passer rating of just 81.7. Overall, he gave up just one touchdown on 98 total targets, leaving him and Brent Grimes as the only two cornerbacks in the NFL to be targeted more than 90 times but allow one or fewer scores.
In 2012, Winfield was targeted 67 times in the slot and didn't give up a touchdown. His opposing passer rating against the slot was 73.6, fourth best in the NFL.
The Vikings desperately needed the help. Josh Robinson, Minnesota's 2013 primary slot corner, allowed 39 catches on 41 targets, with an opposing passer rating of 127.2. Only two cornerbacks were worse when covering the slot.
The Vikings will also be getting a Winfield-like tackling presence.
Maybe no cornerback in the modern game has tackled like Winfield, a hard-hitter who almost always got his man on the ground. From 2008 to 2012, or a span of five years, Winfield missed just 19 tackles, at a rate of less than four per season.
For some cornerbacks, a low missed tackle rate would suggest a general disinterest in tackling. But that was certainly not the case for Winfield, who made 382 total tackles from 2008 to 2012. Only Charles Tillman, Cortland Finnegan and Ronde Barber had more during the five-year stretch, although Winfield played in 15 fewer games than Tillman, 14 fewer than Finnegan and 17 fewer than Barber.
Since entering the NFL in 2009, Munnerlyn has just 25 missed tackles. His career high of nine came in 2012, but he rebounded with his best tackling season of his career in 2013.
Despite having a career-high 81 opportunities, Munnerlyn missed just four tackles last season. His tackling efficiency was ranked third among cornerbacks, according to PFF. And among cornerbacks with 40 or more tackles, only five had fewer than four missed tackles.
Munnerlyn also made 30 "stops," or a tackle PFF constitutes as a failure for the offense, for the NFL's second-ranked defense in total yards, points and rushing yards. No cornerback had more stops in 2013. Overall, he graded out as the sixth-best cornerback against the run.
Throw in his 3.5 sacks and 12 passes defensed last season, alongside five career interception returns for touchdowns, and the comparison is complete. Winfield produced 6.5 sacks over his final five seasons, and his 12 passes defensed in 2012 were a career high. He also scored five times in his career (two off interceptions, two off fumbles and one off a blocked kick).
Source: Pro Football Focus
There was no robbery this time around, as Munnerlyn signed for a max total of just $15 million over three years. Few deals signed in 2014 represent a better bargain. Helping the recruitment was the chance to join Jasper Brinkley, his former South Carolina roommate, in Minnesota.
The Vikings hope Munnerlyn, who describes himself as "tough and feisty," will have the same kind of impact Winfield once had.
Plenty tough himself, Winfield went on to make three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team while in Minnesota. And with the playmaking Winfield holding together the secondary, the Vikings defense eventually ranked in the top 10 of total yards four times from 2006 to 2010.
Minnesota finished last season ranked 31st in total yards and 32nd in points. Each represented the lowest finish in Vikings history.
Now, Munnerlyn will be one cornerstone of a defensive rebuild under Mike Zimmer. If he can take his Winfield-like game and produce a Winfield-like impact, the Vikings will be well on their way to recovering on defense.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.