Projecting Minnesota Vikings' Depth Chart After Peak of Free Agency
Throughout the offseason, general managers and front offices execute a plan with a vision in mind for what the depth chart will look like on opening day, and the Minnesota Vikings are no different. Figuring out who will start in the season opener isn't just a good exercise for the front office but for fans as well.
Though many of the projections at this point in the season are subject to change, reading the tea leaves will let us know exactly where the Vikings stand at a number of key positions.
The exercise on our end will be incomplete—we don't know who the Vikings intend to draft or how they are crafting their draft strategy—but it remains complete enough for now to get to the meat of Minnesota's roster construction.
Though not meant to be totally accurate (who would have guessed at this point last year that Robert Blanton would start at safety?), it should provide some clues as to how the team is built and where to move forward, even if it won't cover all 53 players.
Starting Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater
There's not much surprise here. Teddy Bridgewater turned on the jets at the end of the season and is on track to become a premier quarterback in the NFL if he continues to develop. There's a lot yet to be written in his story, and he's certainly not a lock to become a franchise quarterback, but there are more answers at the position in Minnesota now than there have been in a long time.
Bridgewater will have to build on the improvements he made as an anticipation thrower and maintain the quicker release he showcased at the end of the season. His next task will be to integrate his many skill sets into a sustainable package that can continue to threaten defenses and put points on the board.
With the addition of Mike Wallace to the roster, Bridgewater will also have the ability to put concerns about his deep-ball accuracy aside, so long as he can play like he did at the end of last year.
Backup Quarterback: Shaun Hill
After trading away Matt Cassel for some draft picks, the Vikings aggressively pursued the top free-agent backup quarterback on the market, Shaun Hill—who they saw play against them in the season opener to begin 2014. Hill doesn't give an offense a lot of yards, but he does do a good job of avoiding turnovers.
So long as he can provide a steady hand in case of disaster at the QB position, the Vikings are in a good spot with this veteran backup.
Third-String Quarterback: Pat Devlin
There's a good chance quarterback Pat Devlin won't be on the 53-man roster come September, but for now he remains the only option at the third spot. Though many teams don't carry three quarterbacks on their roster, Minnesota has indicated that it won't be one of them. At the NFL combine, head coach Mike Zimmer told local radio station KFAN that he would like to draft a late-round developmental quarterback to be the third signal-caller on the depth chart.
If for whatever reason, the Vikings are unable to land a viable third quarterback, they'll have a big quarterback with experience in multiple offensive systems in 6'3" Devlin, who has throughout his career shown a preference for quick, safe play. Though he isn't blessed with the strongest arm, he does have poise and decision-making ability.
Starting Halfback: Adrian Peterson
So long as Adrian Peterson remains on the roster, he's the starter, even if he doesn't take a rep in training camp or the preseason. After all, he's had a light load in the preseason and training camp for the past three years as the presumed starter.
Still one of the best running backs in the game, if not the best, Peterson remains one of the only true classic bell cows. He features an excellent combination of speed, power and vision.
With a potential showdown looming and constant speculation about the possibility of a trade, Peterson's spot on the roster, and therefore at the top of the depth chart, is by no means guaranteed.
Backup Halfback: Jerick McKinnon
Jerick McKinnon started six games for the Vikings after taking over Matt Asiata's spot on the depth chart but had to relinquish those duties because of an off-field back injury. In that time, he played well and averaged 4.8 yards per carry—impressive even though he left the field in short-yardage situations.
McKinnon runs with unusual power and drive, and if he can do that on a consistent basis between the tackles, he can be an "every-down" back in a traditional sense. Though he does go down on first contact at times, he more often drives for extra yards, and building on that will be critical in his development as a running back.
Already showing flashes of the explosiveness that got him drafted and playing with surprising vision, McKinnon can be a gem for the Vikings if he improves in a few key areas.
Third-string Halfback: Matt Asiata
It would have been easy to be bold and pick either the promising and athletic Henry Josey or former Packers running back DuJuan Harris (to say nothing of the quick Joe Banyard and the surprisingly agile Dominique Williams), but the Vikings love what Asiata can bring to the running game, even if it isn't explosive.
Few running backs kept the offense on schedule like Asiata has. Last year, the former Utah Ute sported the best rate of runs for positive yardage in the NFL and ranked 17th of 57 running backs in runs of at least two yards. As a result, he was ranked as the sixth-most successful running back by Football Outsiders even though he wasn't explosive.
There's a place on the roster for that. The Vikings have two running backs who create yards, so it's useful to have one who won't lose them.
Don't be surprised if the Vikings invest in a running back in the draft; that would spell the end of Asiata's career in Minnesota in all likelihood.
Starting Fullback: Zach Line
With Jerome Felton gone—having exercised a player option in order to enter free agency and sign with Buffalo—the only fullback left on the roster is Zach Line.
Though Rhett Ellison is an excellent blocker and even lines up in the backfield, it seems clear that Norv Turner and Co. see him as a tight end with multiple roles more than a fullback. The fact that he meets with tight ends and not the running backs in position meetings probably means he won't be designated the team's fullback this year.
Turner doesn't have a set model at fullback and has played players there throughout his career who have had diverse skill sets. Lorenzo Neal, Mike Tolbert, Curtis Brinkley and Jacob Hester were all distinct, as is Felton, so don't be surprised if Line is used differently than Felton was last year.
A better runner than blocker, Line has a long way to go to improve his prowess as a pure lead blocker and will need to showcase that improvement for the Vikings in order to make his spot permanent. He hasn't done that yet, but without the team investing in another fullback, Line seems to be the heir apparent.
Many expect the Vikings to select a wide receiver in the NFL draft, perhaps as early as the first round. If that's the case, then the projected depth chart will certainly change, but the Vikings may be happier with who they have on the roster here more than most fans.
Split End: Charles Johnson
Though subject to change, now that the Vikings have made a significant investment in a receiver, it is unlikely they will draft another one early in the draft. Charles Johnson is the most likely starter at the split end position unless Cordarrelle Patterson improves significantly.
Johnson needs to improve his physicality, both at the line of scrimmage and at the catch point, but if he develops, he can be a premier receiver. He's shown quickness, downfield speed and the ability to track the ball in the air, so he needs to make sure that he can be consistently open and contest catches.
Flanker: Mike Wallace
After trading Greg Jennings for the receiver they'd rather have had in the 2013 offseason, the Vikings are left figuring out how to best use him.
He's a one-note receiver, but that one note can be pretty powerful. A classical deep threat, Wallace hasn't shown much variety in his routes and may need to do more with the Vikings than with the Dolphins. An offense that is going to have more complexity and sight adjustments will be a challenge, but it should be one that Wallace is up to.
There's little doubt he will start for the Vikings; the only question is if starting him can reap benefits for Bridgewater.
Slot: Jarius Wright
The biggest benefit to shedding Jennings' contract may not be playing Wallace but exposing Wright. He has played from the slot as a deep threat and hasn't shown the diversity of other receivers, but he still provides a lot of value to the offense.
If he can harness his quickness in route running, he has the ability not just to expand his route tree but his role as well. The Vikings may be able to threaten a deep ball on every pass with Wright.
Backup Flanker: Cordarrelle Patterson
Because "flanker" receivers are often "move" receivers, Patterson would be the backup here, even though his physical abilities should allow him to play all three spots on the line. His ability to play as a gadget is better served at flanker, but he will train and back up every receiver position.
The Vikings and Patterson are out to prove that the risky move to trade up for him in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft wasn't in vain, and in his third year, the former Tennessee Vol will have to prove he's made massive gains as a receiver. Patterson's career isn't written in stone, and he's not properly a "bust," but he could head there without being careful.
Backup Split End: Adam Thielen
Training camp superstar and camp favorite Adam Thielen flashed ability at the end of the year and made some hay with big plays to sustain the late-season push the Vikings made. Though Thielen is more of a special teams maven than offensive powerhouse, there's a good chance he'll make the roster again, if only for special teams play.
Beyond that, it seems as if the team is impressed with Thielen's development as a receiver. If the Vikings draft a receiver, Thielen's spot will be at risk.
Backup Slot: Kain Colter
If the Vikings choose to carry six receivers, there's a reasonable chance that the quick quarterback convert makes the roster as a slot receiver—even if they draft a receiver. After all, Colter's skill set, while not entirely refined, isn't necessarily easy to find. Despite a slow 40-yard dash time at his pro day and an underwhelming short shuttle showing, he presents on the field as a player of supreme quickness and a lot of savvy.
This spot is most likely at risk if the Vikings draft a player, even in the late rounds. Colter's "spot," if you can call it that, is hardly safe. For now, it is more likely a draft prospect replaces him and backs up all three spots.
Starting Tight End: Kyle Rudolph
Perhaps we would be better served to say Kyle Rudolph is the starting "Y" tight end as he plays a substantially different role than Rhett Ellison, who "starts" at his position, will. Rudolph will have to prove that transitioning to a Norv Turner offense and being the premier tight end Turner wants him to be will pan out.
Because of injury last year, Rudolph didn't get to prove he could be the kind of player Cameron Jordan was in Cleveland. After adjusting his route running to fit what this offense wants and losing some weight, he could prove to be the kind of player the Vikings invested over $12.6 million guaranteed and $7.3 million per year.
Starting H-Back: Rhett Ellison
Occasionally a fullback in the backfield, sometimes split wide and often playing in-line with the rest of the offensive line, Ellison provides a level of diversity in his game, which generally goes unnoticed. The word "dynamic" is generally reserved for playmakers who can advance the ball in multiple ways, but Ellison is dynamic in what he does, creating unusual matchups for Minnesota when he's on the field and adding an additional element of blocking in the run game.
He's excellent at what he does and should continue to provide the Vikings with value moving forward.
Backup Tight End: Chase Ford
An undrafted free agent, Ford has been playing more like a starter than a camp body this past year and deserves the plaudits he's getting from fans. Still, it's not as if he's a premier player at his position. He represents a high-level backup who not only can provide relief for Rudolph but add yardage in his own ways.
Despite the fact that Rudolph has neither remained healthy nor produced as well as his reputation would suggest, the Vikings may not end up needing to invest in a long-term developmental option with Ford on the roster. Brandon Bostick may challenge him for this role, but it's unlikely.
The offensive line needs work, but if the Vikings are more interested in finding a guard than a tackle this year, they won't address the position early in the draft. With that in mind, the offensive line won't change much despite one of the worst performances as a unit that fans have seen in quite some time.
Left Tackle: Matt Kalil
The underperforming USC product has a long way to go before living up to his rookie year, but his play improved in the final weeks of the season, and that may provide the building blocks he needs to return to his high-caliber play. If so, the early pick the Vikings spent in acquiring Kalil will be well worth it, as finding franchise tackles is difficult.
The Vikings have a lot of faith in Kalil, and given that he showed high level play not too long ago, there's reason for it. Given his guaranteed contract for this year, it would be difficult to see them playing anyone else here. They'll let him play out the remainder of his contract before moving on.
Never a great run-blocker, Kalil's upside should have been in pass protection. With limited range of motion to the corner and a susceptibility to inside moves, he hasn't proved himself there, but he could return there if he's healthy.
Left Guard: David Yankey
Even though Yankey didn't appear in a single game for a roster devoid of bodies at the position as injuries took their toll, don't be surprised if he wins the left guard position outright. Joe Berger may be the better guard, but the Vikings have shown preference in the past for playing the younger man at the position, even if he struggles.
It wasn't long ago that Brandon Fusco earned the right guard job from (an injured) Geoff Schwartz and held onto that job despite superior play from Schwartz throughout the season and massive struggles from the former Division II product.
That could happen again with Yankey, especially given how highly regarded he was before dropping to the fifth round.
Center: John Sullivan
One of the best centers in the game, Sullivan combines strength with high-level cerebral ability. He can be the foundation for one of the strongest running attacks in football again should the chips fall the right way. Getting up there in age (29), Sullivan remains a rock on the line and manages the Vikings' complex run-blocking schemes well.
There's not much risk of his losing his roster spot to anybody.
Right Guard: Brandon Fusco
Quietly evolving to be one of the best guards in the NFL, Fusco didn't get to show off his growth much this year after going down with injury early in the season. Before that, he was playing as the best offensive lineman on the roster, continuing a trend he established the year before.
A nasty player with a mean streak, Fusco shows off strength on the field and has done an increasingly good job against quicker pass-rushers from the inside. The Vikings can at least be happy there's not much question here.
Right Tackle: Phil Loadholt
Though the Minnesota line was often rightly held up as an example of pure mediocrity, it would be unfair to say that Phil Loadholt represents much of the problem. A carousel of injury throughout the line did much more damage to pocket integrity than Loadholt did, and he continues to plays as one of the better right tackles in the NFL.
Over the last two years, Loadholt has cut down significantly on his penalties. As a dominant run-blocker, Loadholt could enjoy his time with the Vikings for years to come.
Backup Tackle: Carter Bykowski
With Michael Harris in competition for a spot at guard, despite his play at right tackle earlier in the season, and the Vikings' preference for Austin Wentworth inside the line, there really isn't depth at tackle.
The signing of Polish mountain man Babatunde Aiyegbusi doesn't mean much here, as he has a long way to go before he can sniff an NFL field. Instead, the Vikings will have to turn to the only tackle on their roster to be their backup, unless something changes in the draft.
This is the most likely position to change after the draft and undrafted free agency and remains an underrated but massive need.
Backup Swing: Michael Harris
Though Wentworth may end up being a better player than Harris, it seems as if Norv Turner has developed favor for Harris, an undrafted free agent who originally signed with Turner's Chargers after his draft. Because of injury, Harris was forced to start his rookie year, and the San Diego offensive line was abysmal as a result.
Harris improved significantly with the Vikings, but that's not to say he ever reached the point where he would be "good." Wentworth, on the other hand, could be a serious challenger for the role and also has experience at both guard and tackle.
Don't be surprised if both Wentworth and Harris lose out to someone not yet on the roster.
Backup Interior: Joe Berger
The Vikings may have paid more than they would have liked for Joe Berger, who is theoretically competing for the starting left guard role, but it is difficult to argue with his quality of play. In a league where backups at the guard position are nearly impossible to find, the Vikings found a starting-quality guard and center and have kept him through multiple seasons. Berger may be old at age 32, but he is a good option as a backup.
Even though the Vikings have issue with depth on their offensive line and know that they don't have clear answers across the line, Berger will almost certainly be on the roster come September.
Center Zac Kerin is an underrated player whom the Vikings saw enough in to keep him on the practice squad. He could push for the backup center spot and allow Minnesota to keep Berger as the primary guard backup, which would mean not having to rely on Harris or Wentworth to back up the guard position.
The Vikings have long had success with their defensive line and throughout their history have had some of the best players at their position playing there. That's not quite the case this year, but they still have talent in the trenches.
Starting Right Defensive End: Everson Griffen
Signed to a long-term contract after playing backup for so long, Griffen's extension was initially met with skepticism from national media. He proved to be a starting-quality player, however, and though he hasn't established himself as one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL, he's well on his way.
Graded as the eighth-best 4-3 defensive end by Pro Football Focus, Griffen would have ranked fourth overall if penalties were removed from the equation. Penalties are easier than almost anything else to improve upon (after all, if Loadholt can do it, anybody can), and his ability to rush the passer has gone generally unnoticed by national media.
Though Griffen didn't get the gaudy sack totals that he seemed uniquely capable of generating in 2014, 12 sacks is no laughing matter. Add in the fact that he had the fifth-most hurries of any 4-3 DE and more "stops" (tackles or sacks that constitute a loss for the offense—both stats per PFF) than any 4-3 DE except Jason Pierre-Paul, and you have a complete player.
Starting Left Defensive End: Brian Robison
Robison had a down year for a player who is better at putting pressure on the quarterback than bringing him down, but within the context of the scheme, he played better than fans are giving him credit for. Constantly assigned contain or coverage responsibilities, Robison didn't have the freedom to rush the passer as much as he did in a more traditional 4-3 scheme.
Still, that's not to argue his season was good, and at 31 years old, he doesn't have much time left. He will probably start above anyone the Vikings pick unless they fall in love with a big pass-rusher who happens to fall early in the draft. Unless Scott Crichton makes enormous leaps in his development, this is Robison's spot to lose.
Starting 3-Technique Defensive Tackle: Sharrif Floyd
A concern going into the 2014 season, Floyd's limited playing time and dearth of productivity for the Vikings caused consternation among a fanbase that expected a projected top-five pick in the draft to play like a premier player immediately.
There is actually some level of concern when a player purported to be good doesn't see the field, but Floyd was able to get after his critics and then some with a beastly showing from Week 7 on, proving that he could wrangle with the top offensive lines and become a top-tier defensive tackle. His name is more well-recognized among Vikings fans than national media, but his talent is supreme.
Starting Nose Tackle: Linval Joseph
Though not a 3-4 two-gapping nose tackle, Joseph still performs a run-plugging role more than a pass-rushing one, and he isn't tasked with penetrating his gap like he was in New York. Though the adjustment period was a little rough for him, Joseph turned it around, helping shore up a leaky run defense. He will need to continue to improve, but at 26 years old, he still has time to learn to play to his assignment on a more consistent basis.
Joseph anchors well but needs to make sure he pays more attention to peripheral action from offensive linemen coming from his left or right. Either way, there's little chance he loses his spot.
Backup Left Defensive End: Scott Crichton
An explosive player who played with both upper- and lower-body strength while at Oregon State, Crichton didn't get to see the field despite waiver-wire pickup Justin Trattou and underperforming Corey Wootton taking the backup snaps.
But an offseason program can do wonders, and it's likely Crichton will get a chance to take the primary backup role, particularly because he can kick inside better than most edge-rushers. His best tape may be his game against Oregon, where he played as a nose tackle and destroyed center Hroniss Grasu, a projected second-round pick by CBS.
That kind of versatility should allow him to see the field on nickel downs.
Backup Right Defensive End: Justin Trattou
The Vikings have a bare cupboard at defensive end after Crichton, and that's not really the mold of a Mike Zimmer defense, which should feature much more defensive line rotation. This spot should be challenged in the middle or even late rounds of the draft.
Trattou is a little underrated and perhaps better than many fourth options at pass-rusher throughout the league, but that doesn't make this situation desirable for the Vikings. Leon Mackey behind him likely won't solve the issue—he had limited production in the Arena Football League.
Still, Trattou is not bad.
Backup 3-Technique Defensive Tackle: Tom Johnson
With six sacks as a backup defensive tackle, Johnson was a priority re-signing for the Vikings. With limited time in the NFL as he bounced around semi-pro football leagues, Johnson revived his career in Minnesota under Zimmer.
Early in the season, Johnson was Minnesota's best defensive tackle both in run defense and pass rushing and seemed to be impossible to contain at times. Though the 30-year-old is up there in age despite few NFL snaps, he's been a great player for the Vikings and should provide consistent interior rush as the team rotates players in and out.
Backup Nose Tackle: Shamar Stephen
Stephen played both defensive tackle positions for Minnesota and did an incredible job for a seventh-round pick. He should progress with more time in the weight room and additional work on his technique, though if he's topped out at 313 pounds, that's not too bad either.
His position isn't necessarily safe, however, as Isame Faciane III flashed in the preseason and could challenge his position as a hybrid nose/3-technique tackle. Faciane played as a nose at Florida International, but his weight better fits the pass-rushing interior position. While he's not as explosive as Stephen, he's had good play.
Still, it's a good bet to see Stephen there instead of Faciane. A ninth defensive line position may be added here as well, for Faciane, Chigbo Anunoby or a rookie.
More than any other position, linebacker will be the hardest to determine from the perspective of an outsider to the organization. With a number of young bodies who impressed in limited snaps as substitutes, there's every possibility that someone not many expected to take the job ends up with one.
At the same time, the restructuring of Chad Greenway's contract to keep him on the team raises complications as far as predictions go. It's not often that someone with a pay cut sees his role elevated, but Greenway has been the starter for years and continuously draws the praise of head coach Mike Zimmer.
Nevertheless, he may end up losing out in a straight competition, especially as the Vikings have shown a clear interest in meeting with linebackers in the draft.
"Sam" Linebacker: Anthony Barr
This is the easiest position among the linebackers to predict, because Barr had a stellar season. Blessed with incredible range and phenomenal instinct, the raw linebacker has already turned into a high-level player who can cover, blitz or stop the run with speed and power. While he needs work in coverage, he has the natural tools and length to be a force there and has already made some excellent plays as a pass defender in space.
His development will be exciting for Vikings fans to follow as he establishes himself as a top linebacker in the NFL.
"Mike" Linebacker: Audie Cole
Though he played at outside linebacker at times last year for the Vikings, his physical tools more closely match the profile of an inside linebacker, and Mike Zimmer seems to agree that Cole is out of position on the outside despite impressive showings.
As a two-down player with surprising instincts in coverage, his lateral range issues wouldn't be nearly as much an issue on the outside, and he can be the thumper the Vikings need to shore up their run game. Jasper Brinkley wasn't particularly bad on the inside this year, but for a team that had such a bad time against the run, Minnesota will need better play.
Cole can provide that should he speed up his reaction time against the run, because he has the size (6'5", 239 lbs) and strength to make waves.
"Will" Linebacker: Gerald Hodges
Hodges was less than impressive when he was asked to relay the defensive play calls and make adjustments for the defense, but that wouldn't be his job as an outside linebacker stacked over the 3-technique defensive tackle. He has speed and range and can use those traits to spill into running lanes. As a "Will," he'd be tasked with cleaning up the trash in the running game and running in coverage with tight ends—both qualities he has.
But Hodges isn't assignment-sound and doesn't stay disciplined within those assignments. While his play was impressive in terms of his final performance, he made a number of mistakes that should provide worries about the sustainability of his play. In the end, it may be Hodges' speed that overtakes Greenway's instincts to replace his spot as a starter on the roster.
Between the two linebacker positions that are unsettled—"Will" and "Mike"—both may end up being replaced in the draft, and the Vikings' interest in linebackers indicates at least one of these players will not actually start.
If the Vikings want another lengthy linebacker like Barr, they may end up investing in an inside option like Benardrick McKinney, but if coverage ability and instincts are more important, they may go with former Barr teammate Eric Kendricks.
Either way, this projection is not complete.
Backup Outside Linebacker: Chad Greenway
Greenway provides a lot of knowledge and mentorship to the roster, which can be valuable to a young team. As a backup, he could provide value at either outside position, and though he's largely played with a defensive tackle lined up immediately in front of him, he may be the primary replacement at the bubble linebacker spot as well (the "Sam" position).
His speed and strength are not what they used to be, and he takes on blocks much poorer now than he did in the prime of his career. At the same time, he's an enormous liability in coverage, so he should be seen primarily as a backup, not a starter.
Backup Inside Linebacker: Michael Mauti
The former Penn State standout has struggled to see the field but has been a premier special teams player with the Vikings. If he can't recover his physical capabilities after three ACL surgeries throughout his college career, he'll never see time as a starter.
That's fine, because linebackers are more critical than any other position for a special teams coach given their combination of speed and size. Furthermore, if he does recover his speed, he could be a premier linebacker—though with every year, the former star linebacker seems less and less likely to capture that dream.
Backup Linebacker/Special Teams: Brandon Watts
Undersized, speedy linebackers are perfect for special teams, and Watts is a fantastic value to have on the special teams unit when healthy. He'll have to compete with Brian Peters, a similar profile of athlete, and Josh Kaddu, who like Barr is transitioning from a pass-rushing role to an off-ball role. Either way, the Vikings are likely to keep six linebackers on the roster and want to keep good, fast tacklers to help with field position on all four core special teams units.
Though the cornerback position is being highlighted by draft experts as the most likely pick in the first round for Minnesota, it may not be as big a need as many think. With three functional starting spots, the Vikings may have to only fill one of the three, if at all.
Right Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes
Poised to become a premier player at the position, Rhodes has become a demon in man coverage and fantastic in zone coverage, with a stretch of play at the end of the season that shut down seriously good receivers like Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson.
If he can establish consistency and cut down on penalties, he'll enter the conversation as a Pro Bowl-quality cornerback sooner rather than later.
Left Cornerback: Josh Robinson
Maligned by Vikings fans for his play in 2013, Josh Robinson had a good start to the year last season and finished strongly, with a high-profile game against Chicago resurfacing fears about his ability in coverage. By no means elite, Robinson's instincts have grown, and he plays far bigger than his 5'9" size.
A speedster, he'll always find a spot on the roster as a special teams maven, but he can also play cornerback at a higher level than people seem to think. He needs to work on cutting sooner on inside routes and maintaining a consistent feel of offenses.
The Vikings' interest in a cornerback puts this position at risk, though there's also at least a small chance that 37-year-old cornerback Terence Newman will take over the spot. If height and length are a concern for Zimmer, then Robinson's time as a starter is nearly over as it is.
Nickel Cornerback: Captain Munnerlyn
Captain Munnerlyn had a much better time playing in the slot in Carolina than in Minnesota, and that may be a reason he's due for a bounce-back campaign. His struggles last year seemed related more to confusion in scheme than an inherent lack of ability or skill.
With more time in the scheme, it could be the case that he solidifies his hold on the job and erases the confusion he had in the scheme. If things go as they look, he could be a top-10 nickel cornerback, like he had been for a brief time with the Panthers.
Backup Cornerback: Terence Newman
It's no surprise the Vikings singed Newman, though like Chris Crocker, his spot isn't guaranteed. Last year he was an average to above-average cornerback, but his age is quickly catching up to him, and he likely won't be able to take 1,000 snaps at cornerback.
Savvy and with the ability to teach the scheme to other corners on the roster, Newman could be a valuable signing if only because he provides depth and a wealth of relevant knowledge.
Backup Cornerback: Marcus Sherels
Sherels has been improving every year in coverage and stands now as a solid second backup option at cornerback despite genuinely awful play in previous years. And until he gets pushed, the punt returner job is his.
The backbone of the secondary, safeties like Harrison Smith who are both a terror against the run and stifling in coverage are valuable and exceedingly rare. Because there isn't a great option in the draft to that end, the Vikings may end up starting a player whom fans are less than excited about.
Starting Strong Safety: Harrison Smith
Generally more of a free safety at Notre Dame and throughout most of his Vikings career, Smith played most of his effective snaps as a strong safety last year, playing inside the box as a run defender and blitzer. He stepped up his already impressive game in this respect and has more to learn. Already a top-five or even top-three safety, Smith can do it all; if he can stay healthy, he will be a big boon to the beleaguered defense.
Starting Free Safety: Andrew Sendejo
Despite a skill set that better matches strong safety than free safety, Sendejo could help the defense better as a single-high safety if only because it allows Smith to freelance, while the back end of the defense remains stable.
Sendejo's speed and power have gone underrated by fans. Initially a special teams-only player, he was kept out of the starting safety role in the offseason due to a back workout injury. Late in the season, he was promoted to a full-time starter after an impressive showing against the Detroit Lions above then-healthy Robert Blanton.
That starting performance wasn't as impressive, but Sendejo's raw tools are superior to Blanton's, and if he can nail down the assignments within the scheme, he can overtake Blanton for the role. His tackling angles are better, and he closes on the ball faster, so he only needs to stay disciplined to beat out the starting safety for most of last year.
Backup Strong Safety: Antone Exum
Converting, sort of, from cornerback at Virginia Tech, Exum's slide in the draft was the result of an injury suffered while playing pickup basketball; he missed most of the season in the process. A premier talent the year before, Exum could have gone in the second round.
As a result, he should be considered a strong candidate to overtake either safety position, as he has the intuitive understanding of tackling angles and power behind his hits that elevates the position. Less likely to get run over by a runner than Robert Blanton and more likely to make the tackle, a healthy Exum could be exactly what the defense needs to sustain high levels of play instead of just living off sporadic bursts of brilliance.
When healthy, his speed and power should challenge any safety on the roster.
Backup Free Safety: Robert Blanton
Starting most of the year next to Harrison Smith, Blanton had high-profile moments of failure and struggles in coverage, to go alongside issues he had in taking angles to the ball-carrier. With all of that, he still performed at an acceptable level at the position even after acknowledging his struggles.
He played well as a force player in the run game and could leverage off the defense's setup to enable better angles from the rest of the defense to the running back. He stayed fundamentally sound, if a bit slow, in coverage.
Blanton may be the most disciplined safety on the roster, and if he wins the starting job, it will be because of his ability to execute.
The Vikings kept 10 defensive backs on the roster last year, and may do so again this year. That could either mean completing the position conversion to safety from cornerback Shaun Prater or keeping on one of the young players like speedy DeMarcus Van Dyke, potential nickel linebacker and strong safety hybrid Taylor Mays, hard-hitting Ahmad Dixon or former CFLer Jalil Carter.
Of those players, Mays could provide the most benefit, not just because he's an athletic freak but because he knows the defense. His stiffness in coverage will limit his ability to start at safety, but he could platoon at the linebacker spot or be asked to play simpler assignments when on the field.
Expect this position to be challenged at some point by a draftee, as none of the names inspires confidence, even if a few are underrated.