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Alexander Shifts Position on Value of Nickel

EAGAN, Minn. — Training camp is a time when players fight for limited positions.

Mackensie Alexander admitted that he spent his first training camp and rookie 2016 season fighting the notion of a position.

Drafted in the second round by a team with three first-round cornerbacks in Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman and Trae Waynes, Alexander joined a team with a surplus of players on the outside.

The success he had on the outside in college of locking down opponents — he allowed no touchdowns in his final 23 games at Clemson — encouraged the Vikings to draft him, but the team did so with hopes he could eventually handle its nickel back position.

This wasn't what Alexander had in mind when he opted to leave the Tigers after his redshirt sophomore season or envisioned when he was tabbed with the 54th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft.

And it showed.

"It was tough. It's a new position," Alexander said. "It was tougher for me because I fought the situation so much. I didn't want to do it."

The hardest part wasn't being prepared to defend so many types of routes by receivers or helping in the run game. It was seeing the value in the job.

"I think what happens is young guys don't understand how many snaps you actually take at the nickel position," defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. "You're a whole lot more valuable playing nickel than just corner … a lot of teams love to have a nickel back who can tackle, cover and then have the possible chance of going back outside and playing corner.

"They don't see that," Gray added. "They think, 'I'm a corner in the NFL. Well, nickel is a demotion.' No, nickel is a really a promotion in the NFL."

Captain Munnerlyn held primary nickel duties for the Vikings in 2016 before rejoining the Carolina Panthers in free agency last offseason. The Vikings then turned to Newman, who was in his 15th pro season, and began working Alexander in the mix.

This spring, however, Alexander arrived at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center for the team's offseason program ready to win the job. Those vibes have continued into training camp.

"Now that I've embraced the role, I'm happy with it," Alexander said. "I love it. It's where I want to be. I want to compete and be the best Mackensie I can be for my team each and every day, and I wasn't that in the past, because I didn't want to do it.

"You know, you're a young guy coming in, you have expectations, but Coach has plans for you," he explained. "You see their plans and you want to be a part of this defense. That's what I want to be a part of. I'm past the past. I'm past the college stuff. I had a great college career, but it's year three, and it's time to be the best nickel in the game for Minnesota for sure."

Positive reinforcement started leading to results that included Alexander's first career interception at Washington when he nabbed a pass by Kirk Cousins. The turnover helped the Vikings add a critical score before halftime in a 38-30 victory.

Alexander pointed to that game and an outing against Green Bay as moments where he thought he turned the corner.

"I noticed I was holding myself back, and a lot of guys do that to themselves," Alexander said. "I didn't want to be in that situation where you hold yourself back and are not giving them your best you and are not putting your best foot forward because you don't want to do something. It's part of growing up sometimes."

Gray said he thought the breakthrough might have been set in the 2017 offseason when Alexander came back ready "to learn and compete" and no longer with the "loner" mentality he sometimes showed as a rookie.

"We sensed that that was the type of guy that he really wanted to be, 'I understand where you want me to go,' " Gray explained before crediting Defensive Coordinator George Edwards, Les Pico and Don Patterson in Player Development, and teammates.

"It takes a lot of guys to change a guy's attitude about what you want to do," Gray said. "Now, he understands, you're not coming here to be a round-out guy. We want you to be a starter, and the starting position happens to be at the nickel position."

Alexander has been complimentary of Newman's role in his development, calling the NFL's active interceptions leader a "great mentor."

"The way he's played, the way he's taught, he stays on me a lot," Alexander said. "From day one, he always told me, 'You're going to be one of the best to do it if you fix your mindset.'

"He's been on me, and we've been talking ever since," Alexander added. "We've just been growing together as teammates, as brothers, so I look at him like family. He really took me under his wings, nurtured me, stayed on me, and I'm thankful for that. He's a great individual. I appreciate him."

Newman resigned a one-year deal and will turn 40 in early September. He has said he plans for this to be his final NFL season. Always humble, the 2003 first-round pick on Monday made sure to add the caveat if he's fortunate enough to make the team.

Alexander said he wants to make Newman proud with the way he approaches the possibility of more playing time at nickel.

"You've got a guy like that, you've got to think about so many athletes and so many pros at any level, they were in a situation to where they had a mentor in front of them, and a lot of them don't capitalize," Alexander said. "You realize, 'Dang, this guy played 16 years in the league, and I only played five. If I would have known back then, da-da-da-da-da,' you know what I mean?

"I definitely don't want to be one of those guys," he added. "I want to be like, 'I came up under T-Newman,' and not having an ego about it, but 'I came up under one of the best to do it,' you know what I mean? I watched Captain do it, I watched T-Newman do it, and learned from them and am just taking over the spot. That's what you want, having a guy like that around."

The NFL's top-ranked defense in yards allowed and points allowed in 2017 has returned 10 starters and multiple other key players, but the nickel position could provide Alexander with a tremendous opportunity to help the unit continue its success in 2018.

"To me, I think he understands that and understands how important that position is for us — 'You're going to be going against some of the top guys in this league,' " Gray said. "They play 11 personnel all day in the NFL anyway, so the third wide receiver is a starting wide out, so we need a good corner or nickel that can play inside."