EAGAN, Minn. – As Verizon Vikings Training Camp continues and the 2020 season nears, plenty of players will play key roles for the Vikings.
But some players will be in the spotlight more than others, whether it is because of roster turnover or their own progression in recent years.
This is a 10-part series about X-factors on the roster, consisting of players who could be primed for more playing time, and a chance to help the Vikings more than in years past.
Rookies are excluded, as are veterans who have already cemented themselves as vital players on the Vikings.
Up next? Vikings cornerback Holton Hill. Here's why he could be an X-factor in 2020:
— Showed promise in second half of 2019 season
— Year 3 is often significant for cornerbacks
— Wide-open opportunity with turnover at position group
Stat line: 12 tackles (coaches' tally), one pass defensed and one fumble recovery over eight games (one start)
Hill missed the first eight games of his second pro season while serving a suspension, so his 2019 résumé is limited. When he did take the field for the second half of the campaign, Hill had some ups and downs but showed promise.
The young corner's best performance came on the Sunday Night Football stage in Week 10, when Minnesota narrowly defeated Dallas. Hill played just 11 defensive snaps but was targeted twice by Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott; he didn't allow a completion either time, something we'll dive into more below. Prescott finished with a rating of just 39.6 against Hill.
Hill started in the Vikings regular-season finale in which most of Minnesota's starters were held out. He played 100 percent of the defensive snaps (75) and totaled five tackles. Targeted twice in the contest, Hill allowed one completion of 18 yards.
Vikings safety Harrison Smith spoke with media members via video conference and was asked about Hill and Mike Hughes in the cornerback room. Smith pointed out that even though they've had limited reps on defense thus far, their performance on special teams has garnered attention.
"I've seen some big-time plays out of both of them," Smith said. "Really, ever since those guys have stepped in – Holton, Mike, Kris [Boyd], they've done some really great things on special teams. … Those guys have put a lot of good reps on tape, and I love how they play."
Best Splash Play So Far
As stated above, Hill's best game in 2019 happened under the prime-time lights.
The Vikings got on the board first with a touchdown catch by Kyle Rudolph, and the Cowboys looked to answer on their second drive of the game. Dallas made some progress and got past midfield, but on third-and-6 from the Minnesota 48, Hill made an impressive breakup of a pass intended for tight end Jason Witten.
The play forced the Cowboys to punt the ball back to the Vikings, and that series ended with another Rudolph touchdown and 14-0 Minnesota lead.
View photos of Vikings players who participated in workouts at TCO Performance Center.
Season 3 is often looked at as a statement year for NFL cornerbacks.
Being that the transition from college to the pros can be steep, specifically at that position, it's common to see corners take significant steps from Season 2 to 3.
Looking at a couple of corners under Head Coach Mike Zimmer, Trae Waynes became a full-time starter in his third season and recorded career-highs in tackles and tackles for loss while tying his career-high in passes defensed. Mackensie Alexander went from 17 total tackles (press box stats) in 2017 to 43 tackles, 10 passes defensed and 4.0 sacks in 2018.
Will Hill be able to take a similar step forward in 2020?
"I've had a great offseason as far as workouts and just preparing myself for this upcoming season," Hill told Vikings producer Gabe Henderson. "It's a big one for me, going into my third year. I'm excited to take on a role and see what comes next.
"During this past offseason, I had a lot of downtime to focus more on the game and the bigger picture, as far as me wanting to play a bigger role with the defense," Hill added. "I'm just taking it day by day and going out there, making the most of every opportunity."
Opportunity is certainly ripe for the picking this season. With Waynes, Alexander and Xavier Rhodes all departing, Minnesota's starting corner positions – both outside and at nickel – are up for grabs.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
Hill may be just 23 years old and have only four starts under his belt, but he's the second-most-experienced cornerback in the room behind Hughes. Hill made three starts as a rookie, recording three of his seven passes defended that season at Seattle.
"I've learned a lot from [Alexander, Rhodes and Waynes], and I plan as time goes on to take more of a leadership role," Hill said. "Right now, I'm just trying to lead by example, by doing everything right, and hopefully those guys can watch and pick up from there."
Hill said he's learned from mistakes that led to his suspension and plans to make "better decisions" going forward.
"[I'm focused on] knowing my purpose and my 'why.' I had a lot of time to spend with my family and be around them a little bit more, so not only for me, but it's kind of bigger than me," he said. "I want to use that as more of a motivational factor for me to keep going and keep working harder."
Hill's approach has caught the eye of Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson, who said the young corner is "much more focused than when we first came in here" as an undrafted free agent in 2018.
"He looks like he's in great shape," Patterson said. "Doing the virtual meetings, he was on point as far as answering the questions and knowing what he was supposed to do, so I'm excited to see what he's going to do to his game once we get out here in pads and start playing real football."
Watch 'Vikings Training Camp Live' Today at 2:15 PM
Tune in today at 2:15 PM to watch live coverage of Verizon Vikings Training Camp from the TCO Performance Center. Paul Allen, Pete Bercich, Ben Leber and Greg Coleman will break down position battles and look ahead to the 2020 season.
Watch and/or listen on all the Vikings digital + social platforms, as well as FOX 9, KFAN FM 100.3 & the Vikings Radio Network.