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Xs and Os: How Drafted Cornerbacks Could Impact Vikings

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings experienced significant turnover in their secondary this offseason, but they replenished the cornerback position during the 2020 NFL Draft.

Minnesota used three of its first eight draft picks on cornerbacks, beginning with TCU senior Jeff Gladney in the first round with the 31st overall selection. Cameron Dantzler of Mississippi State followed in the third round (89th overall pick), and Temple's Harrison Hand was a fifth-round choice with the 169th selection.

The young additions at cornerback offset the losses of Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander in free agency, plus the departure of Xavier Rhodes, who was released in March and wound up signing with Indianapolis.

The drafted trio will now team with other youngsters such as Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Kris Boyd and Marcus Sayles in what could be a highly-anticipated battle for starting spots and playing time.

Here's a deep dive on how each of the drafted cornerbacks could figure into Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme:

Player Profile: Jeff Gladney, TCU, senior

Gladney, who measures in at 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds, started 42 of the 50 games he played for the Horned Frogs. He earned First-Team All-Big 12 honors in 2019, improving from Second-Team accolades in 2018 and Honorable Mention in 2017.

Gladney tied for second in the conference with 15 passes defended, including a conference-best 14 pass breakups, which was also the eighth-most nationally in 2019.

Gladney was rated No. 1 in the Big 12 by analytics site Pro Football Focus with an allowed passer rating of 46.9 (minimum of 200 coverage snaps) as a junior in 2018.

The cornerback displayed his toughness in 2019 when he played through a meniscus tear in his knee and even ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds at the combine with the injury.

"No one really told me not to. Everybody who knew me knew I was going to participate in the combine and still do everything with my knee," he said. "I was just trying to get myself [seen] by all the teams, just let them know how much it meant to me – even though [I had] a torn meniscus. I'm tough like that, so I feel like it paid off."

View photos of TCU CB Jeff Gladney who was selected by the Vikings in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Where He Could Play: TCU Head Coach Gary Patterson said Gladney primarily played on the outside in college, where he shadowed larger receivers in different types of coverage.

But with Alexander gone as the primary slot cornerback, Hughes could see playing time there. So, too, could Gladney, as Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman recently said that the first-round pick is a candidate to line up inside.

Spielman noted that while Gladney is a potential option at the moment, the team will have to see how he adapts to the on-field pace once the Vikings can practice. Teams have not been going through Organized Team Activity practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think the slot is probably the most difficult to learn because of the different combinations of the man and zone schemes that Zim' runs. Usually the outside is the easiest to learn," Spielman said. "But when you get into the nickel spot – and that's where we started to train Mike Hughes last year, playing a lot in there and expect him to play in there – I think, physically, that Gladney can definitely go in and play in the slot, as well.

"The slot part, or the nickel part of the defense, the hardest part, is the mental part. 'How quickly do you know the different combinations, the route combinations and how the coverages adjust behind you according to the route combinations where you don't have to think, where you can get into the [mindset where you can] just react and play. That's probably the most difficult part?' " Spielman added. "Now, you can do it on paper, and they're going to do it all throughout this virtual classroom. But to me, until you get out on the field and actually see it – and see it at full speed – and you actually have to physically do it, besides just doing it in your head, those [areas] are where we're going to have to get them caught up pretty quickly."

Coachspeak: "Gladney reminds me of a lot of guys who have played similarly for me in the past. Very good acceleration … tough, competitive kid … wants to challenge receivers and good in and out of the breaks. Long arms … I know he's a shorter guy, but he makes up for it with his toughness and his length."

— Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer

"I think that the young man has the temperament that I know Coach Zimmer likes for our corners to play with. He's a competitor. He does not want you to catch the ball; he's going to compete. He'll come up and support in the running game."

— Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson

Film Breakdown: Former Vikings player and coach Pete Bercich, now a Vikings Radio Network analyst, looked at some of Gladney's tape from TCU.

"In the red zone, he understands the coverage, understands there was a blitz and what the offense was going to do … to put himself in position [to force an incompletion]," Bercich said.

"He also has a nose for the football." Bercich added.

Player Profile: Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State, redshirt junior

Dantzler measures at 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds and was ranked as the No. 9 cornerback in this year's class by Pro Football Focus.

He allowed a passer rating of just 57.0 last season, which ranked fourth among FBS cornerbacks, and led Mississippi State with 10 passes defensed in 2019. Dantzler made 22 starts in 25 career games.

Perhaps Dantzler's best game in 2019 came against LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in college football. Dantzler limited Chase to five catches for 45 yards.

"Coach put me up to the challenge, and I accepted," Dantzler said. "I just studied what he likes to do – some of his strengths, some of his weaknesses – throughout the week. … He doesn't like when you're really physical with him; he just tries to bully most of the time. So I just studied that and brought that into the game and held my own, and I thought I did a great job against him."

Where He Could Play: While Gladney's frame could make him a candidate for the slot, Dantzler's body size likely projects him as an outside cornerback.

The Vikings, of course, need help there following the departures of Rhodes and Waynes.

Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said after Day 2 of the draft that Dantzler fits the athletic mold of what Zimmer likes in his cornerbacks.

"Very excited to add another corner to our mix … a big, tall corner that is very athletic for his size. The game that stuck out to us the most was the LSU game," Spielman said. "He has all the physical traits we're looking for, and his length really helps him down the field, as well.

"Just adding depth, especially at a position of need, and we're very excited to get Cameron on board," Spielman added.

Coachspeak: "The thing about him is, I watched all of these corners, even [Jeff Okudah], who went third overall, and when they played LSU, the junior, No. 1, beat every single one. But this kid, he was the one at Mississippi State to shut him down – and really, that's what got our attention. [Vikings defensive backs coach] Daronte Jones was really high on him when we were going through the draft process, and for us to be able to get both of those guys – guys we were high on as a coaching staff – is pretty exciting."

— Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer on Dantzler's play against Chase (he did not mention Chase by name because of NCAA rules)

Film Breakdown: Bercich analyzed Dantzler's play and abilities on film.

"This is a kid who was hurt by the fact the scouts couldn't get back out to the Pro Days and give him a chance to put a good number down in the 40[-yard dash]," Bercich said. "He's able to open his hips, turn and run and stay foot-to-foot with the receiver … it's great coverage.

"He uses that long frame and long arms to force the receiver further out to the sideline … that narrows that corridor for the throw," Bercich added. "For Dantzler, outside of a lackluster 40 time [at the combine] … which maybe scared away a lot of teams, you don't see a lot of holes in his game. He's the type of corner you would think this defense would want."

Player Profile: Harrison Hand, Temple, junior

The Vikings drafted their third and final corner of 2020 in the fifth round.

Hand measured 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds at the 2020 combine, where he showed off his hops. Hand's vertical leap of 41 inches tied Okudah, the first-round pick of Detroit, for the best among cornerbacks in this class.

Hand began his college career at Baylor, but transferred to Temple for his final college season. He recorded 59 tackles (4.0 for loss) and three interceptions for the Owls in 2019.

"I'm just ready to go in however they want to use me and do it to the best of my ability," Hand said. "I'm just ready to work."

View images of Vikings 5th round draft pick Temple CB Harrison Hand.

Where He Could Play: Hand could vie for playing time at either cornerback spot, and is also expected to help contribute on special teams.

He could follow a similar path of Kris Boyd, a 2019 seventh-round pick who led the Vikings in special teams tackles as a rookie.

"We need to continue to build depth in the secondary; he'll come in and compete," Spielman said. "Also, I know what he can do and contribute on special teams."

Vikings Director of College Scouting Jamaal Stephenson said Hand's combine numbers and potential intrigued the Vikings.

"He's a guy who is really smart. He's instinctive, has good size. He worked out really well at the combine," Stephenson said. "He's a guy who is really just scratching the surface of what he can be. He's a young player, and we think he has a lot of upside, particularly with where we got him in the draft."

Coachspeak: "He's got some flexibility. He can be one who can play on the outside, as a corner, but also be able to kick inside and compete for the nickel spot, too. He's athletic, he's very quick – he's got quick feet – and that's what you look for in a nickel. I think he's another one that fits what we were looking for, and I think he'll do a good job of coming in and competing for some playing time."

— Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson

Film Breakdown: Bercich also commented on Hand's tape from his time at Temple.

"One of the first things you notice … is that he loves to roll up and loves to press," Bercich said. "But even in run support, he's able to step up, play North-South and make great tackles on the outside. The kid is able to diagnose the run in front of him.

"He also has great instincts … he has a great feel for coverage," Bercich added. "He can also blitz and use that explosion to get into the backfield."