The Vikings cornerbacks room looks a whole lot different than it did in 2020.
Minnesota still has several young players, but the team also added some more experienced players in free agency in an attempt to shore up a secondary that struggled last season.
Let's start with the familiar face. Mackensie Alexander, whom the Vikings drafted in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Alexander played his first four seasons in Purple, developing into a strong player at the slot corner position. While he initially resisted the move from outside, where he played at Clemson, Alexander grew to embrace his role at nickel. He signed with the Bengals for the 2020 season and played 13 games (10 starts) in Cincinnati before re-joining the Vikings.
"I think we're all looking at the big puzzle, the big piece and getting this thing done as a unit," Alexander told media members this spring. "That's why I'm back. Big picture."
The Vikings also added big games in eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland, who has played in the past two Super Bowls with Kansas City. We'll discuss both of these additions a little later.
Returning from last year's roster are Kris Boyd and 2020 draft picks Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, Harrison Hand and Dylan Mabin, who was signed in November off the Raiders practice squad. Veterans Parry Nickerson and Tye Smith were also free agency additions this spring.
With U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp on the horizon, it's the perfect time to dive in and discuss the cornerbacks group.
Q: What impact will Patrick Peterson & Bashaud Breeland have on the secondary?
Between the two of them, Peterson and Breeland are bringing 17 years of experience to the cornerbacks room. How will the addition of proven veterans impact the Vikings secondary?
Peterson may have had a "down" year for the Cardinals in 2020, but Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer is confident not only in the 31-year-old's ability but that he's got plenty of gas left in the tank. And a change of scenery just might do Peterson some good.
"I did a lot of things with Patrick [Peterson] when he got here. I had him come to my office and sit down. A lot of these guys that are eight-year Pro Bowl players and things like that, they really don't want to be coached," Zimmer said earlier this offseason. "One of the things I did, called him in and asked him, 'Tell me about you. What do you like to do? How do you like to do it? Do you want to be coached? I think I can help you in these areas.'
"He was like 'Coach, I want to be coached. I want to get back playing really good.' He's done a great job this spring," Zimmer continued. "I've been really excited about the things that he's trying to do, that we're trying to teach him and actually, some of the things he's done. Just really trying to give him more tools in the toolbox and get him to understand the concepts and where we can help him, as well."
Zimmer certainly knows his way around defensive backs, and marrying that with Peterson's skill set and know-how may be just what the doctor ordered.
Breeland is currently rehabbing a shoulder injury suffered last season, so he has yet to do much on-field work with his new team.
He's eager to learn, though, and to be involved however he can.
Super Bowl experience is a valuable thing, and Breeland's back-to-back trips (a win and a loss) allow him to bring a unique perspective to Minnesota's locker room.
"It brings an edge and motivation. Once you taste that type of success, you want to do it again. I can say during my time in Kansas City that was the goal day-in and day-out," Breeland said. "Once you taste it, man, it's an electrifying feeling, it's a feeling like no other.
"In life, you only get key moments like this, you know what I'm saying? It's kind of rare to get these types of feelings," he added. "But once you get it, you're chasing it every day, every down, every play."
Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer said "it's great" to have Peterson and Breeland in the fold.
"Patrick has been really great taking the young guys under his wing and helping with what he knows and sees with their game," Zimmer said. "Bashaud, we just got him, but he's won a Super Bowl as a corner so he knows what it takes to win in this league and cover in this league. That's valuable for us as a defense and it's also valuable for the young guys because they can lean on them and pick their brains. These guys have skins in the wall."
Q: How will the starting corner & nickel positions shake out?
Last season, injuries pockmarked the Vikings secondary on more than one occasion, and Minnesota never seemed to get in a rhythm with a consistent starting three corners.
And still, it's possible the Vikings will kick off 2021 with an entirely different starting combination than any they utilized last year.
It's pretty safe to say that Peterson is one of the outside corners. Opposite Peterson, the Vikings could opt for Breeland if he's healthy and ready to go. Dantzler also is a possibility after making 10 starts as a rookie.
It will be interesting to see if Zimmer hands Alexander the reins at nickel right away. He notably has plenty of experience there in the Vikings defensive system, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him step into that role. Gladney played often in the slot last season.
"Wherever they want to play me, I'm a team guy," Alexander said. "We're going to compete as a unit and we're going to see where it all falls. It doesn't matter to me."
Although specific players were highlighted above, it's important also to not count out some of the cornerbacks in the room. Hand improved throughout his rookie campaign and had a solid spring for the Vikings, and Boyd started five games last season in place of injured teammates.
One thing's for sure: there will be no shortage of competition during training camp.
Q: Is a rise on the horizon for Harrison Hand?
Hand played in 14 games for Minnesota last season, including a start at corner in the regular-season finale. He wasn't utilized significantly on defense, playing just 15 percent of the unit's snaps, but he finished his first NFL season with 17 tackles, three passes defensed and an interception of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.
Hand also contributed on special teams, playing 33 percent of the unit's snaps.
This spring, Hand participated in a full NFL offseason program for the first time. He and classmates did not get that experience a year ago because of COVID-19.
View photos of the Vikings second mandatory minicamp practice at the TCO Performance Center.
Below is a recap of the positions we've covered up until this point:
We'll wrap up the series with safeties on Thursday and special teams on Friday.
Fans have the opportunity to see the 2021 Vikings in person at U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp later this month when practices at TCO Performance Center will be open to the public. Click here for ticket info about team practices, two joint sessions with the Denver Broncos and a first-of-its kind scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium.