EAGAN, Minn. — A season after going with an extreme youth movement at cornerback, the Vikings opted for veteran replacements but found mixed results at the position in 2021.
Patrick Peterson was smooth after signing a one-year contract as the future Hall of Famer transitioned from spending his first 10 seasons with Arizona.
The Vikings opted to bring back Mackensie Alexander after he played for a year in Cincinnati, but Alexander didn't return to the trajectory he was on in 2019 while covering the slot with Minnesota.
After Cameron Dantzler, who was initially projected to start opposite Peterson, dealt with an injury in Organized Team Activity practices, Minnesota signed veteran Bashaud Breeland. Both experienced bumps along the way before Breeland was released in December.
Kris Boyd was called on for more than 55 defensive snaps in games at Baltimore and against the Bears in the season finale, but his bigger contributions were on special teams. Veteran Tye Smith and second-year pro Harrison Hand played sparingly on defense.
Pro-football-reference.com has provided advanced defensive stats since 2018 that are a decent metric of summarizing cornerbacks' play. While some may dispute when a DB should be assessed with a snap in coverage (a zone may or may not tell the full story), here's a look at passer rating allowed by Vikings who played at least 150 defensive snaps in 2021:
Peterson: 78.7 (43-of-76 passing, 477 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT)
Breeland: 109.0 (56-of-88 passing, 778 yards, 7 TDs and 2 INT)
Alexander: 119.2 (46-of-70 passing, 648 yards, 5 TDs and 0 INT)
Dantzler: 74.7 (40-of-74 passing, 349 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT)
Boyd: 114.7 (19-of-27 passing, 270 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT)
Although Peterson provided an upgrade, he also wasn't challenged as much as the Vikings would have liked because opponents were finding more success at other parts of the field.
Dantzler turned in the best passer rating allowed among the group, which could be encouraging as he heads for his third season and first under a new head coach.
View the best cornerback photos from the 2021 season shot by Vikings photographers.
Notable Numbers: 11-138-9
Breeland and Alexander combined for 11 accepted penalties that resulted in 138 yards and nine first downs for opponents.
It took a regular season expanded to a 17th game, but Peterson extended his personal streak of seasons with at least one interception to all 11 seasons.
Peterson turned the pick into points as well, returning the Week 18 pass by Andy Dalton 66 yards for a touchdown, the final score of the season for Minnesota.
During the week before the game, Peterson lamented that he hoped he'd have an opportunity for an interception.
He selflessly made sure to break up a couple of passes at Chicago in Week 15 to make sure they were incomplete instead of gambling on picks. With the Vikings eliminated by the finale, it was fun to see Peterson rewarded.
45 tackles (34 solo), 2 tackles for loss, 5 passes defended, 1 interception, 66-yard return of interception for touchdown; started all 13 games he played; on field for 885 of Minnesota's 1,208 defensive snaps (73.3 percent)
63 tackles (47 solo), 1 tackle for loss, 2 interceptions, 5 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles; started all 13 games he played; on field for 675 defensive snaps (55.9 percent)
50 tackles (32 solo), 1 tackle for loss, 5 passes defensed; started 5 of 16 games he played; on field for 690 defensive snaps (57.1 percent)
52 tackles (44 solo), 1 interception, 8 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble; started 7 of 14 games he played; on field for 686 defensive snaps (56.8 percent)
19 tackles (16 solo), 5 special teams tackles; started 1 of 15 games he played, recovered 2 fumbles on special teams plays; on field for 160 defensive snaps (13.2 percent) and 245 special teams snaps
3 tackles (3 solo), 2 special teams tackles; appeared in 5 games and played 17 snaps on defense (1.4 percent) and 40 snaps on special teams
5 special teams tackles; appeared in 9 games and played 2 snaps on defense and 115 special teams snaps
The highest high
1. Takeaway out of the gate
Breeland opened Minnesota's Week 6 game at Carolina with an interception on the first snap.
He nabbed the offering from Sam Darnold at the Panthers 30-yard line and returned it to the 22. Minnesota's offense responded to the great field position with a field goal.
The Vikings limited Darnold to 17-of-41 passing (41.5 percent) for 207 yards with one interception and a passer rating of 55.6. Those statistics improved dramatically over the course of the final drive after Peterson left the game with a hamstring injury. Darnold was 5-for-10 with 83 yards and the score on that possession to raise his passer rating from a 37.6.
Peterson said he thought the defense was just starting to find its stride with new players in the secondary starting to jell and the return of linebacker Anthony Barr. But the hamstring injury caused him to miss the next three games, and defensive end Danielle Hunter was lost for the season in Week 8.
The lowest low
1. D doesn't deliver stops against Dallas or at Detroit
The Vikings 2-minute defense struggled mightily throughout the season and also allowed game-winning touchdown drives to backup Cowboys QB Cooper Rush and Lions starter Jared Goff in Weeks 8 and 13, respectively.
Rush's second pass attempt of the possession bounced off Breeland and into the hands of Amari Cooper for a gain of 33. Breeland then missed a tackle of Cooper at the Minnesota 39 to allow the receiver an additional 15 yards on an 18-yard reception.
An illegal hands-to-the-face penalty against Harrison Smith negated a fumble forced and recovered by Anthony Barr.
Alexander and Barr missed a tackle of Ezekiel Elliott that allowed the Cowboys the chance to convert a third-and-11 from the Minnesota 20. (Minnesota also helped Dallas on third-and-16 by calling back-to-back timeouts without a play happening, which resulted in a delay-of-game penalty.)
Rush followed with a touchdown pass to Cooper against pretty good 1-on-1 coverage by Dantzler, who was a little late in getting his hands up on the timing route.
At Detroit, it was Dantzler again in coverage on the winning throw (fourth-and-2 from the Minnesota 11 with two seconds remaining). Dantzler allowed too much cushion as he drifted into the end zone, and Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 29-27 win.
While much focus will be on the final play, the Vikings also allowed the Lions to get out of bounds to stop the clock three separate times.
Alexander and Dantzler each missed a tackle on the first play, Alexander allowed an out route on the second, and Breeland allowed an out route on the third.
The Vikings missed Peterson, who was on the Reserve/COVID-19 list for that game.
2 pressing questions for 2022
1.Can Dantzler make the next jump?
Dantzler has had some moments of brilliance as well as some less luminary plays that seemed to undercut his status.
With Peterson and Alexander eligible to become free agents and Breeland already jettisoned, the Vikings might need Dantzler to establish more consistency in his play.
2. Will the first round tempt again?
The Vikings believe they'll be in position to avoid a full rebuild, but they'll be doing so without recent investments of high picks.
Trae Waynes, a 2015 first-round pick, departed after the Vikings utilized their fifth-year option on him in 2019. He's been banged up since joining the Bengals and has played sparingly on special teams this postseason.
Mike Hughes, a first-round pick in 2018 who dealt with multiple injuries here, was traded to the Chiefs in May along with a 2022 seventh-round pick in exchange for a sixth-round selection. Hughes has had highs and lows since joining Kansas City.
Jeff Gladney, a first-round pick in 2020, was released in August after a grand jury indicted him on assault charges.
That's three of the Vikings past seven first-round picks that have been used on cornerbacks and none who remain with the team.
With Minnesota projected to be against the salary cap, the Vikings might have to bolster the position through the draft instead of free agency. Some experts think that another first-round pick could be used on a cornerback this year.