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Vikings Young Cornerbacks Learning on the Fly

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Cornerbacks must make quite the jump when  transitioning from college to the NFL.

Wide receivers in the NFL are bigger, faster and stronger, presenting a formidable challenge for cornerbacks who are oftentimes trying to grasp a complex defense while learning the tendencies of an opponent.

The Vikings have a quartet of young cornerbacks age 24 or younger who are trying to make their mark.

Jabari Price is in his third year in the league while Trae Waynes is in his second season. Mackensie Alexander and Tre Roberson are rookies who joined the Vikings this offseason.

"Obviously, they're going against better competition every day, every week," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "But a lot of guys from college are real grabby, especially at the top of the route, because they can do it in college.

"So, that generally takes a long time, and then the coverages become more complicated," he added. "It's adjusting on the fly and understanding the little things, the splits and all the stuff like that."

While the four cornerbacks are each at various stages of their career, the spotlight is a little brighter on Waynes and Alexander because of their draft status. Waynes was Minnesota's first-round selection in 2015, and  Alexander was a second-round pick in April.

Zimmer said Waynes has looked sharp in practice and preseason action and could have a larger role this season. The 24-year-old led the Vikings with 14 special teams tackles in 2015 and added an interception in the postseason.

"Usually when corners are struggling I'm talking to them a lot, correcting them a lot. I haven't done that with Trae in quite a while really," Zimmer said. "So he's improved a lot. I think he's becoming more aggressive toward the ball, aggressive towards the receiver. 

"I think he's starting to get the mentality that we're trying to preach in the back end with the things that we do," he added. "Obviously he's a talented guy, and you just got to get the talent in the right place and the right demeanor. I think that's kind of where he's been."

Alexander also has stood out this preseason, playing more than half of Minnesota's defensive snaps against Cincinnati and Seattle.

The 22-year-old brings a confidence to the field and had an interception against the Bengals. The former Clemson standout noted he's hoping to turn a corner soon with even more big plays.

"Now that I have a better understanding of the whole defense, now it's about playing faster and making adjustments," Alexander said. "Just playing fast and consistent, that's been the biggest emphasis that I've been putting on myself."

Zimmer said Alexander, who has played both at nickel cornerback and on the outside, needs to be more patient with his hands but has the tools to be successful.

"He has still got a long ways to go, but he has got great quickness. He has got great confidence," Zimmer said. "He has got great competitiveness. He's very, very quick, and he wants to challenge receivers.

"Those are things I've seen a lot these last 10 days or something. I think his technique is getting better. He's playing a couple different spots, but he's used to it," he added. "The right side, left side doesn't bother him. Like all college guys, there a little bit grabby, and he has got to continue to work on that."

Both of Minnesota's other cornerbacks, Price and Roberson, are 23 years old.

Price was a seventh-round pick in 2014 and appeared in 14 games that season. He did not play last season due to injuries.

Because of his background, Zimmer said Price is helped by his feisty attitude on the field.

"Jabari is a guy that's a battler, so he's going to continue to battle," Zimmer said. 

Roberson has the most unique story — and the biggest learning curve — of the four. The former college quarterback joined the Vikings an as undrafted free agent and moved to cornerback in May.

Zimmer said he's handled the position switch ‘amazingly’ well and praised his athleticism.

Alexander said he and Minnesota's three other young corners keep a close eye on veteran Terence Newman, who is entering his 14th pro season, and Xavier Rhodes, who is the Vikings top cornerback.

"Watching them, it's more the level of consistency the way they play and show up," Alexander said. "It's not just on the field (but) off the field, why they're in meetings, how they carry themselves and are very detailed.

"They're not just coming out here and doing it," he added. "They repeat it in their mind."

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