Defensive Backs: The Tough Math
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsHiring Mike Zimmer definitely goes some way towards fixing an aching pass defense, but it won’t be enough for the team to leave it at that. 804 snaps of the 3137 taken by cornerbacks last year are gone. Another 275 won’t likely be taken at all. And aside from Xavier Rhodes’ 686 snaps, there really is no lock that the other snaps taken by cornerbacks will be relied upon in the next season.
Adding Derek Cox and Captain Munnerlyn helps, but the late resurgence of Shaun Prater last year, along with two late-round draft picks in Jabari Price and Kendall James clouds the picture even more. Reserve Robert Steeples and Cleveland fan favorite Julian Posey add to the mix, but thankfully don’t make prognostication that much more difficult.
A happy problem for Vikings fans, and the issue for bloggers and journalists, the cornerbacks have almost all shown skill and promise with a new scheme. The safeties haven’t clearly separated themselves from the bottom of the roster, either.
Having a reputation for good defensive play hasn’t translated into roster spots, an unfortunate concern for the corners and safeties hurt by the flat talent curve. Every Zimmer offseason except for one has ended with ten total defensive backs. The one exception was 2010, where they ended the season with nine. Though an era geared towards base defenses may allow eleven, that’s not much consolation to the talented players at the cutoff point.
Should the Vikings carry five safeties and six cornerbacks, there are going to be talented corners looking for new teams. That may be a stretch as well, given the fact that after Harrison Smith there are more than four safeties worth keeping—a healthy Robert Blanton, along with Chris Crocker, Kurt Coleman, Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo and Antone Exum.
But, to keep things focused on the cornerbacks, assuming six corners for now gives generous flexibility.
Xavier Rhodes is a lock, meaning that the other five positions are up for grabs. It would be prudent to keep Captain Munnerlyn, as he seems to not only have grabbed the starting slot position, but the outside corner as well.
But after him on the outside has been both Marcus Sherels and Derek Cox. On the inside it’s been Jabari Price and Shaun Prater. With Josh Robinson healthy, he’s been taking first team snaps from time to time on the outside as well.
Despite Adam Thielen’s impressive punt return performance, it would still be safe to pen Marcus Sherels in as the primary punt returner and depth on the outside given his surprising hip fluidity and ability to cover Cordarrelle Patterson for more than one interception and several pass deflections.
Price, Prater and Cox have all been making impact plays this offseason, and may have honestly shown more than AJ Jefferson or Chris Cook ever had in any camp. To boot, Josh Robinson fits a prototype that Mike Zimmer loves, in that he’s an intelligent and athletic player (though whether or not he’s a genius on the field of play remains to be seen).
Derek Cox has been making the most plays in camp, aided in part by his recovery speed. He has more interceptions and pass deflections than anyone else in Mankato, and though he hasn’t remained in tight coverage in that time on a consistent basis, his playmaking ability, instinct and general recovery speed is probably worth a roster spot.
Zimmer favorite Jabari Price will have to compete with athletic phenom Josh Robinson and the slightly more experienced Shaun Prater, who’s made plays himself and has the most experience in the Zimmer system.
Unfortunately for Prater, he’ll probably be the odd man out, as Price has been consistently the top nickel backup and has run with the ones on occasion, while Robinson continues to see time with the first team when healthy despite some rocky nights, like the evening practice on August 11.
But one of those two could very well be threatened by those more deserving at the safety position. The assumption of six cornerbacks needs to be tested, and the safeties will likely provide stiff competition. Harrison Smith naturally has the first spot, but Robinson or Price may turn out to be less valuable than the sixth safety.
It’s a safe bet that Chris Crocker will remain with the team. Despite his absence from the squad, he’s been with the first team defensive unit since he’s arrived. A smart safety experienced in the system, Crocker also has the ability to provide depth at cornerback in a pinch.
Kurt Coleman has played as the third safety, and spent most of the time that Robert Blanton has been out with injury with the ones, at least until Crocker arrived. He was the first team safety in the preseason game against Oakland, and availed himself well, looking nothing like the poor safety that played in Philadelphia for the past few years.
Between Blanton, Sendejo, Sanford, Raymond and Exum, the next safest bet might be Antone Exum. He hasn’t been with the first or second team, so he’s not making the team because he has proven ability now, but the Zimmer staff has frequently gone out of its way to praise his intelligence, athleticism, style of play and versatility. Should Exum make the roster, it will be at the bottom of the depth chart, but it seems more certain than those above him.
That means a hard decision for the final safety spot. Given Robert Blanton’s strong offseason, it makes the most sense to give it to him. That means in this scenario that last year’s starter would be cut without making the team, and the starter from the beginning of the 2012 season, Mistral Raymond, would be cut, too.
Special teams ace Andrew Sendejo would also be out of a job, as surprising as it seems.
That means the Zimmer team will have to decide whether or not it likes Raymond, Sendejo or Sanford more than they like one of either Robinson or Price—a difficult determination to make. If it were up to fans, the frustration over Robinson, Raymond and Sanford would make it an easy choice to keep Sendejo and cut Robinson, but that’s rarely how training camp and roster construction works.
Still, there’s merit to the idea. Sendejo, when healthy, has been ahead of either safety on the depth chart, and it seems like Jabari Price is more consistent in drawing the plaudits of the defensive staff than of Josh Robinson. Mistral Raymond has been getting reps over Jamarca Sanford, which might be a good indication of where Sanford is for the Zimmer staff, and Raymond is probably not talented enough alone to beat out the intelligence and athletic ability of Sendejo. Given that Exum, Blanton and Crocker can all play cornerback to some degree, there’s reason to cut Josh Robinson instead of Sendejo.
In the end, the defensive back depth chart could look like this:
RCB: Xavier Rhodes, Derek Cox
FS: Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo
SS: Chris Crocker, Robert Blanton, Kurt Coleman, Antone Exum
LCB: Captain Munnerlyn, Marcus Sherels, Jabari Price
Cut: Jamarca Sanford, Josh Robinson, Shaun Prater, Mistral Raymond, Kendall James, Robert Steeples, Julian Posey, Brandan Bishop
Even if it doesn’t play out like this, there will certainly be some hard cuts to make for the front office, and it’s a lock that more defensive backs than usual from Minnesota will make a team somewhere else.