Cornerbacks Key for the Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings need a defensive turnaround if they want to win the division. To do that, they'll need cornerbacks to perform.

The Minnesota Vikings have approached their offseason understanding that their primary weakness is the defense. While the 2020 team had a worse defense than anything the 2023 team is likely to produce, the 2021 offseason was not geared toward fixing the defense – at the time, Minnesota felt that they still had the pieces for a strong defense that the franchise had historically produced under then-head coach Mike Zimmer.

Back then, the Vikings ranked 25th in defensive success rate allowed, 27th in defensive DVOA, and 30th in total points allowed. There wasn’t much to recommend on defense, though it is important to recognize that they did suffer from some bad luck – after all, in total EPA per play allowed, they ranked 16th. Still, they needed a change.

The Minnesota Vikings Made Key Changes

But for this offseason, the Vikings recognized their problem. For starters, they switched defensive coordinators from Ed Donatell – who ran the least diverse defensive structure in the NFL last season – to Brian Flores.

That’s important; the predictability of the Vikings’ defense was a big reason that they couldn’t consistently perform up to the level of the team’s offense. But that change in coordinator isn’t going to be enough – they need to have the horses to run a good defense before they can see any change in results.

Recognizing that, the Vikings didn’t sit on their laurels. They moved on from Patrick Peterson, Chandon Sullivan, Cameron Dantzler, and Eric Kendricks and signed Byron Murphy Jr., Dean Lowry, and Marcus Davenport. They traded Za’Darius Smith away, though that isn’t necessarily a move to improve the defense – their hand was forced.

The change from Peterson to Murphy might be the most significant; the Vikings need their cornerback group to perform at a much higher level than it did in 2022 if they want to see any defensive improvement. That means health and better play from Akayleb Evans and Andrew Booth, as well as a relatively high-level rookie performance from third-round pick Mekhi Blackmon.

In terms of completion percentage allowed, the cornerback group in Minnesota struggled last year. Peterson ranked 35th among all cornerbacks with at least 300 coverage snaps, while Dantzler and Sullivan ranked 85th and 86th out of 90 qualifying CBs.

Peterson performed better in other metrics, like the more predictive yards per coverage snap metric, but those were mediated by his short zone assignments; he wasn’t tasked with deep passes nearly as often as the other cornerbacks were, increasing his completion rate allowed but decreasing the risks associated with his coverage.

That meant putting more on the plates of safeties Camryn Bynum and Harrison Smith, who were put into a perennial Cover-2 setup by Donatell. That stress put both safeties in more difficult positions, especially Smith.

Smith played well, but the metrics regarded him poorly. He ranked 59th of 78 safeties in yards allowed per snap in coverage. In a more dynamic defense, Smith – who only blitzed on 14 snaps – might be able to rush the passer more or play different coverage assignments that don’t consistently hang him out to dry.

Top Defenses Need Cornerbacks

The top defenses in the NFL all had at least one high-level corner. San Francisco had Emmanuel Moseley, Dallas had Trevon Diggs, New England had Jack Jones, Philadelphia had both Darius Slay and James Bradberry, and the Jets had Sauce Gardner.

They didn’t necessarily have to be elite, but the level of cornerback play had to be at least good. In fact, it’s difficult to find a single defense in the top half of the NFL that had an overall poor performance from its cornerbacks.

That aligns with analyses that reaffirm the importance of the cornerback position – they can be more important than edge rushers, linemen, and linebackers.

For the Vikings, that’s particularly true. They’ll be starting a young player without much experience in Brian Asamoah II at linebacker with Jordan Hicks, who hasn’t performed all that well over the past few years.

minnesota vikings

They lost Za’Darius Smith and are dealing with a holdout threat from Danielle Hunter, meaning it’s possible that they only have Marcus Davenport – who had been a disappointment with the Saints – rushing the passer, as their defensive linemen are more run-stuffers than pass rushers.

They will need an unproven group of cornerbacks to prove their worth. Neither Evans nor Booth played enough snaps to qualify for the yards per coverage snap leaderboard, but their 2.41 and 2.49 yards per coverage snap allowed numbers would both rank last against that qualifying cornerback group.

On film, the analysis is about as alarming as the numbers. Evans might have been victimized by some unlucky plays here or there, but both Booth and Evans had issues with their technique and keeping up with their coverage assignments. Booth seemingly had slow eyes, too, and were late to react to the ball in the air.

The Vikings’ Pass Rush Can’t Carry the Load

Either way, one or both of them need to make a significant leap forward if the Vikings’ defense is going to hold on. Even Murphy will need better production. He played reasonably well, and his numbers are better than his new Minnesota counterparts, but ranking 33rd in yards allowed per coverage snap and 34th in completion rate allowed isn’t exactly phenomenal.

The Vikings shouldn’t anticipate that they’ll have a phenomenal pass rush – Smith led the team in pressure rate and ranked ninth overall against the rest of the NFL among players with at least 250 pass-rush snaps. Hunter ranked 28th, and Davenport ranked 34th.

The Vikings as a team ranked 27th in pass rush win rate overall, and no individual Viking ranked in the top ten of their position group in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric, which measures how often a pass rusher beats a pass blocker in the first 2.5 seconds of a passing snap.

Hunter could play well for the Vikings next year, but it’s a stretch to imagine the whole unit will dominate. It will take a boost in performance from the cornerback group to see any improvement in the defense overall.

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