The Vikings secondary by the end of 2010 was in shambles. Cedric Griffin was hurt again, Chris Cook and Asher Allen were major question marks after poor seasons, Lito Sheppard and Frank Walker were old and ineffective veterans ready to be cast off, Madieu Williams was a fan whipping boy, and Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford were at best spare parts. Only Antoine Winfield and to a lesser extent Husain Abdullah seemed like players we could count on for the future, and Winfield not for much longer because of age.
And what did the Vikings do this offseason to address that series of dire situations? They cut Williams, Sheppard and Walker (no-brainers); drafted cornerback Brandon Burton and safety Mistral Raymond; flirted momentarily with free agent safety O.J. Atogwe before watching him go to Washington; sniffed around another free agent safety, Eric Weddle, before bowing out of the expensive bidding…and in the end wound up keeping Winfield, Griffin, Cook, Allen, Sanford and Johnson.
We understand of course that the Vikings spent most of this offseason in salary cap purgatory, unable to add talent where they knew they needed it. We also understand that after Saturday’s cut downs when Brandon Meriweather became available, they did possibly have enough cap space to make a run at him (especially after Chad Greenway‘s new contract was signed; that wasn’t announced until Monday but it was actually done much earlier), but elected to pass because they were afraid of Meriweather’s character issues (this according to Paul Allen‘s inside sources).
So even when they had cap space, the Vikings chose not to pursue a player who unlike their current crop of safeties actually possesses recognizable playmaking ability. Keep that in mind on Sunday when you’re watching Jamarca Sanford out there against the San Diego offense. Yes I know Sanford is scrappy and will come up and hit a man in the mouth, but will he make a play that turns a game around? Does he have the kind of centerfielder ability that allows you more freedom to use your other safety as an occasional blitzer?
No on both. In fact the only reason Sanford is even back there is because Leslie Frazier and Fred Pagac have clearly lost all faith in Tyrell Johnson. And well they should have. All Tyrell did this presesason, after basically being named the starter in place of the (thankfully) departed Madieu Williams, was miss every obvious chance to secure the starting role over Sanford. My two enduring images of Johnson from this preaseason are him not sticking Felix Jones on a TD run, and him flat-out dropping an interception against Houston. Those two plays are the main reasons why Sanford is starting Sunday instead of Tyrell.
Of our other two safeties, only Mistral Raymond has apparent starting potential, but the rangy rookie is a long way from being ready (get back to me in about week 3 to see how I feel about his level of readiness; I might be prepared to call for an early promotion). Eric Frampton is a valuable special teams guy and that’s all.
That’s our safety situation. Our cornerback situation is thankfully not quite as dire, and we mostly owe that to Antoine Winfield who despite his relatively advanced age remains one of the best all-around corners in the league. Winfield is so tough, a couple weeks ago he appeared to destroy his shoulder tackling Jason Witten, only to be seen moments later on the sideline laughing. Pain actually makes him smile. What makes me smile is his surreal tackling skill – the man really is an artist – his proficiency at covering slot receivers and his blitzing ability especially when he’s being unleashed like a mad dog against Michael Vick.
Antoine’s main running mate these last few years has been Cedric Griffin, but sadly Cedric has been slowed by a pair of ACL tears, and remains a question mark. I thought he looked okay in preseason – sound tackler, not especially solid coverage guy, overmatched against big strong guys like Dez Bryant – but the question isn’t really whether he can still play, it’s how long he can play before something pops. A healthy Cedric will be an asset to the defense, but what if he goes down again?
The depth behind Griffin falls off fast. Chris Cook is the 3rd corner and already covers the outside with Winfield moving inside in nickel packages, so he’d be the one to take Cedric’s spot in the base defense. Cook, as we learned against Tennessee this preseason, is still a sometimes maddeningly undisciplined player. Everyone still thinks Cook has the physical tools to be a good corner, but now he’s in his second year and he continues making rookie mistakes. Will he eventually start putting it all together or is he destined to be another talented guy who never lived up to his potential?
After Cook things get scary. Asher Allen has the most experience, but it’s largely been bad experience, and now on top of that he’s nursing a bum toe. Fifth in line is Brandon Burton, a rookie who showed flashes of promise in the preseason but is still very raw. And the sixth corner, Marcus Sherels, is only on this team because he can return punts.
These are the guys the Vikings will throw out there Sunday against Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd (assuming Floyd is ready to go after a preseason concussion). Essentially it is the same secondary they fielded in 2010, but with even less veteran presence. The two guys to watch are Cook and Sanford. Will Cook finally learn to turn around and look for the ball (a skill, incidentally, that Brandon Burton already seems to possess)? Will Sanford provide the kind of quick help over the top that’s necessary to keep 15-yard plays from turning into 50-yard plays? Will both men avoid murderous penalties?
It’s the mental side of the game that remains the issue for guys like Cook and Sanford. The problem when you play on an island like these guys often have to is, you can do everything right for much of the game, then you make one tiny mistake – get caught out of position, bite on a double-move, don’t get enough of a hit on a receiver at the line – and all that good work goes out the window.
Against a team like San Diego with their multitude of offensive weapons, the secondary men will be even more exposed. The Chargers can beat you deep with streaking receivers, they can work you to death over the middle with tight ends, they can attack you pretty much everywhere. This is a classic case of keep everything in front of you, come up and make the tackle – the old bend-but-don’t-break (aggressiveness is out of the question with this bunch).
It’s all about discipline and technique. The problem is, I’m not sure all the Vikings’ secondary men are possessed of much discipline, nor are they very polished in their technique. But this is the reality you face when you lack the resources to upgrade your personnel. The Vikings couldn’t bring in an Eric Weddle or a Brandon Meriweather; they couldn’t even bring in an O.J. Atogwe. So they have been forced to patch together a secondary using players who probably wouldn’t even make a lot of other teams’ rosters. They are so thin in DB talent, it’s not even funny. And I fear that on Sunday the Chargers will expose that lack of talent, and leave a lot of fans with an early sinking feeling about the future of this defense.