Oct 9, 2011; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive back Chris Cook (31) against the Arizona Cardinals at the Metrodome. The Vikings defeated the Cardinals 34-10. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE

Vikings Top 10 Training Camp Storylines: #2 - Sorting Out the Secondary

TVA previews the 10 storylines that will be consuming our lives starting on July 26 when the Vikings report to Mankato (full camp schedule available from Vikings.com).

2. Sorting Out the Secondary

What happened to the Vikings secondary in 2011 can only be described as calamitous. It wasn’t exactly a great unit to start but at least with Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook on the field, they were able to hold their own. Then Cook got arrested for domestic violence, resulting in a season-ending unofficial suspension, and Winfield went out with a season-ending injury. How bad were things for the Vikings at the point of Winfield’s injury? They were forced to sign Benny Sapp. Benny. Freaking. Sapp.

But things would get even worse before it was over. Cedric Griffin, once a stalwart right corner, deteriorated mentally and physically and wound up being benched. And things weren’t much better at the safety position. Husain Abdullah was lost to a concussion, and Jamarca Sanford and Tyrell Johnson were just flat-out terrible. Things reached their nadir week 15 when Drew Brees torched the cobbled-together defensive backfield for 412 yards and 5 TDs. At that point the Vikes were fielding arguably one of the worst secondaries in the history of the NFL.

Things obviously had to be done in the offseason to remedy this situation. And they were. The first big move was to officially re-instate Chris Cook after his exoneration in the courts. Some people may not like it but Cook is vital to this team and the Vikings know it. The second move was to let Cedric Griffin walk after his disappointing season. Griffin’s departure became inevitable after some of his late season comments. Tyrell Johnson was also allowed to walk after a terrible tenure in purple. And Asher Allen also surprisingly walked away from the team, announcing his retirement a month after the draft.

The Vikings did for awhile hope to retain Husain Abdullah, but the safety ultimately opted to leave football for a year to fulfill his religious obligations. With Griffin and Abdullah gone, the Vikings had two starting spots open at least. And they certainly wanted to upgrade over Jamarca Sanford, the one remaining safety who saw a lot of snaps in 2011.

Signing a name free agent like Cortland Finnegan wasn’t in the cards given Rick Spielman’s austere approach, so if the Vikings were to rebuild their secondary, it would have to be through limited free agency and the draft. They picked up a couple of cornerbacks, former Raven Chris Carr and former Bear Zack Bowman. The lack of action at safety in free agency made it clear where the Vikings would be focusing during the draft.

The Vikings did indeed go heavy in the defensive backfield on draft weekend. They traded up a few spots to get Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith in the first round, then took cornerback Josh Robinson in the third. The Vikes made it 3 defensive backs in 7 picks by taking Smith’s Notre Dame teammate Robert Blanton in the fifth.

If things go according to plan, all three draft picks will end up seeing significant playing time in 2012. In fact all three have a chance to start. Robinson will be in the mix at right corner and Smith and Blanton will both be competing at safety. The only spot currently locked down is Chris Cook at left corner. Antoine Winfield may end up the starting outside corner in the base defense but the Vikes figure to line him up against the slot man in nickel again this year as they have the last couple.

The big question: Will this secondary be better than the one the Vikings fielded in 2011? It’s hard to imagine these guys playing worse. Just having Chris Cook on the field is a positive, and we expect Winfield can still play at at more-than-adequate level despite his injury last year. After that it’s anybody’s guess.

The good news is, the Vikings won’t have to lean on fading veterans like Cedric Griffin and Benny Sapp anymore. And they’ll no longer have to play the waiting game with Tyrell Johnson who proved to be a total flop as a second round pick. Husain Abdullah was a decent player but he’s certainly not someone you look at as irreplaceable.

A rundown of their various options shows a dearth of veteran leadership and a whole bunch of young and untested players looking to make an impression:

Cornerbacks

1. Chris Cook – He’ll start, and if he returns to the form he showed before his arrest last year, he will be one of the better corners in the league.

2. Antoine Winfield – If he stays healthy he can still play. He’s a bit of a liability in pass coverage now but his run support remains solid and his leadership is unquestioned.

3. Josh Robinson – An intriguing talent. He’s very fast but may not be the most physical guy in the world. How will he take to the Cover-2 which requires corners to get jams at the line and be tough in run support? Can he at least reach the level of Cedric Griffin pre-injury? He’s certainly faster than Griffin.

4. Chris Carr – Another undersized corner in the Antoine Winfield/Asher Allen mode. He’s the default option at right corner if Robinson doesn’t claim the job. A good guy for depth but I’m not sure you want him starting outside.

5. Zackary Bowman – Got run out of Chicago and the Vikings are giving him a look. I’d be surprised if he makes it through camp with the team.

6. Marcus Sherels – Showed his value as a return man last year and held up well in the defensive backfield all things considered. His return ability gives him a leg-up over Bowman.

7. Brandon Burton – Played late in the year after all the injuries and didn’t play well. He might have a shot to stick if he impresses in camp.

Safety

1. Harrison Smith – He wasn’t drafted in the first round so he could be a back-up/special teams guy. This guy has to play from day one and he has to be good from day one. He has the physical skills and headiness to be a solid player but he’s not thought of as a playmaking guy. He’s not going to blow guys up tackling and he’s not an interception machine.

2. Robert Blanton – Smith’s teammate played cornerback in college but will move to safety in the pros. He can tackle and has physical skills but there are questions about his coverage technique.

3. Jamarca Sanford – He’s okay in run support but he’s not a heady player. At all.

4. Mistral Raymond – Didn’t do much his rookie year to convince you he’s in line to rise up and seize a significant role, but he has reportedly worked hard on his game this offseason so maybe he’s ready to take a step up. He was one of the few Vikes to notch an interception last year.

5. Eric Frampton – His status as a special teams ace was thrown into question last year by a few bonehead plays that got him reamed out on the sidelines by Mike Priefer. But my guess is he sticks.

6. Andrew Sendejo – A late-season addition last year who is a dark horse for a starting job. I mean if Smith or Blanton doesn’t work out and Raymond just doesn’t impress anyone and the Vikings really don’t relish the idea of letting Sanford start anymore, there sits Sendejo, who has some experience and isn’t a half-bad player.

Can the Vikings cobble together a respectable secondary out of the players listed above? That is the $64,000 question. Right now it looks shaky. A lot of untested guys on that list. A lot of guys who would be bubble players on most rosters. It’s all on the shoulders of the rookies. If they develop quickly this can be a solid unit. If the Vikes are forced to fill holes with second- and third-tier veterans again? Might be another long season. Thankfully we don’t see Drew Brees this year. Unfortunately we will see Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford twice each.

Better not to think about that.

Previous Top Training Camp Storylines:
10. Breaking In Blair Walsh
9. Percy Harvin Watch
8. Defensive line
7. Matt Kalil
6. Adrian Peterson
5. Linebacker – What the Heck is Going On Here?
4. Right Guard Battle
3. Wide Receiver Bonanza

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Tags: Antoine Winfield Chris Cook Harrison Smith Josh Robinson Minnesota Vikings Robert Blanton

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