The Vikings continued to add to their defense this past weekend, bringing Mackensie Alexander back to the team that drafted him and inking former Dallas Cowboy Xavier Woods to replace Anthony Harris at safety. Both one-year deals were signed and completed on Monday.
With Alexander and Woods joining Patrick Peterson as new additions to the Vikings' secondary in free agency, that unit is going to look a lot different in 2021. If everything pans out, it has a chance to be one of the league's best. But there are still some moving pieces and questions to be answered as we head towards the fall.
Here are my four biggest takeaways from the Vikings adding Alexander and Woods — and what it all means for the secondary.
The Vikings committed highway robbery
During the first week of free agency, teams have to spend significant money to get the top available players to sign with them. That was true for the Vikings, who gave out a two-year, $21 million deal to defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and a one-year deal worth up to $10 million to Peterson.
After that, with the remaining unsigned players no longer having ultra-competitive markets, bargains can be found all over the place. And in Alexander and Woods, the Vikings found two players who could turn out to be absolute steals at their 2021 price tags.
Alexander is a very solid veteran slot corner who can tackle and cover. In his best season, back in 2018, he recorded 10 pass breakups and seven tackles for loss while grading as PFF's No. 16 cornerback (out of 112). Even coming off of a down season with the Bengals, Over the Cap gave Alexander a valuation of $3.5 million this offseason. The Vikings got him for the veteran minimum of $990,000, a difference of just over $2.5 million.
Woods may have been even more of a steal. He hasn't turned 26 years old yet and was a very reliable safety for the Cowboys during the first three years of his career. But like Alexander, he was coming off a down year while playing with a Dallas defense that struggled mightily as a whole. That may have driven his price down a bit. Over the Cap gave Woods a valuation of $6.8 million for 2021; the Vikings landed him for $1.75 million (with another $500K that can potentially be earned in incentives).
In total, OTC valued the two players at $10.3 million, and the Vikings got them for a combined cap hit of less than $2.8 million. That's good business from Rick Spielman and Rob Brzezinski, to put it lightly.
They're banking on bounce-back years from their new DBs
As I mentioned, part of the reason why the Vikings may have been able to get Alexander and Woods for so cheap is that neither player had the kind of season they were hoping for in 2020. The same can be said about Peterson, although his reputation and track record still landed him a respectable contract.
If you only evaluate the Vikings' trio of new defensive backs on what they did last season, you probably won't be too excited about the moves.
Peterson had a rough tenth season with the Cardinals, finishing 83rd out of 121 qualified cornerbacks in PFF grade and leading the NFL in penalties committed. Alexander dealt with some injury issues and finished 63rd in PFF's grading. Woods had the worst season of his career, grading as the 56th-best safety out of 94. PFF is far from an end-all, be-all, but the film and other metrics support the idea that those three players didn't live up to their previous standards last year.
The Vikings are betting that they can get all three to bounce back. They've all been either good or top-tier players at their positions in the past, and if anyone can get them back to that level, it might be Mike Zimmer.
For Peterson, that will likely mean abandoning his responsibilities of shadowing opponents' top receivers and playing more zone coverage, where his no-longer-elite athleticism is less likely to be exposed. For Alexander, knowing Zimmer's system should be a benefit. Lastly, Woods is fired up to prove that his 2020 campaign was an aberration.
“Personally, I feel like I didn’t have a good season at all," Woods said on Monday. "Not to my standards. I’ve reviewed it and now know what I need to work on to not be in that situation again and play like that again. I’m working each and every day to better myself so that it doesn’t happen again. I missed a lot of opportunities to get the ball back."
Zimmer and two potential Hall of Famers were selling points
Alexander and Woods almost certainly had other options around the league, maybe for more money. But with both players looking for one-year deals to prove themselves and potentially cash in with a bigger contract in 2022, the fit also mattered. The Vikings didn't just want these two players, the players wanted to be in Minnesota, too.
A lot of that is due to Zimmer. Peterson mentioned the Vikings' head coach, who has a long history of success coaching defensive backs that dates back to Deion Sanders, in his introductory press conference.
Alexander, who spent his first four NFL seasons in Minnesota, said he missed Zimmer's coaching. "It's why I'm back."
Woods echoed a similar tone.
"I talked to [Zimmer]," he said. "The conversation we had made me want to come here with what we talked about. From afar, I’ve seen his defensive scheme and the positions and the culture around here. I wanted to be a part of it. I told my agent that I wanted to be here."
And it wasn't just about Zimmer. Another selling point for both guys was the opportunity to play alongside — and learn from — two of the league's best defensive backs of the past decade. Alexander called Peterson and Harrison Smith "future Hall of Famers," and he may well be right.
“Just as much as I was preparing for Minnesota’s offense [when watching film last year], I was watching Harrison," Woods said. "That was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be here, to be able to learn from him. I wanted the opportunity to play with and learn from Harrison and Pat P."
The roles/futures of Jeff Gladney and Mike Hughes are unclear
My final takeaway focuses on the two players who were presumably bumped down a spot in the cornerback depth chart by Alexander. With Peterson and Cameron Dantzler all but locked in as the starting outside corners and Alexander immediately becoming the favorite to assume the nickel role, Gladney might become the odd man out one year after being selected in the first round and playing nearly 1,000 snaps as a rookie.
The Vikings learned last year that you can never have too many corners. Depth is needed for injuries or underperformance, and Minnesota now has plenty of that. But if everyone stays healthy, Gladney will likely see a dramatic reduction in playing time in his sophomore season as the team's No. 4 corner.
Gladney can play both on the outside and inside, which will allow him to fill in at either spot. But his best chance to compete for a starting role is in the slot, and I'd be surprised if he beat out an experienced player like Alexander for that job. If he's the fourth CB, he'll be limited to some rotational snaps and won't see major action unless one of the players ahead of him misses time (which anyone who followed the Vikings and their cornerback injuries last year knows is always a possibility).
The No. 31 overall pick out of TCU had a rough rookie season, as many corners do. He gave up 876 yards (third-most among all players) and seven touchdowns (tied for first) in coverage, per PFF. Coverage was a big issue early in the year, and just when it seemed like he was figuring that aspect out a bit at the end of the season, he started missing a bunch of tackles.
Still, Gladney showed some flashes of upside and had four or five strong games among his 15 starts. There's reason to be optimistic about his growth potential in the coming seasons. But now there's also reason to be concerned that he won't see the field enough to have an opportunity to take major steps forward. The Vikings signed Peterson and Alexander because they'll make the team better in 2021, but it's unclear how Gladney fits into the picture now.
Even more unclear is the future of Hughes, the team's 2018 first-round pick whose career has been ravaged by injuries. He has played 24 of a possible 48 games in three seasons and isn't someone the Vikings could rely on to stay healthy and be part of the cornerback picture in 2021. Hughes was solid in 2019, the lone season where he played in more than a handful of games, but his time in Minnesota could be coming to an end after this year.
Who knows if he'll even play in 2021? Hughes tore his ACL as a rookie and has had each of his last two seasons end prematurely due to neck injuries. If he's healthy, he's probably the fifth cornerback on the depth chart unless he really impresses in training camp. Hughes is closer to competing for a roster spot with guys like Kris Boyd and Harrison Hand than he is to competing for a starting job.
Given the scary nature of his neck injuries, it's also possible the Vikings could waive Hughes with an injury designation and save over $1 million in cap space. If healthy, Hughes could provide valuable depth, but it doesn't seem like the first-round pick the Vikings spent on him is ever going to pan out, for unfortunate reasons.
Thanks for reading. Make sure to bookmark this site and check back daily for the latest Vikings news and analysis all offseason long. Also, follow me on Twitter and feel free to ask me any questions on there.